What TV's new Sex And The City reveals about the lives of young women today… and it's both shocking and heartbreaking
11:39 GMT, 24 October 2012
The morning after the night before, a chubby 24-year-old girl called Hannah Horvath — hailed as this generation’s answer to Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw — prepares to say goodbye to the man she’s just had sex with.
It is clear from the sarcastic ‘goodbye’ spoken by her on-off lover Adam from the bedroom that he can’t wait for her to leave.
It is a poignant scene in which Hannah dithers in the hallway of his flat, trying to be cool, but desperate for some scrap of affection to prove their encounter meant something.
Scroll down for video
Cult show: The cast of Girls, the new hit American show which has proven to be wildly popular across the Atlantic
In an effort to please Adam, Hannah has played along with his role-play games, pretending to be his schoolgirl fantasy and managing not to wince when he called her obscene names.
But, as she makes a jokey parting shot, even Hannah is taken aback that it’s so normal for Adam to act out pornography during sex that he doesn’t remember assuming she would automatically slot into the role of an 11-year-old he seduces on her way home from school.
So began the second episode of a double bill of Girls on Monday night, the cult black comedy that has taken America by storm and won huge acclaim for capturing the plight of lost 20-something women.
It is written and directed by 26-year-old Lena Dunham, who also stars as Hannah.
Like its forerunner, Sex And The City, Girls is a half-hour show made by the U.S. cable network HBO that charts the roller-coaster relationships and sexual adventures of four female friends in New York.
Just as in SATC, there’s the sexually liberated one (like SATC’s Samantha), the prim, serious one (like Miranda), and the classy art gallery worker (like Charlotte), in a story told mainly by Hannah, a writer just like Carrie.
But while Carrie’s lifestyle was air-brushed to the point of fantasy, Girls is grimly authentic. In gritty detail, it shows the downside of no-strings-attached sex for today’s well-educated, middle-class young women.
Realistic: Girls shows the fumblings and false starts of every twentysomething
Girls has drawn inevitable comparisons with Sex and the City (cast pictured). Although, there are similarities, Girls tells the more unglamorous story of the lives of four twenty-somethings
If Sex And The City was about 30-something fashionistas in Manhattan with fabulous careers and apartments, who just needed a decent husband to complete the picture, Girls tells the story of their little sisters, who are so much more lost.
It’s set on the other side of the Atlantic but, just like in Britain, these are young women who can’t get jobs or afford mortgages, let alone find real intimacy in a desolate landscape of casual sex, heavily influenced by online pornography.
For Carrie and her cohorts, the sex took place between 1,500 thread count Egyptian linen sheets and the characters wore $100 designer bras.
Pornography was rarely an issue, except in one episode when Miranda was appalled to meet a man who could only have sex while porn was playing in the bedroom. He was swiftly dispensed with.
Fast-forward to Girls, which is currently airing on Sky Atlantic. In the 13 years since that SATC episode, porn has become so freely available — thanks to internet portals and superfast broadband connections — that it’s portrayed as just another part of everyday life for Hannah and her flatmates.
As the series unfolds, porn infects every relationship and sex scene, from the way one young man bids farewell by calling the girls ‘sluts’ to the sexual positions they adopt and the barked orders shouted out during what are supposed to be moments of intimacy.
A smart, feisty girl in every other respect, Hannah goes along with this status quo no matter how degraded she feels because there’s no choice if she is to keep Adam interested.
True to life: The series is a warts-and-all portrayal of what it is like to be young in New York for four qualified young women
Star: Lena Dunham features some of her own experiences in the show
Far from getting his marching orders for the way he treats her, Adam is the love of Hannah’s life.
The more he asks her to do, the more she tries to win his favour to try to find the emotional connection missing between them.
As funny as it sometimes is, Girls provides a bleak portrait of a generation for whom pornography has been the most influential sex educator of all — and who, as a result, believe that what you see on the internet is what you do in reality.
While it may be that young men are heavier users of porn, they have found willing partners among their female counterparts, who accepted the declaration made by Sex And The City’s Samantha that women should be able to ‘go out and have sex like a man’ — and who believe that recreational sex makes them look confident.
Girls portrays young people living in a world where casual encounters are so embedded in their culture they have their own dictionary entries: see ‘hook-ups’, ‘f*** buddies’ and ‘friends with benefits’.
It is a world where smartphone apps means you can locate a new partner near you at any time of the day or night, where revolving door relationships are accelerated by widespread cyber-dating and where exchanging tweets is mistaken for relationship-building.
Of course this is comedy, albeit of the darkest kind. Adam is not knowingly abusive: he doesn’t see anything wrong with his behaviour because he doesn’t know any other way.
With the average age of first exposure to porn being just ten, he is one of a cross-section of young males who view brutal online sex before they have even kissed a girl.
When he sends pictures of his genitals to Hannah’s phone by mistake, he barely apologises, except to text: ‘SRY. That wasn’t meant for you.’
Lena Dunham, the show’s creator, says she based it almost entirely on her own experiences.
‘Guys my age watch so much pornography,’ she says.
‘When I first started kissing boys, I remember noticing certain behaviours, where I thought: “There’s no way you learned that anywhere but on YouPorn.com. There’s no way any teenage girl taught you and reinforced that behaviour.” ’
The tragedy is that while some young women may enjoy the broadening sexual horizons on offer to them, others don’t.
Just a few years ago, enjoying watching porn began to be seen as a badge of honour for a sexually liberated young woman.
But how far can this go, given that researchers have found 90 per cent of porn scenes contain physical or verbal abuse of women
As Hannah points out to her confidantes, the only way she knows that Adam exists between their liaisons is that she still has the bruise on her bottom where he repeatedly slaps her in bed.
In this era of porn, it is females who are ultimately paying the price. According to the book Pornified, women are more likely than men to say porn harms relationships — 47 per cent compared to 33 per cent.
More than one in five also feels they need to do more in bed to maintain their partner’s interest — with one in seven feeling pressured to play out scenes that their partner has viewed on websites.
What makes all this even more affecting is that Hannah is also a member of a generation of rootless young adults who have never needed more love and meaning in their lives.
Hannah hits a nerve because, like so many British 20-somethings, she is terrified for her future.
She loses her job as an intern (which didn’t pay her a salary anyway), and her parents, who are supporting her, tell her they are switching off the money.
As Hannah says: ‘I’m scared. I’m scared all the time. I’m more scared than most people are when they say they’re scared.’
She is not alone. A report by investment firm Skandia found that one in three British graduates in their 20s is suffering an anxiety crisis.
Psychologist Dr Meg Jay says: ‘These young women have worked hard through school and university but now, in the real world, the recession has thrown them off course and caused them huge amounts of uncertainty. I’ve come across young women like this who keep up the appearance of being strong, but find themselves in tears every day.’
One young woman who identifies with what she sees in Girls is Sarah Packer, 22, from Milton Keynes.
Since graduating with a 2:1 arts degree from the University of Portsmouth last summer, she has found that every one of the hundreds of jobs she has applied for is unpaid.
Sarah was never in debt at university, but lives in fear of her debit card being blocked because she has run up 1,500 in travel costs commuting to London for interviews — to work for free.
Of her four flatmates at university, only one has gone on to find a paid job — in property management. Like Sarah, most of her contemporaries are living with their parents, working for free and unsure whether they will ever find real jobs or be able to stand on their own two feet financially.
Sarah says: ‘The episodes of Girls I’ve seen contain the same conversations I have with my friends. Like Hannah, I left university feeling confident.
‘It felt as if I had been given the keys to the door, and there were so many opportunities out there for me. But the reality is really depressing.’
Journalist Natasha Bird, 25, from South London, recently returned to London from Bahrain, where she was editing a magazine, to take the next step in her career.
Natasha graduated with a first-class English degree from Edinburgh University, but is back living with her parents after finding it difficult to find a job to match her experience and qualifications.
‘Sex And The City was perfect for a certain generation. It was so full of aspiration and the sense that anyone could be “fabulous” if they just went about it the right way,’ she says. ‘But it’s not as easy as throwing on a pair of Jimmy Choos and feeling fabulous any more. We’re much more likely to be tripping over our shoelaces on the way to the Jobcentre than meeting our girlfriends for cocktails.
‘The TV show Girls feels more appropriate for my generation than Sex And The City.
‘Most 20-somethings feel lost, given the recession, their struggle to carve out a career for themselves when no one seems to want to offer us a job, and the emotional and physical complications that come with free love and casual sex.
‘We haven’t found the job or the man, many of us are relying on our parents in some way, and we don’t have much of a clue about which direction our lives will take.’
Against this backdrop, it seems even sadder that promiscuity erodes our daughters’ fragile sense of self-worth still further.
In a book I wrote last year about how sexuality is affecting the next generation, I posed the question: ‘Where Has My Little Girl Gone’
Now I have watched Girls, I can’t help fearing that we are catching our first glimpse of the answer to that question.
THE MONEY-SPINNER FROM AMERICA'S TV HIT FACTORY
Home Box Office, the U.S. cable network behind Girls, may have started out as a niche for edgy shows, but it is now responsible for some of the biggest hits on TV.
It has built a reputation for high-quality, boundary-pushing programmes — and British broadcasters have taken notice. Over the years, Channel 4 syndicated much of HBO’s output, including The Sopranos and Sex And The City, while BBC2 imported acclaimed crime drama The Wire.
Then in 2010, Sky snapped up the exclusive rights to the entire HBO catalogue in a deal worth 150 million.
Other hit series shown in the UK include Six Feet Under, Band Of Brothers and Boardwalk Empire.
HBO was created in 1972 as a way to show movies uninterrupted by adverts.
It was paid for by viewer subscription, meaning it was able to depart from the safe programming with which advertisers insisted on being associated on mainstream networks.
It has earned more prime-time Emmy nominations than any other network — 81 this year alone.
Now watch the trailer for new TV show Girls