I'm leaving Pete's Candy Store in Williamsburg when I spot Girls actor Alex Karpovsky at the bar. I'd been feeling old at a 30 year-old's birthday party, so I knew I hadn't time-traveled into a scene with Lena Dunham: Girls is bereft of fortysomething women. If you want to watch a television show about a grown-ass woman, you need to tune in to The Good Wife.
I watch both. I watch The Good Wife, now in its stellar fifth season, because Julianna Margulies's Alicia Florrick is a model of intelligence at any age. I watch Girls because I am curious about how a young woman is interpreting her early twenties as she lives them. When I was Dunham's age, I was listening to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville and writing heartfelt, self-indulgent poems in one poetry workshop after another. I hadn’t had sex for over a year because I was mourning the loss of my first love, which I had fucked up in the way only a 22-year-old in possession of an intensely romantic nature can fuck something up. In the words of my beloved Liz, I lost the map. My ex-boyfriend had moved to Manhattan without me after we graduated from college, and I was still pining for him a year later when I moved to Brooklyn. Whether you chalk up my inability to let go to fatherlessness, a faithful heart, or my own psychic stew, it felt like purgatory.
There was also the fact that my administrative job left me with too much time on my hands, which wasn't any good for my obsessive nature. Also, it was 1993, which meant there was no Internet. The forces of distraction were limited. I had no way to anonymously glean any details about my ex's new girlfriend. Even the phone situation was practically prehistoric—when I wanted to wish him well before he left the city for law school, I had to leave a message on his home answering machine and he had to return the call on mine in order to set up a lunch date.
My ex was off to Yale. This is relevant because what ultimately broke us up was that he occupied a place within a certain kind of a world and I had deep-rooted insecurity about class. My financially precarious childhood made me value security over sacrifice. I needed health insurance, and I needed to pay off my student loans. When my ex told me I had no ambition, I knew there was some truth to what he said, but I didn’t clarify. I did in fact possess ambition—I just didn’t have ambition like he had ambition. I wanted to publish a book and have a baby by age 30. When we met for lunch I must have confessed that I wasn’t exactly stimulated at my job, but I had made it to New York and I was working and paying my rent on time.
When I watch Girls, I think a lot about the fact that student loans are never mentioned and that none of these young women go to work at a mind-numbing job because they need health insurance. (The first two seasons are pre-ObamaCare.) Even still, when Hannah’s parents abruptly cut her off, it seems kind of harsh. Our girl is coddled and neurotic. How is she supposed to transition to independence if no one has seen fit to tell her that she needs to figure out how to care for herself in a way that is productive? Or maybe she thinks that adequately taking care of herself somehow clashes with her ambition to be the voice of her generation? This has never stopped anyone else, though. Many female writers have found their way in New York City: Mary McCarthy, Nora Ephron, and Laurie Colwin, all came here to work, and they worked it.
Hannah, on the other hand, has been given permission to act like a child—her infant-like unmet needs constantly shedding like skin onto the people around her. She seems to lack any potential for empathy (a quality perhaps attributable to her OCD). Her apparent lack of interest in romantic love—and, probably, the 20 years I have on her—makes Hannah incomprehensible to me, especially after I've had the glass of red wine I drink after my daughter has gone to bed.
I don’t talk about love with my 14-year-old because that would be gross and I am really trying (and repeatedly failing) to respect her privacy, but I do talk to her about Girls. I tell her that the reason she can’t watch it is the reason she can’t watch porn. It’s the lack of emotional stakes or connection that come with every sex scene. Hannah seems to need validation from whichever man she is fucking rather than thinking about what she wants out of the situation. The sex is transactional. And this, for me, negates what is powerful about Dunham’s insistence that her viewer look at her naked, zaftig, not-the-norm-for-a-New-York-City-white-girl body. Liz Phair, with all her bravado, had a sense of romance, even if it was couched in rocker girl cynicism ("Don’t you know nobody parts two rivers met"). The void of sensuality and longing on Girls bums me out.
But my girl has no interest in Girls. She prefers characters like Alicia Florrick and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: women who function within a group as they capably go it alone. My daughter identifies with Alicia as a fellow type A. She already has an extensive collection of blazers.
As an ex-wife, I like Alicia because she picks up the pieces after being publicly humiliated by her husband’s affair with a call girl and can't quite get over the boy of her youth. She is a grown woman living a complex life who guards her emotions like the introvert she is. Her husband goes to prison and she goes to work. He gets out and she keeps working and he moves out. It should be said that, even with her upper middle class privilege and entitlement, Alicia never once acts like the victim of her husband’s betrayal. She puts her blinders on. What's more, the ways in which she is "good" is complicated. She takes a lover, represents a few murderers and engages in a plethora of morally suspect shit in order to do her job. As a mother, Alicia has her faults; she is distracted and works too much. She seems to understand her imperfections, though: self-recrimination is played out on the seemingly immovable landscape of her face. And this is why we are addicted to Alicia.
She has the power of aloof girls everywhere. We want what they will never give us: some small reveal.
Often, after that glass of wine, I imagine Alicia and Hannah having coffee. What would a grown-ass woman say to a self-proclaimed girl? I think Alicia would tell Hannah to quit whining, take her meds, and get a real job. (Buffy, incidentally, would tell her not to be so rude to her friends and to learn how to fight with sticks.) You don't have to have children to be a grown-ass woman, but you must have experienced some kind of existential reckoning. Being grown-ass requires both an acceptance and a surrender of self.
But what does the fortysomething woman really want to say to the twentysomething girl, that projection of her younger self? Youth is power. Beauty is lovely, but smart is better. Young, beautiful and clever is the trifecta. When you are my age, you will wish you had appreciated your young body for the miracle it is. Moisturize. Life is long and work is never-ending so think long and hard about how you want to spend your days. You won’t regret having children too young, but if you want children, you will regret not having them. In the blink of an eye, your losses will be sprinkled like spent firecrackers on a field after the fourth of July and you will wonder about the turns you have missed as much as you know there is no unraveling the past. If I removed one strand, I wouldn't have my girl.
I never told my ex-boyfriend that my ambition had something to do with our romance, that it was the end game, I'd thought, to having a child when I wanted a child. I had my daughter with another man three weeks before I turned 30. Once she was born my ambition transformed. I want for her to have what I did not have: a sense of entitlement and the confidence to take risks that is borne from that privilege.
If Hannah had a latte with the high-strung attorney that is Alicia at Café Grumpy, she would keep her eye on the door. She might be dismissive, deaf to the advice of the older woman—which is why my story ends with my fictional contemporary, who is both beautiful and compelling and not as young as she used to be. Alicia has what she wants and wants what she can’t have. It should be no secret that we can’t have everything, that in middle age our youthful wants, ambition, and lost loves continue to haunt us. If we are lucky, perhaps this is not such a bad place to find ourselves.
Caledonia Kearns lives in Brooklyn with her daughter, The Good Wife's biggest fan. She has published poems in Drunken Boat and Painted Bride quarterly, among others. Kearns is also the editor of Cabbage and Bones and Motherland, two anthologies of writing by Irish American women.