“Girls”—the cable TV sitcom featuring young women recently graduated from Oberlin College who hook up, text about it, fret about it, and generally live the soft hedonism of elite culture—is Seinfeld for millennials. Some think it exemplifies the decadence of upper middle class twenty-somethings living a twilight zone between adolescence and adulthood. Others see it as empowering: women being honest about sex and relationships.
I haven’t seen the show, but it’s not hard to imagine, and it seems to me that Emily Nussbaum, writing in the current New Yorker, has it right: “For some this is bleak viewing. For others the harshest of these stories can be thrilling, because they make private pain public (and embarrassing stories funny), and also because they work as a sly how-to, on ways to thicken one’s skin.”
Thicken one’s skin. In my experience as a teacher for twenty years, I witnessed a shift in youth culture. In 1990, when I started as a professor, my students were sometimes disoriented, as college students often are—as human beings often are, and they were sometimes eager or bored or preoccupied with beer and parties. By 2010 they had largely jelled into a single cultural type: anxious proto-adults committed to acquiring armor.
Today’s young people work hard to build resumes. They lay up experiences to give themselves a competitive advantage in the ruthless meritocratic scramble for success. They’re motivated by a self-protective impulse. Don’t study what you love; study what you need to study to get a job or go to the next step in the credentialing process.
The same impulse shows itself in the pervasive irony. Of all postures, it’s the one that thickens our skin. The ironist is never caught in an emotionally vulnerable position. The irony protects us from being taken as a chump. Snark is an ironic gesture of superiority. “Whatever” builds a wall of self-protection. Social media allows us to keep our distance: Relationships are at our disposal. Cell phones make it easy to screen calls.
More than two centuries ago Rousseau saw the self-protective potential of making our private lives public. He paraded his weaknesses, his vulnerabilities, his sins. In so doing he dared the world to judge him. “Hah,” he said in so many words, “unlike you moralists I have the courage to speak aloud what you secretly whisper.” Rousseau knew that there are two kinds of shamelessness: one based in a life without shame, and another in a thick-skinned life that willingly exposes all shame to public view, thus showing oneself beyond the power of shame.
That’s our age, I think. We seek salvation through the thickening of our skins. The happiest person is she who feels nothing at all, or at least feels everything with enough dullness. The disenchanting incantations of our therapeutic and critical educations minister to this ideal, which is why it’s appropriate that the girls of “Girls” are from a college with as strong a ministerial heritage as Oberlin.