Not one but two shows revolving around the lives of young women living in apartments in New York City debuted this midseason; Girls and Apartment 23. I found myself deeply underwhelmed by Girls, a show which has already attracted a lot of interesting critical commentary, and found Apartment 23 to be fun, if not, perhaps, epic television for the ages. Both shows speak to a certain New York mystique which has long captivated the United States; the belief that New York City is a magical dream world where anything could come true, where careers are made and people are discovered, where people can go to find themselves.
People say this about cities in general, of course, but New York in particular is singled out as the city where these things happen, and the lives of young single women in the city in particular are heavily romanticised and have been for decades in fiction, on stage, and on screen. There’s something people find deeply compelling about the idea of young women carving out lives and futures for themselves in the city that never sleeps, where an idealised and glossy bohemian lifestyle becomes the thing that consumers want to aspire to; my father did his obligatory stint in New York City in his youth, for example, and has the kinds of stories to tell that you might expect, of playing piano on the street and going to late-night writing salons and dancing at jazz clubs until the sun came up.
An urgent sense of action, of happening, is conveyed in the New York City ideal, and it’s not coincidental that two shows featuring young women in New York debuted at the same time. Both shows are also fundamentally similar; they are primarily about the lives of young white women from relatively privileged backgrounds, reflecting the lives of their creators, and they are meant to be a whimsical, comedic look at self-discovery in the city. Whether they are eating cupcakes in the bathtub or selling each other’s furniture on Craigslist in vengeance, these women are supposed to be seen as funny, hip, slightly self-deprecating, but ultimately sweet and lovable. They are the girls next door in the big city.
They live, though, in a mixed-up hipster dream world that is far from the lives of many people in New York City, the experiences of others struggling to make their way there. In a city that acts as a major immigration hub, with a substantially diverse population, most of the characters are white, and those who are not are typically embodiments of stereotypes. The nerdy Asian girl who knows how to use Photoshop, pushing the nice white girl out of a job with her big glasses and requests for Vitamin Water. The drunk and homeless Black guy. These are not people but caricatures to act as a background foil for the main characters; they are set dressing and props, objects for the girls and Girls to use in their journey to self-discovery rather than actual human beings.
There is a telling level of contempt from the creators of these shows about the people who live in New York City; the focus is on the young and the beautiful, who live the kinds of lives where you drink wine out of jam jars and have spontaneous dinner parties, and it is all so very free and youthful and spectacular at the same time that it is all very unreal. These fetching, charmingly cute small apartments aren’t affordable on the kinds of wages the women make, but that’s okay, because it’s a dream world that they drift through, not a lived reality. The protests from people who don’t see themselves in the shows, who are perhaps irritated and offended by the depictions in these shows, are written off as spoilsports.
Who could begrudge women writers success? Set aside those accusations of nepotism, the question about how hard they really hard to work when they come from dynasties of power and privilege in the creative world; clearly they earned these things and anyway, they’re young, so they shouldn’t be held as accountable. They’re just telling their stories. It’s not like anyone else has stories to tell about being young in New York City, even being young and pretty, finding yourself in a glittering world far from home.
Why complain to the networks when they’re airing work by women for once? We should all be so pathetically happy for any kind of representation at all behind the camera that we should really behind these shows, talk about what great progress they’re making, support them. These are paving the way for more women directors, producers, writers, creators; sure you may not like this show, but why sink the chances for everyone else? Let’s ignore the fact that everyone else is already trying and having doors slammed in their faces because there are plenty of women like Lena Dunham for the networks to choose from.
At least Apartment 23 isn’t trying to make some grand artistic statement for the ages—it advertises itself as exactly what it is—it’s a comedy, and it is meant to be funny, and that is all, really. Girls ascribes to be something greater, the story of a generation, bringing the lives of young women in New York into living rooms across the United States. A new narrative for the young and the restless. It doesn’t seem to want to admit that it’s only storytelling for a certain kind of young and restless, a particular group of people living in specific circumstances with highly specialised backgrounds. Neither show is a depiction of reality in New York, yet both were commissioned for a very specific reason, chosen over scores of other pilots and projects in development, and they cannot be viewed in a vacuum.