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On work and Girls

It has been four months since I had a job. It’s the longest time in ten years that I’ve not had a job – at least, a job that tallies up my hours, deducts the things I broke that week, and puts money into my account.

I’ve been living overseas, away from home this whole time, in places I can’t really work in for a lack of visas and skills. Aside from grooming, eating, and fanning myself on this hiatus, I have also watched a lot of tv on the internet, some of it good, and much of it bad. I’m supposed to be utilising this time and space to write, so a lot of said tv, particularly HBO’s new series Girls, has been consumed guiltily. And although each new episode offends me more than the last, I keep going back for more. Girls gives me indignant feelings, which I thrive on.

You might have thought I’d be the target audience for the show. Like Hannah, the protagonist of the series, I’m 24, an aspiring writer in my second year out of uni without having accomplished much, and I regularly fall into profound confusion about what it all means. But the comparisons end there, and my vitriol begins.

Somehow, Hannah managed to be alive for 24 years without ever having a job. The premise for the first season of Girls is that her parents have just cut her off, leaving her financially destitute. Hannah tries to negotiate, asking them for just $1100 a month for the next two years while she finishes her book. Her attitude of grasping entitlement is a caricature of Gen Y, the generation with whom I’m supposed to identify. It’s insulting.

‘But I went to college!’ Hannah moans, in response to a friend’s suggestion she get a job at McDonald’s, as though she enjoys the right to imagine herself as better than others by virtue of a lucky birth.

Entitlement is a mucky business. Entitlement feels that a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is just not enough. It reckons that our humanity, our complexity, entitles us to an occupation that utilises the full extent of our talents, and that will afford us a comfortable life accordingly. But that’s not universalisable – someone has to serve the drinks at the utopia party, and it’s probably going to be me. So, I resolve to substitute my dignity with things I can buy with the excrement of my labour. (I am entitled to brunch!)

I’m not going to brag about how poor I was growing up, except to tell you that I only recently stopped hiding the holes in my stockings by colouring in my leg with a black texta. So like most people I knew, when I was in high school and wanted nail polish and CDs and cigarettes, I had to get a job. At the time, I studied karate in Pascoe Vale under Sensei Guido. Another student was Sam, a Lebanese-Australian man in his thirties, who, along with his six-year-old son Ali, enjoyed participating in the Thursday night ritual beatings of me.

One night at training, Sam offered me a job at his baby-ware store along the main shopping strip in my area. For four hours every Saturday morning, I was Babyworld’s spruiker. My nasal voice echoed down Sydney Rd, amplified by a crusty mic and speaker box, promising great savings on bibs and booties. For $10 an hour! I was laughing.

After work, my friend Zub would get dropped off in her mum’s minivan, and we’d sit in the supermarket parking lot eating hot chips and talking about intellectual things, like the complex adult relationships our school teachers were embroiled in. It felt independent and edgy at the time, having a job, paying for chips. But now that I realise my early taste of independence has come to so accurately describe my experience of it since, well, I don’t feel so edgy.

After Babyworld, I spent a year in the trenches: McDonald’s. They say it’s great training for the workforce, which is true, if you dream of working in a production line under the hawkish supervision of sociopaths. That is where work really began for me: sucking up to managers to get extra shifts, never taking a sick day because it’s just so hard to replace shifts at late notice, and I thought you wanted more shifts, Ellena, and who can afford days off anyway?

One of my regular shifts was Saturday, 7am–3pm: the busiest time of the week. I’d press my face against the window of the tram at 6.20am on my way into work, half asleep, and watch the hot air balloons pollute the yellow-grey sky with their freedom. Most of the time, I willed a natural disaster. Nothing tragic, just a minor flood or fire that would mean I wouldn’t have to spend the next eight hours smiling at customers who didn’t care about my happiness. I hated the smell, the bossy managers, the endless meat and fat. But it was mainly just work that I hated. Because work sucks.

After McDonald’s, I found a job waitressing in the restaurant of an old Labor pub. I was paid well – my first taste of award rates – and enjoyed being babied as the youngest employee, illegally learning how to pull pints of Guiness. But there was a dark undertone to the place, which became clearer as I grew older. One night, a particularly creepy customer, at the table with his wife and child, slipped a $5 note into my back bum pocket while I was faced away from him clearing the table. I walked away, red-faced.

My manager there, a squat, sweaty Englishman, constantly cornered me to tell me about his sex life and how the male customers must just love me. I hadn’t had much exposure to misogynistic grownups, so I interpreted it as him having a crush on me. An unwelcome, creepy crush that I wasn’t at liberty to reject outright the way I was with boys my own age. I began hiding from him at work, and confessed to one of the female cooks that I thought he ‘liked’ me. She laughed, ‘I don’t think that’s what’s going on.’ I was humiliated. I was seventeen.

After a few more years of working, I became a master of the asshole customer: I learned how to keep a drunk football team civil with only my steely reserve, and once was tipped a hundo by an elderly Greek gangster who thought the establishment was the worst he’d ever encountered, but the service had been the best. But it took years of going home in tears because a customer had humiliated me, or a sleep-deprived, unloved chef had thrown hot food at me for making a small mistake.

Eventually I found work with bosses and managers I liked, people who respected me. But even that didn’t make work less tedious. Like many students, I worked every weekend and a few week nights, while contributing countless unpaid hours writing and editing and proofreading for non-profit and student publications. As an arts student, I still had free time, but blocks of it were usually wedged between 11am and 4pm classes on a Tuesday, where I was more or less stranded on campus reading my class texts, or staring into the distance.

In these moments of poverty and boredom, I thought hard-earned freedom and affluence were just around the corner. But a year and a half after finishing my degree, I’ve reconciled myself with the fact that the work I love doing and the work that earns money are very rarely going to overlap. Basically, I can earn money or I can be poor and do what I enjoy.

This is the attitude I brought with me when I came to Girls, and this is why I found some of its assumptions unbearable. When Hannah’s f–k buddy Adam says to her, ‘You should never be anyone’s slave,’ it is because he has the financial means – courtesy of his gran – to be unburdened by the slavery of paid employment. It’s a false sentiment.

Of course, the show doesn’t have to represent me, or anyone I know. It doesn’t have to be intellectually astute or have a political conscience. But I don’t think we should forgive it for reinforcing ideas about people my age that suggest we are all culpable for the shortcomings of a small, privileged social class that many of us will never have access to.

These ideas ask us to preference the experience of a minority – mainly white people whose parents are financially unburdened enough to support them through uni and beyond – over the experience of the majority who work every weekend of their sentient lives, who, for the most part, don’t even get degrees, and are cynical and middle-aged before they hit 25 because their parents never reached their full potential, and they feel that they won’t either.

I accept that the majority of our lives don’t make for riveting entertainment, and that’s why tv is much more fun when it’s about other people, other lives. But then, if riveting was what we’re after, we probably wouldn’t be watching Girls.

Ellena Savage is the past editor of the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago. She writes regularly for Eureka Street and edits the Lifted Brow’s arts supplement, Middlebrow.

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  1. I found some of its assumptions unbearable. When Hannah’s f–k buddy Adam says to her, ‘You should never be anyone’s slave,’ it is because he has the financial means – courtesy of his gran – to be unburdened by the slavery of paid employment. It’s a false sentiment.

    Well, yeah, but the fact that it was a false sentiment was the point. He’s the most unlikeable character in the show, and they gave him that patently hypocritical line to highlight what a dickhead he is.

  2. Thank you for your twenty paragraph long resume. You’re right, “the majority of our lives don’t make for riveting entertainment” and neither does your “career” history. But then, if riveting was what I was after, I probably wouldn’t be reading this blog…

    • Wow, I guess the take home lesson here is: ‘don’t say anything critical about my new favorite show GIRLS, because not only will I not properly read your article or think for myself, I will leave a half-arsed snarky comment!’

    • A twenty paragraph resume is all a 24 yr old has to offer. That’s the point. A 24 yr old is in the Occupy generation, a generation that done its Uni time, worked like slaves in crap jobs and found that unless it is prepared to work at more crap jobs forever for the fatuous corrupt oligarchs of the world, its economic future is limited.
      Ellena, trying to find the way between supporting oneself and living an ethical life, especially if one wants to write, is difficult. It’s not impossible, it’s just difficult. And it takes a lot of courage, getting up every morning and screwing up what little determination you think you have left. Any idiot can make money. It’s idiots that spend their lives making money. Living a life and feeling that it is being lived is more difficult. If you have a lot of confusion, that could be because you’re in a confusing situation. So write about it. And don’t give up. You won’t always be broke, but you can always write as long as you have a pen and some paper. Go for it. Fear not the trolls.

      • “A 24 yr old is in the Occupy generation, a generation that done its Uni time, worked like slaves in crap jobs and found that unless it is prepared to work at more crap jobs forever for the fatuous corrupt oligarchs of the world, its economic future is limited.”

        You mean those poor, poor affluent New York kids who never gave two shits in the past about the lives of their fellow citizens who have to drive buses and clean toilets for a living and could never afford a university education in the first place?

        Who only came out in force when horror of horrors it became clear they might have to take a few steps down the socioeconomic ladder and work menial uninspiring jobs to get by too?

        That’s the subset of the ‘Occupy generation’ Girls is referring to: “I’m an artist, I don’t clean toilets”.

        Umm, it’s a depression kids. Your parents screwed up. You might find that’s exactly what you have to do from now on to afford your art.

        • Mmm. You seem really angry at something. Occupy isn’t restricted to ‘New York’ kids, who the Right often demonise because they own iPhones. It also includes the young people of the Indignans movement etc etc etc.
          I don’t think “their parents screwed up” at all. That’s a rather odd take on the current world situation. The rapacity of neoliberalism, the violence of its economics is what’s at stake here.

          • Stephen, I didn’t say Occupy was restricted to ‘New York’ kids. I said they were a subset.

            One whose parents did indeed ‘screw up’ by overinvesting in the very same Wall Street cronyism and corruption they were there to protest against, and by affording them the sense of entitlement we’re discussing.

          • Thanks for the piece, btw, Ellena, before I forget. It was an enjoyable read, and I could relate a lot to it.

            My very first class at uni, our lecturer asked us to get up one by one, and list all the jobs we’d ever done on the white board and briefly talk about them. I was young and had only two or three…others in the class were in their 30s and 40s, and had maybe ten or fifteen they could list (and recount in much fascinating and hilarious detail!). By the end the board was completely covered…

            What was the lesson? In a nutshell: you’re an artist. Don’t have any illusions. Get used to working uninspiring jobs to support yourself. Chances are you’ll be doing it for a long time to come.

          • “You seem really angry at something”

            On re-reading this morning, yes! My apologies, Stephen, I didn’t mean any disrespect.

            I tend to write a bit too impulsively…and not sure how I thought sarcasm would be helpful in making my point!

            http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=16496

            “After all a crisis is, if nothing else, a way of showing us that whatever kind of people we thought we were we’re not, and however we got to where we are is not how we thought we got there.”

            I think this is great – and perhaps quite pertinent to Girls and the ‘Occupy generation’…

            On a more positive spin about crappy jobs…hopefully every one is a little bit better than your last, and you learn a lot along the way.

            I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing now to earn a crust (in my mid-30s), but I wouldn’t be nearly as good at it without everything I learnt from those crappier jobs I did earlier in life…

            Ellena: “I learned how to keep a drunk football team civil with only my steely reserve”

            A lot of people will never get the chance to learn that skill! Future in federal politics for you maybe Ellena ;)

        • No worries Nick.Everybody flips out from time to time.
          For me, work is something I do to finance the important part of my life, and fulfil my obligation to do some ethical, socially disruptive work. It’s a strategy that’s largely worked too.

  3. You acknowledge that a realistic depiction of the lives of most wouldn’t be good TV, but still attack it because it doesn’t depict that life? Weird.

    “Like Hannah, the protagonist of the series, I’m 24, an aspiring writer in my second year out of uni without having accomplished much, and I regularly fall into profound confusion about what it all means. But the comparisons end there…”

    The comparisons can be made when it comes to all of the important things about the show. All that? Those things are the point of ‘Girls’. Those things are the reason it’s doing well, and the reason people watch it.

    The show definitely has its flaws, and, hey, the specific-ness of Hannah and co. could certainly be argued as one. But you didn’t do that here. Rather than take the show and leverage an actual discussion about it and what one particular element of it could mean, you spoke about essentially nothing. What was the point? To point out how hard you’ve worked? Cool! That’s nice. It’s just that your memoir piece has nothing to do with ‘Girls’, and vice versa.

  4. Thanks for writing this Ellena.
    Lately I’ve been getting myself into a depressed stupor thinking about all of low end/low skilled jobs I’ve had in my life. I’m 30 and a writer. I’ve finally realised that I’m not deficient or stupid because I’ve always worked these kinds of jobs while other people (“mainly white people whose parents are financially unburdened”) make seamless transitions from being a uni student to being a lawyer without having to juggle a weekend of split shifts. Thanks again

  5. I haven’t watched “Girls” so can’t comment about it’s relevance or entertainment value to Gen Y viewers or anyone else for that matter but I do think that the pervasive nature of television or actually any media can stereotype particular demographics and contaminate our perceptions of other generations or groups. As an ageing baby boomer I am constantly offended by articles talking about how good we had it when i was young and how we are the most selfish generation to have ever lived. Shows or media reports about our rock and rolling drug sodden youth with jobs a plenty and a mature life full of big houses and overseas trips every year are completely alien to what has been my life. But the perception of most young people I come in contact with seems to be based on those reports, those shows. And I imagine that people of my generation could get a wholly inaccurate perception of Gen Y by a show such as ” Girls”. And that I think is the problem. It might be refreshing to see a series which deals with the kind of experiences Ellena has had trying to balance ambition with economic survival – that would be a series every group and very generation could relate to.

  6. The point about GIrls that I think this article doesn’t really get is that Girls KNOWS that its characters are privileged, and one could even make the argument that it is attempting to critique its own privileged position. You can see this in Hannah’s reaction to her parents cutting her off: she steals their money for the housekeeping! Obviously that’s not a move intended to make the audience admire or relate to her. Dunham’s self-awareness is one part of the comedy that works here.

    As commenter Robert already pointed out above, Adam’s line about being nobody’s slave intentionally demonstrates his ridiculousness, which reminds me of another thing GIrls does well: it relegates all its male characters to opposite yet equally ridiculous ends of a spectrum of character dimensions that is usually, in television, prescribed only to females. (You’re either a sensitive, caring boyfriend ‘with a vagina’ or a ‘hot’ sex fiend with an awesome apartment, six-pack, and the ability to treat girls like shit and get away with it.)
    If we are going to dismiss Girls for its unrealistic portrayal of the lives of young urban females, we’d also have to dismiss shows such as The Sopranos (I’m never going to own a mansion, so why should I watch a show about someone who lives in one) or Mad Men (where’s my fancy Manhattan apartment?) or any other of the male-dominated shows on television at the moment (why aren’t there shows about people with vaginas?).

    Not that I believe that Girls doesn’t deserve to be critiqued. It does, of course. But it seems to me that most of the criticism that Dunham has received wouldn’t be an issue if she was male, or older, or both.This show isn’t trying to say that its story lines or characters are in the norm. But Lena IS a privileged, urban white girl. So why would she make a story about anything else? And why is that her fault?

    I also want to make the point that I don’t care whether or not people like this show. If you don’t find it funny, don’t watch it.

  7. I loved this.

    I recently quit my full time job to pursue my writing. Something which I’d dedicated 4 years of uni to, unlike the awful fitness industry job that was taking up majority of my time. I am now in a stupur of bad dreams of returning to my first job (hellllllo Brumbys)

    This co-incided with people giong ‘you should watch girls its like totally like you’ her names Hannah, she’s a writer. she has boy problems.whoa. but the buck stops there.

    at the end of the day, the relevance of girls is not important here. for me it was a great intro to a very relatable, very honest piece on just how shit those jobs that pay the bills can be. and at the end of the day, we do them, because they allow another outlet. that is just that little bit more important and a little bit more vital to us.

    in other words..
    thanks for writing this

  8. If you haven’t scrubbed a toilet that isn’t your own, then who the hell do you think you are? An artist? No effing way.

  9. maybe the point is, if we sacrificed our slave work, where would that get us?

    those in the gen y with a wild dream or parents with a house and some extra money for their kid (or both) seem to, for the most part, escape the mind-numbing 9-5 / shift work.

    maybe a dream or the privilege of self-sustaining parents allow these gen y-ers a bit more freedom. when working a slave job it’s often difficult to see an escape or put worth on your well-being.

    do you hear what you are saying ellena? about the quote ‘you should never be anyone’s slave.’ do you think you should be anyone’s slave?

    contributing + giving to build community vs. contributing + giving your energy to degrade community.

    which one is free? which one pays well?

    I also want to add on the slavery statement, sometimes in being a slave we find out that we don’t want to be, and it pushes us to work harder not to be. sometimes we are deluded into thinking that keeping the system rolling we somehow roll out of it ourselves, but we don’t.

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