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.