06:31pm Tuesday 10 December 2019

HBO’s 'Girls': A Window into the Psyche of Emerging Adulthood

Credit: Mark Selinger/HBO

The cast of HBO’s “Girls” series.

girlsHBO’s Girls series has received widespread attention, and some criticism, for its depiction of 20-something women in New York fumbling for a successful way to explore their identity and gain independence.

Rutgers psychologist Jennifer Tanner, an assistant research professor who studies 18-25-year-olds, says the show is a perfect illustration of “emerging adulthood,’’  which she and other researchers contend is a new developmental stage between adolescence and young adulthood.

Although emerging adults – and the characters in Girls – are often dismissed as pampered slackers, unable to separate fully from their parents and survive on their own, Tanner has a different perspective.

 “Some people look it as though they’re failing to become adults, that they’re delaying commitments and adult roles. But they’re just not doing things the way people did in the 1950s and 1960s: Graduate, get a job right away, get married, have kids. Just because they’re doing things differently doesn’t mean they’re failing.’’

 Tanner is a fan of Girls because it offers a rare window into the psyche of emerging adulthood. Lena Dunham, the show’s writer/director/star, is 25 and still struggling with the challenges that characterize that time of life (until very recently, even after her show became a hit, she lived at home).

 “The psychological landscape she’s giving us entree into is a one-of-a-kind opportunity,’’ says Tanner, who does research for the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging,  “It’s the first chance, on television at least, to see emerging adulthood from the point of view of an emerging adult.’’

 Rutgers Today: What social factors led to the concept of emerging adulthood and how is that typified by Girls?

 Tanner:  Today there a greater opportunities for a larger group of people, including women and the working class. During the 1950s, approximately 20 percent of kids went to college – the majority children of doctors, lawyers and the upper middle class. Now, between 50 and 60 percent of young people pursue some type of post-high school graduate education. If you have more education, you think about things in a more complex way. The global economy also has moved us into a place where we need people who are doing more creative thinking and complex tasks than we did 30 years ago.   In Girls, what’s happening is that these people are exploring who they are. If they’re at home, or having sex or at a party, they’re so into their own heads, Every interaction and situation is an opportunity for miscommunication. It looks like they’re messing up, but I would say they’re not messing up; what they’re responding to is a need to answer questions about themselves: What’s their place in the world? What works in real life when school is over?

These are very hard questions to answer, so hard they need to put a lot of energy into thinking about them. If they’re making mistakes, but refining their goals and moving forward, yes, that’s healthy. If they’re trying to avoid having goals, that’s not healthy.

Rutgers Today: How is the relationship that Hannah, the show’s main character, has with her parents, reflective of emerging adulthood?

Tanner:  The relationship between Hannah and her parents, like the relationships of many emerging adults and their parents, has a long history and very deep roots. In a recent episode when Hannah returns to visit her parents in her hometown in Michigan, the same issues play out wherever she is. How you launch is certainly related to how your parents related to you. Society shouldn’t blame these 18- to 25-year-olds entirely for their so-called dependency on their parents. The parents had more power and control than the kids ever did in setting up these dynamics.  Young adults from working class parents, whose parents never set that expectation – they aren’t going to ask for rent money. It comes down to scapegoating the kids and removing responsibility from the parents. At some point, I hope the contribution of parents to the situation becomes part of the discussion.

Rutgers Today: What do you think of the sexual relationships in the show and what they reveal about women in emerging adulthood?

 The sex part is one of my favorite aspects of the show. Viewers expect there to be a connection between people having sex. In many of the scenes, there is no true intimacy. But what you’re really seeing is that it’s impossible to have real intimacy without a true knowledge of yourself. But these kids don’t have real selves yet; they have temporary selves. I’ve asked a lot of other people what they thought of the sexual relationships in the show and they were aghast. They said, “The way the men treat these women is horrible!’’  But when have we ever seen young women in this much control of their sex lives? Never. The Sex in the City characters were talking about power and having sex, the act of sex. But these young women are talking about something else. They’re talking about exploring their sexual identity, who they are as sexual people. These explorations with different partners and trying out different things, having all these mishaps, yes, that’s very representative of this new stage of life.

Office of Media Relations, Alexander Johnston Hall, 101 Somerset St. New Brunswick, NJ 08901-1281, 732-932-7084
 Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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