TV Review: Girls (HBO) – Intellectuals without Intellects

January 29, 2014
Girls, nothing more, nothing less.

Girls. Nothing more, nothing less.

Critic’s Pet

For those of you who don’t have premium cable or get HBO through public TV as I do, the network has a show called Girls that has created a lot of publicity since its launch in 2012. It is a half hour show about a twenty something struggling writer in New York named Hannah Horvath. Her life revolves around her friends, work, boys, family, parties etc. There are no murders, no vampires, no spies or exotic locations (unless you think of New York as exotic). Just the everyday humdrum that we all share. This may sound painfully trivial, but most critics beg to differ,

“Lena Dunham’s [the creator of the show who also does the role of Hannah] much anticipated comedy about four single women in New York is worth all the fuss…” (Alessandra Stanley, NYT)

“Girls represents an exciting moment in television history because, like a handful of other shows (MTV’s ‘Awkward,’ most notably) it not only makes great use of the medium but has the creative guts to realign it for a new century and a new generation.” (David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle)

“It’s the distillation of a distinctive, incisive and brutally funny point of view and most importantly, it’s its own thing.” (Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post)

“Girls has potential to become a once-in-a-generation work that helps define a shared era.” (Hank Stuever, Washington Post)

“From the moment I saw the pilot of Girls, I was a goner, a convert.” (Emily Nussbaum, New York Magazine)

Millennials, SWPLs, Hipsters

A recurring word in the reviews is “generation.” Critics love to think of Girls as the voice of the so-called Millennial generation. But only the part of that generation which they think of as socially relevant – the White, liberal, urban people, sometimes referred to as SWPLs. This reminds me of Judith Rich Harris who I wrote about in my previous post, and her ideas of how we develop from children into adults. We don’t think that much about who we are as individuals but more about which social category we fit in. That social category becomes our tribe. Which explains why critics love the show – they are just cheering for their team, or in this case their junior team.

This tribalism is made painfully obvious when Hannah dates a Black guy but breaks up with him because he turns out to be a conservative. By that happy accident her world is again as White as that of any SWPLs watching the show, who can appreciate her effort to fraternize and be liberally inclusive while at the same time be ok with the fact that all their friends are White. The ethnic friend fantasy should never become real. At least not unless the friend in question has been properly whitewashed. Needless to say, SWPLs see racism everywhere.

The Genius Working at the Coffee Shop: From Modernity to Hipsterity

But in spite of the boring social and political correctness, Dunham does try to portray the Millennial SWPLs unique situation – with both sympathy and criticism – although she says little of why they are in their particular situation; it’s just some existential backdrop that works as a common denominator for the characters. Their world is one of economic recession, in sharp contrast to when they were kids, and it’s socially confused; no one seems certain of what is right and wrong or how to behave. This insecurity occasionally creates some much needed nervous energy to the show, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying because it lacks meaning and never leads to any conclusions. It’s just weird rather than interesting.

At any rate, the young SWPLs in Girls find it hard to navigate this increasingly confusing and harsh reality. But they aren’t mere victims, but also pretty full of themselves. Dunham’s self-criticism (because she must be counted as a SWPL herself) is evident: this tribe is deluded and narcissistic. That insight saves the show from complete disaster, but it doesn’t save it from a clear failure in my view. Dunham tries to go for brutal honesty, but the question of where this delusional and inflated sense of self-worth comes from is left glaringly unanswered.

My personal guess is that the unflattering aspects of SWPLs have emerged gradually over a long period of time. An early incarnation of this tribe arose from Enlightenment, the modern people as I call them for lack of a better word, who in the 1700s embraced the new thing called science and wanted to implement the same rationality to society. These radicals were smart, creative and principled – an elite in many respects. But they were also naïve and blank slatist, not understanding that they too constituted a social category or tribe and were governed by the same psychological mechanisms as other tribes. So the moderns allowed more or less anyone admission to their tribe thinking the newcomers were genuinely like themselves. And being financially successful and generous they could bring in a steady stream of new members most of whom weren’t as intelligent, creative or civic-minded as they were, but instead more traditionally tribal and hostile towards outsiders.

And so the modern tribe became today’s SWPLs. They live in gentrified White neighborhoods (if they can afford it), and wear clothes that scream gay casual friday to mark their tribal distinctiveness. They get their degrees in sociology, arts or some other subject that doesn’t require too much brainpower. They eat organic food, recycle and perform all their other rituals but have much less of the inner qualities of their original modern ancestors. And this dumbing down, I believe, is the unique situation that Dunham doesn’t want to look into too carefully – the growing gap between an intellectual, elitist self-image and the horrifying reality of being a mundane, average person.

The Inexplicable Tragedy of Regression to the Mean

A phenomenon related to this decline is that of regression to the mean. This refers to the way intelligence (and probably a lot of similar traits) is inherited. Children don’t just inherit the average of their parent’s respective intelligence. Instead they’ll average somewhere between their parent’s level and the average of the larger population they belong to. So two SWPLs with IQs of 120 will have children whose average IQs might be around 110.  And being blank slatists, they can’t just accept this as a fact of life but will be disappointed or blame themselves or try to convince themselves that their little Hannah, working at the coffee shop is just as smart as they are. It’s just the economy, or all the existential issues that this new and highly complicated world entails. Or it could be a psychological problem. SWPLs have a lot of psychiatric conditions that supposedly make them look interesting rather than just dumb. (In Hannah Horvath’s case it’s OCD.) Because if all that’s wrong with her is an IQ of 105 then she is just like a regular White girl who listens to Taylor Swift. And Mom doesn’t like Taylor Swift, partly because her fans are the wrong kind of White people, and partly because Taylor Swift has talent and intelligence, and in the back of her head she knows that her daughter has neither.

The Modern Storyteller Fail

While you could make a decent show about a plain Jane and her equally plain friends, Girls also suffers from the modern kind of story-telling that I’ve mentioned in a previous post which fails to recognize that good meaningful stories have a basic archetypal structure – good versus evil and such. Instead Dunham just makes up little sketches and when she has enough to fill half an hour that becomes an episode. I’m in no way exaggerating when I say that these episodes can be seen in any random order. There is no beginning, no end, no one is really good and no one is really bad, no strong conflicts. It’s just one trivial event after another.

The critics don’t mind this because they are the small clique who love the modern nonsensical crap, and they also look at Hannah and think their deadbeat daughter really is special after all. The rest, I imagine, look at Dunham’s perky boobs that the camera lingers on for long periods of time in every single episode. One critic, Tim Molloy, had the audacity to ask Dunham about the purpose of all the nudity (more than I have ever seen in a TV show) and got this vitriolic response from Dunham,

Yeah. It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem…

On top of this, producer Jenni Konner asked Molloy why he thought he could talk to a woman that way, and producer Judd Apatow wondered how things would go with Molloy’s girlfriend after his misogynistic question. Which supports my idea that the gap between self-image and actual performance among the SWPLs has been growing for a long time and is not a problem exclusive to the Millennials.

But ultimately, boobs, even real and perky ones, will not keep the audience interested. Only storytelling can do that. That’s why no one really cares about the films from the 1960s and 1970s. And this is why no one really cares about Girls either,

Viewers (in millions) of the latest ten episodes of some HBO shows.

Viewers (in millions) of the latest ten episodes of some HBO shows.

This lack of interest is also interesting in that it shows how little people care about what these SWPL critics think. In spite of all the superlatives from all the big media, the Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards etc, the ratings haven’t even momentarily risen above the abysmal level that they been on since the show started. That’s gotta hurt.

I’m thinking if Hannah hadn’t wasted her time on that sociology degree, and practised really hard she might have been able to be a backup singer for Taylor Swift,


72 Is Not Going to Be the New 30 for Honey Boo Boo – A Few Thoughts on National Character, Health, and Longevity

October 22, 2012

30 might just feel little bit like 72 for this girl…

Under the headline “Modern humans found to be fittest ever at survival, by far” Los Angeles Times recently featured an article about a study from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, on the increase in life expectancy,

A typical Swede, for instance, is more than 100 times more likely to survive to the age 15 than a typical hunter-gatherer. And a hunter-gatherer who has reached the ripe old age of 30 is about as likely to die in the following year as the world’s champion of longevity — a 72-year-old woman in Japan.

But are Swedes and the Japanese really representative of all modern humans, or even of populations in the developed countries? I think it’s safe to say that these two people are known to have certain traits, national characters, that set them apart. Hardly anyone would argue with the claim that they are less impulsive than the average.

Research on national characters – the specific collective personality traits that distinguish on nationality from another – has proven difficult. A large study by Terracciano back in 2005 found that the national characters don’t accord with mean levels of personality traits. So is this idea just in our heads, that say the Chinese are more introverted than Americans?

Most likely not, since all research into stereotypes so far tends to find a kernel of truth in them – Jews as a group make more money, African Americans as a group are more violent etc. But personality research is almost exclusively done with self-report questionnaires. When people answer question about their own personality they relate it to other people in their own country. This means that differences between countries can be due to other factors like how socially desirable a trait is in that country or how prone a certain people are to self-enhancement, portraying themselves as better than they are. Studies have found that East Asians are not as prone to this as Westerners which could explain why Americans for instance measure higher than the Japanese on conscientiousness.

Some psychologists have tried to get around this problem by looking at how personality traits are expressed in different cultures, or to use ethos in the form of institutions that embody ideals that are typical of certain traits. But that’s all very problematic since it involves measuring the same thing in different and indirect ways.

A better way to do this (which at least I haven’t read about) is to measure actual behavior related to personality traits. Because there are traits that have universal behavioral outcomes.  Take impulsivity for instance. This trait predicts drug abuse, violent crime, traffic accidents etc in all parts of the developed world.  So if these outcomes differ according to stereotypical notions of national characters then we have some evidence that these do reflect actual personality differences between nations.

Since I haven’t come across any such research I decided to dabble a little myself, just to see if there might be anything to this. I took two measures – adult lifetime use of cannabis, and road fatalities – and combined them into a composite measure of impulsivity. The countries included are mainly those commonly thought of as impulsive, New Zealand, USA, Australia, and Denmark. I contrasted these against the two nationalities mentioned in the article, those of Sweden and Japan. So here is what I found.

Adult lifetime use of cannabis according to Wikipedia/EMCDDA: Stereotypically impulsive nations like USA 42.4 percent, New Zealand 41.9 percent , Denmark 36.5 percent, and Australia 33.5 percent. As a contrast Sweden has 12 percent and Japan a mere 1.5 percent.

Road fatalities per 100K inhabitants and year according to Wikipedia/WHO: Again looking at the stereotypically impulsive nations we have, Australia 5.7, New Zealand 8.6, USA  12.3,  Denmark 7.4,  whereas Sweden has 2.9 and Japan 3.85.

If we combine these percentages to a composite measure of impulsivity by adjusting so both measures have the same average, we find the following order with life expectancy in the second column,

USA                       50           78.2

Australia               56           81.2

New Zealand        77           80.2

Denmark               67           78.3

Sweden                 24           80.9

Japan                    17           82.7

This gives us a clear indication that nations thought of as impulsive actually have more outcomes that are known to correlate with impulsivity on the individual level. Their average level is 62.5, which is 3 times the average of Japan and Sweden combined. It’s especially striking to see the big difference between the neighbors  Denmark and Sweden that are very similar in many other ways.  And this measure of impulsivity also correlates  -0.6 to life expectancy which is quite respectable.

…but not for this one.

Although it’s not a scientific study, I believe this little exercise clearly raises the question of whether any developed country can be taken as a measure of how technological progress translates to longer life expectancies in general. It suggest that this is not the case, and that differences in personality traits between countries, often referred to as national characters are in fact real, and affect health and longevity in the same way as they do on the individual level.


Book Review: Into Thin Air (1997) by Jon Krakauer

September 28, 2012

This book retells the catastrophic attempts at climbing Mount Everest in the spring of 1996 that cost 12 people their lives. There are many versions of what really happened and a lot of the central characters died and can’t tell their story. There is also the fact that even with supplemental oxygen most witnesses are telling it the way the saw it when they were tired, confused and suffering from various conditions related to extreme altitude.

That said, the book is an interesting look at what psychologists call Sensation Seeking (SS), a trait characterized as a need for intense, novel  and complex stimuli. Research shows that those attempting to climb Everest have this trait. If you look at other traits it is similar to the psychiatric term ADHD and also to Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) and Psychopathy.

Superficially, sensation seekers appear like exciting and adventurous people. Scott Fischer, the leader of one of the expeditions is a typical example: gregarious, energetic and willing to take great risk – he once fell 80 feet to the ground and survived – with a childlike enthusiasm and a strong will power. He made friends easily and women were drawn to his charismatic personality. He exercised vigorously, but also drank and smoked a lot of pot.

While this may sound charming SS is also a trait that excludes a fair amount of empathy. They may make friends easily but their main concern is always about getting their kicks. The author Jon Krakauer indirectly admits this himself when his wife Linda blames him for taking a risk of this magnitude: “If you get killed, it’s not just you who’ll pay the price. I’ll have to pay too, you know, for the reast of my life. Doesn’t that matter to you?”  to which Krakauer answers, “I’m not going to get killed. Don’t be melodramatic.”

Something about how these men and women are wired drive makes them engage in dangerous activities like climbing or other extreme sports, but also crime and drugs. They rarely plan things and if they do they rarely stick to the plan. As for climbing in high altitude the attraction seems to be danger itself more than anything else. It’s not technical and you’re too tired or ill to enjoy the experience as such. As Krakauer puts it, “It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality…” But once people started dying the titillation switched to horror and trauma followed by depression and survivor’s guilt.

The book follows a number of characters of this kind who were attempting to climb Everest at the time, not just from the expedition that Krakauer was a member of. It’s an extremely tough bunch who keep their calm in the face of mortal danger as well as in the face of certain amputation due to frostbite. Their attitude makes it a little easier to read about these horrors but it’s still a pretty scary book, even though Krakauer does nothing to dramatize. As a journalist from Outside Magazine he was there to report about the modern day expeditions and the commercialization of Everest. And he has kept a simple and matter-of-fact tone in the book, which makes it all the more authentic.

It’s a story about pain, suffering, loads of amputations, and of course death. But it’s also story about miraculous recoveries, friendship and true heroism. It’s not for the faint of heart, I personally felt disturbed at times when I read it. But as source of knowledge about the sensation seeking personality it’s a veritable goldmine.


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