When people ask me to explain Girls, I generally tell them that it’s about four 20-somethings who are trying to become grown-up women. It’s a show that addresses the differences and transitions between being a girl and a woman. And then people say “Lena Dunham is naked a lot” or “Is Adam a rapist?” and the conversation gets away from me very, very quickly.
What it means to be an adult — in this case, a woman rather than a girl — is an important question, though. There’s a great story in Answered Prayers about Truman Capote going to visit Colette. In the course of their conversation, Colette asked Truman what he wanted most in the world. Truman answered that all he really desired was to be a genuine grown up. Colette replied that such a goal was “Impossible. Voltaire, even Voltaire, lived with a child inside him, jealous and angry, a smutty little boy always smelling his fingers.”
The notion of being grown-up — beyond someone who doesn’t sniff their fingers all the time — is dependent on the individual. You see that on Girls. Hannah (Lena Dunham) seems to think that maybe it means having a brownstone and possibly an e-book deal. Marnie (Allison Williams) wants to be a professional singer and, apparently, date an Ewok in capri pants. Jessa (Jemima Kirke) thought she could grow up by marrying the only venture capitalist who made money during the recession. (Much belated spoiler — that plan was not successful).
And then there’s Shoshanna.
Shoshanna Shapiro might outdo Voltaire.
Admittedly, if Voltaire couldn’t pull off genuine adulthood, it would seem a big burden to place on Shoshanna Shapiro’s (Zosia Mamet) young shoulders.
But I think she might manage it. She’s not quite a grown up yet, but she’s close.
Because what you consider a fully formed adulthood differs for everyone, maybe it’s simpler to first look at how we regard childhood. The defining feature of childhood seems to be near total selfishness. Children think the world revolves around them. They’re supposed to think that. They’re children. It’s fine. Only when we get older are we really able to think and act in a more selfless way.
Unlike the other characters on the show, Shoshanna isn’t completely self-centered. She doesn’t expect everyone else to meet her needs immediately. And the other characters really, really do. Hannah spends the last episode making the man downstairs cut her hair and demanding her father loan her money because she can’t meet her work deadlines. Marnie decides that now that ex boyfriend Charlie is successful, she can just go out with him — but not before yelling at him in public that he has to go out with her. Jessa, well, Jessa has just dropped off the face of the Earth. None of them are concerned about one another.
Except for Shoshanna.
Shoshanna isn’t a child, because she’s invested in the wellbeing of people other than herself. Even when there is no apparent benefit to her.
The show began with Shoshanna offering to let her cousin Jessa, whom she hardly knows, stay with her for however long she wants. Jessa begins rolling her eyes at Shoshanna as soon as she arrives. The fact that Shoshanna is still obliging strikes me as remarkable, given that I have about a three day maximum visit time with appreciative people I’ve been friends with for years. More recently, after Jessa disappeared with no forwarding address, and the rest of the group seemed to decide that she’s a hustler, Shoshanna continues to wonder if Jessa is safe and happy and maybe wearing linen.
Now Marnie is living with her. If Marnie is paying rent, it’s because Shoshanna found her work. Shoshanna, remarkably by the standards exhibited by every other character on the show, was willing to stop snuggling with her boyfriend and make calls on Marnie’s behalf as soon as Marnie lost her job.
She is also endlessly supportive of everything anyone around her tries to do. Marnie wants to be a singer? Shoshanna thinks it is great that she is following her dream. Charlie sold an app? Shoshanna forces her boyfriend to go to his celebratory party and, while he grouches, tells Charlie that they are so, so happy for him. Hannah is having party? Shoshanna gets there early, compliments the décor, and brings a cheese plate.
The fact that she’s 22 and seems willing and able to take care of everyone is pretty amazing.
Yes, she does all of this awkwardly. She communicates with emojis and air quotes and she dresses in a way that is either very brave, or drawn entirely from Sex and the City re-runs. But how she behaves is just plain nice, most of the time.
Nice but not recognized. For all the shouting about what does or does not equal being a good friend on the show, no one seems to notice that Shoshanna is a spectacular friend.
A particularly unfair moment in this season’s finale is when Ray’s boss dismissively exclaims that Shoshanna just wants a man who can buy her purses shaped like bread products (Shoshanna has a purse shaped like a croissant, and I bet it’s adorable). Perhaps he does not realize that Ray is “between apartments” and thus Shoshanna is the reason Ray has a kitchen to sit in and devour baguettes.
Through Ray, Shoshanna seems to be drawing her own definition of adulthood. It’s a definition that has nothing to do with having a rich husband (Marnie) or literary fame (Hannah) or the freedom to go wherever you want whenever you want (Jessa).
After finding out that her 33 year old boyfriend is homeless, and has been crashing in her apartment, she confronts him saying, “You’re older than me. You should have your own place. You should have interests, and passions, and things that you do. You get up every day, and there’s nothing, unless you’re going to work.”
She is absolutely right. Those, unlike a lot of the other characters’ more farfetched notions, are reasonable goals to hope someone will achieve by their 30’s. It’s reasonable to expect someone to find activities they like and work out a living situation. This is not the same as Jessa expecting her husband to support her while she reveals her heroin addiction to his conservative parents, nor Marnie being upset that her boyfriend Charlie shaved his head to support a co-worker going through chemo.
Shoshanna is totally willing to help anyone she knows accomplish whatever they want. If you told her that your dream was to go directly to hell in a hand-basket, she would engineer the basket and pack it with light linen clothing and aloe vera. Unlike the other characters, who are comfortable wailing whenever they don’t get their own way immediately, Shoshanna’s challenge seems to be figuring out how to assert herself enough to get what she wants.
At her friend’s impromptu party, Shoshanna describes how she thinks having Ray living with her will be good, because eventually all of her kids will depend on her, so this is good preparation for the future. That’s true, except that they will be children. Shoshanna shouldn’t have to be the mother to a group of people who are all older than her.
After dallying with the doorman — something about which she feels crippling guilt — and encouraging Ray time and time again to develop any interest in anything — Shoshanna finally breaks up with him. She explains, “I can’t be surrounded by your negativity while I’m trying to grow into a fully formed human. You hate everything. You hate the sound of children playing. You hate all of your living relatives. You hate people who wear sunglasses, even during the day. You hate going to dinner, which you know I love. You hate colors. You hate pillows. You hate ribbons. You hate everything … Maybe I can deal with your black soul better when I’m older, I just can’t handle it now.”
Shoshanna is trying to grow into a fully formed human. She’s also proving that she’s brave enough to try to do it by herself.
While Marnie is explaining to Charlie that they are now old fogies about two days after getting back together, and Hannah is getting her ex- boyfriends to hold her, Shoshanna seems to have decided that she does want to grow up, and she can do it on her own.
Early in Season Two she exclaimed, “I am woman, hear me roar”. We finally did.
The desire to be a genuine grown-up isn’t enough to make it happen. Being a genuine grown-up, as Colette points out, might not even be possible. But if it’s not a completely attainable state, then aspiring towards it, and learning to appreciate life around us, and taking care of one another may be the best we can do.
Shoshanna Shapiro, more than any other woman on television right now, seems to understand.
Harry Belafonte, who did a great deal of work for the black community during the Civil Rights Movement, is making no secret of the fact that he’s very disappointed in many young black celebrities when it comes to to social activism. Speaking this week with the Hollywood Reporter, Belafonte pointed out Jay-Z and Beyonce as prime examples of what he’s talking about.
THR: Back to the occasion of the award for your acting career. Are you happy with the image of members of minorities in Hollywood today?
Belafonte: Not at all. They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking. We are not determinated. We are not driven by some technology that says you can kill Afghanistans, the Iraquis or the Spanish. It is all – excuse my French – shit. It is sad. And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.
My friend Alexis Stodghill at TheGrio makes the point (in a news piece where she carefully cites both sides of the issue) that perhaps Belafonte is off-base with his critique. She notes that Beyonce has spoken up for her fellow recording artist Frank Ocean when he admitted that he was gay, and that Jay-Z has chumed it up with President Obama during his presidential campaign and supported him on the issue of gay marriage.
We must note that Beyonce and Jay-Z speaking up on gay marriage and homosexuality is little more than a political decision designed to remain in alignment with the Obama presidency. If Barack had said nothing on the issue, Jay-Z would have said nothing. So, we have to be sure not to mistake meaningful advocacy for elitist political shoulder-rubbing (wealthy famous people tend to take care of one another).
But when you look at the black aristocracy that is known as Jay-Z and Beyonce, one form of activism that is missing is anything that involves the words “poor black people.” Also, when it comes to issues that affect the least of us, including poverty, mass incarceration, urban violence, unequal educational systems and the like, it’s easy to say that Jay-Z and Beyonce have been effectively missing in action, unless it’s time to show up and utilize this audience to sell albums.
One exception noted by Kirsten West Savali at NewsOne.com is the Shawn Carter foundation, created by Jay-Z and the people who work for him. According to the foundation’s website, “Since the Foundation’s inception, over 750 students have received awards totaling over $1.3 million dollars.”
Jay-Z should certainly be commended for doing something he didn’t have to do, but let’s really think about this for a second, shall we? First, most corporations have some kind of foundation. Even Wal-Mart can claim to have sent thousands of kids to college, as they simultaneously strip workers of their rights around the world, drive small companies out of business and refuse to pay a living wage to their employees. Secondly, if you divide the $1.3 million given away by the foundation by 750 scholarship recipients, that’s about $1,733 per child. Please tell me what college in America has a tuition bill of $1,733. Of course Jay-Z gives away more than most of us can afford, but even the local drug dealer can also afford to use heroin money give away turkeys at Chistmas. The point here is that if I pillage half a billion dollars from the black community over a 10-year period, it’s pretty easy for me to give back $1.3 million of it.
I noticed a line in Jay-Z’s song “Niggaz in Paris,” where he says, “Can you see the private jets flying over you?” This line is part of a consistent message of black elitism that has become all-too prevalent in the entertainment industry. It is a statement which says, “I’m better than you, and I am not one of you. Your job is to either worship me or hate on me, I don’t care which one.”
Beyond the “extensive” efforts of his foundation, Jay-Z is also the man who earned over $63 million dollars last year and only gave $6,000 to charity. Unfortunately, this has become par for the course in a world where poor black people are not nearly as fashionable of a cause as gay white kids from the suburbs. Poor black kids can’t buy your records, rendering them effectively useless.
So, while Beyonce and Jay-Z speaking up on marriage equality is a politely cute form of activism, you have to agree with Belafonte that today’s artists are taught not to care about anyone other than themselves. At best, we might get a photo op at a charity event, but the real pressure to sacrifice for those who are suffering is lost as millions of us forgive celebrities for being unwilling to use their power to make the world a better place. The rule is simple: If you’re rich, we love you. It doesn’t matter if you’re a former crack dealer (Jay-Z), brag about murdering women and children (Lil Wayne) or sleep with middle school kids on the weekends (R. Kelly). Money is used to wash away all sins, and people are quicker to disrespect an icon like Harry Belafonte than they are to challenge celebrities to do more than tweet pictures of their newborn baby.
By “social responsibility,” I don’t think that Belafonte is referring to charity concerts or speaking to Congress about saving dolphins. He’s talking about the kind of activism that requires BALLS. He’s talking about the black men and women during the 1960s who used their voices loud and clear to state that things need to change in America soon, or else.
Those days are long gone. In the 1960s, oppression was much more rampant, so nearly every black person was banging on the door of equality. Today, those who’ve been allowed access to predominantly white institutions are asked to sign a “Good negro forever” card, and disavow any meaningful political stands that might get them into trouble with a corporate sponsor or record label. As a result, we have a group of celebrities who are very quick to build their brands off the “street cred” granted to them by impoverished African Americans, but don’t feel compelled to use those brands to become anything other than corporate-sponsored slumlords.
So, a “gangsta rapper” can speak all day about his time in prison, but he dare not say anything about the fact that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the world, earning billions on the backs of black men and women, destroying millions of families in the process. He can rap all about “all his homies that done passed away,” but he’s better off staying away from a conversation about how gun violence is fueled by manufacturers who are happy to build profitable corporate tools to fund black male genocide.
It is the lack of acknowledgement of the deep and piercing artifacts of black oppression that bother Belafonte and others the most. It’s what bothers me too, for I’ve always been raised to believe that (to recite the words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) great power comes with great responsibility.
Perhaps when Jay-Z really understands what wealth is all about, he can take a note from Warren Buffett, Oprah and others, who’ve convinced several billionaires to give half of their wealth to charity when they die. A billion dollars is far more than enough for one family so why not use the rest of save 1,000 families? Is it nothing less than utterly shameful to have 10 houses, 15 cars, 200 expensive suits and several private planes? Maybe there is a point where such gluttony should not be celebrated by the rest of us, and instead be called out as pathetic in a world where millions of children are going to die this year from starvation.
Anyone who disagrees with me might want to consider the fact that there is nothing consistent with the teachings of Jesus about letting innocent people starve while you’re burning money in your basement. The principled stands by men like Muhammad Ali, who gave away nearly everything to stand up for his values, are virtually non-existence when our leading artists write songs about excessive materialism, getting high and drunk every day, killing other black men and unhealthy sexual promiscuity. Belafonte is right on point and we should look to our elders to remind us of what it means to live a purposeful and righteous life.
Harry Belafonte, by speaking up at the age of 85, is effectively asking that young people pick up the baton that he’s been running since Dr. King was a teenager. But instead of picking up the baton, we’ve thrown it at his feet and signed ourselves up for corporate slavery. I congratulate Harry for taking a stand on this important issue, and I am hopeful that his courage can spark the cultural revolution necessary to make our people stronger as a result.
Way to go Harry, I respect you.
We all tell stories. That’s how we share. That’s how we remember. Storytelling is what humans do. It’s part of our nature — but natures, I’ve noticed, differ. I am not a scientist. I don’t have a mind for what they do, which is to stick, doggedly, to hard facts, keeping emotion out of the room. It’s a discipline for them, a way of being, that makes them, well, scientists.
For example, I’m thinking about the great American physicist, Richard Feynman, sitting in New Mexico, at the bed of his dying wife. He’d been called, and told that she had only hours to live; he’d hitchhiked from Los Alamos, where he was working on the top secret atomic bomb project. It was 1945.
He walks to her bedside, kisses her; she is breathing shallow breaths. We are still at war and six weeks later, America will explode its first atomic bomb. He stands there, sits there, watches her, kisses her, and very quietly, the Hodgkin’s disease that had attacked her young body takes her. She was in her 20s, he was 27. They’d been married only two years. The nurse records the time of death: 9:21 p.m. He is empty with loss. What few things she had, he packs up; he arranges for a cremation, walks back into her room and sees that the clock had strangely stopped ticking. The hands are frozen at 9:21, the very moment of her death.
I know how this story would feel to me. It would be as though the universe had somehow noticed what had happened, that some invisible hand slipped into my world and pointed, as if to say, “We know. This is part of the plan.”
So many of us, I think, would have this sense. Lawrence Krauss, in his new biography of Feynman, Quantum Man, says, “We seem to be hard-wired to find that what happens to each of us naturally appears to take on a special significance and meaning, even if it’s an accident.” But Feynman, he says, was unable to think that way. He couldn’t and he wouldn’t.
Explaining That Clock
What he did was, he remembered that the clock had been fragile. He had been asked to fuss with it; he’d fixed it several times. In his memoirs (that is, in his version of this story), he says the nurse must have picked up the clock to determine the time of death, unsettled the workings inside, and the clock stopped. No miracle. Just an ordinary, accidental jostle. Here he is, describing a moment of enormous significance, and he won’t allow a Signifier.
I couldn’t do that. I would want to, almost need to, imagine a higher audience for a moment like that.
And maybe that’s a difference between scientists and those of us who make our living in the storytelling game. Scientists thrill at the testimony of hard facts. We (or should I say “I”) want to add a dash of warm color to the cold blacks and whites. I don’t want to make things up, exactly. I just want to imagine that the things that happen to me just might have — and deserve — the attention of the universe.
A Different Kind Of Vanity
Great scientists have a different kind of vanity. They seem to think that the thing to celebrate is the power of reason; to notice, to test, to discover nature’s secrets hiding in plain sight, with the best tools we have: logic and observation. For them, the most beautiful thing is our mind.
So, one last story. This one, also recounted by Larry Krauss, comes from the famous British physicist Ernest Rutherford, who told it to a great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr. It’s about a person who goes into a pet shop to buy a parrot.He is shown a very colorful bird and told that it speaks 10 different words and its price is $500.
Then he is shown a more colorful bird, with a vocabulary of 100 words, with a price of $5,000.
He then sees a scruffy beast in the corner and asks how much that bird is. He is told $100,000.
“Why?” he asks. “That bird is not very beautiful at all. How many words, then, does it speak?” None, he is told. Flabbergasted, he says to the clerk, “This bird here is beautiful, and speaks 10 words and is $500. That bird over there speaks 100 words and is $5,000. How can that scruffy little bird over there, who doesn’t speak a single word, be worth $100,000?”
The clerk smiles and says, “That bird thinks.”