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A Critique of HBO's Girls: Labor Mobility and the Problem of Finding a Job in New York City


HBO's latest water-cooler show offers an important economic lesson: When job searching, always go where the demand is high and the supply is low.

Has there been another TV show in recent memory that has garnered as much hype and press attention as HBO's (TWX) Girls?

Ostensibly, there doesn't seem to be all that much that is newsworthy about Girls. The comedy, which premiered last Sunday, is about four 20-something women and their lives and loves in New York City – not exactly a groundbreaking conceit.

However, what supposedly makes Girls unique instead of it merely being Sex and the City for the post-recession Gen Y set is the show runner and lead Lena Dunham, who writes, directs, and imbues the show with her brand of gritty insights into the struggles of post-collegiate women in New York.

Because Girls is one of the (still) rare shows on TV that articulates a woman's point of view, critics have rushed out to either embrace the show for presenting an underrepresented voice (The LA Times called it "the uncomfortably true voice of millennial women") or to try to deflate the hype by casting a hypercritical eye on every aspect of it.

Most notably, there have been gripes about how unlikeable the characters are. The entitlement displayed by some, although not necessarily cast in a flattering light, has rankled many.

The opening scene of the series provides an example: Hannah, portrayed by Dunham, is at dinner with her parents when they tell her that they are going to cut her off after supporting her for two years. Hannah, who's been working as an unpaid intern, is outraged, saying that they should be thankful she's not a drug addict. She states, "I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation."

Yes, Hannah and her friends on the show do indeed capture, perhaps too familiarly, the "you're a unique snowflake" sense of entitlement that's been so thoroughly imbued into the so-called "Millennial Generation."

Another so-true-it-hurts scene comes later in the pilot: When a friend says at a dinner party that perhaps Hannah could take a job at McDonald's (MCD), she balks at his suggestion, saying that she has an English degree. To give credit to the show, another character quickly chimes in with a defense of McDonald's, pointing out that at least that's a job and a source of income.

Privileged, "poor" (these characters always have families to fall back on) hipster artists is a demographic many liberal arts graduates are surely familiar with (Dunham herself went to Oberlin). In fact, even though it's touted as the realistic, gritty alternative to Sex and the City's Manhattan fairytale, Dunham's portrait for what it is like to be a struggling artist in Brooklyn is just as romanticized. It's still a New York City fairytale -- it's just a different one for a different audience.

There have been gripes, for instance, about how, even though it's set in the most multicultural city in the US, Girls features an all-white cast.

The question to ask is: Why even set it in New York? Aren't there enough shows out there that feature the Big Apple? Do we really need another one?

In the pilot, Hannah was fired from her intern job after she tried to ask for a salary. Why stay in New York then? Besides, Hannah's goal, as a self-described memoirist, is to pen a book, which she can do anywhere.

The housing crisis that has plagued the country in recent years might have dampened labor mobility because people cannot sell their homes, but college graduates, with no such burdens, can and should move to where jobs can be found.

On the show, Hannah is seeking a writing position. There are about one million Hannahs wanting the same thing in New York City, which is why firms can afford to not pay for writing talent. It's a simple story of supply and demand.

So why not start a career in a smaller, less competitive market? I have a close friend who landed a gig writing for a local paper in Ithaca, New York, even though she had no prior reporting experience. She's now attending town meetings, interviewing people, and accumulating strong clips.

In its FAQ page, the Columbia Journalism School also advises prospective students to head outside of New York City, saying:
"Unlike the largest metro newspapers and major broadcast and digital news companies, many small and medium companies are still plentiful and growing or holding steady, so employment in smaller markets is encouraging.... Again, the small markets have long offered great journalism opportunities across all platforms, and those who do well can eventually find their way to the bigger markets."

Americans have historically always been very mobile. According to Forbes, 37.5 million people moved in 2010, with 4.3 million of them crossing state lines. Such "mobility is [what] makes us efficient seekers of economic improvement," the magazine notes (Check out this cool Forbes interactive map of American migration here).

Instead of ungratefully sponging off her parents (and taking the $20 her parents intended as tip for the hotel maid), Hannah could perhaps try her luck in Elko, Nevada. This small town is booming thanks to the thriving gold mining industry led by Barrick Gold (ABX) and Newmont Mining (NEM).

Hannah could find a writing job there, or even better, try her hand at mining, and gain some great experiences that she can include in her still-gestating memoir. After all, Diablo Cody, from whose writing style Girls clearly took inspiration, notably got her big break publishing a book chronicling her experiences working as a stripper for a year.

Another boom town fueled by natural resource exploitation is North Dakota, where companies like Chesapeake Energy (CHK) and Halliburton (HAL) are busy drilling for oil.

Jim Brown, president of Halliburton, told CNBC's Jim Cramer last summer, "If you have a willingness to work and an aptitude to learn with a high-school education, within a year and a half, two years, you can become a front-line supervisor. That job will pay $125,000, $130,000 a year. It's a tremendous opportunity. You got to come to North Dakota."

Even if Hannah disdains moving to such uncool locales, there are always more hipster-friendly options, such as Austin, Texas, whose pro-business climate (read: low taxes) has seen the growth of a range of industries, including the technology and biotechnology sectors.

Alongside Brooklyn and Portland, Austin is one of the hipster meccas of the country, so Hannah will easily fit in. Perhaps she could pick up shifts at Austin's homegrown pride and joy, Whole Foods (WFM), and write her book in her spare time.

The die is cast with regards to the show's setting, of course. And given that Dunham was born and bred in New York, she cannot be faulted for choosing to write about something that she is familiar with.

However, what Dunham can do is tone down her characters' entitlement. So Hannah wants to break into publishing in the city and has to take on unpaid internships. That doesn't mean she has to ask for parental handouts. Plenty of my friends are currently taking the New York City unpaid internship route in hopes of landing a dream job in industries like publishing, fashion, or non-profits, but they all support themselves by taking on part-time jobs, like bartending at night.

If Girls intends to live up to its reputation as being "real" and "gritty," then it needs to do a better job of portraying the ingenuity and drive that Millennials -- yes, even those who are creative -- harness to pursue their dreams and make a living at the same time. Until then, the show is just another New York City fantasy. In other words, Sex and the City, Part Deux.

(See also: Why HBO Can Afford to Gamble on Girls.)

Twitter: @sterlingwong
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