Welcome to Neverland

How one generation told another to never grow up

Cera Sylar

Cera Sylar

On creator Lena Dunham’s Girls, the four twenty-something titular characters navigate the hip jungle of Brooklyn, all the while reverting to states of childishness in their approaches to life. They can be self-absorbed. Most of them relying on their parents for financial support. Few have stable relationships. None retain stable jobs.

This personality crisis turned into a narrative might sound familiar, and that’s only because it’s pervasive across pop culture. CBS airs “2 Broke Girls.” Comedy Central runs “Broad City.” In 2012, Greta Gerwig starred in, co-wrote, and was flung into the spotlight in the indie dramedy film “Frances Ha.”

Line them all up, and a familiar pattern develops. They’re all living in New York City. Some have artistic ambitions. The central cast is entirely women (these media were also made mostly by women). And yet, these shows couldn’t be any more individually distinct. What is for certain is that these shows are tonally and thematically different on a fundamental level, despite how critics continually cluster them together.

Take for example the overwrought comparisons between “Girls” and “Broad City.” “Girls” for one revels in awkward, uncomfortable humor; “Broad City” sways more slapstick. The central friend crew of “Girls,” as gradually revealed in recent episodes, can hardly tolerate one another anymore. The dynamic duo of “Broad City” usually begin and end their days with a Skype call. At the end of a “Girls” episode, you’re left wondering why these self-destructive people endlessly gravitate to each other. But “Broad City” makes you want to be Abbi and Ilana’s third best friend.

CBS airs “2 Broke Girls.” Comedy Central runs “Broad City.” In 2012, Greta Gerwig starred in, co-wrote, and was flung into the spotlight in the indie dramedy film “Frances Ha.

I don’t think it’s merely a coincidence that these shows are, unfairly, overly scrutinized and belittled because they feature women in anti-hero roles. They make mistakes; they can act out of greed and selfish desires, but isn’t that also what makes them human? Isn’t that what makes them so real in the first place? And, really, how much does a TV screen reflect real life? At the bottom of it, what even is a “millennial” besides a part of advertising demographics anyway?

One book, “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation” by historians Neil Howe and William Strauss reads, “As a group, millennials are unlike any other youth generation in living memory. They are numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse. More important, they are beginning to manifest a wide array of positive social habits that older Americans no longer associate with youth.” While intriguing, it’s important to note that the book that shaped early perceptions of “how millennials would be” was written in 2000, outside the stretch of factors like social media and the iconic iPhone.

Seen in the ironic, hyperbolic character portrayals within the universes of “Girls” and “Broad City,” another perspective is that millennials are more narcissistic and self-important than any generation ever before. Researcher Jean Twenge refers to this in her book “Generation Me.” She writes, “Why the label Generation Me? Since GenMe’ers were born, we’ve been taught to put ourselves first.” She continues, “Television, movies, and school programs have told us we were special from toddlerhood to high school, and we believe it with a self-confidence that approaches boredom: why talk about it? It’s just the way things are.”

The self-importance that so many of these shows satirize, and what so many critics tend to forget, makes it clear they’re being critical of the generation they’re portraying.

And yet, the children of Generation X and Generation Y aren’t that distinct either. The X’ers, born between 1960 and 1980, were the first to have an anarchist youth culture. They were also the “MTV Generation.” They had causes to fight against. They had rock ‘n’ roll. They were compelled to fight oppression, corruption—a feeling of belonging to something much greater than themselves—movements. This is the time when second-wave feminism developed, when the Civil Rights Movement took deeper root. While the world has changed significantly, and social justice has made gigantic strides, there is not a shortage of things to rally against today: police brutality, LGBT rights, immigration reform, abortion rights. We’re not in a state of racial or feminist equality either. One has to ask, have the movements our mothers and fathers participated in ever really stopped?

The self-importance that so many of these shows satirize, and what so many critics tend to forget, makes it clear they’re being critical of the generation they’re portraying. What matters more is the sense of camaraderie they represent that makes the chaos of living in your twenties in these tech-heavy, individualistic decades feel less lonely.