“It sounds to me like you’re doing a lot of blaming. Your mother, your father, your husband. But nobody ever walks in here to sell things off their body who has done nothing wrong,” he tells her.
I thought about the final season of “Girls,” and the comedowns its privileged characters are experiencing, frequently while reading Charlotte Shane’s scabrous review of Ariel Levy’s recent memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply.” Shane describes the book as “a monument to obliviousness, an unwitting testament to the ability of whiteness and class to supersede other markers of social identity like sexuality and gender.”
Shane’s piece, like the criticisms of “Girls” that complain about the agony of sitting through a half-hour of the misadventures of a group of coddled 20-something women as if that weren’t the point of the whole enterprise, seems to suggest that the only appropriate way to tell a story about privilege is for the artist in question to conduct a public self-flagellation. (I don’t include criticisms of the show for its early reliance on racial stereotypes, or HBO’s marketing of this deliberately narrow perspective as universally representative in this category.) But what’s often most interesting about works such as “Girls and “The Rules Do Not Apply” is the ways in which they explore the limits of just how durable and valuable privilege actually are.
All of the characters in “Girls” are designed to push highly distinct buttons: Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is the millenial from hell, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is a feral bohemian, and Hannah (series creator Lena Dunham) is the sort of highly irritating talented person who keeps blowing up opportunities other people would love to have. But out of all four of them, Marnie is probably the clearest archetype of privilege: She’s a conventionally gorgeous, tiny white woman from a reasonably affluent family who has been so cushioned from life’s cruelties that she can’t even recognize hardship when it’s right in front of her (she somehow manages to miss that both her ex-boyfriend and her husband are junkies).
And at this point in the series, as her marriage, the musical career that was rooted in that marriage and even her ability to stay in New York have fallen apart, Marnie finally has to face up to the fact that the most tangible protections that cushioned her from the harsh consequences of her own decisions have given way. Her life is a wreck because Marnie is a reckless person, and because it never occurred to her that what she saw as the pursuit of self-actualization was actually heedlessness, not just for other people but for herself. Marnie may be a slower-glide, less-murderous riff on privilege than Rose, the character Williams plays in Jordan Peele’s horror movie “Get Out” who seduces African Americans so wealthy white people can buy their bodies and transplant their brains into them in a quest to live forever. But they’re variations on similar themes.
Marnie and her friends are infuriating not merely because they have advantages. If “Girls” were a light comedy about four Oberlin graduates doing reasonably well and having mild misadventures in New York City, it would never have been on HBO, become the subject of intense cultural conversation despite its niche viewership or been renewed for a second season. Instead, the characters are frustrating and mesmerizing because their own poor judgment and bad decisions have often been powerful enough to negate the edges they had over others. Of course other people might have used all of these opportunities better and proved more deserving of them. “Girls” leans directly into that idea. Privilege might protect the show’s characters from all sorts of daily slights and inconveniences, and it might provide some cushion from catastrophe. But “Girls” is a sharp reminder that privilege can’t protect the people who possess it from themselves.
“The Rules Do Not Apply” is about the limits of what privilege can save you from, even if you aren’t reckless, temperamental or entitled.
Levy is well aware of her own role in some of her misfortunes. Like Marnie, missing the signs of drug addiction at every turn, Levy essentially failed to notice that her wife was an alcoholic: “Everywhere we went, we drank: margaritas, gimlets, Prosecco, Manhattans. There was so much to celebrate.” She embarked on a spectacularly destructive affair with a man who hacked her email in an effort to manipulate her. When she returned home from a reporting trip to Mongolia and her wife entered rehab, Levy decided to end her marriage. And she knows full well that her youthful sense that anything was possible carries great risks. “Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary,” she reminds us. “It’s also a symptom of narcissism.”
But the saddest of Levy’s misfortunes is the result of simply terrible, wrenching luck: While on that trip to Mongolia, Levy, who was pregnant, experienced a placental abruption, gave birth prematurely in her hotel room, and got to spend only a few minutes with her son before he died. In a sharp section of the book, Levy explains how people responded to her son’s death:
“Have they figured out what happened yet?” people keep asking me about my own medical defeat. “Yes,” I tell them. “I had bad luck.” That is not what they want to hear. They want to hear that I had a bad obstetrician. Or that I took something you are not supposed to take, or didn’t take something that you are. They want to hear that I neglected to get an ultrasound. Or that I have some kind of rare blood disorder that can be fixed with the right medicine or surgery or iPhone app. They want to know what they have to eat to keep from being me.
There’s been an odd tendency, both in Shane’s nasty read of the book, and in raves, to describe what happened to Levy as a miscarriage. I suspect that choice of words has roots in the same desire to keep Levy’s experience at a manageable distance. The people who actually know her are desperate to attribute her son’s death to a bad choice she made or some sort of treatment they can get access to. And describing her son’s death as a miscarriage abstracts the actual events and the fact that, however briefly, Levy was “somebody’s mother.” Both approaches are an attempt to minimize the terror we feel at the prospect of a situation where neither economic advantage nor virtue and carefulness matter at all.
“Anything seemed possible if you had ingenuity, money, and tenacity,” Levy writes of the worldview that died with her son. “But the body doesn’t play by those rules.”
Leveling the playing field so that everyone has access to the same chances and protections Levy and the girls of “Girls” have is an eminently worthwhile goal, both of public policy and personal practice. But such leveling would simultaneously be extraordinarily difficult to achieve and somewhat limited in effect. If “The Rules Do Not Apply,” “Girls” and other carefully calibrated explorations of “first-world” problems rankle, it may be in part because they serve as a reminder that even if privilege is eliminated, we’ll all be equally vulnerable to fate and our own flawed characters.