What HBO's Girls can teach Obama and Romney
What, exactly, is the popular new HBO show Girls about? At face value, a bright idealist named Hannah (played by the show's creator Lena Dunham) who's unprepared to deal with a crappy job market, and who also might be seen as a spoiled, smart WASP who can't relate to 99 percent of America.
But my view? Girls is about the 2012 presidential election.
Of course, it's hard to imagine President Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney watching a TV show about twenty-something girls discussing their sex lives in New York City. So let's make it easier on them. After scrutinizing every episode, I've come up with three political lessons from Girls that the presidential candidates should take to heart.
Lesson one: The health care concerns of women can't be left to jerk boyfriends — or politicians
The look on Hannah's boyfriend's face when she reminds him, in a recent episode, that she always uses condoms, is priceless. Mystified, boyfriend Adam says: "I don't know what it is about me, but girls never ask me to use condoms." Unnerved, Hannah heads to what appears to be Planned Parenthood for a checkup, then finds out that Adam has given her HPV, a common sexually transmitted disease — even though they actually did wind up using a condom.
Hannah visited Planned Parenthood — the same nationwide string of health clinics that Romney recently said he'd "get rid of" if he were president. As CNN noted, "Romney's remark appeared to refer to revoking federal funding for the group.... As president, Romney wouldn't be in the position to 'get rid of' Planned Parenthood because it isn't a government entity." However, according to Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, federally defunding Planned Parenthood would still do plenty of damage. "[Romney] is talking about ending more than three million American women's access to basic preventive health care, which means denying them birth control, cancer screenings, and well-woman exams," Ferrero said.
When Romney talks about cutting federal funding to Planned Parenthood, in reality, he's talking about defunding Hannah's checkup.
Republicans, including Romney, have seized on one particular service that Planned Parenthood provides — abortion — in order to gain support for doing away with the clinics. But there's a common misconception that giving taxpayer dollars to Planned Parenthood funds abortion procedures when, in fact, it's against federal law for taxpayer dollars to be used for abortions except in some emergency cases. According to NPR, 90 percent of the health care services Planned Parenthood provides are preventive screenings. So when Romney talks about cutting federal funding, he's trying to appeal to voters who want to prevent the abortion that Hannah's friend Jessa scheduled at the clinic — but in reality, he'd be defunding Hannah's checkup.
And it's not just Hannah's doctor's appointment that would get the ax: Doing away with Planned Parenthood would also "get rid of" funding for contraception for 2.2 million patients, 1.1 million pregnancy tests, 770,000 pap-smear tests, nearly 750,000 breast exams, and more than 4 million STD tests, including HIV tests.
President Obama appears to have this lesson nailed. In a video posted last month to Planned Parenthood Action Fund's YouTube channel, he said: "Protecting women's health is a mission that stands above politics... Let's be clear here, women are not an interest group." That's something Girls would undoubtedly agree with. As Jessa put it: "I don't like women [or likely, men] telling other women what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it."
Lesson two: Creative girls need creative jobs
In the first episode of Girls, Hannah's parents inform her that, now that she has graduated from college, they will no longer support her financially. With only an unpaid internship on her resume, Hannah is left to join the ranks of jobless kids with liberal arts degrees.
Hannah is a writer. But it's not hard to imagine her finding an outlet for her creativity at a buzzing, free-thinking startup. But the problem, as Douglas Schoen of The Daily Beast puts it, is that "this White House clearly views a path to job creation and a stronger recovery through large companies." And yet, "during downturns, it's start-ups, five years or younger, that generate the bulk of new jobs."
In order for innovative start-ups to have the incentives to provide jobs to creative girls like Hannah, they need clear and consistent direction from the executive branch. According to industry insiders, that's not what they're getting from the Obama administration.
Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association, explains to Politico that "you can't have successful growth companies without a financial mechanism, which helps those emerging companies." And that's a "fundamental disconnect so far in this administration."
Romney likes to claim that new business start-ups have dropped by 100,000 per year since Obama took office. According to PolitiFact, Romney's specific statistic is "problematic," but the number of new business start-ups has in fact been declining during the Obama administration.
Nevertheless, Obama has taken some important steps to court start-ups, like launching the Startup America initiative and signing the JOBS Act, which makes it easier for start-ups to raise money like big businesses. But whether these initiatives will pay off in a big way remains to be seen. We also don't yet know whether Romney has the business sense to provide immutable direction to encourage entrepreneurial growth — but both Obama and Romney would be wise to take a page from Bill Clinton's clear-cut message to the American people: "It's the economy, stupid."
Lesson three: Diversity matters
Dunham was recently forced to confront a growing backlash over the show's all-white central cast — which was made even more apparent by the fact that Girls takes place in culturally diverse New York City. Novelist Trey Ellis said that it's "legitimate to feel disappointed when you think you've been whitewashed (again) out of an American narrative." Jenee Desmond-Harris at The Root pointed out that viewers aren't looking for a "token black girl" either. In other words, the Girls controversy shows that the American public expects their TV screens (not to mention their presidential administrations) to reflect a nuanced reality.
It would be easy to hand this one to President Obama, who has been a trailblazer when it comes to diversifying the federal workforce, and dismiss Romney, who eliminated Massachusetts' 20-year-old Office of Affirmative Action. But that would be closing the dialogue, something Dunham wouldn't like, seeing as she recently confronted the diversity issue head-on on NPR. So instead, I'm going to defer to Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) on this one. He recently told Politico that when it comes to diversity in the federal workforce, "We can always do better."