pop culture parenthood

How a Panicky Father of Girls Came to Terms With Girls

Photo: Jojo Whilden/Getty Images

Through the entire first season of Girls, I could not tear my eyes away from the screen. This is in large part thanks to the show’s smart writing and well-observed and often painful humor, yes. But there was also a deeper necessity to my fixed gaze: If my eyes were to wander even slightly from the television, they might alight on any of my 7- and 4-year-old daughters’ dress-up clothes, plastic princesses, or other symbols of innocent playtime littered about my TV room. And then a lump the size of an American Girl doll’s head would form in my throat as the inevitable link would be made: In about fifteen years, will my older daughter — who now loves nothing more racy than The Princess Bride — be running around New York, accidentally taking crack or making terrible choices about men? Next thing you know, I’m lying in bed at 2 a.m. Sunday night, staring at the ceiling, convinced that if I just try hard enough, maybe I can find a way to stop the human aging process.

These are not bad young women on Girls, neither cartoonish nighttime-soap villainesses nor writers’ room constructs like the sitcom bitches in apartment 23 or any other address. They feel real, which feels ominous to me. Exaggerated plots of gropey bosses or job-interview rape jokes aside, Hannah and Co.’s general delusions, questionable relationships, and full-hearted emotions are DSM-IV-listed symptoms of being in one’s twenties, which makes it difficult to simply dismiss the show as fiction. It’s real, and it threatens my sense of control: Each member of the central quartet, whether spoiled, lazy, selfish, or neurotic, feels like a perfectly realistic result of a particular type of parenting, be it indulgent, overprotective, or laissez-faire. Hannah, Marnie, Jess, and Shoshanna are each a panic-inducing cautionary tale to a parent easily susceptible to induced panic.

To commiserate about my Girls-sparked anxiety, I contacted Judd Apatow, an executive producer of the series and also the father of two daughters, ages 9 and 14. Surely working on this show would drive such a parent insane; if it were me, I would read every newly delivered script with an increasing suspicion that Lena Dunham was deliberately trying to Gaslight me by putting my worst fears to paper. And yet, for a self-described genetically worry-prone Jew, Apatow had a remarkable equanimity on the subject. What lies ahead for his daughters “terrifies me,” he said. “But I’m trying to stay grounded.”

Grounded? Teach me what you know, sensei. Worrying that one’s children are going to eventually make bad decisions is hardly a novel preoccupation in a father. And yet there is so much more to worry about now. I grew up in a generation in which parents fretted about their child learning about sex and drugs from some misinformed friend or cherished stack of dog-eared pornography. Oh, for the halcyon days of kids smugly discussing the bases over a torn copy of Oui! Now every child has their first computer as an instant textbook to every possible sexual predilection and illicit behavior; before learning about the birds and the bees, they can see videos of people in bee costumes fucking. To counteract or temper the web’s effects, Apatow keeps in constant communication with his daughters. “I think of it as a lifelong assignment to try to be there for my kids,” says Apatow. “You just want them to seek your assistance. Times have changed and you can’t be an uninvolved parent, because there’s too much going on out there, and there’s too much information floating around on social media. If you don’t have a relationship where your kids are wanting to talk to you about it at all, you’re probably in trouble. Anyone who thinks their kids aren’t seeing everything on the Internet is living in a fantasyland. At a very early age, almost every kid is seeing everything you’re praying they will never see.” Apatow’s guide to building confident, smart daughters has a primary rule: “The key is to teach them to be kind, compassionate people — both to others and themselves. And if they value that, they have a much better shot of thriving in the world.”

This was all very valid, and something I work on with my children, even at their young ages. (Some of my eldest daughter’s fellow students seem to be early adopters in social ostracizing — the Muppet Babies of mean girls.) And yet, while this advice was sound, it was not Apatow’s child-rearing tips on communication that really lifted my cloud of Girls-induced worry, but rather something he offhandedly said while discussing Dunham’s creative approach. In explaining her method of mining personal experiences in order to make Girls feel so honest and true, he explained that “Lena will give up everything to write these stories. That’s how we were on Freaks and Geeks. Paul Feig and all of the writers revealed as much as they could about themselves, that’s why those two shows are good.”

This tempered my hyperventilation in two ways: First, it reminded me that the show is a personal vision, and not necessarily about Everygirls. These personality types are not an inevitability. “Girls is about specific types of young women,” he said. “They’re smart and ambitious and also a little bit spoiled, with a sense of self-entitlement; they feel like they’re supposed to do something great and they’re not sure what it is. They also feel like they’re supposed to experience a lot. Not every kid feels that way. I didn’t feel that way. I was more concerned with getting a job, feeding myself.”

And second, turning the focus back to creator and frequent writer-director Dunham jolted me into realizing that instead of focusing on the show itself, I should have been focusing on its credits. I shouldn’t be worried that my daughters may one day stumble through the missteps of Dunham’s fictional creations. Rather, I should be encouraged by the fact that a real woman in her early twenties is creating such an inspired TV series. Girls is the brainchild of a woman with a dauntingly clear vision and an enviably perceptive eye toward her own generation. Her show is not cruel, it is honest and, at heart, mercifully understanding of the pitfalls of life for a certain type of young adult released from the creatively indulgent cocoon of college. To have my daughters grow up with that sort of vision and perception would mean that I had done something right.

And so, next season I will sleep better after every episode of Girls. Or at least spend my awake time in more productive ways, like figuring out how I can get my daughters to age 25 without ever seeing the Internet.

How a Panicky Father Came to Terms With Girls