Sunday, December 02, 2012

The universal and particular in "Tiny Furniture"

Every so often, some piece of entertainment comes along that so resembles my own biography that I have trouble judging how it might be received by those for whom the material won't be so incredibly familiar. I don't mean 'sitcoms set in New York.' I mean really specific situations, like being the less-appreciated brunette best friend of a universally-admired blonde at a girls' school on the Upper East Side. Or being the only woman and non (astro-) physicist in one's housing situation. ("Gossip Girl" and "The Big Bang Theory," respectively.) It's not that I can't say anything about these shows, just that they get an automatic... something from me. Not necessarily a boost. I often just end up annoyed that I'm watching something so familiar and lose interest. But questions another viewer might have about whichever technicalities are automatically filled in for me, like when you're writing something yourself.

So, "Tiny Furniture." (Spoilers, yes.) Lena Dunham's breakout movie tells the story of a young woman (Aura) who's just graduated from college in the Midwest and moves back home to a posh neighborhood in Manhattan. She doesn't have a job lined up, or a figured-out love life. She has a brief stint in hipster food service. So far, we're also talking about my immediate post-college experience. I moved out and got an office job by that September, started grad school the following year, and had my first date with my now-husband at 23, exactly six years ago today (!). I have not subsequently become a Big Deal ala Dunham (and it's hinted that Aura will do the same), nor was I ever in a position where getting a job or not was optional. My parents are not artists. It's not exactly the same. But I totally arrived back home unsure of everything, annoyed my family by my mere presence, and had that only-in-NY experience of being in this center of ambition and adventure yet living at home, the very antithesis of what the city is supposed to be about.

But I did like the movie, and do think a lot of it is applicable even if the plot doesn't closely match up with your own life. First off, the post-college moment. No matter where you grow up, if you move back home after college, even for a couple weeks, there's an inherent awkwardness to the situation, all the more so if there's no set end date. On the one hand, you're accustomed to thinking of the house/apartment as home, not your parents' home, because when you're a kid, it's not as if you have the option of your own place. On the other, you're used to living life by your own rules, coming and going as you please. (See the second letter here.) It's easy for an adult to look at this and think, how entitled, but if you're at that specific moment in life, you are, I think, genuinely confused. You're not home like you were in high school, or free as you were in the dorm. The trick is to move out, which is what virtually everyone in that situation wants to do approximately five minutes after setting down their luggage. The post-2008 economy complicates things, but that Dunham's character has a friend to move in with and opts to stay living at home is significant because it fits with the broader pattern of this character making the wrong choice at every opportunity. That "home" is a Tribeca loft only matters because you get the sense that Aura confuses her life on paper with the reality. She loves living at home, except that you've never seen anyone as miserable.

Next, the stuff with guys. It's the classic low-self-esteem scenario, made specific by Aura's presence in a very glamorous world, one least likely to be forgiving of a more-than-plain-looking appearance (and this is Aura we're talking about, not Dunham), but cringe-inducing in a more universal way. There are these painful details, like her job, which is to be the hostess at a hip restaurant in Tribeca. Except that instead of a greeter (a job once held in that neighborhood, I might add, by the girl generally recognized as best-looking in my high school class), she's a day hostess, which means answering phones and not being seen.

We're used to assuming, in movies and life, that an early-20-something woman spends much of her time fending off offers for sex. Maybe there are guys who won't commit, but there's at least a certain affirmation that these women are desirable. The problems we hear about women of this set experiencing are sexual assault and its lesser cousin, street harassment. All that these young women ask is to be able to walk down the street in a miniskirt in peace. But Aura is forever offering herself up, dolling herself up, and getting shot down in new and more humiliating ways. One guy moves in with her, even shares her bed, and they never so much as kiss. Another stands her up, and it wasn't even for a date, exactly, so much as a drug deal in which she wasn't even going to get paid. That same guy later on confesses to having cheated on his girlfriend, then quickly tells her he won't sleep with her because he still lives with his girlfriend. When he finally capitulates, further humiliation (and danger) ensues. It is so, so bleak, and a kind of bleak we rarely hear about (too much male attention is also bleak, but a more familiar bleak). It's in no way mitigated by the fact that Aura comes from privilege.


PG said...

The smoking daughter in the NYT letter comes off as awful not because she's somehow role-confused but because she is just rude and, yes, entitled.

I am paying rent to a real, non-related-party landlord, and I can't smoke in my apartment because the landlord forbids it. If I were to smoke there, it would be a breach of contract with legal and financial repercussions. The letter writer's daughter seems to feel entitled to behavior that she wouldn't be able to get away with in the real world.

It's different when parents are imposing rules on their adult children that no one else in the world would be imposing on any adult, e.g. dictating with whom she can spend time or what she should eat. But there are plenty of places where you pay rent yet must follow rules about smoking, guests, etc., so it seems to me quite reasonable for your unpaid landlords, in the form of your parents, to be able to make similar rules without this being treated as infantilizing you. If anything, refusing to follow reasonable rules of a residency seems a sign of immaturity rather than adulthood.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Again, PG, too letter-of-the-law. I linked to this because of the theme, not to celebrate it. I totally agree that the smoking-daughter letter is weird, but mostly because it's kind of a known thing these days that a) people don't want to rent apts where someone is/was smoking, and b) everyone's health is potentially impacted when someone smokes indoors. And as you say, this is a perfectly normal thing for landlords these days to request, and something the daughter might well be dealing with in a regular living situation. Anyway, I interpreted this less as the daughter being entitled than the daughter being seriously troubled. Why exactly can't she go outside to smoke? Maybe she's not leaving her room a heck of a lot.

But if we look at the broader issues here, the thing is, if you're an adult, you're used to making your own choices and living with them. I mean, take the less-dramatic example of mess (not filth, not overflowing ashtrays) in one's own bedroom. Or keeping odd hours (on weekends, or depending the line of work, in general). It's clear enough that landlords/roommates are going to demand fewer, or at least different things than would one's own parents. Also, some people who might be totally reasonable with friends/strangers might well fall into old childhood habits chore-wise when in those surroundings.

PG said...

Anyway, I interpreted this less as the daughter being entitled than the daughter being seriously troubled. Why exactly can't she go outside to smoke? Maybe she's not leaving her room a heck of a lot.

I didn't get that at all from the letter -- it seemed much more that she was smoking in her room because she wanted to. I mean, having to go outside to smoke is often inconvenient. My brother-in-law is a smoker and doesn't have such a bad time with it in Arizona, but when he visited NYC in winter it was a real pain to have to stand in the literally freezing cold. Of course, not being entitled and immature, as a guest he did it with perfectly good grace and never even asked if he could smoke inside.

I guess based on my brief stints of living at home since high school (I don't think ever for more than two months at a time), even parents who were pretty strict with child-rearing usually don't expect to assert that same level of control over an adult. They didn't try to dictate the hours I kept, whether/ when I went out, etc.

If you're not paying rent as an adult, then you're someone's guest, and those standards of cleanliness/ helpfulness are the ones that apply. I say that having lived last year for a couple months each with my sister and then with my brother-in-law, rent-free -- I would have felt like I was behaving like a spoiled, entitled brat if I hadn't kept the room decently clean and been helping out with cooking and housework. But of course neither of them was interested in telling me what to do beyond that.

I don't see why it should be deemed at all socially acceptable to treat one's parents worse than one would treat other people. There's a common psychological tendency to treat people worse when you feel sure that they will never abandon you, but its commonality doesn't make it non-condemnable.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

OK, I'm not clear what you're arguing against. Did I say that we should praise adults who move back home and act like bratty teenagers? That Aura is a character viewers should emulate? That parents ought to put up with this kind of behavior? No - understandable isn't excusable. It takes a moment, when you're used to home being home, to realize you're suddenly a guest. It's possible to have felt this - I certainly have, and other than that summer after college, I never moved back home - without having actually done anything particularly bratty.

And in terms of treating parents differently - different kids-as-in-children are expected to do different chores. With roommates, it's obvious you have to pitch in, to sort out some arrangement about cleaning and the like. But if you've had 18 years of your parents doing whichever thing for you, maybe it's not obvious on day one that because you've graduated from college, or are 22, or whichever other milestone, you now do whichever chore.

Anyway, the point, to reiterate, is not that this is behavior that should be celebrated. Just that the basic idea behind not knowing what to make of your situation when you've just arrived home from college isn't so out-there, and is something it's entirely possible to identify with, even if you personally would never - as Aura does - drink X bottles of your mother's wine and have a guy you're not even sleeping with move into your childhood bedroom and sleep in your mother's bed.

PG said...

It's easy for an adult to look at this and think, how entitled, but if you're at that specific moment in life, you are, I think, genuinely confused.

That's what I'm arguing against, the idea that it's somehow too "easy" to think "how entitled," that thinking that indicates some failure to truly grapple with the mindset of the recent graduate. I didn't claim that you're saying the behavior should be celebrated, only that you seem disinclined to condemn it.

a guy you're not even sleeping with

Not quite following how this affects the propriety of having him move in.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


All I can do is repeat: understand, not excuse. I don't know what part of that I wasn't clear on. There's obviously a spectrum, from feeling kind of lost at graduation to full-on bratty takeover of the parental abode. If you've been on one end of it, you might have more sympathy for the other, even if you essentially sympathize with the parents (while, you know, also maybe blaming them for the way they raised their kid).