‘Brooklyn Girl’: The Selling of a New Type

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Photo: HBO

Lena Dunham once told the New York Times that she doesn't read “airport chick lit, even in a guilty-pleasure way.” So we can only imagine how she’d cringe over a new book series, out this week, called Brooklyn Girls, by Gemma Burgess, a fluffy, feel-good romp about five recently graduated friends and their efforts at finding themselves, all while living together in a Cobble Hill brownstone. The title alone conjures thoughts of Dunham’s Girls — though perhaps in a slightly prettier zipcode.

It’s hard not to see a calculated move by Burgess’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, to capture some of the HBO series' devoted fan base of 5 million, or the future readers of Dunham’s memoirs, for which she received a $3.7 million advance from Random House. But the latest book seems especially contrived since there is nothing about the story’s central character, Pia, that screams Brooklyn — she’s a party girl who gets fired from her PR job after topless photos appear on Facebook and then launches a pink food truck called SkinnyWheels because "I don't want something fattening, and I don't want a sandwich that will send me into a carb coma." (Really?)

Nor is there much about the Brooklyn she inhabits that feels all that Brooklyn. ("Then a cab pulls up next to me. A guy in a suit gets out. He's so good-looking that I'm just jolted out of my misery. Tanned skin, dark hair, the deepest blue eyes I've ever seen and good eyebrows ... He immediately turns to help the woman out of the cab: a brunette as gorgeous as he is, in tight jeans, heels, and a silk top, trailing scarves and bags in that effortlessly messy London way.") Ten years ago the book would have been set in the Lower East Side. Twenty years ago, the Upper East Side. But here we are, with a post-sorority heroine (whose author no doubts hopes will prove to be a lucrative cash cow) situated comfortably just over the bridge — and she just might be as clear a signal as any that the Brooklyn Girl, promulgated and embodied by Dunham, has taken on commercial appeal.

Dunham didn’t create the Brooklyn Girl but she cemented her stereotype into popular consciousness. It’s an archetype that most New Yorkers readily recognize: The well-educated liberal arts grad with a degree in English but no real skill set. Brooklyn Girls wear brown, not black; they go to beer gardens, not lounges or clubs with bottle service; they listen to Spotify, not DJs; they drink bourbon, not scotch. If they diet, it’s under the pretense of healthy eating and frugality; if they exercise, it’s in a park or on a bike. They aspire to have jobs in publishing, not PR. They have artistic temperaments, but think a Pinterest board is the perfect outlet for it; they consume news through Twitter. They live in Brooklyn, supposedly because Manhattan is overpriced. (Not the case in 2013!) But really, they live in Brooklyn because that’s where they can play out their millennial urban agita rituals with others like themselves.

This girl has shown up in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. We’ve read her ruminations on HelloGiggles, and we’ve watched her West Coast dopplegänger in Portlandia, which might as well be Brooklyn. We’ve seen her in the self-help blog-turned-book-turned-soon-to-be-tv-pilot Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) steps (produced by JJ Abrams). And as far as mass culture is concerned, we’ve seen shades of the same girl bubbling up on the major networks: In Fox’s New Girl, and CBS’s Two Broke Girls. The former is set in generic hipsterville USA (uh, Los Angeles) that also might as well be Brooklyn (spacious, neo-industrial loft, unfinished rooftop for impromptu bonding moments, benevolent hobos on the corner) while the latter is set in some bizarro version of Williamsburg (graffiti on the L train?). Because these are network programs, you’ll never see recreational use of Adderall or the string of underemployed, tattooed one night stands or the $12 spent on a jar of artisanal pickles. These Brooklyn Girls wear full faces of makeup and always have on underwear.

It was inevitable that market forces would capitalize on the Brooklyn Girl trend. Along with Burgess’s Brooklyn Girls, there is a Girls-inspired reality series about Greenpoint residents currently in the offing. (Casting agents put a call out for “well-educated and cultured extroverts.”). Though the cover of another buzzy summer book, Iris Has Free Time, screams second generation Sex and the City (it features a girl with long curly hair a la SJP, clad in a blue tutu reminiscent of the opening credits), the jacket tells readers that Iris is really, in essence, just another Brooklyn Girl. (“Whether passed out drunk at The New Yorker where she’s interning; assigning Cliffs Notes when hired to teach humanities at a local college; getting banned from a fleet of Greek Island ferries while on vacation, or trying to piece together the events of yet another puzzling blackout — ‘I prefer to call them pink-outs, because I’m a girl’ — Iris is never short on misadventures.”)

But what’s most ironic (another Brooklyn trope!) is that the girls – Dunham, Liz Meriwhether, Whitney Cummings, Burgess – who’ve created so many of these new Brooklyn Girls are anything but wandering and lost. And neither, for that matter, are many real women now living in Brooklyn. In 2007, a study out of Queens College found that young, childless women in New York and other large urban areas were outearning their male counterparts. Three years later — after the recession had begun — a follow-up study only confirmed the data.  And earlier this year, we learned that women are increasingly the chief breadwinners in their households, which implies that they had some sort of career foundation in their twenties. Given the fact that Brooklyn’s soaring real estate prices have renters shelling out an average $2,400 a month for a studio in Bushwick, it’s hard to believe it’s all parent-financed, or that there aren’t women with real jobs renting in the neighborhood. Isn’t it odd how few representations of that Brooklyn Girl – powerful, independent, employed for profit – there are in pop culture? She's probably too busy working to write the book.

Yael Kohen lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy.