HBO’s new show Girls, now free online, has all the ingredients it needs to be an important work of television: It’s funny, it’s smart and it hums with a thin wire of realism that its viewers can’t escape. From $2,100 per month rent for recent post grads to a character’s $800 per-month allowance from his grandmother, Girls tackles being broke with deft and cringing frankness, starting with the most egregiously accurate portrayal in the pilot episode — that of the unpaid internship.
The main character, creator Lena Dunham’s Hannah, has worked at an unpaid internship with a literary agency for two years at the time of the show’s first episode. An English major who graduated two years previously, Hannah is unceremoniously let go from her internship after her parents cut off her financial support and she can no longer work for free. “I can last in New York three more days,” Hannah tells her friends after her parents rescind their funding of what they call her “groovy” lifestyle. Hannah adds that she can last maybe seven days, if she doesn’t eat lunch.
The biting part of Dunham’s portrayal of Hannah — who is indeed, as Dunham as said, full of self-confidence while void of self-worth — is that the problem she faces is very real. As others have noted, often the only way to break into a field, artistic fields in particular and publishing and journalism especially, is to be an unpaid intern.
Young students and post-grads do this with the only compensation being the ambiguous hope that the position will one day turn into a job. The system is so famously punitive to the interns that Hearst was recently sued for it. This development caused Conde Nast to reform its internship policy, which now offers lucky students a staggering $550 per semester for their work at the publishing giant (in New York City, where that much buys you a sandwich).
Hannah’s unpaid internship gig is played as a gag in the show. When her terrible hook-up-culture-stereotype of a sexual partner hears she’s been fired from her job, he says, “Weren’t you an intern? So they just asked you not to hang out there anymore?” It’s humorous, for the audience, that Hannah is so entitled after not really working for so long. It’s hyperbole to the point of farce, in the world of this comedy, that Hannah asks her parents to support her, because, she tell them, she is “so close to being who you want me to be.”
But Hannah’s dilemma is very real: Over half a million people in the United States work as unpaid interns every year. Many of them end up like Hannah: They can no longer afford to work for free, so they leave the experience with naught more than the vague idea that the experience will help their resume.
In many ways, Hannah is a lucky college grad: She was able to not only earn a position as an unpaid intern, but she also had the resources to stay at that internship for over a year. Young people with parents less generous or fortunate than Hannah don’t even have that recourse to enter fields like publishing, the worst perpetrator of unpaid internships.
While a bit whiny, Hannah isn’t just a pathetic lout who sucks at her parents’ genosity because she’s manipulative and shameless. She is the result of a system that gives skilled, dedicated laborers no compensation for their work — just because there’s a thousand younger laborers who will do it for even less.
By continuing to legitimize a system only available to those who, like Hannah,are supported completely by outside sources, the unpaid intern position limits and stifles the current entering workforce. “I don’t have to work at McDonalds,” Hannah says with a tone of desperation, “I went to college.”
Yet even McDonald’s workers are compensated.
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