September 2012

Arts & Letters

A Heavy F*cking Situation

By Anna Goldsworthy

The second episode of HBO’s new comedy series Girls begins with a sex scene. “I knew when I found you, you wanted it this way,” pants a pale young man in a half-lit room. “Found me where?” asks the young woman beneath him. There is an amateurism to proceedings, a gonzo-porn awkwardness. “In the street, walking alone. You were a junkie and you were only 11, and you had your fucking Cabbage Patch lunchbox.” As further indignities ensue, the viewer might feel many things – hilarity, outrage, some form of recognition – but is unlikely to become aroused. The young woman, Hannah, remains similarly detached. She might not find this act appealing, but she at least finds it interesting. Because Hannah Horvath, like Lena Dunham, who writes, directs and stars in the series, is that most monstrous of beasts: a writer.

Dunham sustains this tone of ironic detachment throughout the first series of Girls, which charts the lives of four twenty-something women, as they negotiate early adulthood in New York. Dunham’s young women are both self-absorbed and aware of their self-absorption. And they bang up against men (excuse the pun) in all sorts of different ways – taking advantage, being taken advantage of – as they try to figure out what to do with their lives. This might sound like Sex and the City, but it deals with that precedent early, through fan-girl Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet): “I’m definitely like a Carrie at heart, but like sometimes, sometimes Samantha kind of comes out, and then like when I’m at school I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat.” While Dunham maintains she is a fan of the earlier series, Girls subverts the SATC universe in every way. It is, at heart, anti-glamour. Hannah is not interested in finding a rich husband, nor in squealing at stilettos. She is interested in being the subject of her own life; in figuring out adulthood, womanhood, sex; in becoming a writer.

Hannah’s gaze is ironic, but it is not judgemental: she extends forgiveness to herself as well as to her friends. The scene above scores a few sly points against the young men of Generation Porn, but she juxtaposes it immediately with another sex scene, this time between Hannah’s best friend Marnie (Allison Williams) and her suffocating boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott). Charlie loves Marnie too much, so that his touch has begun to remind her of a “weird uncle”. In a desperate bid for personal space, Marnie suggests swivelling around. “But you hate doggy!” says Charlie. “You said it makes you feel like a piggy bank!” “I said it makes me look like a piggy bank,” Marnie snaps back.

How are we supposed to interpret this? Later that episode, Dunham offers us a clue. Shoshanna reads aloud from a dating guide: “Sex from behind is degrading, you deserve someone who wants to look in your beautiful face.” The gorgeous bohemian Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is horrified: “What if I want to feel like I have udders? … I don’t want women telling other women what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it.” In their stumbling way, these girls articulate a possible version of post-feminism: one that does not reject the gains of previous generations, but absorbs them completely, including the freedom to have bad sex.

But Girls is not only about sex. More than anything, it is an extended fantasia on awkwardness (for which sex provides such rich pickings). The awkward girl is a familiar television archetype, but traditionally she also has to be cute or winsome: Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon from 30 Rock; Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine from Seinfeld. Girls shares a producer, Judd Apatow, with the feature film Bridesmaids, which was billed as a female ‘breakthrough’ comedy (as if female humour were only discovered in 2011). There are similarities between Girls and Bridesmaids – the celebration of female friendship, the shock tactics, the dismal sex – but Bridesmaids is crude and formulaic by comparison. And it stars Kristen Wiig, spry and daffy as a modern-day Meg Ryan. There is nothing cute about Dunham. She is childlike in an awkward, uncompromising way: all knowing eyes, shiny forehead, furtive thoughts. She is the intense child that the adults have to pretend to like.

In this sense, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David is a clearer precedent than Carrie Bradshaw. Like David, Dunham’s preferred comedic mode is mortification, and Hannah can always be relied upon for a good faux pas. After establishing rapport during a job interview, she sabotages things with a date-rape joke. Her interviewer’s face contracts into primness: “Jokes about rape, or race, or incest or any of that kind of stuff, it’s not office OK.” (Dunham has a great ear for contemporary platitudes. Defending Adam, her sort-of boyfriend, she says, “When we’re together, he’s so there, and he’s so present.”) But Girls is more complex than Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is a sturdy little machine, constructed to a clear formula, and can be counted on to surprise you in unsurprising ways. The thrill of Girls is that you never quite know where it is going.

Dunham first garnered international attention with her 2010 feature film, Tiny Furniture, shot largely in her family’s Tribeca loft. The film stars Dunham as Aura, alongside her real-life sister, Grace Dunham, playing her sister, and her artist mother, Laurie Simmons, playing her artist mother. And Aura, like Hannah, is a young woman with clear parallels to Dunham. Very little happens; characters are introduced and then disappear. Aura briefly babysits a small boy, and then we never see him again; a possible love interest is introduced, sexlessly shares her bed, and then moves out. This flouting of narrative expectation, in which nothing gets resolved, makes the film feel like one long exposition: a giant pilot episode, perhaps, for the body of work that will follow. (It does indeed share a premise with Girls – the New York adventures of Dunham, a recent college graduate – along with several actors and plotlines.) At the same time, it is a curiously satisfying movie experience, both comic and touching, not least in its celebration of the uncomfortable tenderness between a mother and her adult child.

The half-hour comedy episode is a less forgiving format, and in Girls there is a sense that Dunham’s art has been professionalised. There are deftly interwoven storylines, and a higher wit-to-word ratio. The characters trade insults with Twitter concision: “You look scary to me, like Mickey Mouse without the ears”; “You look like you’re about to put a hex on some popular girls.” Inevitably, aspects of Dunham’s comedy have been broadened; the effect is more slick if less real than Tiny Furniture. Dunham no longer uses her real-life mother but has invented two professor parents from Michigan. The mother (Becky Ann Baker) particularly is one-dimensional: a narrative prop of tough love. More problematically, the hammy Shoshanna seems to have wandered in from another comedy altogether, one with a laugh track. But she does afford the show some telling moments. When she discloses her virginity, Marnie becomes wide-eyed with sympathy: “I don’t know what to say. I mean, I hit a puppy once with my car. I only had my learner’s permit.”

Occasionally, Dunham seems unsure where to go with her material. In the fifth episode, she half-heartedly tries to seduce her older boss: “I am letting you know that it is OK for you to act on this fantasy, because I am gross and so are you.” He becomes more and more baffled as she subsequently threatens to frame him and then sue him; the viewer shares his confusion, and it feels like a missed opportunity. But on the whole, Dunham makes good use of her HBO mandate to shock. When Jessa fails to appear at her appointment for an abortion, Marnie is furious. “How could she ruin the beautiful abortion that you threw?” quips Hannah. It is a line made possible, perhaps, by shock comedian Sarah Silverman, but its context is more complex: Jessa’s clear dismay; Hannah’s uncertainty about how big an issue abortion actually is; Adam’s (surprisingly) clear stance on it – “kind of a heavy fucking situation”.

At the women’s health clinic, Hannah has an STD test. In her anxiety, she launches into a long monologue on the advantages of AIDS: lowered parental expectations, boyfriend guilt. “Maybe I’m actually not scared of AIDS,” she confesses to the gynaecologist. “Maybe I thought I was scared of AIDS, but really what I am is … wanting AIDS.” It is a type of interior monologue familiar from Woody Allen – self-incriminating, neurotic – and yet its context here is radical. In this scene, which concludes the second episode, Hannah lies spread-eagled on an examining table, being probed with a speculum, so that the entire episode is bookended by her naked body.

This portrayal of female bodily reality is the series’ great strength, and has caused yelps from all the expected quarters. Lee Aronsohn, one of the creators of the (unfunny) Two and a Half Men, notoriously announced, “We’re approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation.” (How many decades ago, exactly, did we hit penis saturation?) Of course we see naked women everywhere in popular culture, but they rarely look like this: dimple-bellied, small-breasted, unapologetic. Dunham still has an infant squishiness to her, which makes the sex scenes seem even more shocking, until you recognise that you too have been conditioned by popular culture: as if pneumatic breasts were a prerequisite for onscreen sex. “I think your stomach is funny,” Adam says, as he jiggles Hannah’s tummy. “Maybe I don’t want my body to be funny,” Hannah replies. “Has that ever occurred to you?” And yet Dunham has written her body into this comedy series: sometimes as a funny character, but mostly just as one demanding to be heard. More than Larry David or Woody Allen or any of her comic predecessors, Dunham allows herself nowhere to hide: neither within her interior monologues, nor even in the recesses of her naked body. It is an endpoint of self-revelation made possible, perhaps, by Facebook. All she allows herself is the (fig leaf) protection of the designation ‘fiction’.

In the pilot episode, Hannah begs her parents to support her, saying that “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation.” There is much about these girls that is unmistakably Gen Y: the social networking, the parental coddling, the porn tolerance. Yet Girls also addresses the condition of twenty-somethings in any era. It is a claustrophobic place, the extended adolescence of the young adult: self-regarding, self-enclosed. And why not? One’s self is still a fascinating stranger; every disclosure of identity is endlessly interesting. Dunham portrays this accurately, which is the show’s great strength but also its weakness. There is no sense that a wider world exists beyond the small, entitled sphere of these young women; they rarely speak about anything other than themselves. After Hannah’s confession of AIDS fantasies, her gynaecologist retorts, “You couldn’t pay me enough to be 24 again.” “Well, they’re not paying me at all,” says Hannah.

They are, of course, paying Dunham (who is 26) a lot to be 24, and every feminist part of me exults at this. But I was 24 myself once, for a whole year, and that felt like long enough. Girls is a lot of fun for ten episodes, but I am not sure that I will want to go back for a second season, or whether it might feel like time to grow up.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and a pianist. Her most recent book is Melting Moments, and her most recent album is Trio Through Time.

Cover: September 2012
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