Brow Beat

Guys on Girls: “Vagina Panic”

A still of Lena Dunham on Girls (HBO)

David Haglund: Last week, we gave our first impressions of Girls, and the women of Slate responded. This week, they went first. What struck me most reading their exchange was just how rich with good lines and striking moments this episode is. The women chatted at length, for instance, about the amazingly awful sex scene that opens this episode (which is titled “Vagina Panic”)—and yet none of them mentioned the scene’s best line: When Adam, doing his dominating dirty-talk thing, says that in future Hannah has to call him if she wants to touch herself, Hannah quietly replies, “You want me to call you?” I don’t know how Dunham could have more economically and comically expressed the vast gulf between Hannah and Adam’s ideas about their relationship. Also hilarious: When he asks her afterwards if she wants a Gatorade.

And poor Charlie gets his best scene so far, imitating the alpha male asshole Marnie is asking him to become. “Oh, fuckin’ suck it and then lay down and take a nap.”

Then there’s Jessa, played by Jemima Kirke, who shines in this episode largely devoted to her character’s ultimately unnecessary abortion. When her cousin Shoshanna trots out an awful self-help book, Jessa’s reply is not only funny but surprisingly passionate—and shows how different she is from Hannah and Marnie, both of whom we’ve just seen having awkward, unpleasant sex. “Every time I have sex it’s my choice,” she says. “And if I wanted to go out on some dates I would, but I don’t, because they’re for lesbians.”

There’s much more to say, but I don’t want to hog the floor and then lay down and take a nap. So what did you guys think?

Seth Stevenson: Jemima Kirke is a revelation in this episode—and her bar hookup scene continues the show’s interesting distaste for men who are over-the-top respectful and permission-needy. But whereas Marnie suffers Charlie’s good intentions (and then complains about them to Hannah) Jessa takes a more direct approach: When the guy with his hand down her pants asks, “Is this okay?” she orders him to never, ever ask her that again.

A still of Jemima Kirke on Girls (HBO)

Bryan Lowder: Jessa’s brand of studied, cosmopolitan narcissism is the only kind of narcissism I can bear. And as someone who has expressed—and continues to have—mixed feelings about the show, I agree with David that this episode was more compelling. While it focused on the sexual and reproductive anxiety (and comedy) of the female characters, some of the best comic moments were when the guys tried to project or redefine their masculinity. Charlie’s “nap” line is a great example. Maybe he and Adam, those two polar opposites, won’t continue to be such straw men after all.

Dan Kois: This episode showcased Hannah’s occasionally wonderful judgment as well as her usual terrible judgment. For example, she correctly rejected Adam’s offer of orange Gatorade. (The women of Slate believe that Adam’s pedophilia fantasies are a big “That’s unacceptable, ladies,” but I’d argue that so is his shitty taste in Gatorade flavors.) On the other hand, her obsession with AIDS and “the stuff that gets up around the side of condoms” is bizarre and near-pathological—and she completely botched that job interview.

Haglund: That job interview! I thought Mike Birbiglia, the comedian who plays the interviewer, nailed that scene. And I love how it was a rape joke that sunk Hannah—another example of the thematic unity of this episode, which is largely about choosing to have or not to have sex. As L.V. Anderson noted in the ladies’ chat, it begins and ends with Hannah experiencing uncomfortable forms of penetration. Anderson also made an interesting point about the interview: These days, she says, “interviewing often feels like dating.” That hasn’t really been my experience, but it seems plausible. And the Birbiglia character certainly contributes to that atmosphere, with his reference to online dating profiles. What Hannah says is just a comically absurd extension of the awkward behavior prompted by that situation.

Kois: And it speaks to Hannah’s narrow view of the world: If you share a few things in common with her—Brooklyn geography, online dating profiles—you are de facto a peer. Birbiglia’s character encourages that, with his charming jokes and casual mien, until it suddenly becomes clear that he isn’t a peer, he isn’t even a friend, and the whole thing goes to hell.

Speaking of that narrow view of the world: Several writers have written this week about the lack of diversity on the show. It’s a tricky issue—it doesn’t seem at all unrealistic that these four girls would have few nonwhite friends. But if a show hopes to represent a certain world—if it means to be “For Us, By Us”—doesn’t it have a responsibility to broaden its borders to encompass that whole world, not just a tiny sliver of it?

Haglund: The smartest piece I’ve read so far about the show’s dearth of minority characters is by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who says he’s “not very  interested in Lena Dunham reflecting the aspirations of people she may  or may not know,” but rather “in her specific and individual vision.” “If that vision is all-white, then so be it,” he adds. “I don’t think a story-teller can be guilted into making great characters.” He goes on to say that the question to ask is not “Why are there no black women on Girls,” but “How many black show-runners are employed by HBO?”

Stevenson: I think we can be confident that Dunham carefully considered, and then rejected, the idea of having a token non-white Girl. And the non-white women we’ve seen are a startling contrast to the main characters. The Asian “get me a Smart Water” intern in the first episode is too busy kicking ass to wallow in self-reflection. (She knows Photoshop!) And the STD doctor has zero time for Hannah’s indulgent immaturity.

Haglund: But those characters—the overachieving Asian girl, the South Asian doctor—are both stereotypes, really. As was the smiling homeless black man in the first episode. Then again, the main characters are arguably stereotypes as well. And stereotypes are often a key ingredient for comedy.

Stevenson: Do we think the abortion reprieve was a copout? Given Judd Apatow’s involvement in the show, I couldn’t help but recall the “shmashmortion” debate around Knocked Up, when Katherine Heigl’s character basically doesn’t even consider it as an option. Here, Girls has the courage to at least visit the clinic lobby, but maybe not the courage to go inside.

Lowder: Great question—and one that the ladies of Slate touched on in their discussion of Hannah’s STD test. All the anxiety about pregnancy and disease felt to me like a proxy for anxiety about adulthood. Both Hannah and Jessa fear (unnecessarily, it turns out) life-changing events that would force them to grow up quickly. But in the end, AIDS becomes a joke—and the nixed abortion becomes a party. As Hanna Rosin wrote, both women are seeking to “escape the tedious trappings of a young adult life,” but, of course, neither really wants to graduate to that level of responsibility. And I’m a little ambivalent about how “funny” that is. I watched this episode with two other gay guys, and, not to be the humor police, the AIDS joke didn’t play for us.

Stevenson: For Hannah, AIDS is less a disease than an opportunity for drama. And Marnie acknowledges that watching Rent—in which, as Team America puts it, everyone has AIDS—was what lured her to New York. In a weird meta way this all reinforces something I find interesting about the show: Despite the miserable travails of some of these characters, Girls still seems like an aspirational fantasy. There are young women out there for whom this could be the equivalent of Entourage—girls who will interpret Girls like Marnie interpreted Rent, observing all this angsty squalor and saying, “That’s for me! When can I move to Greenpoint?”

Haglund: So far, the only person I’ve seen saying “I want this life!” is Hanna Rosin, actually.

Kois: I don’t know how “funny” we’re supposed to find Hannah’s foolishness about AIDS. Or rather, I think we’re supposed to note that Hannah can make other people’s real tragedies into her trumped-up drama. I found that funny—and very like many people I knew (and/or was) at 24.

Lowder: Dan, that’s probably the clearest statement of the sense of humor that this show seems to demand—and it’s one I might not be able to get into. Many commenters on the show have written about the issue of “privilege.” To my mind, feeling “aspirational” or drama-hungry about AIDS is another example of it. Even the most intense neurotic could only find the fantasy idea of AIDS appealing if he didn’t have to imagine facing the disease without the economic support required to live with it. I don’t mean to be all somber and didactic—tragedy can be funny if done well. But excusing the blindnesses of these characters doesn’t seem that funny to me. All of us are economically privileged, so making fun of ourselves and our friends is easy. But what about viewers for whom it isn’t so cute? (I’ll understand if you all want Debbie Downer to leave the party now…)

Haglund: Don’t leave the party, Bryan. Resistance is good! You just happen to be totally and completely wrong. This show is remarkably clear-eyed about the privilege of its characters. It’s ridiculous that Hannah says she wants to get AIDS. It’s ridiculous that she asked her parents for $1100 a month for two years. We shouldn’t ask her to be smart and knowing about these things; she’s a character, and a plausibly foolish and blinkered one. It’s Lena Dunham, and the others working on the show, who need to be smart and knowing about these things. And they are! But some viewers, who I guess would like the characters to be more “likeable,” criticize the show for the failings of its characters, which gets art in general completely wrong.

Lowder: I totally hear what you’re saying about how to view art, David. And if you all want to discuss the formal elements of the show’s writing and production—both very good—I’m game. But humor and wit involve a different kind of taste, and finding this show’s “foolishness” funny seems to me wrapped up in a certain privileged ability to ignore or gloss over the world surrounding it. Just as Dunham and Co. should be aware of that, so should viewers—and, for me, thinking about those issues suddenly mutes a lot of the “bumbling neurotic” charm. Comparing Girls to a show like GCB (which I enjoy) brings the issue into relief: The former asks to be treated as “art,” or as some sort of cultural touchstone—somehow “real” and “honest”—while the latter is all pink taffeta and real estate porn. I’m engaging with each on the level that I think it demands.

Kois: But who’s excusing those blindnesses? I think those blindnesses complicate the humor in interesting ways. I think most viewers are fully aware of these characters’ privilege—even cut off by her parents, Hannah has a fine safety net to fall into—and therefore the absurdity of Hannah worrying about AIDS, or Marnie throwing “a really beautiful abortion” for Jessa. That awareness packs layers of irony into the dialogue, makes the economic concerns of the show more sharp, and demands that the viewer constantly interrogate himself about the ways he’s complicit. It’s no accident that it took a long time for anyone to complain about the lack of black faces on Sex and the City or on Friends. Viewers of Girls question that because the show encourages that kind of interrogation—indeed, I imagine Hannah Horvath would have a lot to say about the circumscribed world of Girls were she able to cadge a screener off a friend. And then, like a lot of the people viewing it—like me!—she would have to think a little bit about her own circumscribed world.

What’s great about this episode is how much we learn about the central characters. Hannah is the only one of her group of friends who correctly notes Jessa’s anxiety about her impending abortion—their forehead-to-forehead moment of affection after their near-fight on the playground was quite touching. Jessa declares upfront that she’s not “the ladies,” and she fights with Marnie and barely tolerates Shoshanna, but that moment convinced me of real, crucial friendship between all four of the girls. It explained why Marnie puts up with Jessa, why Jessa puts up with Shoshanna, and why everyone puts up with Hannah—these four girls matter to each other. That makes the show something much better than a voice of a generation. It makes it a story, with people I care about.

Stevenson: You’re right about the friendships, Dan. But Jessa isn’t fully playing along. She seems to worry “the ladies” will drag her down and impede her freedom. I can’t imagine her spending any time at all with Shoshanna if she weren’t getting a (free?) place to crash in the bargain. And her relationship with Marnie, so far, consists mainly of arguing over what’s best for Hannah.

Kois: But the tolerance with which they treat Jessa suggests not foolishness on the part of the other three girls, but a deep well of affection springing from past good deeds Jessa’s done for them. I like when the show addresses the characters’ shared pasts in subtle ways (“She’s been obsessed about getting AIDS since she was 10,” Marnie says of Hannah), so I’m not looking for Friends-style flashback episodes, but the more that the show convinces viewers that the girls have a common past, the more we’ll believe in their linked-together presents. On the other hand, we all have friendships (like theirs with Jessa) that—often around age 25—become so exhausting to maintain that we have tough decisions to make. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Girls address that before season’s end.

Lowder: I feel like I’m learning so much about how my mid-20s social development should go from you all—gotta start keeping a checklist.

Stevenson: We’re just getting started. Haglund’s about to break out a self-help book called The Dudes.

Haglund: I know it sounds silly, Seth, but there’s a lot of real wisdom in there.

Stevenson: You’re a dude, Dan’s a dude, Bryan’s a dude… we’re the dudes. But none of you are allowed to eat cupcakes in my bathtub.