Why Is the Sex on HBO’s Girls Such a Drag?

The show’s skittishness about sex is just old-fashioned moralism.

Lena Dunham in Girls
Lena Dunham in HBO’s Girls

© Jojo Whilden/HBO. All rights reserved.

Note: This article contains spoilers.

One refrain in the rhapsodic critical reception to HBO’s new show Girls is about how “real” the show is. Girls seems to have successfully cast itself as a younger, less glamorized version of Sex in the City, and critics seem to be celebrating that refusal of glamour, that clever comic undermining of it. The Los Angeles Times tells us, for instance, that “sexual realism is central to ‘Girls.’ ” But is it realism or simply another, more fashionable kind of fantasy?

A breathless piece in New York magazine also raved about how “real” the show is, with “an aesthetic that’s raw and bruised, not aspirational.” But of course it’s useful to remember that a “raw and bruised” aesthetic is as much of an aesthetic as anything else; not to mention that “raw and bruised” in the context of well-loved college graduates floating around Greenpoint may just mean that Lena Dunham is a little chubbier than the women we usually see in sex scenes on television.

And does the “raw and bruised aesthetic” everyone seems to admire mostly come down to the chronicling of bad sex? One wonders if the sexual experiences in Girls are not a bit darker or more awful or embarrassing than those of many girls actually running amok in New York City. Is sex always as unfun or awkward as it is on the show? In the very first episodes, one character, in the words of another, gets “pregnant after having sex with this weird foreigner” and would have had to have an abortion if she hadn’t conveniently miscarried the afternoon of her appointment; another girl who has only had sex with two and a half men—and religiously uses condoms—finds out she has HPV; another character is a virgin, and the other is bored out of her mind having sex with her sweet but overly sensitive long-term boyfriend.

Is this “realism” or an old-fashioned moralism very sleekly packaged for a new age? This seems a bit like the kind of “realism” that leads flirts like Henry James’ Daisy Miller or Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson to meet bad ends for their reckless and loose ways. And I find it a little far-fetched that sometime, somewhere, there is not a 24-year-old girl who goes home with someone after a party and has just kind of boringly, ordinarily  fun sex, that that too isn’t “real.”  

Lena Dunham’s very appealing character, Hannah, is fearful and skittish and a little judgmental about sex. “I have very little sympathy for people who don’t use condoms,” she says at one point, and the show seems to have little sympathy for those characters as well. One sees Hannah constantly wanting to talk or analyze or reflect during sex, to the point where she is saying—while she is having sex—that she might consider trying anal sex but would need to talk about it a little bit more, and asking if she should move more, or stay like she was, and one is just a tiny bit on the terrible boyfriend’s side when he says, “let’s play the quiet game.”

Awkwardness may have more comic potential, it may be more interesting or fruitful to film in certain ways, but it also represents its own kind of stylized evasion. If there is in Girls an implied critique of Sex in the City for depicting women having sex in $100 bras all the time, for romanticizing sex, this kind of comic deflation represents its own kind of distancing from the usual truth of these things, which surely involves a little more erotic investment than is being copped to here.

In the New York Times Dunham recounts a telling moment with Judd Apatow when she is filming one of the awkward sex scenes: “He said, ‘I just want one more where you look like you’re enjoying it a little more. We’re going to need that.’ I said, ‘I did enjoy it!’ He said, ‘Lena, you look like you’re being murdered.’ ”

It is undoubtedly cooler for certain generations to take an ironic stance to sex, and so awkwardness and humiliation and misery and disconnect are cooler, in their exquisitely comic way, than just, say, having an OK sexual experience. Lena Dunham’s stylized celebrations of awkwardness, charming as they may be, are probably no more “realistic” or indicative of a general zeitgeist, than a scene where someone is actually into sex, and not just whimsically observing how ridiculous it is. Critics are calling Dunham brave and revolutionary, but might it actually be braver, or more revolutionary, to portray sex as sometimes without dire consequence, or not totally absurd? To mingle the comic with a deeper investment, the bad parts with the fun parts?