The XX Factor

Girls on Girls

A still from Girls.
A still from the HBO series Girls

Photograph © 2012 HBO. All rights reserved.

Hanna Rosin: It’s our turn to enlighten the guys of Slate on a few things about Girls (the first episode of which is now online). Let’s start with Adam and his face-down in the dust mites approach to sex. Dan Kois wonders how Adam could be “believably appealing” to a 24-year-old woman. I’m not sure he’s meant to be appealing to anyone other than Hannah, who has an almost Plathian attraction to degradation and self-abuse. Marnie’s word for him is “that animal,” and while Marnie is supposed to be the uptight Charlotte in this quartet of girlfriends, I think most of us would take that approach if one of our friends were hitching their hopes on a DIY deadbeat who says things before sex like “you modern career women … you think you can come in here and talk all that noise.” Am I wrong here? Would any of you follow him home if you met him at a Brooklyn café/bar/co-op?

So what does Hannah see in him? This to me is the most fabulous thing about her. Hannah/Lena Dunham purposely dives into sexual humiliation (there’s more coming in later episodes). And yet she seems mostly unfazed by it. She doesn’t leave his house in tears or send her pitch into xoJane’s “It Happened to Me” column. I get the feeling that her encounters with Adam are just more material, fodder for that memoir of hers that will make her the “voice of our generation.” In that way she is like the female Portnoy, indulging in sexual extremes and forcing us all to watch. (Which makes Adam the male equivalent of the Zipper King’s daughter, a florid prop in her one woman play.) This is what I think is so revolutionary about Lena Dunham. Girls on TV are allowed to be prudish, slutty, hysterical, deranged, but never quite this indulgent and narcissistic. I’m not sure how much I like her or identify with her, as many girl reviewers have) but I do think she’s an amazing creation.

L.V. Anderson: Hanna, I took a different view of the sex scene from you—I don’t think it was meant to be a display of Hannah’s appetite for being humiliated and dominated, but a depiction of the mistakes young men and women make when they’re learning the ropes of sex. First of all, I think we can very easily award the interaction between Adam and Hannah on the couch the distinction of being The Worst Instigation of Anal Sex in the History of the World. And Adam, in his assertiveness, unwittingly reveals his own lack of familiarity with the act he’s instigating. (As any longtime reader—or even superficially acquainted reader—of Savage Love knows, first-time anal sex requires plenty of warming up.) And his comment about Hannah as a “modern career woman” was, I think, a clumsy attempt at dirty talk, not a genuine attempt at denigration. 

Julia Turner: Yeah, I’m with Laura about that sex scene—and I think our disagreement showcases the way Hannah the uncertain character is distinct from Lena Dunham the wunderkind creator. I will be surprised if Hannah maintains her composure about her sexual humiliations at Adam’s hands throughout the season. Lena Dunham wants to expose a general audience to that sort of sex not because it’s good, but because it’s bad, and she wants her audience to understand why girls put themselves through it.

Anderson: Okay, now I have to out myself: I identify enormously with Hannah. I, like Willa Paskin, am thrilled to see a FUBU (“for us, by us”) show on television. A big part of this is that I’m more or less demographically identical to Hannah—the only differences are that I have a job and slightly better taste in men. And though I wouldn’t follow Adam home if I met him in a café/bar/co-op, I might have a few years ago. Surely I can’t be the only one with a history of making dating mistakes? (And I have plenty of faith that, within a few years, Hannah will look back on Adam as nothing but an embarrassing mistake.) 

Rachael Larimore: Maybe you’re right, Hanna, that she sees Adam as mere fodder for her “memoir” (Aside: Am I the only one who found it hilarious and appropriate that her memoir seems to be all of about six pages?) For me, I need to see more before I can decide if Hannah is an “amazing creation” or if her narcissism is the only “there” there. I realize I might not be the show’s target audience—I’m long past my 20s, and I am a Midwestern suburbanite—but the highlight of the episode for me was when Hannah’s mom lost it at the end and started pleading for her “fucking lake house.” 

Anderson: Rachael, for me, the mom was the least realistic part of the pilot. Her cruelty is astonishing to me, from her “No. More. Money” in the restaurant scene to her describing her own daughter as “a major player” in the hotel. The parents were a bit too cartoonishly drawn for my taste.

Rosin: Okay, Laura, here is where the generational divide emerges, for sure. I’m with Rachael and Dan Kois here. I have three children and I too can see a future of having to bankroll their groovy lifestyles one month too many and after 24 years (times three) of the parenting sacrifice I too will want my fucking lake house.

Miriam Krule: Perhaps betraying my generation, I’m on your side here Hanna. Hannah seems content working for free for two years. The economy is bad, but even Adam is supplementing his $800 with something.

Aisha Harris: I think it’s totally plausible and laudable that her parents, particularly her mother, would cut her off like that. As Hannah says, she’s not addicted to pills or having multiple abortions, which is why I completely buy that they would be so harsh. I have no doubt that if Hannah fell to absolute rock bottom, they would help her; my dad has always said, “If it gets so bad that you would even consider stripping (or worse), make sure you call me and I will help you out.”

Larimore: I would never cut off my kids cold-turkey. If I did agree to support them, we would all go in knowing that it was for a limited time and they would have plenty of advance warning so they could start hunting for a job before they were forced to steal the housekeeper’s tip. So yes, that part was farcical. But the generational divide really hit me when Hannah went to her parents’ hotel room and asked not for just another month or two to help her figure out a plan, but for another TWO YEARS of financing. It’s a sense of entitlement that I just cannot relate to.

Rosin: Did any of you love Shoshana like I did? That line of hers, as she stares up at Jessa, “Your skin is so hauntingly beautiful!” Also, I couldn’t tell if her adoration of Sex and the City was Lena Dunham taking a dig at the series or not. In interviews Dunham has said she reveres the show and considers it her model but it’s clear that her whole aesthetic is a rebuke to Carrie’s satin sheets and Manohlo lifestyle.

Anderson: I also love Shoshana. Zosia Mamet is brilliant here; I never really warmed up to her on Mad Men, but her character here is instantly recognizable but a thousand times more lovable than the type that she plays usually is in real life. And I also love the Sex and the City conversation. What I think is so brilliant about the heavy-handed reference is that it works on more than one level—as the boys acknowledged, Girls both borrows the Sex and the City archetype and defies it. But Girls goes beyond merely matching Sex and the City in terms of basic premise (four unmarried white ladies having lots of sex in New York). Girls is working with the same individual character archetypes as Sex and the City.

However, as the conversation between Jessa and Shoshanna reveals, no one fits neatly into any of those boxes—and no one is very good at recognizing which box we match most closely. “You’re definitely like a Carrie, but with like some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair,” Shoshanna tells Jessa, before defining herself as “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.” I don’t know about you guys, but I suspect that Shoshanna may be exaggerating about the existence of her inner, latent Samantha. (Although if she’s not exaggerating, I can’t wait to see it emerge.)

Harris: Am I the only one who thinks Soshana is Gretchen Weiners from Mean Girls? Besides the kind of wide-eyes look she has going on, her pattern of speech—fast, with an occasional drop into a near-whisper meant for comic effect instantly made me think of actress Lacey Chabert. She does not seem like she fits at all within the context of their circle, and I’ll be curious to see where they take her storyline. Jessa I can buy a little more.

Turner: Shoshana was the weak link, I thought. She doesn’t seem like a plausible human being, nor does it seem plausible that she’d latch onto this group so swiftly. She’s the only character in the show who feels like a random punch line generator.

That said, I do believe that Lena Dunham’s professed reverence for Sex and the City is genuine. The best aspects of that show was its depiction of friendship and girltalk, and this show has that in spades. I particularly love the dynamic between Marnie and Hannah: the way Marnie is threatened by the arrival of wild child Jessa; the way Hannah razzes Marnie when she’s too straight-laced. These scenes were the most believable to me, and the most thrilling.

Still, I have never met anyone who unironically wanted to be one of the SATC women. I think most viewers understood it was a fantasy, and I think this show is a loving descendent. But its realism—or attempts thereat—about money are remarkable, not just in a show like this but throughout television, don’t you think?

Anderson: Julia, do you mean to tell me that you’ve never met a young woman who moved to New York in the hopes of reenacting episodes of Sex and the City? I think watching SATC was a formative experience for many, many young woman of my generation, and Girls is the smartest form of backlash against it yet (as diplomatic as Dunham has been about the show’s influence on Girls in interviews): As everyone knows, life in New York is (for the vast majority of noninsanely-rich people) absolutely nothing like the life of Carrie et al. Girls shows what happens when you try to map the SATC ethos onto the real world: It doesn’t go over well.

Turner: Did you guys think this was the “best show on television,” as many critics have claimed? Our male counterparts were divided on that question.

Larimore: The best show on television? Maybe the “best show on television for women in their 20s who majored in English.” I don’t think you need a mass audience to be the best show on television, but it should have some wider appeal.

Krule: Considering how much the show has been written about, I’ve found that I actually enjoy reading about Dunham (and the show) more than watching it. Seeing her at BAM for her “Hey, Girlfriend!” series convinced me that she could really be the voice of our generation, but the show doesn’t have me convinced just yet.

Rosin: It’s so understated in its production value and general scenery that it’s hard to put it in that lofty place. As Hannah would say, or maybe a best show in some medium. I think I’d give it most original show on television for now.

Turner: I did find myself thrilled by how good it is. It’s certainly the most exciting thing I’ve seen on TV in a while. What I liked about it was its wisdom about girls and their bravado and their insecurities. For me, the Hannah/Adam relationship—which our male counterparts found hard to understand—made perfect sense. She’s at the age where she’s not sure whether anyone will ever really love her, or what that would feel like; where it’s exciting to be desired, even by someone who doesn’t reliably show up or text you back (and even though the sex itself isn’t so great for her); and where she hopes she can convince herself that she wants what she has with Adam so that she doesn’t have to stop seeing him. The level of emotional nuance in those scenes is deep—and to boot they are snappy and funny and quick. I’m an official fangirl.

Anderson: Also, I wanted to bring up some of the backlash. Is it shallow and narcissistic for me to like this show because it’s about people who are like me? And is the fact that the characters in the show are white, upper-middle-class, and generally privileged itself a cause for concern? In the guys’ convo, Bryan Lowder wondered “how much the economic privilege on display will appeal to viewers (i.e., the majority of people) who don’t live in such a charmed boho situation.”

Harris: Well, I definitely find the focus of all-white characters to be rather tiresome, but I also am not a fan of the “token minority” either. 

Krule: Was anyone else a bit confused by Hannah’s consumption of bathtub cupcakes? Is that a thing people do that I’m not aware of?

Anderson: Maybe we can add bathtub cupcake consumption to the list of less-than-realistic qualities of the show. Although I kind of liked the way that scene turned a male fantasy on its head: Two naked women in a bathtub, eating cupcakes sounds sexy but is actually not particularly sexy in real life.

Turner: I think the big question—is whether America at large will relate to this portrayal of a New York microcosm that’s less glamorous than the one SATC (or even Friends) put forth. My bet is that they will, because the friendship dynamics do seem universal. But we shall see.

Want more on Girls? Check out what the guys of Slate have to say over on Brow Beat.