The XX Factor

Girls on Girls: Why Don’t We Ever See Marnie’s Breasts?

A still from Girls. 


Hanna Rosin: The Slate boys—Dan Kois, more specifically, was thrilled by that final Adam masturbation scene in which Hannah “takes charge,” as he put it. And by the narrative arc of the scene, we were pulled along to feel that. Hannah actually “finds her voice,” as Carol Gilligan might say. She banishes the hesitant, ironic Cabbage-Patch girl-hooker of fantasies past and taps into her inner dominatrix. It was thrilling to hear that bossy voice come out of her mouth … and so it took me a couple of days to ask myself, thrilling why, exactly? What did Hannah get out of that encounter? A couple of scenes earlier she was telling people Adam was her boyfriend. And now here she was again, locked into a bit role in his show. I wish Meghan were with us this week to tell me how narrow minded I am, but what do the rest of you say?   

June Thomas: I think that final interaction, when Hannah found her inner dominatrix, is less problematic if you think of Adam (and before him Elijah) as a training boyfriend. In the five episodes we’ve seen so far, Hannah has learned a few things—when not to rehearse OkCupid-type relationship talking points, how best to shed your tights when you’re lying in a prone position—and she’s lost a bit of the desperation that at first seemed so much a part of her relationship with Adam. She’s figuring things out, and while I don’t think she’s ever going to get what she really wants and needs from Adam, at least there’s some evolution happening. The other relationships we saw this week seem horribly stuck in the same patterns and habits they developed at their very beginnings: Charlie taking care of Marnie and her resenting it, Jessa and the dude with the Victorian weightlifter’s mustache having nothing to say to each other but, “Unh, unh, yeah.”

L.V. Anderson: I found the final scene less definitively empowering for Hannah (which is one of the reasons I loved that scene; it was one of the most extraordinary bits of television I’ve ever seen). The power dynamics were always shifting, and it was impossible to tell who was in charge at any given moment. Recall that when Hannah moves to pull up her dress, Adam says, “Pull your shit down. That’s not what this is.” Adam is driving the scene—like they say, it’s the subs who are really in control—and though Hannah is much defter as a sexual humiliator than a sexual humiliatee, some of her attempts are still hilariously bad. (“Twenty dollars. Thirty, because I also want pizza and gum.”)

However, I thought the last line—“Shake my hand”—was perhaps meant to be an indication that Adam thinks of Hannah as an equal, now that she’s shown a propensity for dominating. What did you guys make of that?

Dana Stevens: Laura, you so beautifully describe the roller-coaster power dynamics of the final Hannah/Adam scene that I have nothing to add—except that Adam’s last line before Hanna heads to the bathroom to cry—“That’s on you, kid. I’m done growing”—sounded painfully right. Dunham was a guest on Fresh Air this week—a really excellent interview, with Terry Gross in unusually lively, almost mischievous form—and she mentioned that the Adam storyline is closely based on a particular college boyfriend of hers (obviously the whole show comes from her life, but she seemed to imply that Adam, in particular, is a roman a clef-style copy of a real guy.) Some of the details and dialogue in their scenes together have such a painful specificity they have to have come straight from her journals of those years. I know Adam is all wrong for Hannah, and a selfish pervert, and more damaged than we probably realized from previous episodes, but as played by Adam Driver, I’m half in love with him too.

I have to say #5 was the episode in which Girls grabbed me by the lapel and pulled me into its arms, like Adam did to Hannah last week (though not, it turns out, with the intentions she attributed to him). As of this week’s show, I am officially in love with Girls—not entirely without reservations (no great love is), but I’m so impressed with this show’s humor and intelligence and ability to remain surprising. There are two scenes where we see Hannah mess with men’s heads in this episode—her attempted seduction-turned-threat-turned-extortion of her boss and her at least partly successful extortion of Adam (she does get $100 for her cab, pizza, and gum.) Both scenes, I thought, were jaw-droppingly well-written, alternately shocking and hilarious. In them we see a new side of Hannah, someone who might grow up to be not just a writer but an actress (as the real-life Dunham did)—not just an awkward, disaster-prone schmo (though she’s always also that) but a weirdly brave performance artist who messes with men’s heads just, as she puts it to Adam, “to be an asshole.” 

Rosin: Really, Dana? I felt like while there were incredibly memorable lines and visual set-ups (Hanna uselessly trying to flatten the box, for example) I could see the gears turning on this one. Let’s dissect her scene with the boss for a moment. Clearly this was a practice scene for her later encounter with Adam, right? The education of a dominatrix. But I just couldn’t quite go along with it. A character that says something as funny as “because I am gross and so are you” cannot with a straight face also offer herself to dirty Santa Claus to be fucked. 

Is the answer that Hannah/Lena Dunham does everything for the experience, for, “you know, the story,” as Adam puts it?

Anderson: I could barely watch the scene between Hannah and Rich without putting my hands over my eyes. That scene made me realize how little critical distance I have from the show: I had gotten so used to identifying and empathizing with Hannah that once she did something I disapprove of (proposition her boss), I felt far more personally disappointed than anyone should ever feel about a television show. I’ve basically been watching the show with my nose pressed up against the TV screen—but I’m going to try to back off a few inches at least.

Hanna, I like the idea of the scene as a “practice scene.” Both with Rich and with Adam, we’re supposed to believe that Hannah feels powerless and taken advantage of, right? As cringe-inducing as her come-on to Rich was (complete with hilarious attempt at talking like Joan from Mad Men: “Those files you requested, Rich?”), it makes more emotional sense to me as an attempt at regaining control of her life than as a strained grab at “a story.”

Stevens: Any way I can convince you all that the attempted seduction/extortion of Richard Masur was brilliant precisely because it was so off the rails, so different from what we’ve seen on the show so far? Until a good 2/3 of the way through that scene I thought it might be a fantasy or a dream sequence (which we haven’t seen on the show so far—maybe now that we’ve had a flashback, an exploration of Hannah’s dream life is next?). I started laughing when Hannah dropped the files on his desk with a coy “Plop!” and was on the floor by the time placed his hand on her breast with that breathy “I’m gross, and so are you” (a line that would have worked like a charm on Adam). And her parting line about writing about him one day under his own name harked back to a running theme of the show: How Hannah is determined to turn her own life into art, and how often that gets her in trouble with the people around her.

Rosin: I could almost go all the way with you there, Dana. That scene was very much about Hannah’s misunderstanding of all sorts of porny conventions (the ones which Joan from Mad Men, for example, understands perfectly), and also her misunderstanding of the desires of men. It was so absurd that you have to believe it was intentionally absurd. But still, her reading of social cues was so off the mark as to be autistic. I will reconcile myself to the scene if in later episodes we get similar, off the wall behavior.

Thomas: Hanna, she’s 25! It’s as though office life (weird office life, admittedly) is a really difficult piece of music. She’s learned a few of the notes and most of the notation, but she can’t quite piece it all together yet. As Rich says, she’s got potential, but for the moment some of her attempts to play are resulting in sounds that are hilariously discordant. She probably shouldn’t be playing in public just yet.

Rosin: Fair point, June. I just had a flashback to the skirt I wore regularly to my first job and it was, ahem, workplace discordant. 

Stevens: The failed workplace seduction reminded me of something Louis CK’s character might try on Louie—totally unexpected, wildly inappropriate, and funny as hell.

Anderson: Maybe I just can’t see the workplace-seduction storyline clearly because I’ve never been loved this much.

Thomas: BTW, was anyone else surprised to see Jessa in the college flashback? I had assumed that she had traveled the world rather than spending four years (or three if she’d stayed at home in Britain) in college. (And yes, Hanna, it’s more of my immigration obsession. I mean, was she there on an F-1 visa or as a tourist with a waiver? It changes everything.)

Stevens: Let’s discuss the flashback! A new stylistic shift for the show (though for me, unlike for David Haglund over in the boys’ room, not an unwelcome one). Did you all like seeing the girls at Oberlin’s Galactic Safe Sex party in 2007, Marnie in bangs and a headband, frozen to a pole by pot-brownie paranoia? I appreciated the specificity of what this scene accomplished: a demonstration that the dynamic of Marnie and Charlie’s relationship had been in place from its very first moments (heartbreakingly echoed in the last words he repeats to her before she realizes she has to dump him once and for all: “I’m right here. I’m right here. I’m right here”). And the pathos of the shot of him with his arms around her, comfortingly patting that graffiti-covered pole!

Rosin:  I know I am being dense here, but what exactly was the significance of him patting the pole?

Stevens: No real significance, just a nice visual pun for how all of Charlie’s consolingness never quite lands in the right place.

Anderson: Charlie tries to be compassionate, but his attempts at embracing Marnie’s humanity are met with cold metal, not warm flesh!

Rosin: Why do all flashbacks look like they are happening in the ‘80’s? I half expected Cyndi Lauper to saunter by.

Thomas: That rule is in the same law that says all emails that appear in books have to be in Courier 10.

Rosin: What about the the sex scene between Marnie and Charlie? That’s the one I found hardest to watch. He was like Hannah as an abandoned cat, talking, talking, suffocating the moment with his talking. That said, it was one of the most powerful scenes about female desire I’ve ever scene. Almost always—in movies, in porn, wherever, women get swept away by the moment, even when every hot-blooded woman watching knows that she wouldn’t be. But here, you could watch the desire flicker for one moment in Marnie’s eyes and then drain away. The camera stayed close in until she banged her head. The only equivalent I could think of was in Annie Hall, when Annie is super bored during sex until she smokes pot.

Anderson: Hanna, I agree about the Charlie/Marnie sex scene. Charlie’s frantic repetition of the word “Stay” would send me running, too. Sexual domination: You’re doing it wrong. (More evidence that the Charlie/Marnie sex scenes and the Adam/Hannah sex scenes always play off each other in some way.)

Incidentally, and not particularly relevantly, a male friend pointed out to me that Allison Williams is always clothed—or at least brassiered—during her sex scenes, whereas Lena Dunham’s breasts tend to be bare. He said that this inconsistency interfered with the believability of the show.

Stevens: About Marnie’s lack of nudity on the show (she has makeup sex in a bra and her don’t-break-up-with-me “party dress”!): that may be something that Allison Williams stipulated in her contract, as many actresses do. I don’t mind it as it seems to gibe with her character’s preppy restraint. Of course Hannah is naked more! Hannah is an exhibitionist!

Anderson: Oh, I definitely assumed as much, Dana, although I’m amazed that anyone got a no-nudity clause for a show in which people bone like clockwork. 

Rosin: Right, Allison Williams has her dad to think about, handing out National Magazine Awards while everyone is thinking about his daughter hiking up her dress and ….

Thomas: In this episode, someone (Charlie, perhaps?) said, “People do outgrow each other,” and I was struck again by how amazing it is that Lena Dunham is making this show while she really is 25 rather than 10 or 25 years later looking back on this time of life. I have friends who, 25 years after they were 25, still don’t really understand that. She gets it while she’s living it—and she’s bringing it to the screen in a fun, funny way.

Rosin: June, it was Adam who said that, and he was full of shit, and that’s the amazing thing about Lena Dunham, to have the clarity about the life you’re living and also the confusion, to be definitive and full of shit at the same time.

Stevens: Oh also, if it wasn’t obvious from the fact I haven’t mentioned her so far: I’m kind of over the Jessa storyline. Her flirtation with the babysitting dad isn’t terrible—in a lesser show, it would count as well-written, but when we cut away from Marnie and Hannah’s struggles to hers, I toy with the idea of going to the kitchen for a snack.

Thomas: Yeah, I can’t deal with Jessa until her immigration status is clarified.

Rosin: True about Jessa, except that “Unsmotable” could be the title of the porn movie Hannah is trying to star in.

Read what the guys of Slate thought of this episode over at Brow Beat.