FOR ME, A CONSTANT issue with writing about Girls is the temptation, or the obligation, or the temptation to feel obligated to write about what people write about when they write about Girls. That is, it’s hard not to feel, especially after an episode so postmodern in its auto-critique, that we need to talk about race here. Last week, I spoke about the opening slug Dunham gave to her critics while riding Donald Glover in the cold open. This week, we’re faced with the idea that Glover may be gone from the show, that his presence was introduced in order to prompt the break-up argument we got last night. In other words, it’s possible Sandy was introduced just so Dunham could address her character’s narrow world-view. But race, I think, is only one of a complex of issues Hannah Horvath gets wrong.
Here, I defer to Irin Carmon’s brilliant write-up of “I Get Ideas” at Salon. In this piece, Carmon compares Dunham’s casting of Glover to the GOP tactic of “ideological drift,” adapting an opposing belief in service of one’s own world-view. We can talk about this as we go on this week, but the less headliney takeaway from Carmon’s argument was the suggestion that Girls’s insularity was not an “accident,” but rather a “deliberate representational” choice. In other words, Girls is so white because that’s what the show is about. It’s about the monochrome tunnel-vision of a group of people. This is something of a familiar defense of the show, but I’d like to talk about it this week in context of what the show has felt like since the start of the new season. I also want to suggest that the general mood of the show is telling us something about a problem of which race is only a — now very visible — part. That is, I want to talk about how awful this show makes me feel.
You Dear Televisioneers may disagree with me about this, but, over the past two episodes, I have been catching an extraordinarily negative vibe from Girls. Last season, obviously, we talked about Hannah’s monstrosity, the horror movie aesthetic of the series in general, and the unlikability of the characters. But Hannah, at that point, was a naïve subject making bad mistakes. It was something of a parody of the cheery let-it-roll-off-your-back New York of Sex and the City, but, like that show, there was no doubt that, fundamentally, Hannah and her friends were creatures of light, wayward pilgrims on the rocky path to redemption. All the mistakes were accidents (which is how Dunham referred to the cast’s lack of diversity itself), and the show felt like a whimsical, knowing ode to the poor decisions of youth. Wrong, but understandable. Romantically despicable.
This season, the mistakes are feeling less accidental, the starry-eyed neo-Bradshawism turning sour. Marnie chose to sleep with Elijah — Dunham made sure to show her coming to that decision — and Elijah is right to point out how catastrophic this is in terms of Marnie and Hannah. Writing diary entries about your friend’s boyfriend and acting selfishly were banal, venal offenses, and Marnie has knowingly committed a cardinal sin. Hannah picks her fight with Sandy, and, despite the cover of the accidental or the unintentional, she makes it about race, makes it, essentially, unrecoverable. It’s a testament to her own self-deception that she takes so much offense at the notion that she might not be post-racial. Hannah masks a selfish decision with a grubby ideological stand. And finally, Hannah chooses to degrade Marnie’s new job, to drive a wedge further between them, not only glorifying her own questionable decisions but painting Marnie’s as vain and somehow unethical. (And, past that, it shows Hannah’s ignorance about the fact that Marnie’s current experience is arguably more emotionally complex and interesting than her own.) These are not spats and quibbles — they’re torpedoes aimed at the structuring elements of the series. If last season was about trying to “build” a life on the foundation of mistakes or unfortunate accidents, it seems this season is about the intentional — if deceptively reasoned — decision to destroy.
One of the most poignant elements of Tiny Furniture, I thought, was Dunham’s depiction of the slow dissolution of her character’s best-friendship with her college roommate. But that story had a melancholy organic inevitability. Growing up, moving on. Hannah’s refusal to grow up, or, rather, her decision to grow up badly on Girls, is not just allowing her to drift away from Marnie — it’s actively, jarringly tearing them asunder. What if this show is so much a deconstruction of Sex and the City that it is willing to destroy the foursome at its center? In other words, what if the irony of Girls, down to that universal, plural title, is that it is not only not universal, it’s not even plural either?
So far, the show’s treatment of race — up to and including this past episode — has been the most publicly visible portent of Hannah’s possible demise. (Aside from those scissors aimed at her face.) We speculate about Dunham’s racial consciousness, but Hannah’s is verifiably wrong, myopic, corrosive. I think there’s a possibility that race is only the tip of the iceberg here. Bad sex, bad class politics, bad friendship. Lena Dunham’s cheery, wunderkind optimism as a public figure belies the fact that she has created a show about possibilities for redemption set amidst the rot, the social and intellectual limitations of people who intentionally limit themselves socially and intellectually. Last week Jenni Konner suggested this season is about Hannah getting what she wants. Macbeth is also about getting what you want, so is Faust, and so are Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Homeland. This isn’t the first time we’ve called Hannah a monster or an anti-hero. For me, though, it’s the first time I’ve felt the show is ready and willing to leave Hannah totally alone. If Girls is about a person trying, as Hannah says in the pilot, to “become who [she] is,” it might also be the tragedy of a person not trying to be better than that.
Really? Et al?
“THIS IS WHAT it’s like when the hunt is over.” So says Jessa in the second episode of Girls, in one of several left hooks to Hannah as they sit on the grass surrounded by Thomas John’s “gift” of three puppies. By the end of that scene I felt like even I’d been pummeled. Phil, you asked whether this show is “so much a deconstruction of Sex and the City that it is willing to destroy the foursome at its center?” It’s a fair question; is feeling awful after watching Girls the new normal?
I remarked last week that the Girls had almost no scenes together. That changed this week, but the change only intensifies your sense (which I share) that, insofar as the season so far has a theme, it’s the decline of the central friendships. Marvelous headstrong Jessa, now married and tattooed, has become more canvas than painter (that painting! that pose!). She has so entirely absorbed Thomas John’s unreflective approach to life (“That looks like a primitive tiger?” “I didn’t ask!”) that she pathologizes Hannah when the latter asks about her sudden marriage. “Yeah, well, you tend to overthink things, and that’s an issue for you,” Jessa replies. Everything that was once open about Jessa is walled off, and every subject Hannah raises — every olive branch of intimacy, tremulously held out — is reflected back at her with judgment and disdain. I don’t mean that this is exactly new. Jessa has always had the ability and the desire to wither, but what made her condescension tolerable was affection. That’s missing now, and its absence is palpable; if Jessa can only paint things she hates, she should really do Hannah’s (or is it Dannah’s?) portrait.
Perhaps to mirror all these badly lipsticked relationships, this episode brims with bad art: Adam’s songs, Jessa’s painting, the tiger tattoos, Hannah’s essay. Only Shoshanna and Ray transcend ugliness as they imagine each other as ideal, even artistic, pig-washers.
On the subject of Sandy, isn’t it fascinating that the only sympathetic figure in this episode is Republican? And that everyone else uses their politics (or their aesthetics, which they seem to think are the same thing) as a flimsy excuse to commit social crimes? The worst offender was obviously Adam, whose speech about his “manhood” and not “letting” Hannah respect her resolve was both darkly funny and incredibly threatening. That scene was wonderfully intense, and Hannah’s insistent pushing him was really powerful theater. The abortive 911 call was the punchline that scene needed to save it from becoming genuinely dramatic, but it got close, and it was good stuff.
Speaking of breakups, as dark as Hannah’s breakup with Sandy was, it seems to me that her unbreakup with Elijah is even darker. Up until now, I’ve thought of Elijah as a Marnie replacement, which makes the platonic sex triangle between them all the stranger. But it occurred to me, watching this episode, that Elijah is also a new and lesser Jessa — glamorous, self-centered, but capable of sudden displays of extraordinary tenderness; how many of us have wanted someone to stroke us and call us a sad limp little glowworm? And yet he has always been — and remains — backstabbing and insincere (“Elijah was right!” George said when he was drunk. “You are a cunt!”). So far, none of Elijah’s advice to Hannah has been based on her wellbeing — he thinks of his attention as currency and deploys it strategically. (“I don’t think he’ll murder you,” he says, drawing Hannah’s attention back to her stalker when she wonders why George ended things.)
Of the episode’s many dark moments, I think the darkest is when Hannah pretends she’s broken up with Sandy for altruistic reasons (“Your rights happened, and your rights happened,” she says. “I can’t be with someone who’s not an ally to gays and women”) and Marnie and Elijah both meekly say, “Thank you.” That moment shows how completely the friendships have collapsed. Hannah’s redeeming quality — a certain kind of radical honesty — is compromised this season, and her friends are similarly afflicted. Gone are the harsh exchanges that made Marnie and Hannah’s friendship interesting (and strong). Instead, Marnie’s allowed herself to be persuaded by Elijah’s off-putting protective instinct towards Hannah (“she is thin-skinned like a little baby”) which, like Hannah’s newfound passion for politics, is incredibly self-serving. Instead of confrontation and support between the friends, there’s courtesy and deference — and worse, pity. That scene between Marnie and Hannah where each looks with contempt at the other, sure that she at least hasn’t sold out — whew.
Life is never going to get any better than this for you,
WELL, I’M FEELING a little out of tune right now, because I found “I Get Ideas” extremely watchable and funny: it didn’t make me feel awful, certainly, and it was the rare episode where none of the characters actively irritated or alienated me. (Even Jessa, for once. The presence of puppies, admittedly, helped.) Phil and Lili, you’re both right that this season is (already) undercutting whatever “structuring elements,” as Phil nicely puts it, existed in Season 1; “insofar as the season so far has a theme,” says Lili (a bit prematurely?), “it’s the decline of the central friendships.” But I don’t know if friendship was ever exactly at the center of Girls, although it’s certainly a running theme. Part of its commitment to showing real-time maturation is the extremely high probability that the protagonists are going to outgrow each other, and that they will soon function in each other’s lives only as obstacles, or obligations, or cautionary tales. This isn’t Golden Girls: Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shosh will not (necessarily) travel down the road and back again.
What’s unusual about the show is that it seems to be attempting a four-way Bildungsroman — each of the Girls will take their own coming-of-age lumps, and emerge forever changed — without providing any reassurance that the coherence of the original community will be preserved. There is no equivalent to the storyline-unifying voiceover that Sex and the City popularized (and that is now an invariable feature of shows like Modern Family). It’s almost as if, rather than encouraging us to think of them as a unit, the show is forcing us to take sides, to choose one Girl over the others. Phil nails this when he asks “if the irony of Girls … is that it is not only not universal, it’s not even plural.” To me, though, this tendency to fracture isn’t sad or scary; it’s what I’ve liked about the show from the beginning. (I almost wonder whether the third season of Girls should adopt the tactic of the forthcoming Arrested Development Netflix episodes, following each character separately, without reference to each other. Or else like Kiss in 1978: four separate solo albums!)
Hannah and Sandy (and Hannah and Adam) provided the obvious center of gravity to this episode, but again, as in last week’s premiere, I found myself more intrigued by what was going on with Marnie. The most rigid and inflexible, and in many ways the dullest of the show’s main characters last season, she’s no more likable but a lot more interesting: last episode, she had impulsive sex with Elijah; this time, she impulsively takes advice from Shoshanna, of all people, and becomes a hostess. Alison Williams is incredibly good, I think, at playing a woman who thought she knew exactly what she wants and is realizing that it’s unattainable; in many ways, she’s repeating Hannah’s arc from last season, watching the reality principle kick in and having to sacrifice (and even, as Hannah puts it, to “cash in on her sexuality”) for the sake of survival.
Finally, a note about Donald Glover (talk about fractured Community!), and Irin Carmon’s provocative “ideological drift” reading: I agree that there’s something a bit pat — and overreaching — about making Sandy a black Republican; much like the decision, which we discussed last season, to make Hannah be from Michigan, it’s a rare example of the show striking a wrong note. Otherwise, though, I thought the fight scene between Glover and Dunham was pretty great: it perfectly captured the way real-life arguments slip and slide between political principles, aesthetic judgments (things should, or shouldn’t, happen in essays), unintentional silliness (Hannah’s ridiculous Missy Elliott moment), cruelty (her blue balls remark), and total irrelevance (the fateful Death Row statistic). Hannah is, clearly, floundering (“I do not feel good about this conversation” was my favorite line of the episode) but I don’t think I can agree with Phil that Hannah’s “racial consciousness … is verifiably wrong, myopic, corrosive.” For one thing, we’d have to accept that this scene really reflects her racial consciousness, and not just her poor arguing skills. One thing I like about the way Dunham and her collaborators (in the case of this episode, Jenni Konner) write Hannah is that she makes good points one moment — the line, quoted by Carmon, about Sandy regarding all white women as “one big blobby mass,” for instance — and spouts total nonsense the next. Hannah’s real level of intelligence — like her real ability as an artist — is something Dunham cannily avoids letting us precisely gauge; sometimes she seems to be dumbing herself down, at others trying too hard. Lili’s right that “I Get Ideas,” like many an episode of this show, “brim[med] with bad art” — and with bad arguments and bad ideas, too, I might add. But there weren’t only bad ones. You take the good, you take the bad…
Wait, wrong show again.
Still on Hotmail,
I LOVED Hannah’s response this episode to “flip it and reverse it.” The line occurs near the end of an argument with Sandy where he accuses her of racism, prompting Hannah, in racist form, to emphasize her post-racism. Flip it and reverse it, because she never even saw Sandy as black, so who’s racist now? (Hannah is of the racist strand that thinks white people can be potential subjects of racism.) Faced with accusations of being myopic, Dunham’s character counters with evasive self-defensiveness, which simply amounts to even more myopia. In justifying her break up with Sandy to Elijah and Marnie, she brings up women’s and gay rights, while disregarding the possibility that a black Republican might be the source of greatest cognitive dissonance. It’s a good joke.
If Girls concerns itself with how art can be mimetic of life, then “flip it and reverse it” seems indicative of an attitude in Dunham as much as in Hannah. Further, if we accept this mimesis so far as to see Hannah as a reflection of Dunham (or vice versa), then this line offers a near perfect script for meta-analysis. During the start of scene between Sandy and Hannah, I cringed at how it hewed to the logic of a cultural studies text written for liberal arts college students and, possibly, by one. It’s a trap; by the end, I was laughing.
The cultural studies essay goes like that: Girls itself is Dunham’s long form essay, which she meant “for everyone,” only to find that, in the opinion of many viewers, “there wasn’t really anything going on.” Unlike Dunham, though, Hannah doesn’t respond with measured statements about how she’d like, in future, for her art to address those who currently felt slighted by its content. Instead, Girls makes it even more about Hannah’s self-involvement, and by virtue of poking fun at Dunham’s own politic responses to the race and class criticisms from season one. As she says to Sandy: “this actually opens up a dialogue about my work, the same kind of dialogue we've had about your political beliefs.” The line contains multiple moves where Dunham holds Hannah, herself, and, finally, her audience all complicit. Flip it and reverse it: it’s a good joke.
My particular glee to Hannah’s insubstantial Missy-Elliot-influenced comeback emerges from how insubstantial race-related critiques of Girls have been. It seems obvious that Dunham would have little to say about experiences of racism in America, but the shock of white (and POC) writers in finding that Dunham had practically nothing to say about race says, at least, something about their misconceptions regarding the state of racism in 2013. Hannah and Sandy’s dissembling conversation about race seems only as real as how much the realities of racial influences underwrite the conversation, but are never stated outright. As Phil writes, “race, I think, is only one of a complex of issues Hannah Horvath gets wrong.” Similarly, Judy Berman implores us to “stop considering Dunham's case in isolation.” What’s more, perhaps we could stop considering race in isolation. As yet, what people usually write when they write about Girls is almost enough to put one off Girls.
Dear TV, thank you for not taking the auto-criticism bait so grandly dangled before us in this episode. Lili, what happens when the girls put their thing down and find mirrored back to them only “bad art: Adam’s songs, Jessa’s painting, the tiger tattoos, Hannah’s essay”? Is Girls testing their audience’s ability to be duped? Does Girls hate its viewers as much as it hates its characters? Is this a critique of nepotism? Girls seems to breed auto-criticism for a certain set that bought into the idea that a voice was speaking to and for them, and the tricky part of all auto-criticism is knowing when to stop.
Dear TV, it’s true: the girls are so emphatically terrible in this episode that we wonder if there’s perhaps been some emotional backsliding since season one. But as I said to a friend about our despicable characters: “Sometimes I run, sometimes I hide, y’know? We’re not just incrementally becoming a better person with each experience.” To which she responded, appropriately, “Sometimes I’m scared of you.” Fear breeds self-consciousness and, aside from Marnie, the girls have less of both this season.
As Evan suggested, the girls are going through separate Bildungs, but while Shoshana still largely slips back to function as comedic effect (how quickly her tortured relationship with femininity and feminism dissolves from one episode to the next), Marnie’s struggle with her own femininity and sexuality has followed a startlingly believable and consistent path from the start. Each time a character notes Marnie’s physical appearance (her personality, her lost expression, her out-of-placeness besides), we see in her response an attempt to come to terms with what an awareness of beauty means. The visual medium allows an artist to explore the possibilities of female interiority in such an explicit way. It also makes sense that Marnie and Elijah would find sympathy and even identification in one another’s company. I hope their half-confused, half-contentious secret relationship stays secret just a while longer. Bad sex can breed good art, and while Marnie has tried to curate it (to little success), she hasn’t tried to make any of her own yet.
Painting Thomas John on a large canvas in their spacious apartment, Jessa mourns over her own bad art. No longer running and no longer scared, the clichés of puppies and fedoras have infiltrated her aesthetic environment. Without hate or apprehension, there arises a new threat that we might get complacent with (the products of) our lives. For Jessa and Hannah, their lives, themselves, have so far amounted to their art: “If he’s not reading your essays, he’s not reading you.” Slowly, I begin to wonder if Thomas John is the sanest one here: “I’m always impressed by what you do with, y’know, what you’ve got.”
Is it more complicated than that?