There are many reasons to love Lena Dunham’s HBO television show Girls, and some of them have nothing to do with sex, but I’m going to begin with the sex scene in the second episode that most critics have mentioned and described with some amount of repugnance or lament. It’s one of the most complicated and intelligent sex scenes I’ve seen. The fact that it’s part of a funny, winsome, half-hour television show makes it all the more astonishing and exhilarating a thing to see. In reviews and profiles of Dunham, journalists, most of them admirers of the show, have broadly characterized what’s happening in the scene as an example of “bad” sex—not mutually satisfying, awkward, degrading, distasteful. This is not necessarily untrue, but it is a limited and literal reading, a set of familiar words and ideas unequal to the virtuosity and novelty of the scene.
The sex in question is had by Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham), a twenty-four-year-old recent college graduate and aspiring writer living in Brooklyn, one of the four young women at the center of the show. Her partner is Adam (Adam Driver), also in his early twenties and also best described as aspiring, in his case to acting, playwriting, and carpentry. What they are doing is this: first, they are having intercourse. Then Adam stops, takes off his condom, and masturbates over Hannah’s torso while spinning a fantasy that she’s a heroin-addicted eleven-year-old girl whom he’s found in the street and is going to send home covered in semen. Adam is completely absorbed in his fantasy. Hannah is somewhat flustered but gamely tries to keep up with the drift of Adam’s filthy thoughts by adding her own rather tentative lines.
Afterward, while she is getting dressed, Hannah jokingly refers to herself as the eleven-year-old girl. Adam looks confused and asks what she’s talking about. Hannah reminds him about his fantasy, but clearly her joke has fallen flat, and the disparity between their respective experiences of sex is further amplified: Adam had been blissfully lost to himself while they were doing it, while Hannah was taking mental notes. It is, among other things, an amusing metaphor for Hannah’s chosen profession: the writer is the one busily jotting in her notebook while other people are having orgasms.
The scene feels surprisingly frank. For one thing, though it is not particularly explicit visually (their bodies are always partly obscured), it is very explicit aurally: the sound of the condom snapping off, of Adam’s masturbatory motions, and of the changing lilt of his voice as he becomes further aroused all lend the scene a startling sense of intimacy. Even more startling is the choreography. How often, in movies or television, do you see autoeroticism incorporated into a scene of two people having sex? And then of course there is the fantasy about the young girl, articulated by a noncriminal person leading a normal life—another thing you don’t much see on television.
The unexpected frankness and naturalism of the scene (unexpected, in part, because we think we’re beyond being surprised by graphic sex scenes), combined with the obvious fact that Hannah does not share Adam’s blissful abandon, is the reason that it has gotten a critical reading that is admiring but distinctly nervous. The sex scenes in Girls have even occasioned columns, by Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker and Frank Bruni in The New York Times, about contemporary sexual manners. Talbot describes the scene above as “solipsistic niche sex that takes its expectations from porn.” Bruni: “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” It is safer, or perhaps just second nature, to criticize Adam’s insensitivity than to think of him as possessing a much clearer sense of what he wants in bed than Hannah does. It is safer, at least in print, to identify with Hannah’s incomplete engagement in the scene than with Adam’s wanton absorption.
But critics, let yourselves go. Dunham has Hannah’s back. Hannah doesn’t need our motherly concern, our chivalrous evocation of the women’s lib barricades. As we have already learned from the pilot episode, Hannah is smart and perceptive and funny and not (usually) a total doormat—she just hasn’t figured out where she herself would like a sex scene such as this to go. Dunham and the show’s other writers are finely attentive to Hannah’s perspective, and to the glaring differences between Hannah’s and Adam’s experience. At the same time, Dunham is generous enough to Adam’s character to have cast the magnetic Driver, and to give him some pretty funny lines.
In other words, with her humane and humorous depictions of both characters, Dunham has set the viewer free from having to keep score on either the man’s or the woman’s behalf. We can admire the two actors’ chemistry together. We can feel the erotic charge of the scene in spite of its limitations, qua sex, for Hannah. We can contemplate Hannah’s lack of sexual confidence without condemning Adam. We can appreciate, rather than lament, Hannah’s attraction to Adam despite the fact that he is wont to do things like dismiss her from his apartment with a brusque nod while she is still chatting and gathering her clothes and purse.
We can just generally marvel at the complexity with which Girls treats a relationship like Hannah and Adam’s. They are not boyfriend and girlfriend. Adam never returns Hannah’s text messages, and she has discovered that the most reliable way to get an audience with him is to show up at his apartment with little notice and hope that he’s in a mood to see her. He also sees other women. Hannah has, thus far, accepted his terms, though she feels uneasy about them. The two are obviously attracted to each other. Their conversation is fast and exuberant and funny, although it is, again, more on Adam’s terms than on Hannah’s: he’s the one who does the teasing and wise-cracking, while Hannah, who is full of barbed observations when she’s with her friends, seems to hold her fire around Adam. In their romantic scenes together, Hannah can’t seem to channel her general sense of attraction into acute sexual pleasure. Although she repeatedly seeks him out for sex, she isn’t able to lose herself sexually—perhaps because she already loses so much of herself in the rhythms and arrangements of their relationship.
Hannah’s predicament is common enough in life, but it’s not one you see often, if ever, on film. Indeed, romantic comedy (and its television variations) devotes its energies to obscuring the possible gaps between things like companionability, attraction, and intense sexual arousal. Hannah’s is also a situation that would be impossible to depict without a graphic sex scene, and offers a clear example of what sex scenes are good for. If all you want to do is convey an erotic tension between two people, you can leave out explicit depictions of sex acts. But if you are interested in the psychological implications of what happens between people during sex, you need to show something of the sex.
And we can find something sexy and even liberating in that sex scene in spite of our strong identification with Hannah. Hollywood sex scenes are not typically interested in even hinting at the ways that people actually reach orgasm, and this is disheartening above all for female viewers, who develop a certain melancholy by the time that they have seen their one thousandth sex scene in which it is taken for granted that by sex we mean mutually rapturous face-to-face vaginal intercourse. Even though the only person having fun in Dunham’s scene is the guy, there is nonetheless a certain joy in seeing someone get off in some other way.
In a New York Times interview Dunham has spoken, apropos of this scene, about her male peers’ saturation in pornography, and about her own suspicions, in some intimate situations, that her partners were mimicking gestures that they had seen online. But if Adam is meant to be obviously under the influence of porn, and his moves echo a staple porn sequence, what Dunham has done with the scene suggests that pornographic convention can actually be an antidote to a certain kind of prudish Hollywood bias.
Pornography depends, as we know, on showing sexual acts other than intercourse, since intercourse inconveniently hides a lot of the hot throbbing action. Hollywood films are, on the whole, anti-pornographic, in the sense that, in spite of their supposed interest in titillating their audience, they are almost uniformly content with the suggestion that couples are having vaginal intercourse—no more, no less. So there you go: a dose of porn, judiciously applied by an extremely intelligent director, can save cinematic sex. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it on Girls.
Dunham is only twenty-five, but she already has something you could call a body of work, which includes the feature film Tiny Furniture, her college movie Creative Nonfiction (recently released on the Tiny Furniture DVD), and Girls, of which she is the creator, director, and co-star. That body of work is in a kind of heated dialogue with romantic comedy conventions. Tiny Furniture, a funny, shoestring film about a young woman returning home after college graduation in a state of deep uncertainty about everything, defiantly treads all over those conventions. Aura, who is played by Dunham, has two love interests, if you can give that title to two men who have little interest in her but condescend to hang out in exchange for getting things they want, like the use of her mother’s Manhattan apartment or a supply of prescription drugs.
Romantic comedy heroines are aspirational; their stories offer a set of suggestions about how women should conduct their romantic lives. If the heroine starts out dating the “wrong” guy, she must realize her mistake, gather her courage, and ditch him for the right one. This is the test of her mettle, the fulfillment of her destiny as a plucky and spirited female, and the condition of our identification with her. The supposedly “female-centric” comedy Bridesmaids follows this outline when it comes to the heroine’s love life.
Though Tiny Furniture is a comedy on a different scale from a Hollywood production like Bridesmaids, it nonetheless has some things to say about heroines. Both guys in Tiny Furniture are laughably wrong for Aura. Her romantic life is composed entirely of unsatisfying encounters and nonevents, though Dunham suggests that these are never less than interesting. The movie’s climactic sex scene, in which Aura and one of the men do it outdoors, in a large metal pipe on a deserted Brooklyn street, late on the night of their first and only date together, turns out to be a dark joke on the idea of romantic fulfillment.
It is sometimes uncomfortable to watch Aura pursue the men with puppyish hopefulness and thoroughly fail to stand up for herself no matter how loutish their behavior. At the same time, it is also a relief, for Dunham has overthrown the tyranny of pluck. Her alter ego might be maddeningly unconfident, submissive, and eager to please in some situations, but she is not pathetic: she holds her place at the center of the film, an object of our interest and identification despite a long list of unflattering qualities, and she is not reformed at the end of the movie. While her relationships with men are an important part of Tiny Furniture, the film turns out to be, above all, about a different kind of desire: the stirring of inspiration, the quickening of Aura’s ambition to be an artist.
Girls, with its giddy lightness, its warmth, and its fast-talking, witty, roundly likable characters, has some of the flavor of romantic comedy while also revealing the common facts of life that romantic comedy has never been able to show. For instance, as in Hannah’s case, that you can be wildly attracted to someone without having great sex. Or that you can have landed a handsome, funny, devoted boyfriend and then one day find him completely repellent. This is the predicament of Hannah’s roommate, Marnie (Allison Williams). Marnie, who works as an assistant at an art gallery, is pretty, self-possessed, responsible, a little uptight. If you were their landlord, you would want Marnie’s name, not the more fly-by-night Hannah’s, to be on the lease.
Marnie has had the same boyfriend since she was nineteen, and lately she can’t stand him. Their sweet but claustrophobic intimacy is hilariously evoked by what seems to be their regular morning ritual: Marnie takes out the mouth guard she wears to bed and gives it to him for cleaning. While some of the show’s funny lines are delivered punch-line style, as the resounding final words of a scene, a lot of them are woven into conversations and delivered naturally, without the actors breaking the flow of their talk or otherwise hamming it up. This variation in comic rhythms gives the show a richness that rewards careful viewing; there are buried treasures in every scene, and one of them is the icky-sweet way that Marnie’s boyfriend coaxes the mouth guard from her by holding out his hand, grinning, and asking in a voice you would use with a three-year-old, “Do you have something for me?”
The other two friends who round out their foursome are Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a world-traveling sophisticate, and Jessa’s cousin and roommate, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet). Jessa has just moved back to New York after working as a nanny in Paris, and has also just found out that she is (unintentionally) pregnant. She and Shoshanna don’t know each other very well and form an odd couple. Shoshanna is girlishly breathless, inserts “like” into every sentence, fawns over Jessa’s British accent, and hangs on Jessa’s accounts of her romantic affairs abroad.
Tiny Furniture and Creative Nonfiction, both of which star Dunham, entwined subplots about sex (as well as friendship) with an even more central plot about the artistic development of their heroines. Ella of Creative Nonfiction is working on a screenplay, Aura makes videos about herself, and the characters’ evolving conception of their work is the dominant thread in both movies. The girls in Girls have so far been defined mostly by their romantic and sexual personae, and by their friendships with each other, rather than their work. The very energy of the show comes from situations of sexual confusion and bewilderment. For example, a scene in which Marnie—who ambivalently remains with her old boyfriend—is flirting with an artist at an opening at the gallery where she works. She chats lightly with the artist and keeps him comfortably at bay until he says something unexpectedly forthright, a moment of sexual swagger that she didn’t see coming and that she finds, to her surprise and dismay, very hot.
Such moments in Girls seem always to contain within them the implied potential for something else on the horizon—better sex, sure, but also continuing revelations about self and others. For all of its emphasis on sexual and romantic experience, Girls never suggests that a smoothly pleasant sex life is something worthy of serious aspiration. The ultimate prize to be wrung from all of these baffling sexual predicaments is a deeper understanding of oneself. We never quite forget that Hannah is a writer, specifically a writer of personal essays, a form dedicated to investigating the humiliating, perverse, and self-defeating aspects of one’s own nature.
Many critics have noted that the girls, all from seemingly financially secure families, are members of a privileged class. A slightly different aspect of their privilege is the relative confidence we feel that they can seek sexual experience without being in physical danger, that any revelations they receive will be useful and interesting rather than damaging or crushing, and that the people in their world will not punish them for their curiosity or high spirits. The girls feel confident of this too. They have an air of extended innocence, a girlish exuberance (behind a scrim of polished good behavior) that is the characteristic bearing of American upper-middle-class young women. The young men exude their own version of innocence. Adam’s sex fantasy may be off-putting to some, but part of the deeper humor of the scene comes from our knowing that he is basically an overgrown boy—and probably a pretty good boy at that—whose grandma sends him monthly checks for his rent.
On the day that Jessa moves into Shoshanna’s Nolita apartment, she shocks Shoshanna with the revelation that she has never seen a single episode of Sex and the City. Shoshanna can hardly take in this fact. While Jessa stares in scornful disbelief, Shoshanna launches into an analysis of which Sex and the City characters the two of them resemble. “You know you’re funny, because you’re definitely like a Carrie, but with some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair. That’s like a really good combination.” She goes on thoughtfully: “I think I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes”—her smile widens into a stiff grimace and she stammers—“sometimes Samantha kind of comes out.” A very awkward pause follows for a beat, and then Shoshanna collects herself and hastily adds, “And then I mean when I’m at school I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat.” For those who don’t know or remember Sex in the City, Samantha is the unapologetically promiscuous one. The moment when Shoshanna stammers that “sometimes Samantha comes out” is a brilliantly excruciating depiction of a young person assuming an ill-fitting mantle of sexual sophistication. Shoshanna is the show’s flattest character, but the writers, as well as Zosia Mamet, the actress who plays her, keep pulling her back from the brink of cartoonishness with scenes like this one, in which her vulnerability is so acute that it becomes touching. We will find out in the next episode that she is in fact a virgin with very little sexual experience of any kind.
With this scene Girls swiftly dispenses with its debt to Sex and the City, and also demonstrates how much finer its own sensibilities are. Sex and the City trades in coarse satirical categories; everything that happens to the main characters turns out to be an example of some contemporary social or sexual phenomenon, every man or woman they meet is caught, chloroformed, pinned, and labeled as a particular urban type. Girls, on the other hand, shows a young woman deep under the influence of coarse categories. Shoshanna devours talk shows and relationship advice books. She quotes from a bright pink volume called Listen Ladies: A Tough Love Approach to the Tough Game of Love. “Sex from behind is degrading,” she reads aloud to Jessa and Hannah, “you deserve to have someone who wants to look in your beautiful face.” (Jessa’s indignant response: “What if I want to feel like I have udders?”) When Hannah finds out that she has the sexually transmitted disease HPV, Shoshanna urges her to tell her ex-boyfriend so that he knows he might be passing it along. “I think in the STD world it’s, like, a courtesy…” she trails off hesitantly, perhaps realizing the absurdity of the phrase “the STD world.”
Shoshanna’s advice is sound and, in its way, mature, but we are left mulling over the familiar-yet-strange fact that a vast body of received wisdom and canned relationship and sex advice often accrues to a young woman long before she has occasion to use it. Shoshanna lives in a world in which people have set aside much of their lives to following the dictates of love and desire—and also to talking about those dictates. In such a world it is discomfiting to find yourself, for whatever reason, not taking part in the free-for-all.
We walk around with a well-worn romantic idea of sex as a kind of overwhelming, animalistic force that possesses us and leads us to action, whether we like it or not. But of course sexual desire can also, in the crucial moment, fail to overwhelm us, and in our world this is really the more urgent, anxiety-provoking, and lonely situation. Dunham has intuited this fact and put it to use in all of her work, which is characterized by a high number of scenes in which men and women share beds without having sex.
The first episode of Sex and the City, which aired in 1998, raises the question of whether women can have sex “like men,” which is to say, casually, without emotional entanglements. The answer, supplied in the same episode and in ninety-three subsequent ones, is that while this is perhaps not the most exalted form of sex—sure! Why not? Its definition of a rich sex life is one that meets a certain threshold of frequency and variety; when one of the Sex and the City characters goes for three months without having sex, it’s an occasion for panic and pity.
Girls, too, raises questions in its opening episodes about how young women are to understand and make use of their sexual freedom. Should they multiply sexual encounters and partners in a spirit of adventure, brushing off embarrassing or uncomfortable episodes as all part of the alleged fun? Or should they, as Shoshanna’s self-help book would advise, demand tacit declarations of serious intent from a man before even having sex?
Both strategies are ways of containing one’s messy, inconvenient, and embarrassing emotional vulnerability, which has always seemed an obstacle to reaping the rewards of the sexual revolution. But sexual freedom is, in a way, least about sex itself. The sexual revolution is a social revolution. Men and women are free to talk to each other without prior vetting or pretext, to see each other in any setting. We can form acquaintances and friendships that are laced through with attraction and desire (or not), and of course we can form romantic attachments as well. All of us can know more people in more ways than was ever previously allowed.
In the face of such vast possibility, to think of one’s romantic life as a game of numbers and animal pleasures, on the one hand, or as one long search for a spouse, on the other, is to miss the point. We can only justify our freedom by giving full attention to the human relationships formed by sex, even if those relationships are brief or strange. We would like our movies and television shows, the ones that devote themselves to matters of love and sex, to give their full attention to these relationships too. Girls seems poised to do exactly that.