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.