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The Loves of Lena Dunham

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Mark Seliger/HBO
Lena Dunham and Adam Driver in Girls

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.

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