You know how when you’re really drunk and you’re at the place in the intoxication process where you’re lying somewhere – probably across your bed horizontally or on a bathroom floor with part of your face pressed against the base of the toilet because the cool of the porcelain feels nice against your burning skin – and the spins have finally stopped and you have already thrown up once and you feel like, finally, it’s over and I can crawl under my covers and maybe die there, but then the wave of vile sickness washes back over you and it carries you up and then under again and you end up back in that swirling and vicious cycle for hours, cursing both tequila and Jagermeister?
That’s what watching Girls last night felt like for me.
When Girls premiered a few years ago, I watched the growing pre-premiere buzz with complete fascination. It wasn’t simply that there was about to be a scripted series about the lives of four girls that drew me in; it was that this show was written, directed, produced, and starred a twenty-six years old.
What was I doing at twenty-six? Well, I was teaching high school and breaking up with a guy I’d dated for four years and going with my friends to the Bull’s Head on 3rd Avenue and getting crushes on guys who were either currently in a band or had once been in a band and not challenging myself creatively in the slightest. Part of ignoring my latent desire to write back then was logistical; I’d become a teacher just a few years earlier and I was still figuring out how to do that job to the best of my ability and how to function on not nearly enough sleep. And I became a good teacher quickly, but honing that talent alone was where my creative energies were spent – well, there and figuring out how to dress to meet up with a guitarist who was covered in tattoos, the kind of guy I could never bring to Thanksgiving at my mother’s house, unless I was hoping to give her a panic attack along with a fruit plate.
But this girl who wrote Girls – a show with so much fanfare that the next time I blow out my birthday candles or see the time flash 11:11 or find an errant eyelash has fluttered down my cheek, I will make a wish that the PR rep of that show becomes my new best friend forever – was young and she was accomplishing so much, and I was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about.
I didn’t much like the first episode, and my reason is going to make me sound like a total asshole, which I’ve chosen to realize and to accept. Here it is: I didn’t like staring at a television show populated by unattractive people.
I know. I sort of feel like shit for saying such a thing, but I also can’t fault myself for wanting to look at things of beauty. Even in museums, it’s not like I seek out the painting that can be empirically measured as the most sinfully heinous to gaze upon; I want the Matisse and the Monet and the Sisley for their quiet and serene loveliness.
I want Haring for the whimsy.
I want what my eye and my mind agree is aesthetically exquisite.
It’s an interesting question to consider: how are our parameters of beauty defined and when does it happen in our development? Certainly part of the formulation of acceptable and desired standards of beauty occur through early socialization and exposure to things like dolls and movies and comments adults make about what constitutes pretty hair, but I also think that just maybe some of it is evolutionary and scientifically-simple, and that what we’re all attracted to, on some basic level, is simply symmetry. There’s a kind of formula for what makes a face symmetrical, and there’s an internal draw one has when one gazes at such a face.
I guess what I’m saying is don’t blame me – blame math and science. I always do.
A few weeks ago I went to my friend’s house for dinner. There were only a few of us there, and I arrived just as she was putting her kids to bed. I heard them yell goodnight from the top of the stairs, and I asked her husband if I could quickly pop up to say hello before they crawled under their covers, and I walked up the stairs to the three-year-old girl and her six-year-old brother. The little boy had come to school with his mommy recently, and he and I got to spend a little time together during my free periods. We colored with chalk and I chased him around his mother’s classroom, and we’d bonded a bit. But I never expected that he would come down the stairs to the living room where I sat on the couch with a glass of wine to ask me if I would come over one day over vacation to play with him. And I really never expected that when Shannon finally put him to bed that she would come downstairs and tell me, “Sean just said ‘Aunt Nell is so pretty.’”
Okay – I looked good that night. It was a casual get together, so I was in jeans and a navy tee by that brand Rebel Yell and I was wearing boots with a wedge heel and earrings. I’d worn makeup and straightened my hair and I left the house thinking I looked decent, but there was something really sweet and very pure about a child deciding that, according to what his defined standards of beauty were, I fit the bill.
The whole thing felt flattering – and now I love that kid – but even in the moment, I couldn’t help but wonder about how his parameters for what was attractive had been defined and how much of it was a learned reaction and how much of it was innate.
I think about the question of how our society comes to a conclusion about what is beautiful while I watch Hannah Horvath on Girls fall over the back of a couch at a Poet Party and saunter away, but not before we see that her low-rise pants have squirmed down past her underwear and we are all treated to a close-up of a pale and untoned ass in what I think is meant to be read as a joke.
What about that sight is funny? Is it Hannah’s lack of grace that’s supposed to give me the giggles? Is it that she just verbally reamed her classmates out eloquently and then lost all composure when she fell apart physically? Or is the point to make society gaze on different representations of the female form in an effort to redefine standards of what is and is not attractive?
Here’s my biggest issue: nobody on Girls is attractive, and any quality that could have once been seen as lovely or unique has been squandered by the way the characters behave. I’m all about enjoying characters in literature or in cinema or those who strut across my television screen who have significant and realistic flaws, but there’s almost nothing redeeming about any of these characters anymore and I’m inching towards being done with a program that has had its stellar moments because it’s now drowning in a swamp of ugliness.
It wasn’t always that way. During episode three of the first season, I remember thinking that maybe all the buzz that had flown around the show for months had real merit, and not just because it was a show created by a young girl, but because the show itself was worthy of the attention. All Adventurous Women Do managed to delve almost equally into the lives of all four main characters and we had our first appearance by Elijah, Hannah’s former college boyfriend, who revealed to her that he’s gay. I’d willingly vote Elijah and the actor who plays him the MVP of any scenario he’s in – intentionally or just by stumbling into it. The guy is hilarious, and when his character bids adieu to his former love by flatly stating, “Your dad is gay,” I laughed for a good minute straight because of his delivery and because watching those two actors play that scene felt like I was bearing witness to something real and angry and painful and almost primal in its authenticity.
But the best moment for me in that episode by far was the last scene. At the end of a seriously shitty day, Hannah begins to dance freely alone in her room to the strains of Robyn coming from her laptop and in walks Marnie, weary from a work function where she had to appear sophisticated and where she met an arrogant artist who told her that he’d end up fucking her. Since for the last several years Marnie had only been sleeping with Charlie – a guy who didn’t seem to have mastered sex from behind and who would have freaked out if she brazenly touched herself during sex – the artist’s threatening promise got Marnie so worked up, she went into the bathroom at the gallery where she works, locked the door, and shoved her own hand down her pants to rub the frustration and the excitement of the moment away. And later, arriving home, these two best friends with a deep history between them encountered one another after each experiencing a night fraught with crazy and they danced together to the song playing in the room of their small apartment in Brooklyn and, just as Hannah hugged Marnie tightly, there was a smash cut to black that paired perfectly with the music and the credits began to roll.
I think I legitimately applauded that moment from my living room. It was perfect – all of it. The music choice and the wardrobe and the tight writing and the laughing through the pain. It all felt real, and one of the parts that felt the most genuine was the friendship the girls shared, a friendship that has now just about gone missing.
I remember being in my early twenties well, and I remember how some of my friendships began to shift. I got closer to some friends and I lost others altogether. And I remember those days when I had to spend time with some people due to geography instead of desire and I recall all too well the frustration of realizing, God, I really hate this person. I recall wondering how I could end a friendship with someone I worked with and really and truly contemplating if committing murder would be the best way to get myself out of ever having to be with her again, and it actually didn’t strike me as the worst plan because the person in question had already publicly alienated about seventy people before me, so I figured that by the time the police showed up to question me about her death (caused by being bludgeoned with an overhead projector), I’d have already made it to sunny Mexico by then and I’d evade capture and have myself a little salsa.
I’m sure that my own life experiences inform my watching of Girls, and I do enjoy the terrain the show is exploring. It’s a ballsy and unsentimental approach to that time where you have too much freedom but perhaps too few boundaries and when you navigate new worlds with companions from your old world, but the trust and the connection is no longer as secure as it once was. That part of the show feels genuine. What doesn’t feel real is that all of the girls are so unlikable that it almost doesn’t make any sort of sense that they were ever friends in the first place.
To me, these days bohemian Jessa is just coming off as reckless and self-righteous while Marnie is drowning in narcissism and neediness and Shoshanna – okay, Shoshanna is now just being written and performed like the weirdest fucking girl who has ever wandered the tri-state area. Her idiotic barrettes and her lilting up-speak and the random comments she spews out in what I believe is done in the name of humor all read as false. I know nobody like Shoshanna. A wide-eyed, twitchy girl like that does not exist in the way she is being trotted out for our pleasure, and I’m getting absolutely no pleasure from watching her.
And Hannah. To Lena Dunham’s credit, she never seemed to make it a priority that Hannah Horvath would be perceived as a sympathetic character, but I wonder why she’s so willing to allow Hannah to morph into someone for whom sympathy cannot possibly exist. Let me put it this way: on last night’s episode, Hannah realized her boyfriend was spending a lot of time with Jessa – who refused to tell Hannah about keeping company with the love of her life; she couldn’t write a word even though she only has class once a week; she called out every person in her MFA program about the flaws in their writing in a self-defensive rebuttal; and she had her bike stolen – again. And really? The only thing I felt badly about was the loss of yet another bike because Iowa seems vast and she will need some form of transportation to get her from here to there. But other than the bike misfortune, I couldn’t care about any of it.
I want to love this show. I want to find something within the construction of these girls to care about, and I don’t find it all that clever that the writers are choosing to make viewer empathy an almost impossible thing to achieve. I wonder if they think that it’s bold to encourage the viewer to drastically dislike the people onscreen, but I’d argue that it’s not bold in the slightest; it’s moronic.
The show’s desire to take the viewer’s nose and shove it into the unappealing is a hard thing for me to reconcile. I’m a girl who happens to love gory slasher movies and stories about characters with really conflicted morals, but when I’m watching a show and I’m a loyal viewer and it’s already season four, I kind of wish that there was something enjoyable taking place other than my awe about the accomplishments of the show’s creator.
I like Lena Dunham. I find that she comes across as wise and winsome in the many interviews I’ve seen with her, and I thought her book was beautifully written. The stories in her memoir were perfectly paced and layered like a sumptuous ice cream sundae and her humor was the cherry on top. But when she’s writing her television show, I think those subtleties are lost in favor of causing viewers to be reactionary, and I’m just not certain of the point.
I think back to what I thought was the best episode last season, when all of the girls went out to the North Fork for a beach weekend. I was able to smile and pretend that Hannah – or any human being without severe cataracts – would purchase and then wear such a horrible straw hat and, while it didn’t feel like a sentence anyone would ever actually say and mean it, I could giggle when Marnie told the rest of the girls that part of the goal of the weekend was to post pictures so they could prove via Instagram that they were still there for one another. And I loved when Elijah and his friends showed up and the choreographed dance they all performed, and the whole thing made me feel excited for what the show could be.
In real life, sometimes friends fight. And sometimes friends move in different directions and down different paths and maybe it’s the change that is harder to reconcile than even the loss of the friend, but those changes hurdling at you with centrifugal force are part of what those years in your twenties are all about, and that element of coming of age is something I think Dunham and her writers capture well. But I don’t quite get the point of all of the conflicts playing out while Hannah is standing there in a green string bikini. She wears the bikini to swim and she rides a bike into town to the market, still just wearing the bikini. She arrives back home and she drinks with her friends and later – even though everyone else is fully dressed – she performs the elaborate dance number in her string bikini.
And see, perhaps I’m a horrible person, but that’s where the show loses me. Because there’s just nothing truthful about a heavyset girl walking around all day in a string bikini and then dancing in a string bikini. Does Hannah never get cold? Did nobody ever teach a girl as familiar with her vagina as she is that wearing a wet bathing suit can lead to a urinary tract infection? At no point, does she feel that her stomach is hanging out and wants to cover it, just for a second?
I call bullshit.
The episode that I remember making people holler a few seasons back was the one where Hannah met the successful Brooklyn guy and spent an entire episode being adored in his gorgeous brownstone. I read the recaps, and they were fucking harsh. The thesis of most of the complaints was that no man who had that life and was blessed with that face would go for Hannah, but that’s not what bothered me. I mean, all kinds of people are attracted to one another in ways that don’t always make sense, and Hannah appeared conversationally endearing in that episode, so I could see the appeal. But what I couldn’t see was her playing ping-pong topless while wearing the underwear my great-grandmother would have worn on the first day of her period. And when that image flashed – and then remained – on my television screen, I again just shook my head, because I don’t care who you are or if you have been blessed with levels of confidence that are typically only dispersed amongst the Gods – nobody with that body is playing ping-pong topless.
Was it a moment meant to be read as incendiary? Should I have been shocked? Should it not have registered in the slightest because, after all, it’s only a female body and I have been reared in a society that brandishes the female form at every turn?
All of those are actually rather interesting questions, but for me the most important questions are these: when will the women who write Girls stop going for the shock and start exploring the subtext that really makes these characters tick? When will a show created by a woman who is far more than a body stop brandishing that body simply for effect?
When will Girls grow up?