The 'Girls' Gut Check: Racial Tension, Artistic Differences, and YouTube

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Four Atlantic staffers sound off on whether the portrayals of their generation's quirks in the second episode of Season Two of Lena Dunham's HBO show ring true.

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HBO

All is not right with the world of Girls—as per usual. This week's episode included a hefty share of 21st-century-problem drama: More unemployment struggles for Marnie, the politically charged end of the courtship between Hannah and her black Republican boyfriend, and some uncomfortable post-breakup Photo Booth antics from Adam. There were bright spots—Shoshanna pillow-talked, and, well, there were puppies—but this second installment of the season found some of its characters in crisis mode.

Below, a panel of millennials from the Atlantic staff—Eleanor Barkhorn (editor of The Sexes channel), James Hamblin (editor of the Health channel), Chris Heller (social media editor), and Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for the Entertainment and Sexes channels)—respond to questions raised by the show's depiction of song-writing exes, peer editing between romantic partners, and YouTube as a user's guide to life.


YouTube tutorials: Hannah's shown working out to and cutting her hair by instructional videos on YouTube. So that means YouTube is replacing higher education, gyms, and salons, right?

ASHLEY: Oh, man. I personally use YouTube for everything. Among the things I have done and learned recently under the tutelage of YouTube: Zumba, my New Year's Eve hairstyle, and some definitely pirated Jillian Michaels workouts; how to slice a mango using the safe and proper technique, as well as how to put frosting on cake pops (which was way more challenging than I would have imagined).

Starting in on your adult years in the age of YouTube is kind of great, but I see how it could also be sort of isolating. I find it's often a wonderful tool for learning how to do useful things—especially when it's too late at night to call my mom and beg for her practical wisdom. But while it certainly saves money to do our workouts and cut our hair alone at home in front of our laptops the way Hannah does (and I do), we're cutting down on our opportunities for human interaction at places like gyms and salons if we do.

CHRIS: I'm with Ashley on this one. Without YouTube, I wouldn't be a functional adult. (Sorry, mom and dad.) I can't even fold shirts without it. Still, I think it's silly to say that YouTube is "replacing" anything—it's more akin to an instructional booster than an out-and-out competitor.

JAMES: Generation (DI)Y. It's not just YouTube.

ELEANOR: The only instructional video I've ever watched is Chow's how to on trussing a chicken.

JAMES: Trussing?

ELEANOR: Yeah. It keeps the bird from drying out in the oven. Try it sometime.


The winback song: Adam's song for Hannah is definitely creepy (at least in part because, as Elijah says, the tools in the background of the video). But is this kind of thing ever not creepy? And do people actually do this?

JAMES: Was it creepy in The Wedding Singer when Adam Sandler sang "I Wanna Grow Old With You"? If Justin Timberlake was your ex-boyfriend and he sent you "Hallelujah" or a personalized acoustic version of "Sexy Back"—would that be creepy? No. So, first, there is a quality and production value factor. A crying shirtless guy in dark room on webcam is on the worst end of that spectrum.

The song winback (SWB) is at best sweet and at worst sad—and probably ineffective 99.99% of the time at resurrecting love—but not creepy. And not ineffective as an emotional outlet. Our generation is way too quick to call showing emotion creepy. Music might be our most expressive medium. Breakups suck. If someone is compelled to express themselves musically ... it might be futile, it might painfully highlight some super sad or dark emotions we'd rather ignore, but we should let it happen. We don't have to like it, but we're dicks if we call them creepy for doing it.

"The song winback (SWB) is at best sweet and at worst sad. A crying shirtless guy in dark room on webcam is on the worst end of that spectrum."

ELEANOR: Quick fact-check: "I Wanna Grow Old With You" was Sandler's attempt to WIN Drew Barrymore, not win her BACK. Of course it's not creepy—it's sweet, in large part because there's no break-up baggage between the two characters. The singer can focus on his dreams of a future with her, rather than all the crummy things she's done to him in the past. In contrast, "Somebody Kill Me Please," the song his character writes in the wake of his breakup with Lynda, is totally aggressive and scary. So I think the bottom line is, works of art created immediately post-breakup are almost always emotionally raw and often creepy. To apply this theory to the question of whether a song can ever non-creepily persuade someone to get back with an ex-lover, the answer is...only if it's composed after the initial bad breakup feelings have passed. That way the song has greater potential to be apologetic and wistful ("If I made you feel second best, girl, I'm sorry I was blind. You were always on my mind") rather than angry and resentful ("Give me my money back, give me my money back, you bitch"). Adam needs to get some distance from his breakup with Hannah before he can even begin to contemplate winning her back with song.

ASHLEY: I spent my angstiest years of adolescence and early adulthood hanging out with a lot of creative, theatrical types, but I've actually never seen or heard of anyone doing the SWB in real life. I think it has the potential to be a sweet gesture, but it can't be the standalone effort to win the person back; a well-constructed win-back song, as Eleanor says, has to be remorseful and nice, not bitter, and it has to be the cherry on top of an already successful take-me-back campaign. If any one of those elements is amiss, it's probably a creepy thing to do rather than a cute one.

The one possible exception I can think of offhand would be in the case that I just broke up with John Legend. But otherwise, yikes.

CHRIS: I don't believe you. There's no way anyone would ever break up with John Legend.


Couple-editing: Hannah pesters Sandy for feedback on her essay and seems uncomfortable when he finally gives it; Jessa, meanwhile, brags that Thomas-John looks at her paintings "as soon as I show them to him." What are the ground rules for couples when it comes to sharing creative/professional endeavors?

ELEANOR: Back in college, when I was taking a seminar on Paradise Lost, my professor said something that has stuck in my brain ever since. Referring to Adam and Eve's blissful pre-fall relationship, she said, "Happiness is being married to the person you most love sharing ideas with." Yes, it's a romantic, indulgent, impractical vision of marriage, aimed at the hearts of bookish college girls, but still... I think it gets at what a lot of people long for in a relationship: creative chemistry.

This is a long way of saying I think couples should definitely read each others' work, look at each others' paintings, etc, in a timely fashion after they're completed (or as they're being completed, if the creator wants work-in-progress feedback). They should tell each other what they think of the other's work. And most importantly, the person whose work is being critiqued should take his or her partner's response, EVEN IF IT'S NEGATIVE, as an act of love. Criticism isn't mean or petty. It's an attempt to make the person's art the best it can be.

It says a lot about the immaturity of their relationship that Sandy is so hesitant to tell Hannah that he doesn't love her essay, and that Hannah is so defensive when he finally tells her the truth. Ideally, Sandy would be able to give her his notes, and she would be able to accept his perspective.

JAMES: Yeah, creative chemistry is important. Same with ideological chemistry. We all get along with, and work with, and love people who don't think the same way we do politically, don't like our taste in music/movies/books/sense of humor, don't like our work—but I don't know why you'd make one of those people your life partner soul mate one true love. It's not at all petty to break up with someone over artistic taste. It's a way we connect, or don't connect.

ASHLEY: Whoa now. Breaking up with someone over artistic taste... is another whole conversation for another whole day.

CHRIS: Yeah, I'm not going to even touch that one. Sorry, Jim.

The need for creative chemistry pretty much nails it—if we were talking about a serious relationship. Hannah doesn't even want Sandy to say he "loves" anything that she does, so I don't think they're nearly intimate enough to consider it in those terms. Eleanor's right. It's an incredibly immature relationship.

That said, I think there's a big, big difference between supporting somebody's creative endeavors and honestly critiquing them. I try to read everything that my lovely girlfriend writes and I'm honest when she asks me what I think about her work. Sometimes, that means telling her that I didn't like it. If we just started dating, though, I'd feel uncomfortable doing that. If you care about a person, you owe it to her to thoughtfully consider her work. Being totally honest about it demands an intimacy that Hannah and Sandy just don't have.

ASHLEY: Eh. I don't think creative chemistry is quite as necessary as all that. Some creative people like to keep a church-and-state separation between their work and their relationships, myself included.

That said, though, if you're going to involve your friends and lovers in your creative process, there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. I just read John Irving's A Widow for One Year, in which a best-selling novelist gets married to her longtime editor—and I'd recommend it as a nice counterexample to this woefully mishandled situation between Sandy and Hannah. Ruth and Allan (the writer and editor) are a well-matched, mutually trusting pair creatively before they fall in love, but even after they're married they keep an open, no-judgments, no-defenses conversation going with regard to Ruth's writing. They understand that they both want Ruth's work to be the best it can be—like Eleanor says. They're a picture of the right way to do couple-editing.

Hannah and Sandy do it wrong. She gives her boyfriend—who's a law student, not a writer—an essay she's written under the pretense that she wants his feedback; when he gives it, it's clear she only wanted praise, not actual feedback. And on Sandy's part, he lies to her first—never a great move in any relationship—and then lamely tells her that "nothing happens" in her story. That's not even constructive.


The big fight: Sandy's negative feedback leads Hannah to bring up Sandy's politics; the ensuing argument touches on race and ends their relationship. Thoughts on the fight?

CHRIS: If we're going to talk about this fight, we need to talk about race too. I've been thinking a lot about something TV critic Eric Deggans wrote earlier this month. He raised the question about Dunham pulling a "diversity head fake" this season, a la Friends by introducing a black love interest this season. Here's his money quote:

"[I]f Dunham can create great male characters and gay characters, why can't she write a few people of color into the mix?"

Now, I'm not so sure that Donald Glover only appears on Girls to make the show seem more diverse—to be honest, I think there's something too fascinating about his character to chalk it all up to that. Sandy's fight with Hannah reveals a lot about previously unexplored racial tension on Girls, and it does so in a way that's far more nuanced than a token minority character is usually allowed. He rips her "bullshit"—in short, how girls like Hannah fetishize black men, then ditch them when they share their thoughts and feelings—and calls her out for claiming that she doesn't even think about his race. Hannah's response is an oddly convoluted attack about his political beliefs and interest in white women.

So, my question for you all—and I'm asking you because I really don't know how to answer it: Is this fight a realistic depiction of racial tension, is it a lame way to quiet some of Dunham's critics, or is it a little bit of both?

JAMES: It addressed critics, yeah, but not in a lame way. Hannah said she just didn't consider race, which is the same thing Dunham said in response to criticism everyone in Season 1 was white. So it seemed appropriate, kind of making fun of herself.

ELEANOR: The scene had its moments (I loved the part where Sandy calls out Hannah for quoting Missy Elliot—though are we really supposed to buy the fact that Hannah doesn't know who she is?). But overall it seemed like a rushed, hamfisted way to acknowledge all the show's racial blind spots—and to break the couple up quickly so Donald Glover could end his episode arc and get back to work.

ASHLEY: I think it works as a quick fix for addressing the criticisms about race. For the writing team, including a scene like this was probably a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't kind of decision, and I applaud them for having done it. I do think the conversation between Hannah and Sandy only scratches at something that really is worth discussing: representations of race, the weird politics of "race blindness," etc. But Girls is a show that mutters its messages rather than sermonizing them, and to go too far in-depth with this particular scene would probably feel false.

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