The 'Girls' Gut Check: What's Grosser—Q-Tip Injuries or Kanye Karaoke?

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

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HBO

This week's episode of Girls was all about train wrecks: the screeching-halt, can't-look-away kind. Things were gong swimmingly between Adam and Natalia until some unwanted sexual hijinks derailed their new relationship. Hannah injured herself with a Q-Tip after her ebook editor sent her back to the drawing board. Shoshanna half-confessed her indiscretions with the doorman to Ray. And Marnie made her big debut as a singer at a party for Charlie's start-up—which resulted in a stern talk from Charlie and some unexpected reunion sex.

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)—discuss Q-Tips, little white lies, and that very uncomfortable rendition of Kanye West's "Stronger."


A Q-Tip went down Hannah's ear. Marnie delivered a very awkward serenade. And Adam and Natalia, uh, yeah. In this episode of uncomfortable moments, what made you squirm the most, and why?

ELEANOR: When Adam ordered the Jack and ginger at the engagement party. You could see the concern in Natalya's eyes—her mom's an alcoholic, so she knows one drink is going to turn into a billion drinks—but it's too early in their relationship for her to be telling him what to do. And of course she has no idea that he's just run into Hannah, who's a trigger. Just a whole web of unspoken darkness and pain.

CHRIS: The look on Natalia's face seconds after Adam has sex with her. I can't recall a moment on Girls that's as upsetting—or troubling—as this one, if only because it was a believable turn for his character. Adam belongs with the broken people.

JAMES: Adam's sexual proclivities are going to be a barrier to any relationship.

ASHLEY: The part I had the most trouble stomaching was the Q-Tip ear thing. I had my hands over my ears. And, tangentially, I agree with Jim: If Adam wants to be with someone who can provide the out-of-bed stability and normalcy he liked about Natalia but also put up with and/or enjoy his sexual power-dynamics game, he'll have a difficult time finding her.


What do we think is going on in Shoshanna's head? She ignores Ray, then when confronted half-confesses, half-lies, and opts to keep the relationship going.

JAMES: She's over him and doesn't know what to do. Remember how he's 33 and intermittently suicidal?

ELEANOR: I'm more intrigued by what's going on in Ray's head. Why did he let her off without some more questioning? When a significant other is acting weird, it's almost always for bigger reasons than some illicit handholding. Yeah, it would be in character for Shosh to be stressing out about something as small as that... but even if he does believe her, wouldn't he be curious? What doorman? When? How? I think he's purposefully not going down this road because he doesn't want to lose her.

CHRIS: He didn't interrogate her about it because she's slipping away from him. Ray already fears that Shoshanna has outgrown him, so, he's too preoccupied with clinging to the relationship to care about what she did with the doorman. He might even be deluded enough to think that Shoshanna only "held hands" with him. In his mind, she would be broken up about something so innocent—yet another example of him treating her like a child.

ASHLEY: Babies holding hands, man. The grown-up thing to do would be to first confront what really happened, and then confront why it happened. It hasn't occurred to either of them to do either of these things.

Again, Jim said something that's totally worth expanding on: Shoshanna probably knows she's the stablest thing in Ray's life right now. She does care about him, so it's easy to see why she would feel guilty about leaving when Ray seems to really need her.


A new low for Marnie? Or maybe a new beginning? She did, after all, pursue a passion and have sex with someone other than Booth Jonathan.

ASHLEY: It's true. It took a new-levels-of-awkward Kanye West cover to bring about the necessary conversation, but it feels somehow right that Charlie would be the one to deliver the Marnie-you're-spiraling speech. Marnie cares what he thinks. Maybe this is finally the moment when Marnie takes a good hard look at herself and makes some changes.

Worth putting out there, though: Marnie actually can sing pretty nicely. This may have been a poor choice of occasion (and song) to reveal it, but she's not deluded about that.

JAMES: I was proud of her. It takes confidence to get up there, sing, finish the song, and then still feel good about having done it afterward. That's either mania or confidence, and she doesn't seem manic. It's the same oblivious confidence we love about Kanye West, coupled with a romantic sensibility that's a little anachronistic, from an '80s John Hughes era where grand gestures like this weren't scorned by a generation where effort was lame.

CHRIS: I couldn't disagree more. Even if it takes confidence to do what Marnie did, that confidence is fueled by such an absurd disregard for social standards that it raises some big questions about her judgement. The song she "wrote" isn't quite an attempt to win Charlie back—and it isn't quite an attempt to criticize him, either—but it definitely reveals just how delusional she has become. So what if she hooked up with him afterward? I doubt it meant anything to him. This is the lowest of lows for Marnie.

ELEANOR: Yeah, I'm in the camp that says what she did was bizarre and delusional. The performance wasn't as embarrassing as it could have been, I suppose. When it became clear that she was going to sing, I was worried she was going to do a Mad Men-style hyper-sexual ode to Charlie, possibly in French. But it was still strange, and yet another milestone in Marnie's precipitous fall this season.


Marnie's performance wasn't as embarrassing as it could have been. I was worried she would do a Mad Men-style, hyper-sexual ode to Charlie, possibly in French.

"What other way is there?" That's Natalia's question for Adam after she lays down some fairly specific sexual ground rules at the beginning of the episode. Later, we see there is, indeed, another way, and it involves crawling on all fours. What was the show getting at with these two sexual encounters?

CHRIS: Aside from making everyone who watched it cringe? The sex scenes that bookend this episode emphasize what I suspect will be Adam and Hannah's ill-advised reconciliation. He's really into how Natalia tells him what she wants in the bedroom—which Hannah never, ever did with him—but that's a hallmark of a traditional, healthy relationship, and as we see, he's uncomfortable with what that can also entail. He prefers a harsher sort of dominance and submission, which demands a careful awareness of his partner. Adam doesn't do this—and consensual or otherwise, what he did to Natalia was wrong—which is why the "crawl on all fours" scene quickly veers from rough sex to emotional abuse. The circumstances were different when he was with Hannah. I predict this will push him back toward her.

ASHLEY: There's nothing inherently wrong about rough sex, or sex in which one party calls the shots—so long as that's consensual and both partners like it. What was unsettling about this encounter was that it didn't feel consensual. One party was getting off, and the other was frightened.

Paired with Hannah's experience with Joshua, we've now seen both Adam and Hannah reveal their true colors only to have it frighten their more traditional partners. It makes me a little queasy, but I also feel like this is a setup for Adam and Hannah to suddenly realize that their dysfunction together is somehow better than their separate dysfunction with anybody else. Or something.

ELEANOR: I saw the contrast between these two scenes as further proof of Girls's "happiness can only last for 10 minutes" thesis. The show opens with Adam and Natalia in a functional relationship based on mutual respect and open communication. And within a day or so, that relationship transforms into an ugly, unhappy power struggle. I get that things fall apart, the world is a dark place, etc...but does it always have to get so dark, so quickly? I really hope that at least one character gets to be happy for at least a few episodes at some point in this series. I'd love to see what semi-sustained happiness looks like in Girls world.

CHRIS: We'll always have Thomas-John's mashups to cheer us up.

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