Debating HBO's 'Girls': It Gets Worse, It Gets Better

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Lena Dunham's Girls debuted last night, to much hype and a not inconsequential aftermath: We're still talking about it, aren't we? Two "girls" of The Atlantic Wire of varying ages watched, and we had feelings.  

That Sex Scene 

Rebecca: Pre air date, a lot of the Girls talk had to do with the "awkward" "bad sex," Lena Dunham's character, Hannah, has with what Frank Bruni called her "boyfriend." This dude, whom she earlier says never returns her texts, is absolutely zero percent her boyfriend. She's in the sort of murky, "uncomplicated" relationship that my cohort -- Dunham is only about a year older than I am -- often gets into when we're feeling lonely, bored, or insecure. Living in this post-sexual revolution world we still want sex and companionship, so we find ourselves an Adam to occupy our time, fulfill our libidos, and give us some sort of pseudo love. To me, it was clear Hannah has found herself in exactly this kind of confusing "relationship," so it didn't feel off that Dunham claimed she enjoyed herself and keep going back. She's getting sex and companionship, something we all crave, even though the sex looked a bit sad and the companion a lot douche-y. Adam does have his moments where he seems to care for Hannah a teeny-tiny bit, at least enough to keep her hooked. Yes, it's pathetic, but not unrealistic. It's much less pathetic and more believable than the sexual encounter Dunham has in Tiny Furniture, where she screws a man in a tube on the street. (That's pretty low.) But, even my most confident (and sexy!) friends have found themselves in repeated decent (borderline bad) sexual encounters that still fulfill them just enough emotionally and sexually to keep on doing it. The point, I think, is that this type of sexual encounter certainly happens among my peers, especially in that type of uncommitted relationship. Dunham claims it has something to do with YouPorn and the Internet, but I think it's more about being in the type of relationships that breeds bad communication all around. A guy who doesn't text back isn't going to care about you in bed, probably. Or at least not be open to talking about it.   

Jen: OK, this is painful. Painful in an extreme, Did we actually do this sort of thing back then? God I don't want to watch! way. As a woman who grew up on Sex and the City (and who's now in her 30s), the sex in Girls is, well, something new, but something old. New in that we haven't really seen it this way on TV. It's hard not to compare it to the Sex in the other show, and Dunham's clearly expecting you to make comparisons; she makes them herself, which we'll get to in a moment. But if you'll recall, Carrie's bad sex was of the guy-still-trying-to-please-her variety (think jackhammer sex guy from Charlotte's wedding, who thinks he's doing it just great). The same is generally true with her friends. There wasn't the same visceral, awful feeling of watching someone get used, as we feel when we watch Hannah and her male "friend," who balks at using condoms and wants to "sneak" in some anal sex when the moment arises. Yet, guys trying to use women is not a new thing—it's just that we're finally going there, in this new graphic sexual kind of way, on TV. That's what makes Girls so poignant, I think, at least, as someone who's older than the characters depicted. And that's what makes it something old, because whether we slept with insensitive loutish guys like Hannah's (that scene in which he grabs her fat rolls is just brutal) or had boyfriend's like Marnie's (the complete opposite, attentive and sweet and so doting that she can't help but despise him), we all eventually believe we've moved on from them, and this sort of behavior. Hopefully. This sex is real, yes, though wrought in the extreme: You want to yell and Hannah to get the hell out of that loser's apartment even as she's acting out her post-sexual-revolutionized "choice" to have sex with this idiot; you also want to take Marnie in hand and force her to release that poor boy from her cruel capture. But you can't, and they'll eventually do it for themselves, you have to believe. Because we did, right?

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The Sex and the City Reference 

Jen: Partway through the episode we're introduced to a fourth girl, completing the Sex and the City quadrant. There's Hannah, Dunham's character; her best friend, Marnie, who works in an art gallery and has shiny brown hair à la Charlotte; Jessa, the blonde British friend, the beautiful vagabond with a presumably adventurous sex life (and repercussions from that); and, finally, Shoshanna, a student at NYU and Jessa's cousin, who is, horror upon horrors, a virgin. Shoshanna is the one who brings us to the inevitable Sex and the City comparison, asking Jessa which character she would be: A Carrie? A Samantha? A Combination Carrie-Samantha? This is nicely done, serving to get the mention out there but also act as something of a diss to the original show. Shoshanna, for now at least, is the character most likely to make out-dated Sex and the City references while the others are clearly past that point, indicating that the rest of us have moved on, too.

Rebecca: This was more than the poster reference I was expecting. It's a whole minutes-long scene! Overall, it felt prescient and necessary, albeit a bit forced and caricatured. With the whole four women conquering New York City thing, the show has gotten that comparison, so good job Dunham for seeing that coming. But more than just a nod to its predecessor, it shows that our generation grew up watching and obsessing over Sex and The City, too. Even if we were far too young -- Dunham would have been 11 when it debuted -- to have those types of sexcapades during its run. Yet, with the TBS reruns and HBO box sets, we got to know the characters, comparing ourselves and friend groups to that clan. Though Shoshanna, the Zosia Mamet character, is a bit of a caricature, with her ditzy speak and pink Juicy jump suit -- I don't think a girl like that would wear that these days, it's a bit early 2000 -- she hints at another type of Girl, or part of a type of Girl, that some young 20 something girls would find relateable. 

The Weight Thing

Jen: Hannah's weight is a real factor in this show, and it's both good and bad. It's good because girls do come in all shapes and sizes, and are beautiful in all of those forms. Hannah's something of a "regular girl" we can relate to, not a stick-thin supermodel, nor even the pretty darn perfect Marnie or Jessa. But it's sad because in some ways this weight thing—and general appearances—feels like a way to manipulate the audience. We're supposed to feel sorry for Hannah, right? Because she's not as conventionally beautiful as her friends, and ends up with the shitty "boyfriend" who treats her terribly though she keeps going back for more. I hope—as later episodes seem to indicate—that we'll get a separation of the prettiness=perfect life (aka, Marnie's boyfriend is too great) concept. All girls have problems, no matter what they look like, problems outside of "my boyfriend respects me too much, he makes me sick." However: I do like that Hannah doesn't seem overly obsessed with her weight, and does have a healthy appetite. I pray we're not going to get diet-talk on this show.

Rebecca:  Her weight is definitely a thing in the show, but not THE thing, like other shows with token "fat characters." And, overall, I appreciate a non-stick thin female lead. Like Jen said, she has that "real girl" feel, especially in that cringe scene where Adam grabs her arm fat. Skinnier girls than Hannah have had that happen. Men: Stop doing that. I'm not sure I agree with Jen that we're supposed to think Hannah ends up with the shitty boyfriend because of her weight, directly. I think it's more about insecurity, which probably stems from her weight. From the teasers it looks like weight comes up more throughout the show, which feels like an accurate concern for a young not "perfectly" (whatever that means) shaped twentysomething girl. 

Female Relationships 

Rebecca: Dunham's characters in both Tiny Furniture and now Girls are a bit too pathetic for me to relate. But, friends of mine -- so, people around the age of Dunham -- have told me they let men walk all over them like that. So, maybe it's just me. And, even though it hurts for me to watch Hannah coo at Adam, a major dick who isn't into her, really, the other young female characters balance that out, presenting a different kind of girl behavior that girls my age, I think, can relate to. The dynamic of the girls also felt real, presenting the sort of feminism common among our kind, where we have the "right" ideals but employ the "wrong" behavior. Marnie, for example, is honest to Hannah about her thing with Adam, yet, is stuck in a different kind of very real modern arrangement, where she has outgrown her too-loving boyfriend. That contradiction is something I see a lot. We know the right thing to do and say as "modern women" but when it comes to ourselves, we fall into relationships or situations of which we would never approve. Also, yes, I know girls that spoon with each other and who have no problem getting naked together. Plus, Dunham, with Marnie's refusal to derobe in the bath, shows that not all of us are like that. 

Jen: The friendships of the girls felt pretty accurate, though I'd never eat a cupcake in the bathtub with a friend, male or female. Speaking of cupcakes, I like that there's sort of a degradation of the cupcake here! It's no longer a symbol of cuteness and girliness, but a device to show off Hannah's appetite. As for the friendships: Yes, when there are groups of girls, especially twentysomething girls, there is often some infighting and jockeying for attention among both female and male friends (as we see with Marnie and Jessa); there's also an accountability or keeping it real among ourselves, as women, thing, which we get in a lot of these conversations. They're there for each other, but it's in a more modern, more emo, less high-fiving girl power way than we might have seen depicted in the earlier 2000s. 

The Money Thing

Rebecca: I love the way Dunham approaches this taboo topic. It's embarrassing or not cool or something to get monetary support from one's parents among my peers. Nobody I know talks about it, yet we all know it's a reality for a chunk of people my age. Dunham puts it out there, with her line about all her friends getting money from their moms and dads. Again, it's not that everyone I know has the privilege of parental support, but certainly right out of college lots of my peers had help in some way or another. Like, at the very least a cell phone family plan. Maybe it's the bad economy. (Hello unpaid internships!) Maybe not. But, it's a real, and at times embarrassing for my generation, truth, and I love that Dunham addresses it head on. That Dunham can't or won't get her act together to find a paying job boggles my mind, though. I cannot believe two years out she still has an unpaid internship! She's over-the-top entitled.That, to me, is not a real, or at least very common, thing. The people I knew with unpaid internships after college didn't see it as a longer than a year thing and many of them worked extra jobs for cash on the side. 

Jen: This made me very upset. I hate, hate, hated the opening scene when Hannah demands, with stereotypical twentysomething entitlement, continued support from mom and dad, and then is a baby about it when they deny her. (Am I showing my age?) In fact, I hated pretty much everything about money in this episode (Hannah's failure to stand up and get a proper job included), until the end, when Hannah steals the money her parents left for the chambermaid and leaves the hotel, walking across the street with mussed hair looking like something the taxicab dragged across Fifth Avenue. Despite her post-opium-hungover state, there's a little spring in her step: Girl is making her own money, kinda-sorta! It felt like upward momentum, getting out of this sad sack life and onto a better one. Maybe I'm impatient, maybe the twentysomething slacker girl thing cuts too closely for some reason, now that I'm older, or maybe it's that it feels like it plays into a generalization (lots of twentysomething girls and guys work plenty hard). I did go on to watch the screener of the next two episodes, and it does, as Richard Lawson said in his review last week, get better with each one. But I really hated that there was this theme of entitlement and twentysomething "Mommy/Daddy must pay for my life!" Say what you will of Sex and the City and Carrie Bradshaw's immaturity with men and grossly expensive shoe addiction, we never got her asking for help from her parents: As far as we knew, she might not have even had any! Times are apparently different now. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.