Four Atlantic staffers sound off on whether the portrayals of their generation's quirks in the third episode of Season Two of Lena Dunham's HBO show ring true.
Things got very weird, very fast for the characters on Girls this week. Hannah and Elijah had a coke-fueled heart-to-heart that went awry; Marnie hooked up with someone who had an overly observant doll propped up next to his bed. There were mesh shirts and cold-call drug deals involved, plus some late-night consoling of an ex-addict crying in a grocery store. Again: Things got weird.
Experimentation, though, is what youth is all about ... right?
Below, a panel of millennials from the Atlantic staff—The Sexes channel editor Eleanor Barkhorn, Health channel editor James Hamblin, social media editor Chris Heller, and Entertainment and Sexes editorial fellow Ashley Fetters—respond to questions raised by the show's depiction of drug use, Internet writers, and guys who keep human cages made out of television sets in their apartments.
CHRIS: Hannah snorting coke and dancing in club kid's neon mesh shirt made for a splendid hot mess. And once again, Girls chose to depict drug use in ambiguous terms. When Hannah drank opium tea, she threw an artistic tantrum in front of her parents. (That's not good.) When Shoshanna smoked crack, she met Ray. (That's good!) Although it's clear that the coke-fueled dance binge was bad news for Hannah and Elijah's friendship, I'm not so sure that it's meant to be an outright criticism of doing drugs. At the risk of revealing myself to be a debaucher, I'm glad that's the case.
If we're supposed to approach Girls as a show about young people living in New York, it should depict the things that certain types of young people living in New York like to do. Meaning ... drugs. Excessive drug use is not good, of course, and showing it on TV can be an irresponsible way to suggest that it can be. That's not what I see happening in this episode, though. Hannah and Elijah get high, have a great time, then fight when they start to crash. I'd say that's a pretty excellent depiction of any sort of drug use. What do you all think?
(Also, I can't remember a time when a character on Girls has smoked pot on screen. Please tell me this has happened and I just forgot.)
ASHLEY: Charlie and Marnie met in college after Marnie ate a pot brownie and got paranoid. (That's ... kind of good and kind of not!) Plus I feel like Jessa smoked pot at some point? Maybe because she did, but also maybe because, you know, Jessa.
CHRIS: Henceforth, you are the official Girls archivist of The Atlantic. James Russell Lowell would be so proud.
JAMES: Yeah they've hit the most common side effect of this stuff, which is acting obnoxious. They included a recovering addict, too. I think it's fair. If someone does coke for the first time because they saw it on Girls and thought it looked awesome, they're impressionable enough that they were going to try it anyway.
ASHLEY: Totally. This episode made coke look fabulous! At least in the early stages, with the Icona Pop happening.
ELEANOR: Yeah, agreed. Girls is not an after-school special, so it has no obligations to be "responsible" about drugs. Though ... I may be more impressionable than I'd like to admit—the Shoshana crack plotline from last season has made me seriously consider putting myself in a situation where I could accidentally smoke crack. Don't tell my mom I said that.
JAMES: I'm not a psychiatrist, but I guess it's one of those situations where she's into people who treat her like she (subconsciously?) feels she deserves to be treated, which is to say, locked in a box made of TVs.
ELEANOR: Yeah, this seems to be the latest humiliation in Marnie's long fall: losing her job, having unsuccessful sex with her best friend's ex-boyfriend, starting a new job that requires her to wear short shorts and suspenders. Now, she's discovered that the mysterious artist she became infatuated with last season is in fact a controlling, pathological weirdo (not to mention a terrible lover) ... but she's so far down the humiliation spiral that she can't even see him for the disaster that he is.
ASHLEY: Yeah, there's not a great defense for getting with someone who locks you in a creepy TV box and then borderline forgets you're in there. Generally that's pretty uncool, and it's a testament to how confused Marnie is that she doesn't recognize it as uncool.
What's maybe worth noting, though, is that Marnie isn't as sketched out by Booth Jonathan as we, the people of this roundtable, are (or at least isn't yet—and I bet she'll get there). Right after Booth releases her from the creepy TV box, she tells him, "You're so fucking talented." In other words, he's weird, but she's into that. And even after her not-so-mindblowing sex with Booth, Marnie still humblebrags about it to Hannah via text. At this point, she may be messing around with Booth simply because, despite (or maybe because of!) the disturbing TV box antics, she still finds him mysterious and captivating and, yes, talented. And let's be real: She wouldn't be the first person to sleep with another person for those reasons.
CHRIS: Ashley's right. Booth is an unbelievable creep, but Marnie's so awed by his "talent" that she's starry-eyed around him—or, when she's not. (Hello, technicolor zoo-snuff prison!)
This fling with Booth serves a thematic purpose, too. The relationship is almost entirely out of Marnie's control—a nifty turn against the nice-guy nonsense she got with Charlie last season. In many other ways, as Eleanor mentioned, we're watching the most put-together character on Girls get torn to shreds. It's going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. Poor Marnie.
ASHLEY: I'd say it speaks to the fact that uncomfortable situations can ensue in the sober, daylight hours after what seemed like a good idea at the time. In a broader context, this plot arc is a smart, honest move on the show's part, because a lot of the casual sex on Girls seems to happen without consequences.
There's a lot of concerned-grown-up speculation over kids today and their "no strings attached" sex, often aimed at exposing how it's never really without its "strings." Plenty of young people, though, would say that sometimes casual sex catches up to you and other times it doesn't. Girls has done a nice job portraying both sides of that coin: Over the course of the two seasons, we've seen Hannah and Jessa both have random and commitment-free encounters and walk away unscathed, but we've also seen that lead to some post-hookup weirdness (i.e., Shoshanna and Ray, and now Marnie and Elijah—even though their encounter was more of a weird misfire than anything else).
I think Lena & Co. are striking a nice balance. A show that glossed over the awkward, un-fun complications that can arise from noncommittal sex or sex between friends would be flat-out lying, but a show that portrayed them as an inevitable consequence would be just as untrue—as well as sort of prudish.
JAMES: Is Hannah really that upset, though? Or does she just jump on any opportunity to play the victim, so she can get attention and hold it over other people's heads? I thought that's all it was, her being awful. She treats sex casually, except when it works to her advantage to be super dramatic about it.
ELEANOR: I think Elijah's the one who's being super dramatic. Their hookup lasted all of a minute! And it ended because Elijah, at least on a physiological level, wasn't interested in Marnie. So I've been surprised that he made such a straightforward confession to both George and Hannah, rather than taking it a little more lightly—e.g. "Oh, you wouldn't believe the crazy thing that happened!"
CHRIS: Am I the only one who thinks that Elijah and Marnie's hookup is as significant as the show thinks it is? Ashley makes a strong point about the role casual sex plays on Girls—it's a smart way to demonstrate the consequences and rewards of what's essentially a conflicted sort of intimacy. Although, I think there's something different at stake with Elijah and Marnie. They both know Hannah incredibly well, to the point that they predicted almost exactly how she would react to the news. (Step 1: Make it about herself. Step 2: Freak out. Step 3: Repeat Step 1.)
Girls thrives on the messes it creates. The hookup was a smart way to tie these first few episodes together. Without it, Elijah would still seem like a tertiary character, Marnie's life would be relatively less of a disaster, and Hannah would be happy with her friends. I would not want to watch that show.
ELEANOR: This is one of those scenes where Girls shows that it's less a gritty "voice of a generation" comedy and more a parody of urban life in the 2010s (the over-the-top abortion clinic scene from last season had the same effect). Everything about the exchange seemed tailored to generate "what a crazy world we live in" guffaws: the fact that the interview was in the lobby, not the editor's office; the out-of-the-comfort-zone wall art; the editor's insistence that Hannah write something provocative. Yeah, the scene contains grains of truth (esp. the low pay rate bit) but mostly it felt like a hammy spoof of what writing for the Internetz is like.
ASHLEY: Totally agree on the spoofing front. That scene highlighted some of the wackier, more depressing truths of online-media work. Like any good parody, it glosses over the totally normal aspects.
The forceful "get out of your comfort zone" mantra is a caricature, too, as far as I can tell—I've personally never been preyed on by an editor the way Hannah is. (All the weird stunts I've performed for the sake of journalism have been of a fully voluntary, "Dude-I'm-gonna-do-this-do-you-want-1200-words?!" nature.)
CHRIS: Yea, it's entirely a spoof. Although, I'm sure I'm not the only one who knows from experience that $200 for an assignment isn't even close to how little many freelancers get paid. (When they get paid, that is.) It's old hat to complain about how your profession is depicted on TV, but ... yeesh. This scene was an entertaining way to skewer places like xoJane. That's about it.
JAMES: I like xoJane.