The False Depth of Dudes: Why Girls' Guys Are All So Ridiculous

Our roundtable discusses "Incidentals," the eighth episode of the HBO show's third season.


This week's panelists: Ashley Fetters, Chris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber

Kornhaber: I laughed a lot at the dialogue on this episode of Girls, but my favorite parts may have been the facial expressions. There was Hannah’s furrowed brow and shifty eyes while Adam’s new castmate Desi led an acoustic singalong of Bob Dylan/Michelle Branch’s “Roll on John.” There was Marnie’s dropped-jaw disgust while Ray dumped her. And there were Jessa’s pursed lips at Jasper’s manic ranting (“You can lie to your friends, you can lie to your parents, you can lie to the mirror, but you can't lie to me!”) in the kids’ store.

Note the line that followed all of these excellent looks directed at men. Hannah: “Are they fucking kidding me?” Marnie: “Are you fucking serious?” Jessa: “You’re high.”

Girls, as we’ve discussed, is about a lot of things: entitled millennials, female friendships, career compromises. It’s also, of course, about gender. And this episode, for me, helped crystalize one of the show’s main motifs on the subject. Call it The False Depth of Dudes.

The girls of Girls attract viewer criticism for their self-centeredness. But the reason their self-centeredness stands out so much is that most of the female characters have no filter. Hannah in particular says whatever she’s feeling whenever she wants; Marnie has evolved further in that direction this season as well, and that’s been fun/grating to see. But the guys are different. They’re constantly trying to prove their intelligence and profundity.

There’s Desi, performing campfire songs and spinning tales about vision quests at a hotel party—even Elijah knows the guy’s full of it (“I hate myself for loving him”). There’s Jasper, mansplaining to Shoshanna about college (“I know!” she shrieks, hitting him) and to Jessa about her true nature. There’s Ray, who even in ending his relationship with Marnie drips pretention with every word. All these guys think they’re smarter than the women around them. All are shown to be ridiculous.

(The ur-example of this is the all-but-forgotten Booth Jonathan, referenced in this episode as “a wiener in a halfshell.”)

This is actually a pretty radical portrayal—contrary to certain stereotypes about the sexes, on Girls it’s men who are calculated and made-up, not women. And I think it’s often true to life; society’s idea of how men should act can often result in displays of phony, condescending self-seriousness.

For the entire series, Adam also has displayed false depth—welding inscrutable sculptures, lecturing his girlfriend about processed foods and online gossip, picking some notion of artistic integrity over employment. But one cool thing about this season, and particularly this episode, has been the way he’s slowly started to scale back the BS, accepting Hannah for Hannah and dropping the attitude that prevented him from landing a job.

That process is part of growing up, which, as we talked about two weeks back, is something all the main characters have been trying to do lately. Much of this episode felt tense because time after time, you expected someone to ruin a normal-person situation by being childish and weird. But at the casting director’s office, Adam politely complies when asked to get off his phone, and then nervously chuckles when told he landed the part; he saves his more animalistic emotions for the bathroom, where he muffle his victory roars with paper towels. Hannah freaks out at her adult-sized paycheck and says she’s going to “make it rain,” but the shopping spree we then witness isn’t reckless at all—she just bought one nice dress.

The one exception is Jessa, who feigns happiness with her newly stable life—“I eat lunch every day!”—but then gives into Jasper’s cajoling, takes coke, and robs her store. Hannah’s right: They took her out of rehab too soon.

I loved the closing scene with Hannah and Adam in the bathtub. He tells her he finds Elijah ridiculous; she says the same of Desi. She confides her Patti Lupone-induced fears about Adam getting the Broadway job, but assures him that she loves him and is glad he’s doing what he wants to do. His reply: “Ditto.” It’s a lovely, genuine, honest exchange—one of the few we’ve seen on the show where a woman says how she really feels, and a guy doesn’t try to make her feel bad for it.

What do you all think: Is the False Depth of Dudes a thing? Is the show being unfair to men? Or am I reading into things too much?

Heller: Well, ahem, you see, to understand the psychological makeup of the contemporary adult male, firstly, we must rigorously investigate the socioeconomic systems that dominate the masculine experience in 21st-century America.

Just kidding. False depth is most definitely a thing, Spencer—and I would know, since I'm guilty of it almost as often as the guys of Girls. (Except for Desi, Broadway's newfound king of pretense.) While every character on the show is self-centered, and every character expresses that selfishness through a persona, the men are much more bigheaded about it. I'm with you on that. I even agree that Girls isn't unfair to men—or, at least, it treats them no less critically than it does women.

Of course, the guys aren't the only ones who are full of themselves. What about Hannah's humblebrags about the Patti LuPone interview? Or Jessa's morbid, attention-getting window displays? It's easy to spot big egos in these moments, too. But the girls aren’t creating false depth. They're creating an illusion of importance.

That's why my favorite part of this season, so far, has been the slow turn away from those illusions. The guys and girls are finally changing. Can you imagine the Adam we met in the first season ever sharing a bath with Hannah? Or Hannah sharing her feelings with him? It's a huge step forward for their relationship, and it adds a delightful sweetness to the show. They're growing up together.

Growing up, though, invites a whole new kind of problem into their lives. I think "Incidentals" is about the tension between professional success and personal authenticity, which has been bubbling up since Hannah landed her GQ job a few weeks ago. I love how the episode even winks at that theme with George Bernard Shaw: Adam's big break is in Major Barbara, a play about the value of money from unsavory sources. It extends beyond sly allusions, too. Hannah's anxieties about advertorials fizzled away when she saw her first fat paycheck. (And after, when she bought that new dress and had her first "lady conquering Manhattan" moment.) Jessa almost talked herself into the benefits of a lunch-a-day retail career—until Jasper pushed her off the wagon. Even Soojin, the girl who once worked for Booth Jonathan, reappears to remind us that chasing your passion won't make you any less insufferable.

Add it all up, and suddenly, the question isn't as simple as "Should Hannah sell out?" She may not even know what that means. The reality of a budding career is much more complicated than a dream or a paycheck. I never totally bought into the idea of Hannah as a writer—as "a voice of a generation"—because Girls never bothered to tell us why she wanted that life so badly. Maybe that's why the GQ storyline resonates so well. We know she needs money. We know she needs a job. It makes sense right now. We don't know if Hannah will pursue her dreams again—it'd be an awfully strange show if she doesn't—but in the meantime, Girls is more interesting than it's been in a long time.

What do you think, Ashley?

Fetters: I agree with that assessment, mostly: The women on the show are mouthpieces for their own basic instincts, while the men, we’re led to believe, have egos and superegos separate from their ids. The male characters are the ones who say things they might not actually mean.

But to me, this is what makes them some of the more interesting, emotionally affecting characters on the show.

Remember that magnificent scene when Ray ran into Shoshanna at Hannah’s birthday party, and it was clear that none of the words coming out of his mouth had anything to do with what he wanted to say to her? He had committed to presenting himself as Successful Guy at first, telling her all about his new having-it-togetherness and his new position as a coffee-shop manager and his new apartment—and then we saw it crumble away in the span of one short conversation.

Remember how much we, as a roundtable, loved that moment? Scenes like that are worth most of Ray’s put-upon arrogance for me; I’ll watch him build up and fine-tune his “false self” for a whole season if it means I can watch it fall apart so beautifully in a matter of heartrending seconds.

Booth Jonathan, too, found his inflated self-perception punctured spectacularly last season. He had a well-curated persona that he presented to the world, but when he found himself alone in a wine cellar during a party in his own home, he confessed to Marnie that he knew none of his friends actually liked him.

We liked that moment, too. “I think I underestimated his self-awareness,” was my assessment, and Jim called it “heartbreaking.” It’s hard to say there are many moments on this show that are truly heartbreaking, isn’t it? And at the time, I said it was the most surprising reveal in an episode full of surprises.

We’ve talked a lot of about characters surprising us this season—we’ve been surprised by Shoshanna’s transformation, and Chris, as you mentioned, we’ve been surprised at some of Hannah’s mature decisions. (Though I’m not sure I agree that Hannah and Adam sharing feelings and/or bathing together is a totally new thing. Rather, I think those activities are just going more smoothly than they have in the past. See: the rollercoaster “I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time, thinks I’m the best person in the world…” speech, the time Adam peed on Hannah in the shower.)

So maybe the female characters being such open books and the male characters being so shrouded in constructed ideas about themselves gives them different kinds of opportunities to surprise us. The girls are obnoxiously unfiltered, and that’s why they often deliver quietly astonishing developments: Because we can presume to know them so well, they can startle us with the ways they change or decide to move forward. The guys, meanwhile, are, indeed, grossly overcommitted to maintaining facades—but their momentary lapses have provided the show with some of its best and most poignant revelations.

So keep on mansplaining, Jasper, and Desi, keep strumming that pretentious guitar. And most importantly, keep oozing that trademark condescension, Ray. It’s only a matter of time.