Friday, June 22, 2012

The Trouble with Girls ... and Boys

Les girls - Jessa, Marnie, Hannah & Shoshanna
Girls, HBO Series, Sundays at 10:30pm (Writer/Director/Actor Lena Dunham)

This new series focuses on four 20-something women in New York city. Meet les girls: 

Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) is an aspiring writer working on her, ahem, memoir whose parents have suddenly withdrawn their financial support to force her to become more independent. Hannah has an on again, off again, sexual relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), who is mildly bullying in bed and not much better emotionally outside of it. Hannah's roommate, Marnie (Allison Williams) works in an art gallery and has a dissatisfying relationship with a nice, but ineffectual, boyfriend named Charlie. Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a newly arrived and sexually sophisticated Brit, moves in with her younger (and virginal) cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet).

Hilarity ensues. Not really, more like ... confusion, self-doubt and self-examination which, the longer I contemplate these four individuals, seems more and more believable to me.

Dunham, who writes, acts in and sometimes directs the series, is interesting: not conventionally pretty (even though Marnie and Jessa are very much so), even plain, and utterly fearless. The publicity shot above is deceptive. Dark eyeliner and prominent tats aside, she is a rather plain girl, at best, cute in a quirky way. I hesitate to even raise the issue of her looks because I think that all women are viewed through the prism of their attractiveness or unattractiveness (even by other women, especially by other women) but I think this is a deliberate move on Dunham's part.

She doesn't seem to care if she comes off sloppy looking or dowdy or unattractive. It's like her character says in one of the episodes: "You can't say anything mean about me that I haven't already thought about myself ..." (aah, the preemptive I think I'm plain so I beat you to it before you say it ploy). Her clothes are often the most graceless in the cast, deliberately so, I believe. Marnie and Jessa always look pretty and well groomed, Hannah not so much. We should remember that she also directs many of the episodes and can exert that kind of control over her own image. She has thoughtful things to say about the creation of the concept of the show that you may read here.

Hannah, smart and articulate, is sometimes full of the misplaced confidence of a bright young thing in the throes of an exciting adventure as in the scene where she kids a prospective employer that he was the date rapist who plagued their mutual alma mater years ago. Guess what ... she doesn't get the job.

Marnie is more driven, a type A beauty who is constantly chastising her friends and trying to make them tow the line. But like many controlling personalities she is rarely satisfied, rarely happy. 

Jessa is so hip, so nonchalant, that she skips a planned medical appointment to get an abortion to make out with a stranger. Shoshanna is a little flakier, obsessed with Sex in the City, probably 'cause she ain't getting any of same in the city.

The show is ostensibly about these young females working in the big city (or, as it happens, not working), hooking up, forging relationships with each other but a pattern emerges here where the series appears to actually be about what "girls" think about "boys". They, the girls, often appear disappointed, dispirited, about the male species. They seem confused about what they want from them, sexually and emotionally, and the boys seem confused about how to deliver these things to the girls.

Why the girls can't seem to get it up ... 

Boys are not sufficiently macho ... 
Marnie (Allison Williams) has a sweet natured boyfriend named Charlie (Christopher Abbott) who, unfortunately, bores her to tears. She prefers it doggie style (which she hates*) to actually looking at him during sex. Hannah opines that Marnie has, perhaps, wearied of "eating his vagina". Ouch. Charlie reads this in Hannah's diary, stolen by his best friend, and writes a song about it that he sings in front of all the girls in a club. He breaks up with Marnie then he relents and accepts her back (being the nice guy that he is). She breaks up with him again ... immediately ... post coitus, like really post coitus. The nicer Charlie is, the less desirable he is to Marnie.

Boys are more attractive when they are the aggressors ... 
When Marnie meets a more sexually and verbally aggressive man at the art gallery where she works, who is attracted to her and who explicitly tells her what he will do to her, she is at first stunned then intensely aroused. Bravely, on Dunham's part, we see this fairly explicitly on screen. This is the conundrum of modern feminism: we say we want men to be gentle, respectful and sensitive but for some women it's a turn off sexually. It goes against our progressive sensibilities but there it is ...

Hannah's love interest Adam is initially selfish, sometimes self-absorbed and a bit of a bully in bed (personally I find him to be an unattractive creep and in most of the episodes I don't think there is one scene where he wears a shirt). Yet Hannah is still attached to him. They don't date; they have sex. That's it. That is the extent of their "relationship" for most of the season. She willing succumbs to his desires in bed, passively, almost disinterestedly, even when she is uneasy or nervous. This is what seems to hold her, not the sex, the domination of her will. 

Boys are deceitful ...
Adam ignores Hannah's texts, ignores her and her needs. He "accidentally" sexts her then apologizes and blithely explains that it was meant for someone else.

One of Hannah's exes, Elijah, turns out to be gay and likely knew it while they were having a sexual relationship for two years before he came out. He gives her an STD, then denies it. The whole conversation is a disaster with Hannah getting the distinct impression from him that she "made him turn gay".

Jessa flirts with the married father of the two kids that she babysits who is eager to begin a relationship with her under the nose of his wife. She turns him down stating she liked him better when he was "the nice guy". Isn't that always the way, he mutters afterwards.

Boys can be jerks, surprisingly, girls can be jerkier ...
Jessa (Jemima Kirke) re-seduces an old flame, just for the fun of it, even though he already has another girlfriend whom he says he's committed to. Marnie initiates make up sex with Charlie after he leaves her then promptly breaks up with him again.

In the final episode, after Adam has told her that he loves her and wants to live with her, Hannah agrees to take on Elijah (her old boyfriend) as a roommate. Adam is justifiably incensed, accusing her of pursuing him ("like I was a Beatle or something") and then immediately backing off when he responds emotionally. He's right.he has put himself out there and she has shot him down. 

Girls has a bit of a Sex in the City for 20 somethings vibe but there is also a tiny sense of a Whit Stillman film here. I was not particularly surprised to see Chris Eigeman, who played Nick Smith in Metropolitan (1990) and a number of other roles in Stillman's films, as Hannah's boss, in the first episode. It does feel a bit like a story about privileged, intellectually precocious kids set adrift in New York. However, these gals don't have trust funds and paying the rent is a real, ongoing worry. But they are similarly verbose and intellectual, preoccupied with the other sex and clarifying the rules of engagement with same. 

There has been criticism that these are a bunch of whiny, first-world-problem girls, that there is no ethnic diversity, and, that a retrograde image of femininity is being projected. Maybe, maybe so ... but I think it's a fairly accurate portrait of a certain kind of brainy, middle class female living in a large urban center in the 21st c. Dunham says that she is going to address the lack of racial diversity next season. I, for one, look forward to it and seeing more of her.

*This reminds me of joke from a recent film where two women were talking about doing it "doggie style". One woman says that some women like it. The other responds acidly, "Come on, not even the dogs like it ..."
Adam (Driver), shirtless as usual, and Hannah (Dunham)

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