“Girls” and quick-witted, neurotic self-delusions (or, just “girls” for short)

29 April 2012

Hannah (Lena Dunham) is lying in her hospital gown, rattling on nervously to the gynecologist about why she’s getting screened for sexually transmitted infections. She describes her lifelong fear of dying of AIDS. The doctor asks if she knows someone who died of it. “Umm, it’s more of like a Forrest Gump based fear,” she explains. “That’s what Robin Wright Penn’s character died of. So….”

Even though she always uses a condom with her partners, she says, she’s worried about getting infected by the “stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms.” (Having googled that query, she’s pretty convinced it’s something to worry about.) The gynecologist looks at her with exactly the kind of disbelieving annoyance that was probably on my face during this scene.

“You could not pay me enough to be 24 again,” the gynecologist says.

“Well, they’re not paying me at all,” Hannah replies.

I can’t imagine a better snippet of dialogue to catch the way these Girls of Dunham’s articulate exactly the kind of emotional and intellectual chaos I see in my students of the same relative intelligence and class status. They’ve got a whipsmart quick-wittedness that serves as the lingua franca of young women — self-identifying as smart, self-deprecating, funny, astute, sometimes brutally honest. Traveling in packs with the volume jacked up, these girls’ verbal patter can reach a manic level. But they’re neither self-aware nor knowledgeable enough to know how idiotic they sound to everyone who lives outside their tribe. The patter covers up a lot of the neurotic uncertainty.

You sort of want to grab them by the shoulders, give them a good shake, and say, calm down, shut up, and stop it with your attention-deficit chatter for a sec. You also kind of love them for their non-filtered logorrhea. Which brings me to the first relevant point about this show: as its creator/ director, Lena Dunham offers us a theory about why these are “girls,” not “women” — and it has to do with what they call themselves, and what they will allow themselves to be. Whereas Sex and the City fantasized a world we could all aspire to, with perfect financial comfort, work enjoyment, sexual confidence, spectacular clothing, and available men, these Girls are finding none of the above. They live in Brooklyn, not Manhattan. They have bodies and clothes I recognize as real. They screw up their job interviews.

The men are so undesirable as to be chilling. Hannah’s perpetually disappointing fuck-buddy Adam (Adam Driver), an “actor,” hangs out in his apartment with no shirt on — clearly imagining that he’s far more all-that than he is. Hannah’s awful sex scenes with him will make you grip the arms on your chair.

It’s not just the spectacularly bad sex that makes you cringe; it’s also the crazy sense of entitlement undercut with glimpses of self-doubt managed, one guesses, by anti-anxiety medications. How else to explain Hannah’s situation at the table with her parents as they announce they’re cutting her off financially? When she protests that she’s not done writing her memoir (!) she explains, “I think I may be the voice of my generation.” But then she backs up. “Or at least a voice. Of a generation.”

You see? This is great stuff, and it’s delivered with that same combination of quick-witted self-deprecation I recognize from those students of mine. And yet: she’s writing her memoir? Also believable, also cringe-making.

So yeah, you won’t identify with these characters. My students won’t show up in the fall telling me “I am sooo like Shoshanna!” the way they did ten years ago with Miranda, Carrie, Samantha and Charlotte. (There’s even a nice scene in the first episode in which Shoshanna burbles about which character she identifies with.) These girls haven’t figured out what they want, nor how to get it. They’re full of borrowed, would-be sage advice picked up here and there — and they’re quick to criticize each other — but they’re floundering. It’s kind of amazing.

Perhaps I should pause here to note that, between gazing on these Girls with disbelieving annoyance and laughing my butt off, I can’t believe no one has done this before. This writing is crisp, subtle, tight. The characters interrupt each other with non sequiturs so realistic and ridiculous that I want to watch all the episodes again to make sure I caught all the best jokes. Like when three of them sit in the clinic’s waiting room while Hannah gets ready for her STI examination:

Marnie, speaking to Shoshanna about Hannah: She’s obsessed with getting AIDS. She’s thought she was going to get it since she was like ten years old. That’s what this is about. [rolls eyes.]

Hannah: I don’t have an obsessive fear of AIDS. I have obsessive fear of HIV that turns into AIDS. I’m not a fool.

Marnie: Well, you don’t have HIV. You just don’t. It’s not that easy to contract.

Shoshanna: It’s really not that hard to contract either, though. I mean, haven’t you seen Rent?

Marnie, rolling eyes: Please. I’ve seen it like twelve times. It’s basically why I moved to New York.

You see? I swear I heard those same girls at the coffee shop this morning.

Compared to Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010, made when she was only 23, gulp), Girls is tight — and fearless. I quite liked that film,  but this series has an underlying perception and forthrightness about how these girls live that shows Dunham’s growing talent as a writer. Parts of it even feel like a shot across the bow by this gifted writer and young woman, especially given the second episode’s subject matter, “Vagina Panic” — which circles around Jessa’s scheduled abortion as well as Hannah’s STI anxieties.

Between the four of them, they articulate virtually every perspective on abortion — everything from “it’s devastating” to “whatever” — because that’s what they do; they blather. There’s no conceptual consistency to their opinions; they haven’t really thought them through. But neither does any one of them question the utter necessity of getting that abortion. “What’s she going to do? Have a baby and take it to her babysitting job? That’s not realistic,” Hannah insists in one of those perfect moments of clarity. Let’s face it: the idea of any one of these girls taking on motherhood is appalling.

Fuck yeah, Lena Dunham. We’ve all been complaining for years about the Judd Apatow-ization of film — the perpetual focus on men’s neurotic feelings and ambivalences, while stereotyping the women in their lives — so listen, friends, the time has come to watch one of those actual women skewer her own tribe. It’s so funny, so awful that you (like me) might find yourself watching the episode all over again to catch on to the jokes.

You could not pay me enough to be 24 again. Unless I could be Lena Dunham, using this as material toward a spectacular future.

9 Responses to ““Girls” and quick-witted, neurotic self-delusions (or, just “girls” for short)”

  1. servetus Says:

    This is interesting though I haven’t seen the show. It raises me the issue of perspective; I didn’t watch Sex and the City at the time but I wonder how I’d see it differently now than I would have then.

    You could, however, definitely pay me to be 24 again. I was just finally figuring things out, and I had an unbelievable confidence, especially about my body, that I’ve lost in the interval.

  2. Dienna Says:

    You know, I had no interest in this show. Watched the preview and couldn’t relate to any of the characters. While I have watched other shows were I had nothing in common with their characters, I managed to find something to hook me. With this show, I just can’t.

    However, you have written a very interesting review and critique on it, so I’ll give you that!

    • Didion Says:

      I don’t have anything in common with them either. They make me cringe — and laugh so, so hard. I really do want to give them a good shake. But that nonstop patter of theirs seems exactly right — and just fantastically satirical of that class/ cohort of girls.

      But hey, this is why we watch shows, right? sometimes they work for us and sometimes they don’t. And who knows: maybe I just need a good cringe comedy right now!

  3. neil Says:

    After reading this I grabbed the first episode: I really enjoyed it. The clingy boyfriend made me cringe (as I saw a bit too much of my former single-self in him) and Lena Dunham seems a perfect bundle of NYC neurosis, wit, and acerbity. Upon finishing the first episode, I immediately recommended the show to one of my former students (she will be starting her freshman year at Colombia in September).

    • neil Says:

      Ok. I just started watching episode two, and now feel weird about recommending the show to a former student (“Going home to my parents covered in…”). Yikes! Or rather, “Ew!”

      • Didion Says:

        Ha! this is hilarious — and too true. It’s so cringe-making. This is not your mama’s Sex and the City, where the sex is great virtually all of the time. You could not pay me enough to be 24 again.

  4. Hattie Says:

    Well, I sure identified with the show and the characters. I am not in denial about what I was like at that age. Of course that could be because I’m 72! As I have said elsewhere, younger women might be surprised to learn that the atmosphere around these women differs little from my experiences on the fringes of Bohemia in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
    Your analysis is excellent.

  5. I love Girls, and I always find myself identifying with the characters. .. I think Lena Dunham has captured what it’s like to be a girl my age perfectly. When I am watching the show, it often feels like someone took a camera and filmed my own group of friends. So happy you posted about Girls!

    • Didion Says:

      I know! it’s such a smart show, so perfectly written and acted. I just have so much respect and admiration for Dunham, who conceived this show so well. In fact, I have all the more respect for her after reading her lovely tribute to the late Nora Ephron in a recent copy of the New Yorker. And just to think that she’s got so many years of great work ahead of her … I can’t tell you how optimistic it makes me.

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