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.
20 January 2011
“Oh, you look so pretty!” coos one of Aura’s old friends as she walks into a party — a line that drips with fake flattery. Aura (Lena Dunham) responds, “Oh, are you serious? I feel like this outfit just screams, like, ‘I’ve been living in Ohio for four years — take me back to your gross apartment and have sex with me.'” She has returned home to New York after graduating from college; in Tiny Furniture, writer-director Dunham tells the tale of being a 23-year-old adrift by highlighting her sense of disjunction with this world, a New York that seems as cold and hermetic as the miniature furniture Aura’s mother photographs in tiny scenarios. Tiny Furniture is a comedy, but it’s also a mood film akin to Sofia Coppola’s work — a film about what it means to be young, gifted, and dreaming of connection.
Maybe her Ohio college encouraged Aura’s earnestness and wry self-deprecation, but it’s clear they’ve always been part of her personality — and both tendencies are out of place in New York. Part of her sense of alienation is physical: her pudgy body contrasts with her mother’s and sister’s tall, willowy elegance (and Dunham loves to exaggerate with slumped shoulders and unflattering scenes of wandering the apartment in a t-shirt and underwear). Making it worse is the fact that her family doesn’t quite welcome her back with open arms; in Aura’s absence the two seem to have formed a tight bond that now feels exclusive, even chilly. Aura’s true sense of difference, however, comes from her desire to be an artist like her successful photographer mother and prizewinning poet sister — yet with only 357 hits on her YouTube video and a liberal-arts college degree in film theory, where does she start to find a path to artistic success? Her New York friends are tragically hip, glamorous, and decidedly unambitious; in fact, they seem to view ambition as the road to public humiliation, so they sit back and observe the world instead. Like so many recent college grads who move back home, Aura skirts the issue of her own dreams by getting a stupid job at a restaurant, going to parties with old friends, and drifting.
Then there are the boys. Aura’s longtime college boyfriend just dumped her — “something about having to build a shrine to his ancestors out of a dying tree” back home in Colorado, she explains with self-deprecating skepticism — and the New York options get worse the more we get to know them. She develops a crush on the restaurant’s hot chef (above), who only notices her intermittently and seems to see her primarily as a source of prescription painkillers. Then there’s Jed (below), an artist with a minor YouTube following for his Nietzschean Cowboy video despite its dubious contribution to the world of performance art. Jed coyly indicates he’s visiting New York for meetings with agents and producers, yet he has no money, no place to stay, and no clear interest in Aura. When she hears of him, Aura burbles, “He’s a little bit famous,” to which her more cool, cosmopolitan New York friend responds dismissively, “Yeah, I guess, in, like, an internet kind of way.” Plowing ahead with her aimless hopefulness, Aura invites Jed to stay in the apartment when her mother and sister depart on a college tour.
Critics have rightfully sung the praises of Dunham’s funny script — which only very occasionally suffers from a bit too much of a 23-year-old’s eagerness to include all her funny observations of stilted interactions — but for me it was the cinematography that marks the film’s best achievement. The filming does such a great service in marking the story’s contrasts. We faintly perceive that Aura’s mother’s apartment is one of those rare, extraordinarily huge and sunny New York spaces only possessed by the very wealthy and those who purchased real estate in the very distant past — yet the film portrays it as sterile, windowless, a sea of white paint and forbidding minimalism. The rare exterior shots are almost jarring when we realize there might be an outdoor urban world to be enjoyed; Aura’s one chance for sex takes place in a grimly awful enclosed space in an abandoned lot. Between those shots and the closed-off emotions of the New Yorkers around her, Aura appears even more a breath of fresh air utterly out of place. And that freshness goes for much more than her terrific sense of humor. The last time I saw a female protagonist onscreen with an imperfect body was in Precious (2009), a film that sought to make a very different point. Dunham plays this role with a determination to show how much her character feels physically and emotionally stymied by New Yorkers’ svelte, arch coolness. This is the film Greenberg could have been if it hadn’t been so determined to humiliate women.
Tiny Furniture is the kind of film I’m looking for as a feminist — written and directed by a woman, featuring a story about a woman that doesn’t limit her to romance or a rape scenario, and going in unexpected narrative directions. 2010 seems to have been a good year for women in film, but as Melissa Silverstein’s facts about the numbers of women in film show, there’s still a long way to go. Good thing that Lena Dunham is now only 24 and has a lot more films left in her.