Hannah and Adam in the first season of Girls. The new season premiered last night.
Prior to creating GIRLS, Lena Dunham wrote, directed and starred in a web series called Delusional Downtown
Divas. The show poked fun at the kinds of people who assumed careers as artists in order to enjoy the prestige and fame associated with that profession, without ever noticing that they failed to produce any art. Much like GIRLS, the characters of Delusional Divas were largely unlikeable but also designed to showcase flaws perhaps common to many of us - especially young, middle class women trying to establish their identity in the adult world. At the time, Dunham said, “The responses I've gotten from most women my age is that they were waiting to see themselves reflected back to themselves.”
It’s an observation that fans of Dunham’s latest show (whose second season premiered last night) will enthusiastically endorse. But despite these complexities, GIRLS had barely even begun before it became the target of a distinct backlash. Dunham wasn’t just whiny and too unattractive to be showing her naked body on TV; she was also guilty of presenting a shallow and privileged vision of young women living in New York City. An odd criticism surely, given how the women of Sex and the City are still held up as archetypal templates for women despite the fact their adventures were, as Lindy West so brilliant put it, “essentially a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls”.
And it’s here that one of the more interesting projections of GIRLS becomes really clear. SATC presented a world in which good sex and the right to pursue it were inalienable to women. For six seasons, we watched ‘the girls’ discuss their lovers in intricate detail over brunch, dumping them when they proved faulty in the sack or exhibited odd physical traits or behaviours. (In one episode, Charlotte refused to sleep with a man she’d been dating because he wasn’t circumcised.) It was deemed a feminist enterprise, a balm for women who could use the empowering examples of Carrie and her friends to demand their right to be on top.
But while there’s no denying that SATC might have created a broader dialogue about sex among women, it also denied the complexities that exist in sexual interactions. In the SATC model, Hannah’s relationship with Adam would be deemed a failure on all grounds. Even though the entire series culminated in Carrie marrying a man who’d repeatedly rejected and hurt her, the punctilious attitude those women had towards sex would have never tolerated the recounting of an excruciatingly awkward fantasy involving an 11 year old junkie being sent back home to her parents covered in semen. And while reading that written on the page induces the same kind of open mouthed horror felt during the scene itself, it also provides some greater context about the kinds of sexual relationships we can find ourselves in when undiluted and unexplainable attraction are present.
Indeed, one of Dunham’s greatest achievements with GIRLS is the way she explores sexuality and performance. Without judgment, she portrays a myriad of sexual choices that might seem unusual to an outside observer but that make complete sense to the person within them. To be an empowered sexual woman isn’t to only have the kind of sex that involves a respectful partner and results in orgasm. In contrast to Adam and his disinterest in Hannah’s pleasure, Marnie’s boyfriend Charlie is conscientious and gentle. Yet she’s so crippled by boredom that she resorts to letting him fuck her from behind even though (as he reminds her) she likes to ‘look into each other’s eyes when they come’. Later, Marnie responds to the deliberately skeezy artist Booth Jonathan’s warning that, “the first time I fuck you, I might scare you a little, because I’m a man, and I know how to do things” by immediately retreating to the art gallery toilet to masturbate. And although the scene initially jars (like, really? Would you really be so turned on by such a hokey declaration that you needed to relieve yourself immediately?) closer inspection reveals underlying commentary on the performative approach many people take towards sex. As a woman, Marnie is so used to being seen through the appreciative eyes of others that her first instance of unexplainable lust is performed back to the imaginary viewers in her mind. Meanwhile, the only woman in the quartet to have internalised the artifice of SATC is also the only one to have never had sex. When Shoshanna tries to give Hannah and Jessa sex advice found in a self help book Hannah admits to having ‘hate read’, Jessa objects to the author’s demand that ‘ladies’ never allow men to disrespect them by taking them from behind. Men, the book advises, should only want to have sex with ladies when looking into their ‘beautiful faces’. ‘What if I want to feel like I have udders?!’ Jessa protests, denying her allegiance to ‘the ladies’. Later, Shoshanna catches Jessa having frantic sex with an ex-boyfriend to prove to him that she can still sway him, new girlfriend or no.
Refreshingly, these choices are presented to Dunham’s audience with the same unguarded approach to the complicated mess of young adulthood that defines the rest of her show. Hannah’s passivity in regards to sex has less to do with her lack of ability or awareness about her rights as a Modern Woman than it does her infatuation with Adam, and her need to construct herself positively through his eyes. (It can possibly also be attributed to the revelation that she’s only had sex with ‘two and a half men’. ) When Hannah confronts Adam over his treatment of her and his disinterest in sharing key details of his life with her, he surprises her by accusing her of seeing him as a vessel for her own neuroses. ‘You don’t want to know me!’ he yells at her. Instead, he tells her she prostrates herself into being the kind of person she thinks he wants, asking him all the time if he likes the way she looks or if something feels good. How many of us have found ourselves involved in similarly unsatisfying physical relationships because there was something else that drew us there - an unrelenting need to be desired in return by the person we’ve also objectified, albeit it in a different way?
The sexual landscape of adulthood as presented in GIRLS boasts more subtle shading than the black and white mounted stencil seen in shows like SATC. Sexuality is a journey; while ideally we would all have the opportunity to have positive sexual experiences, these need not negate the potential thrill we might receive from bad ones. I have had a number of ongoing experiences with men that, if described, would seem to signify a lack of awareness or agency in myself. But sometimes sex has nothing to do with empowerment or physicality; it can be ugly and fraught with power dynamics that are difficult for those not involved to understand. This doesn’t render these experiences meaningless or give anyone cause to be ashamed. We are all stumbling towards some kind of maturity, and we are bound to take detours down dark paths along the way. In the end, we still reach our destination. My own experience suggests that sex, unlike the entirety of the SATC franchise, doesn’t come neatly wrapped up in a pretty box with an upbeat morality lesson attached. Unlike SATC, the sexual escapades of GIRLS are messy, often unattractive and occasionally primal. In short, they’re human. In her efforts to take the experiences of young women and reflect them back at themselves, Lena Dunham has built a carnival funhouse of mirrors whose infinite possibilities show the complex narrative of their own lives.