Dear Jane, Evan, & Lili,
Glad to be here.
I too have been thinking a lot about terrible things happening to the cast of Girls. Evan just mentioned this as a thought experiment. What if things went woefully and irrevocably awry for The Ladies on Girls? Before that, Jane drew our attention to the threat of violence in her discussion of what Hannah identifies as Charlie’s domestic abuse spectrum behavior. And Elaine Blair, before us again, spoke eloquently about the idea that part of what is extraordinary about Girls, and what has been so infuriating to critics, is that Hannah and her friends live in a kind of bumper bowling version of Manhattan. Nothing bad would, nothing bad could ever happen to these privileged people. Nobody’s going to die in a gutter, because, in this world, there’s no such thing as a gutter. La di da, hakuna matata.
Like Evan, though, I think this is all part of the plan. Lena Dunham, whether she shares this mindset with her character or not, seems very interested in the idea of the luxury of anxiety, a kind of twenty-first century heir to neurasthenia. Don DeLillo has a line in Underworld: “It’s the special skill of an adolescent to imagine the end of the world as an adjunct to his own discontent.” DeLillo, of course, is not just speaking about adolescents or boys here, and it seems to me that this is equally applicable to Hannah Horvath and her sisters. Traumatic events only serve to displace anxieties about other, more mundane, or at least less global, concerns. The idea of Charlie lifting a hand to Hannah displaces her guilt over betraying(?) her bestie; the idea of contracting AIDS displaces Hannah’s anxiety about the emotional toll of her polymorphously unrequited affair with Adam; the idea of dying in a gutter like Flaubert displaces Hannah’s anxiety that her writing might not be worth dying in a gutter over.
So that, I think, is the perspective of the show to a certain degree. If Girls is an ethnography of a very circumscribed class of person, then this kind of apocalypticism is a big part of what defines Dunham’s subjects. But, to come back to what everybody always has to come back to with this show, just because Dunham has trained her eye on this kind of magical thinking doesn’t mean she’s not reproducing it to a certain extent. Now, I believe enough in Dunham’s self-consciousness about her work that I also can believe that this is all leading somewhere, but that’s not a sure thing. Why, for instance, doesn’t anything bad happen to these people? To take an example from last week’s episode 5, why doesn’t Hannah get fired for coming on to and then berating her boss? On most HBO series, all you have to do is wake up in the morning to warrant an axe in your brain, but Hannah Horvath’s intentional and energetically performed self-destruction simply won’t stick. The same goes for Jessa’s immaculate lack of conception. Hannah and her friends are engaging in a kind of recreational anxiety that is only possible because, deep down, they believe that their fears are unfounded. This is a phenomenon certainly worth looking into, a panic widespread enough to be a notable feature of modern life. Trouble is, Hannah and her friends are right. They don’t really seem to have anything to worry about.
But, again, Dunham is doing a pretty humane job lovingly articulating all the ins and outs of a particular kind of delusion, and I don’t want to begrudge her empathy. Marnie doesn’t need to die of Roman Fever like Daisy Miller in order for Dunham to effectively critique her behavior. Likewise, TV showrunners needn’t behave like the Old Testament God, meting out justice to the sinners down on earth, to be responsible social critics. If Tony Soprano always got what was coming to him, there wouldn’t have been a show, and, thanks to Matthew Weiner’s merciless skewering of Betty Draper, I think we’re all sufficiently familiar with exactly how grimy it can feel to see a television writer punish a character for all of her bourgeois vanities and transgressions. Girls doesn’t need to be a Jeremiad to be a valuable work of social fiction.
Dunham, for her part, seems to be laying the groundwork for something, and I’m excited to see what. Jessa’s relationship with the father of the kids she babysits is a bit of a time bomb, and one that could have actual consequences if it goes off. And, even though she didn’t get fired, Hannah’s whimsical forfeiture of her job could come back to haunt her in fiscally real ways. But what will happen then? To amend Evan’s question, can something bad happen on this show that does not lead to a moment of self-discovery? In other words, is Girls beholden to the Apatow rule that trauma begets wisdom, reckless stupidity begets enlightenment for the worthy? Or is Lena Dunham committed to shielding her characters from disaster? What if neither nightmares nor dreams ever come true?