Testing, testing…

Dear Jane, Phil, and Lili,

Very pleased to be a part of this grand experiment!

I’m going to try to keep this post relatively short, in part because I have a bunch of friends coming over in a few hours to watch Girls (and Game of Thrones and possibly Mad Men as well) and I need to get the apartment cleaned up before they arrive.  (Is that too personal?  Too dull?  This is a blog, right?)

I wanted to pick up on Jane’s calling attention to Hannah’s line “Adults try things. That’s what I’ve learned” from Episode 5, which seems to be kind of emerging as the motto/keynote for the series (more so than the oft-quoted “a voice of a generation” line from the pilot, which was kind of a red herring, in my opinion).  It’s really an interesting line, both because it obviously encapsulates, in its first sentence, Girls/Dunham’s commitment to tentativeness and exploration (can you be “committed to tentativeness”? if you can, then she definitely is) and, in its second, ironizes that commitment by showing how quickly Hannah’s rushing to sum up her still-developing experience.  In other words, she’s announcing: “I am so mature that I have reached a point where I can see that what I’m doing is extremely tentative” — a statement that self-deprecatingly undercuts itself its own authority, as so much of Dunham’s writing does, while still allowing her (and the show’s narrative) to heave itself forward.

To put it another way, Hannah is testing: testing herself, testing other people, testing boundaries.  This allows her to act at once bold and reckless and to disavow the consequences of her actions (because it’s just an experiment; if it doesn’t ultimately turn out, no harm done).  And Dunham, too, is testing, I think, both herself and the audience.  I’ve been surprised by all the negative press — people attacking the show, and often Dunham herself, for being too blithely white/privileged/frivolous etc. — but, as Malcolm Harris pointed out in his excellent piece on the first episode for The State, Dunham is a very self-aware and self-conscious artist who knows exactly what she’s doing by depicting such blitheness.  She is, I think, testing her audience to see how much blitheness, unawareness, and unpleasantness they’ll accept.

One last thing I’ll throw out, re: testing limits and safety.  My favorite part of Elaine Blair’s fantastic NYRB piece is this paragraph:

Many critics have noted that the girls, all from seemingly financially secure families, are members of a privileged class. A slightly different aspect of their privilege is the relative confidence we feel that they can seek sexual experience without being in physical danger, that any revelations they receive will be useful and interesting rather than damaging or crushing, and that the people in their world will not punish them for their curiosity or high spirits. The girls feel confident of this too. They have an air of extended innocence, a girlish exuberance (behind a scrim of polished good behavior) that is the characteristic bearing of American upper-middle-class young women. The young men exude their own version of innocence. Adam’s sex fantasy may be off-putting to some, but part of the deeper humor of the scene comes from our knowing that he is basically an overgrown boy—and probably a pretty good boy at that—whose grandma sends him monthly checks for his rent.

I found this incredibly astute: part of many viewers and critics’ disapproval of Hannah’s behavior seems to be a kind of weird jealousy that she’s putting herself in potentially perilous situations (economic as well as sexual) that we all know aren’t really going to turn out too badly.  I wonder how the show’s tone would change, and its reception would change, if something really terrible happened to one of the primary characters — something along the lines of David Fisher’s traumatic carjacking in Season 4 of Six Feet Under?  What if Hannah had learned she really did have AIDS in Episode 3, for instance?  Or Jessa really had lost the kids she was babysitting?  (Not that I’m wishing for anything bad to happen to any of the girls; just proposing a kind of thought experiment.)  Would any of this alter any of the righteous critiques of the first five episodes, or not?  I guess what I’m saying is that behind some of the hate and anger directed at this show seems to be a sense that safety — and, therefore, the ability to conduct tests with one’s own life — is unevenly distributed in our society.  Which is, indeed, an excellent point, though I’m not convinced it’s one that Dunham’s unaware of.

OK, that was not that short!  I’m sure there will be plenty more to say, about this and lots of other stuff, after Episode 6 airs.  In the meantime, these dishes are (probably) not going to wash themselves.

All best,



3 thoughts on “Testing, testing…

  1. Pingback: Dear Television

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