Dear Lili, Evan, and Jane,
So, obviously since we last corresponded, the biggest news in Dunhamania is that James Franco, our generation’s James Dean, has finally weighed in on the show that’s been rudely Bogarting the zeitgeist for the past couple of weeks. I won’t quote too much from his article. Vulture has already done a lovely job extracting it. But suffice it to say that Franco, our generation’s Harold Bloom, utilized the lofty perch of his HuffPo blog to address Dunham’s haters, defend his own particular brand of millennial masculinity against different haters, and manage to wrestle with his inability to draw real connections between the story of Hannah Horvath and the story of James Franco, our generation’s Jean-Michel Basquiat.
What leads me to bring up JF is that the idea of recognizing or not-recognizing oneself in Girls (which has been both a problem and a selling point for the show since several weeks before its debut) has popped back up in my mind over the past few episodes. And this has as much to do with the identification of characters as the identification of place. As Evan pointed out last week, episode six was Dunham’s first “off-model” experiment. There were some issues, it turned out, when this show about New York became, for a minute, a show about Michigan. While episode seven saw Hannah reunited with her fly posse in the city that never sleeps, this was also, to some extent, an off-model excursion in and of itself. “Welcome to Bushwick,” the title declares. And while Bushwick may only be an annoyingly difficult trainride or an awkward cab fare away from where the Ladies keep their accidentally crotchless underpants, everything about this episode suggested that Bushwick was a foreign country.
My question to you all, however, is how much does accuracy matter? How much should it matter? It’s been a common cry of Dunham apologists—including those of us on this site—that Girls is not an ode to this group of people but, instead, an ethnography. The implication is critical distance over attachment, self-examination over self-involvement, realism over romance. And, to that end, many viewings of Girls certainly are anchored in a kind of obsessive detail and hilarious specificity of person and place—“I totally know Shoshanna” or “That is just like a party I was at” or “That is exactly how I was fired from my internship at a literary magazine.” These are by no means the only responses, though. My parents, for instance, know roughly 0% of the Brooklyn hipsters that I know, but they love the show, laugh at the jokes, and understand the characters in terms of their emotionality. (This is opposed to something like Portlandia, which works, to some small extent, as a broad comedy, but is really only accessible, I would argue, if you get the references.) In light of this, in light of Franco’s goofily ambivalent self-recognition, and after these two vacation episodes—especially what Evan called the Ghost World style of the Michigan episode—I’m wondering how much ethnography actually does anchor the show. Is it an aesthetic or an actual practice?
Michigan was certainly detailed, but was it accurate? The conversation I wish I’d gotten into last week here was about how uncanny Dunham’s suburbia was, how much it felt like a cartoon version of a reality. As a suburban transplant myself, I recognized a lot of the mise-en-scene, but there were also things that looked true but rang false. Is the same true of Bushwick? In other words, it’s tempting to say that Michigan functioned as a kind of extended dream sequence, a vision of a place rooted in reality but warped and inverted by the psychology of the dreamer. Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich. But, back to back, are we this week invited to think the same thing of the Bushwick party? The uncanniness of Bushwick, I think, is supposed to make us question a lot of what we take for granted as straight-ahead representation. There is a lot of emphasis in the episode, for instance, on recognition and accuracy. Jessa and Ray strive to precisely diagnose Shosh’s particular trip. (CRACK!) Jessa gets into what is essentially a semantic fight with the crust punks: “You’re going to reduce us to a subculture and then not accurately name the subculture?” And Marnie gets into trouble with Jonah for failing to accurately understand her own particular friend dynamic (Hannah is the selfish one, right?)
Then there’s Hannah’s comeuppance with Adam. For six episodes, Adam has been one of the most evocatively and consistently detailed characters on the show. Shirtless, brutish, the child of privilege, the elected representative of a kind of post-Marx, post-Thoreau, working-class, boho masculinity. He’s into getting bossed around and he’s got daddy issues. He cooks fresh game, he doesn’t text, and, above all, he’s a narcissist who refuses Hannah’s attempts at intimacy. This episode, we see Adam wearing a plaid shirt and juggling lesbians like a circus act. We also learn that he’s a recovering alcoholic. This doesn’t automatically ennoble him, but it humanizes him and, most of all, makes Hannah feel both ensorcelled and betrayed. After being thrown from Adam’s bike, Hannah calls Adam to task for not opening up to her. But no, cries Adam, it’s she who never asked, she who was not interested in a mutual intimacy, SHE who, as Marnie independently confirms, is the narcissist.
Whether Adam is right in this situation or whether something in between is true, I’m not yet sure. I’m certainly not eager to have this strapping hulk with a sixteen-year-old boy’s rat moustache be the righteous force, literally and figuratively throwing our “girls” around. But, for now, it seems like Dunham is saying something about the very aesthetic practice we often use to defend her show. Nobody on this show is more thoroughly characterized than Adam, but, it turns out, he’s also the character about whom we actually know the least. We have a lot of information about Adam, but very little of it is accurate—or at least it’s misleading. But it’s not just us. The show portrayed Adam in this way. We have scenes of Ray and Charlie alone. Even scenes of Jessa’s Highlander-looking unemployed employer with his buds. But we never see Adam alone. The show wanted us to have the wrong idea about him because Hannah may have the wrong idea about him.
I’m sorry to continue to end these posts with the sentiment that Dunham is some kind of heroic auteur, defying expectations, shattering paradigms, evincing a godlike self-awareness every Sunday evening. But if the bloody, stupid Game of Thrones episode that preceded “Welcome to Bushwick” can be called a triumph, so too can I apply that designation to this episode. The world of Girls has, to some extent, splintered from Michigan to Bushwick. The cracks are showing. As with all ethnographies, this one is not the truth. Its accuracy is not a guarantor of its realism. And whatever realism it achieves has limits. With her taxicab smile at the end, Hannah seems to see this revelation as a big step forward—people have likened it to that of Melora Walters at the end of Magnolia—but she’s flanked by two flat affects. Adam and Marnie are the happy couple at the end of The Graduate: free, but feeling the weight of their choice. The good news is that we have a few more episodes left to deal with what we’ve uncovered. As the Bard (James Franco) says, “If you really want to have experiences to write about, go to work.” I hope I’m not naïve to imagine that the experience Dunham wants to write about is the one Hannah is about to have and that the work our hero will be doing is that of untangling the world she imagines in detail but knows very little about.
Also, one more time, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. James Franco!