Month: June 2012

Bottoms Up / The Season Finale

Dear Lili, Jane, and Evan,

Jane’s analysis of the Girls marriage plot is spot on, I think.  But I want to think about another related structure Girls is adapting here. One of the things we’ve isolated often in our correspondences has been the way that Girls, in its stylistic hodge-podginess, often positions to offer revisions of familiar modes. This was true of the horror film aesthetic that has popped up on a number of occasions, it’s true of the numerous bizarro SATC moments, and it was true this episode of, not just the marriage plot, but the wedding set-piece.

If you’ve read anything on the internet or anything available in a magazine at the airport over the past year, you’ve been reading about Women in Comedy.  Kristen Wiig, Whitney Cummings, Zooey Deschanel—Lena Dunham showed up late to this parade, but if her show had debuted in February as initially scheduled, we would see her as part and parcel of this glut, and very possibly, she’d have been photographed reclining in a silk chemise with Kerry Washington and Juliana Marguiles on the cover of Vanity Fair.

The reason I bring this up is not because I’m pitching an eight-month-old think-piece, but because the final episode of Girls was set at a wacky wedding, just like the pilot episode of Whitney, the third episode of New Girl, and the entirety of Bridesmaids.  This too is a genre convention, and it’s one that Dunham is predictably excited to make grotesque.  On Whitney, the title character attends the wedding of a friend, and after a series of bungles—she wears the same dress as the bridesmaids or something, and she eats a cupcake not realizing that the cupcakes are part of a wedding cake because she’s never seen Pinterest or been in the checkout line at a Whole Foods, apparently—she realizes that she and her boyfriend need to spice up their relationship. Like everything else on that show, it’s the most boring possible iteration of a familiar scenario, and thus instructive about the conventions of said scenario.

Girls makes reference to this kind of structure with Shoshanna’s mortification that she’s wearing white.  The joke, though, is not that it’s a hilarious faux pas, but that Shoshanna, who knows her Sex and the City chapter and verse, is so immersed in rom-com logic, that the faux pas throws her into an existential crisis.  I hope that Shosh grows as a character next season and that Dunham gives her a little bit more to do, if only because Zosia Mamet is such an appealingly versatile actress, but, at the same time, it’s been valuable to have her as a kind of psychotic, warped, rom-com Greek Chorus, reminding us at every turn of how Girls is diverging from and playing with those tropes.  In Shoshanna’s mind, Girls IS Sex and the City or Bride Wars or He’s Just Not That Into You.  (I’m imagining a Shoshanna POV dream sequence in which Jessa is played by Katherine Heigl.)

New Girl and Bridesmaids use the scenario as well, though with predictably greater aplomb.  What they share with each other, and with Girls, for that matter, is an interest in the emotional violence of the wedding for other people.  Their take is less about missed protocols than it is about psychic breakdown.  The wedding is the test of relationships other than that of the bride and groom, and thus, it is full of explosive potential. As we’ve discussed earlier, the possibility and anticipation of disaster is one of Dunham’s favorite things to play with.  If last week was the blow-up we expected—between Marnie and Hannah—this week is the return of a blow-up we thought already happened.

I won’t go too far into the nature of Adam and Hannah’s relationship, except to say this: there’s a lot of yelling.  Specifically, there’s a lot of Adam yelling. At Hannah, at cars, at his co-stars, at Hannah again.  In this, Adam is twinned with Thomas-John—who really laid into Jessa and Marnie once he realized he wasn’t going to get laid into, so to speak—and Charlie, whose rather mild voice-raising and table-slamming Hannah took as a foreshadowing of domestic violence.  I guess I’m still not 100% sure why Dunham keeps setting her ladies up to be bawled out by men.  If the racial and class dynamics on this show are suspect—and I think they’re a lot more complicated than they get credit for being—I think the gender dynamics at least are right on the nose. Except in this.

Why are the Girls so frequently dominated and shamed by men, even when they are in the right?  And what is the function of constantly returning to the site of that domination: Jessa marrying Thomas-John or Hannah coming back to Adam or Hannah’s desire to move back in with her Marnie-slapping ex or even Marnie’s half-hearted quest to reproduce the feeling of Lonely Island spitting game at her.  “I may scare you…” Yes please!

It’s one of the more vexing questions about Girls, I think. And one of the messier elements of Dunham’s version of the Marriage Plot.  Critics who felt that Girls was a celebration of blithe irresponsibility, privilege, and pretension might feel a little differently today.  This season has been as harrowing as it has been hilarious. And as Jane’s Graduate analogue makes plain, even the moments of triumph are undercut by ambivalence or even outright trauma.  These are anti-heroines, monsters, as Adam repeats.  But this is a beginning. It is a genesis story. Jessa will not stay married to Thomas-John, Marnie will not feel unmoored forever, Shoshanna will claim her sexuality, and Hannah will make it back to Brooklyn. But that doesn’t mean it feels like any of this will happen. There was a deep feeling, in this episode, of distance. These women have realized, over the course of the season, not that they are in the process of becoming “who they are,” but how far away they are from that.  Hannah’s beach might as well be a desert.

And it is in that mode that I can’t resist one last visual echo:

At the end of the Coen Brothers’ great Barton Fink, Barton—the radical playwright who comes to Hollywood only to be sucked into a maelstrom of madness and failure—travels to the beach.  He holds with him an unidentified box. What’s in it is never explained—it could be a human head, it could be money, it could be somebody’s soul, it could be a telltale heart—but, even after his escape from the immediate danger of the plot, he carries it with him still.  The beach is a space of freedom, beauty, possibility.  The majestic ocean represents the only space in the film that is not claustrophobic, not tainted by evil, not compromised. The box is representative of the anonymous, gaping maw of horror that has nearly destroyed Barton. And so, as Barton sits with his box and a bird dives out of the sky, we are asked to feel hope in the midst of sinister markers. For Barton sees a beautiful woman sitting in front of him. She sits, miraculously, in the exact pose of a painting from Barton’s room, his only source of comfort throughout the film. There is terror, but there is also this.

Hannah on the beach is not so on the nose. Her mystery box is a foil of cake, and we don’t know what she sees.  She has been stripped of everything, as naked as she ever is on the show, and she looks with trepidation but clarity of purpose. The cake, which represents Jessa’s awful wedding and Hannah’s catastrophic argument with Adam, is with her. But she eats it, rather than letting it eat her.  This violence, that waywardness, these bad decisions, they feed and sustain her.  Hannah is far away from everything she could even think to want. And she has no idea how to get where she’s going, let alone how to get home. But the dirty water can wash away her sins, and all the heartbreak and stupidity will make her strong if anything will. This is a beginning, and what a beginning it is.  When Barton first comes to Hollywood, the head of the movie studio, Jack Lipnick, shouts at him:

We’re only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!




Season 1 Finale: The Marriage Plot

Dearest Lili, Phil, and Evan,

Apologies for the long silence–my excuse for it isn’t sufficient, though it might seen rather appropriate. I’m currently moving out of the Greenpoint apartment I’ve been subletting these past two months. Early tomorrow morning I’ll be travelling by subway (hopefully in the right direction) to JFK, and then some.

Endings are by nature more difficult than beginnings, which, really, could start anywhere. Beginnings (like pilots) promise expansion, evolution, revision; they’re a glimpse into what is possible. The answers to what is possible—to what is even simply likely—falls upon endings. So. . .the finale to the first season of Girls happened. It did! As the episode title says, “She Did.” Jessa married Thomas-John. It might not have seemed likely—especially from the vantage of episode one—but it certainly doesn’t lie outside what is possible in the world of Hannah Horvath.

There’s a reason endings are so often spoken of in terms of consummation and satisfaction. Novelistic endings, as David Haglund points out, end with either a death or a marriage—and often both. Against the traditional marriage ending, however, Dunham’s show is again off-model. If Girls contends with what happens to youth after college, it’s now also engaging with what occurs after their weddings; two realms The Graduate approached, but never entered. As I’ve said beforeGirls begins where that film ended. She did. Now what?

Marriages are normalizing acts—they civilize and socialize. As the most unconventional girl in Girls, Jessa has suddenly become the most traditional. As the most unpredictable, she has to some extent satisfied our first impressions from the pilot. Except, the classic marriage ending comes part and parcel with a marriage plot: an entire narrative that leads up to the “she did.” By the time she does, readers are supposed to understand why. Jessa’s entrance into the world of legal domestic companionship happens too fast and, more importantly, too soon for these girls. What one can sympathize with from this twist ending is how especially bizarre it must also seem to Hannah’s aspiring New York cohort.  Shoshanna is rightly upset to watch this all fly, quite incomprehensibly, by her. Jessa’s wedding comes as a surprise—a “mystery party”—that leaves viewers with a sense of unease. Is this the ending we “deserve,” or expected?  There are things to solve here, and I’m, at least, compelled to tune in next season to make sense of what we’ve been left with.

A mystery can turn horrific quite quickly, but as we’ve rehearsed here, things are never truly threatening—only elegiac at worst—in Girls. Hannah gets robbed on the subway home—which she gets on heading in the wrong direction. (The other Carrie I’m reminded of here is Dreiser’s, which also offers its own twist on the marriage ending.) Hannah herself, though, is left unharmed (still armed with cake!), ready to translate this mishap into worthy memoir material. Upon exiting the F, she doesn’t look for a map nor even so much as glance at a sign. Instead, she shouts to a group of girls: “Where am I?” Their response—“Heaven”—doesn’t satisfy, because this episode is not about to end with death. Hannah doesn’t want Heaven, and for the moment she doesn’t even yearn for home. Rather than retracing her steps by getting on the subway heading back, Hannah walks toward a beach.

Growing up no longer culminates in a wedding. More often, it happens quietly. Sometimes you’re by yourself. You might not be aware of growth as it occurs. You might even be eating.


Killing Carrie Bradshaw: Episode 9 of Girls

Dear Phil, Jane, Evan,

Writers suuuuuuuuck.

Haha. Just kidding. Sort of.

If life is a scavenger hunt, there are two things I can’t cross off my list. One is a genuinely happy marriage. The other is a dead writer—one who stood the test of time—who wasn’t a selfish jerk to his or her nearest and dearest. I spend a lot of time with Milton, and however stunningly virtuosic he came to be, his college writing, while still quite good, is clearly the work of a pompous ass.  His “greatness” describes specifically and exclusively his skill as a writer; it is not transferable to his personal qualities. However much integrity he had (lots, selectively applied), I’ve never come across an account of him that led me to think of him as a nice man or even a good man. In Hannah’s terms, being a good friend was not one of Milton’s primary concerns.

I’ve said before that what I really admire about Girls is that it lets its characters be every bit as flawed and selfish as people are in life—male or female–and lets them suffer the consequences. I don’t know what made the eighties and early ’90s so much more normal when it came to female characters on mainstream shows. Several things occur to me as contributing factors: one is the rise of the supermom with the concomitant rise of female sexual villains (Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction), the other is the increased volume of feminist critiques of the latter. Far be it from me to say that feminism spawned a spate of anodyne women—instead, I think TV and film executives got the garbled message from the Culture At Large that it was important to produce “positive role models” for girls and women. Positive role models are anathema to great story-telling, being exactly what they sound like: positive, posed and fake. But they make for tremendously successful sitcoms.

The more I think about the sitcoms of the 90s, the more convinced I become that they serve the same cultural function as advice columns: they establish a consensus of what constitutes an acceptable society. This is why people care so desperately when sitcom characters do polemical things. (Ellen, anyone? Roseanne?) If they were mere entertainment, who, really, would care?

They tend to be set in New York because New York is the place where social norms are most likely to be challenged. Elaine can exist as a character because New York is a strange space in America. It’s a place where a zany woman who can’t dance can hang out with three men without romantic overtones getting in the way. It’s where the oddball extremes of acceptable behavior can be explored and policed.

Friends paved the way, of course, making the story of a single working adult in New York City into a safeish fantasy of huge apartments and swathes of free time.  No one has any hard edges; everyone is puppyish, well-intentioned and harmless. Monica was famously the least likeable one because she was mildly neurotic.  What cultural work did it do? Well, it made the spate of single adults living differently from the previous generation lovable, and inspired the new generation to be lovable. Seinfeld does the same for a slightly older group of adults. It isn’t about nothing; every episode revolves around the question of what is or isn’t socially acceptable, and what to do in the Wild West of New York when the social contract is violated.

New York on HBO was wilder still. Hypercorrecting for the glut of Evil Women who turned up in movies like avenging furies now that they were Working, Single, and Sexual, the Sex and the City girls took over. They naturalized and reclaimed the behaviors that had characterized the Evil Women, ushered in the explanatory voiceover, and made a population that had felt invisible visible. No one could have foreseen that the formula’s success would have the unintended effect of temporarily reducing the palette of female behavior to four colors.

Jane and Evan have both noted the show’s callbacks to Sex and the City, and how it’s the paradigm Girls has to break. Phil, you wondered whether Hannah is a good writer, and whether we would see her work. I’m struck anew by the fact that Hannah, the self-described creative nonfiction writer extraordinaire, is not telling this story. Phil’s right: we don’t see her notebook or her diary, and we’re forced to rely on outside characters’ reactions to her work.

I think there’s a reason for that, and it’s this: Dunham resists Louie’s model, where bits of the “real author’s” work appears throughout the action of the episode, because she has to resist Carrie. Any shot of Hannah writing—any of shot of a young woman in New York in front of a computer—will conjure the specter of Carrie Bradshaw. That’s how completely Sex and the City has wiped out all the other female writers in New York.

Which brings me to my hypothesis: Tally is Carrie Bradshaw on crack. The sex writer whose Mr. Big died! Sex and drama, all wrapped up in a young and marketable package. In this episode, we saw the beginning of Hannah’s long quest to slay the beast. The question isn’t whether Hannah’s any good (although I have some thoughts on that I’ll get to in a sec); the question is whether there’s room for another kind of nonfiction writer in a literary world saturated with women writing autobiographical ruminations on their sexual escapades and/or dramatic stories of loss.

No wonder Hannah didn’t write about the boyfriend who was a hoarder; she was simultaneously worried that she had worked too hard on it (Tally’s shot in the dark praising Hannah for how she labors over things told) and that it was too close to Tally’s subject matter. Tally writes about a boyfriend she loved who killed himself, Hannah writes about a live ex-boyfriend. Which is the better story? It’s a lovely touch, then, that Hannah’s sourness and envy lead her, in a burst of “hate-writing,” to unconsciously imitate Tallie’s process (or Tallie’s account of her process). She shows up at the reading and says she’s decided to read something that for all intents and purposes just “poured out of her.”

It doesn’t work, of course. “It didn’t really come together for me,” says the prof, with the kind of honesty that makes her go giddy for his praise and his condemnation of Tally. (Incidentally, the sexual-paternal vibe between a male professor and a female student is such a staple of undergraduate Creative Writing programs, but it was totally fascinating to see that underbelly shown on TV—I hope it goes nowhere.) Hannah knows it didn’t work and goes home, feeling like she’s lost it, or maybe she never really had it, and quickly devolves into the nastiest, most appetitive and writerly version of herself.

The thing about trying to be a writer, generally, is that no one cares about what you write. They don’t, and they won’t, until you try and fail a billion times and keep forcing people (or paying them) to read you and react to you. (Poor Marnie.) To write is to scream for attention. If you happen to be a writer of creative nonfiction, it’s even worse, because you can’t even pretend that you want the attention for “the work” and not yourself. You are the story. The story is you. Or, if you’re not interesting enough, the story is the people you know. Hannah’s working in an extremely crowded niche. If Sex and the City paints womanhood in four colors, memoir paints creative nonfiction in two: there’s dramatic, and there’s funny. If you haven’t—as Hannah hasn’t—been given the gift of a dead boyfriend, her only recourse is humor and self-deprecation. This is why Girls sits uneasily in the category of comedy, even though it’s often funny. It’s much closer in genre to the personal essay. Each episode is essentially an essay, and essayistic humor is its own animal; quieter, darker, and—in the hands of its greatest practitioners—full of, and sometimes even motored by, autocriticism.

As for friendship, David Sedaris points out that few figures are as selfishly cruel as a funny nonfiction writer:

After finishing our coffees, Lisa [his sister] and I drove to Greensboro, where I delivered my scheduled lecture. That is to say, I read stories about my family. After the reading, I answered questions about them, thinking all the while how odd it was that these strangers seemed to know so much about my brother and sisters. In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending the people I love expressly choose to expose themselves. Amy breaks up with a boyfriend and sends out a press release. Paul regularly discusses his bowel movements on daytime talk shows. I’m not the conduit, but just a poor typist stuck in the middle. It’s a delusion much harder to maintain when a family member is actually in the audience.

That’s from “Repeat After Me,” an essay that ends with Sedaris begging his sister for forgiveness in the only way he can: indirectly, sincerely, and pointlessly, because he’s not going to stop. The only reason Hannah has “passed” as a good friend is that nobody wants to read what she writes except Ray and Charlie, who aren’t in it for literary reasons. When Charlie “publishes” Hannah by reading her work aloud at a gig, she turns to Marnie, asks her to remove herself from the devastating description of her relationship, and wonders what she thinks of the passage just as a piece of prose.

We’ve talked before about Hannah as monster, and she is: she’s as bad and worse than Milton, without being anywhere near as good. Her only hope of redemption is becoming a hell of a writer or giving it up and deciding to be a good person instead. Phil, I’d guess, in answer to your question, that she’s on the shallow end of her arc toward Good Writerhood, because—well, Lena/Hannah, this is a portrait of the artist as a young woman. And she’s insufferable but all too real. It occurs to me that one thing Louie has going for it that Girls doesn’t is that Louie’s old, established, a good comedian. He’s already scriggled to the top so we don’t have to see the ugly parts of him—the arrogance, the cruelty, the neglect of his partner and friends—that preceded his rise. Professional success and good fatherhood (especially good fatherhood) mask a multitude of sins. Louie is basically sympathetic. As a person, he’s almost irreproachable. In this sense, Dunham is the braver and more ambitious storyteller.

It’s to Dunham’s credit that she manages, like Sedaris, to show the obliviousness even budding nonfictionists must cultivate in order to sleep at night, while showing the writer experiencing that obliviousness as real (Hannah really doesn’t see, while she and Marnie are fighting, that what she does is cruel). It’s to Marnie’s credit that she sees the gaping holes in Hannah’s self-knowledge and doesn’t point them out.

In “Repeat After Me,” David Sedaris and his sister have just seen a movie that eerily parallels their own relationship. He’s told her that a director is planning to make a movie based on his work, so they’re sitting in the car panicking, “each of us imagining a bored audience shifting in their seats.” Lisa eventually tells him about something terrible that happened to her, that has her sobbing by the end. “Dusk,” Sedaris writes, as if turning their life into a screenplay. “The camera pans an unremarkable suburban street, moving in on a parked four-door automobile, where a small, evil man turns to his sobbing sister, saying, ‘What if I use the story but say that it happened to a friend?'”

The first time I read that passage, I remember thinking that there was a word that disqualified it as a screenplay. The word is “evil.” The camera can show a small man, but it can’t show the monster he is on the inside. That’s the trouble with screenplays, and it’s what essays can do so well. All these years later, it’s fascinating to watch Dunham trying to make a script do exactly this.

Flowing out,


The Eyes of Kathryn Hahn (Episode 9)

Dear Lili, Evan, and Jane,

Sorry to have been absent last week. Let’s get back to it! I’m structuring this post as a series of points/topics/questions because I’m all over the place on it right now. In any case, the common theme is support.

1.  Is Hannah’s writing any good?

As is often my wont, I’m picking up this query from the end of Evan’s last posting in which he talks about the show’s funny relationship to artistic production.  Since the first episode, it has been an open question whether Hannah Horvath’s grand masterpiece, her Key to All Mythologies, is, in fact, worth anyone’s time—including her own. It’s even an open question whether she’s writing at all. One of the more underplayed jokes in the pilot is that the manuscript she hands to her parents could not be more than 30 pages long; the story topics we occasionally hear referenced (about her hoarder boyfriend, for instance) seem designed by Dunham to be laughed at; Marnie is tolerant, at best, of her friend’s prose; and we never, ever, see Hannah working on the book that is, presumably, her prime occupation. The only people who compliment her on it are her father, who loves her unconditionally, and Professor Christopher Moltisanti, who, as Marnie points out, may just be macking on her.

Hannah’s book is a classic problem for a show about the creative process.  Do we read the book?  Do we hear what she writes?  That approach worked for The Larry Sanders Show because The Larry Sanders Show within The Larry Sanders Show was great. It didn’t work for Studio 60 because the show within the show was hot garbage.  But Dunham doesn’t let us see her book. She shows us the ripples it makes, the way that it functions as a placeholder for any number of other issues in her life.  Hannah talking about her book is Hannah talking about herself.  And this is partially what throws Marnie over the edge: Hannah’s ability to make everything, including Marnie sometimes, a metonym for herself.  The book is about her life, Marnie’s heartbreak is about her newfound romance, Tally’s recognition is about her lack of recognition.  This has the unique function of allowing Hannah to always be talking about herself, but it also functions to alienate everyone with whom she is close. When is the last time Hannah was in a scene with anyone other than Marnie or Adam for more than a minute?

Despite the fact that both Hannah and the show usually treat her book as a plot device or emotional trigger, Dunham is continuing to pursue the idea of Hannah as an actual writer by having her go to the reading.  And I’m confused.  Is Hannah really a writer?  Or, rather, are we supposed to take Hannah’s writing seriously, or is it a smokescreen? The way I see it, the fight at the end of this episode (spurred by Hannah’s anguish about the reading) exposes Hannah’s writing for what it is: a pretense for every situation and human being in her life to be funneled into a narrative that is about her.  From the hotel room in the pilot to her showdown with Chris Eigeman to this episode’s various refusals, Hannah’s writing is no longer winning her the support it used to.  If her old prof really is just trying to get in her pants, then that leaves nobody supporting her art.  Is Hannah really a writer, or is she, as the phenomenal Kathryn Hahn tells Jessa, “doing it to distract [herself] from becoming the person [she’s] meant to be”?

2.  How good is Kathryn Hahn in this?

So good! Over the past year, Kathryn Hahn has been turning in the kind of boffo guest spots—on this and on Parks and Rec—people do before they hit it big.  Somebody give this woman a series! Her face, the slightly low angle shot of her talking to Jessa, and the way the focus leaves Kirke’s eyes—this scene could have been a major whiff, but it read in the same vein as Hannah’s parents’ anniversary dinner, as one of the most sincere and actually insightful moments on the show. In any case, her monologue about the dream in this episode is both a perfect Dunham line-reading and a kind of valedictory speech on the show’s main themes.

The line I quoted above recalls Hannah from the cold open to the pilot saying that she’s “busy trying to become who I am.”  If this series is about growing up to some extent, then the model of growing up it endorses has a lot to do with pragmatic self-understanding.  College is over. Charlie is a college boyfriend.  Understand what you can do, understand what you need. Katherine, in this scene, needs a good babysitter more than she needs a faithful husband.  But Dunham doesn’t mock her the way she mocks her ladies sometimes.  Jessa telling Shoshanna that she needs to “make some changes” and then saying that she’s starting by re-arranging the furniture in the apartment is a perfect example of this.  Jessa understands that she needs something, that her life is, more or less, a shambles, but her instinctual move is to displace.  Why reflect when you can re-decorate? Jessa tells Katherine that she doesn’t need her help, but that’s not strictly true, emotionally or financially.  As Lili and I have both noted, Hannah’s mother has been perhaps the most supernaturally understanding person on this show, and I think Katherine just joined that club.  There’s something about this gorgeously shot scene that transcends all the second-guessing and anxiety and reassures us that, even though life may continue to a mess for Jessa and co.—as it is for Katherine herself—there is hope in the idea that, one day, they will understand exactly what it is they are doing.

3.  This…



Risky Business

Jane! Phil! Lili!

It’s been an atypically slow week here at Dear Television, despite the fact that Episode 8 was, for my money, one of the more successful and provocative episodes of Girls to date — probably just a function of how busy we all are.

What I have to contribute today is less an original interpretation than some annotations to Jane’s brilliant reading of the scene between Marnie, Jessa, and Thomas (like Lili, I failed to catch his name and just thought of him, as the girls probably do, as “the venture capitalist”):

Jessa thanks Thomas “for handling the cheque” [Editor’s Note: I love this Canadian spelling] who, as a venture capitalist, knows his share about risky investments. His logic here might not even be entirely unfamiliar: buy two girls some drinks and they’re more likely to come home with you. Open an expensive bottle of wine and, accordingly, they’ll certainly be more likely to sleep with you. Following such investment logic, Thomas translates spilt wine on his $10,000 rug–a rapid escalation in the cost of the night’s events–as meriting some serious sexual payback: “If you’re really sorry you better be planning to make this a very special night for all of us.”

This riff reminded me of something else I read recently: Christian Lorentzen’s great essay in the new Bookforum on finance in twenty-first-century fiction.  Lorentzen quotes a line from Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask which elegantly summarizes the current state of upper-class/middle-class relations: “She was from the people who kept everything.  I was from the people who rented some of everything for brief amounts of time.”  In the erotic scenario Jane sketches above, Thomas is, clearly, the person who pays for — and thus, by rights, keeps — everything; Marnie and Jessa, using the credit line of their sexuality to lease a taste of the good life, are the people who rent.

But, of course, the class dynamics of the scene are a good deal more complicated than this: Thomas reads as, if not exactly working-class, at least a worker (“Do you even know what it’s like to work hard?” he asks), while Jessa and Marnie are children of privilege — “Daddy’s girls.”  To take another example from Lorentzen’s Bookforum article [by the way, I haven’t read any of the novels Christian cites], Thomas’s rant here seems akin to the musings of the banker in Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic on the hypocrisy of twentysomething anti-capitalist hipsters:

He saw these people everywhere now, these aging children who had done nothing, borne no responsibility, who in their bootless, liberal refinement would judge him and all he’d done as the enemy of the good and the just, their high-minded opinions just decoration for a different pattern of consumption: the past marketed as the future to comfort the lost. And who financed it? Who loaned them the money for these lives they couldn’t quite afford with their credit cards and their student loans? Who else but the banks?

This is like an institutional version of Thomas’s “Daddy’s girl” resentment of hipster hotties with trust funds: in this case, “Daddy” is not the girls’ actual fathers but the banking system itself, which puts bankers like Doug (and venture capitalists like Thomas), regardless of their actual age and virility, in the position of lecherous, disapproving senexes.

So Thomas’s frustration is, at least in part, exasperation that these two girls whose lifestyles are, from his point of view, made possible by the kind of work he does — by capitalism, in other words — don’t play by the rules of the game.  They rack up debt — let him buy them drinks, play them mash-ups — and then default on the loans.  Irresponsible!  Reprehensible!  If they’re going to spill wine on a $10,000 rug, and refuse to have sex with its owner, they’d better look a lot sorrier than that.

All of this, obviously, has as much to do with gender as it does with class and money, but, again — as so often in Girls — the stereotype of the oppressive, aggressive, dominating male is troubled, if not quite reversed.  Lorentzen points out that female characters in fiction written by women (like the heroine of Rivka Galchen’s story “Appreciation”) are often trying “to avoid risk, something male characters in fiction written by males seem constantly to be seeking.”  But if that’s the case, what to make of Jessa’s continual courting of sexual risk, an act Marnie unexpectedly gets in on in this episode?    “We’ve all discussed how Dunham’s girls run this world,” Jane writes,

—without consequences or violence; with minimal risk. O’Dowd’s over-the-top character (tipping into caricature) makes him a weirdo, but it doesn’t make him a rapist or an assaulter. He doesn’t scare the viewer, and he certainly doesn’t scare Jessa. How much will this incident come to haunt Marnie really? He never made them pay. And where did I learn to think like this?

A great point — clearly in the scene in Thomas’s apartment, as in the mock-horrific Michigan episode, we’re being set up  for some American Psycho shit that never materializes — but, with all due respect, I don’t think “with minimal risk” isn’t quite on the money: risk — but managed risk; hedged, if you will — appears to be precisely the principle on which Dunham’s girls run their world.  Does that make Marnie and Jessa more like venture capitalists, in their sexual lives, than the hapless Thomas himself (who seems to be the very embodiment of rational homo economicus in his expectation of sexual return on economic investment)?  While one assumes that the allegorical point of the scene is something like “Thomas’s perviness = the logic of capitalism,” O’Dowd’s character is in fact figured less a capitalist oppressor than a sap, a victim of the market’s vagaries: he speculated on Williamsburg hipster chicks, and took a bath.  (Without cupcakes, one assumes.)

As for Jane’s rhetorical question — “How much will this incident come to haunt Marnie really?” — I do wonder if Dunham and the writers intend to bring the character of Thomas back eventually; to be a bit inside-baseball about it, one doesn’t normally cast an actor as sought-after as Chris O’Dowd for a glorified cameo (although maybe you do if Judd Apatow is your executive producer).  I frankly hope he does return, because I think there’s a richness to the class conflict in this scene as written that the scene, as directed, didn’t quite exploit.  (I agree with Jane that O’Dowd’s portrayal of Thomas veers a little too close to caricature; Jessa’s contempt for his turntablist pretensions, for instance, are too closely shared by the camera/implied audience.  This is a problem Girls has been running into again and again: how to depict performance/artistic expression without mocking or minimizing it; cf. Heather and the Twistarounds, Ray and Charlie’s crummy indie band Questionable Goods [whose music is, indeed, questionable].  Maybe Adam’s performance in the theater rehearsal in this same episode comes closest?  But that’s a topic for another post, by someone else.)  There’s more to say here; at least, I hope there is.

Speculating wildly,


P.S. Apropos Jane’s evocation of Norman Bates: do you think Marnie is named after the Hitchcock character?  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that movie all the way through, but according to this synopsis, she has some ambivalence about her relationship, too.

Episode 8: The Economy of Friendship

“I’ve got a world of chances for you, / I’ve got a world of chances, / Chances that you’re burning through.” – Demi Lovato, “World of Chances

Yo Lili, Phil, Evan,

When you’re young, you want to do everything. Even if you don’t, you still believe you could. I’m not so young anymore—foreclosure is now something pondered daily—but my desire for possibility has hardly waned. Having, or wanting, it both ways is as close to a credo that I possess. Like Dunham’s girls, I’m at a juncture where I (still, still!) expect a lot without understanding really how much one must give in return. That’s privilege, yes, but it’s contingent on a model of privilege practiced by the generation that raised us. In a recent Times interview, Dunham explains her parents’ response to her post-college decision to move back home: “Do you realize that none of us would have accepted help from our parents?” Their time isn’t Dunham’s time, however, so I wish people would stop making that comparison as justification for “Gen-X” laziness.

How much to give in return? I’m weary of hearing adages about getting what you give, about no free lunches, about aspirational narratives that begin with ascent and conclude with achievement. People are learning, earlier and earlier, that you can do everything right—you can, goodness forbid, give more than you need—and you might still feel shortchanged. That’s part of existing in a privileged society too. “Your integrity is all that matters,” Adam tells Dunham. Well, yes and no.

It seems like everyone is contemplating reciprocity right now, and perhaps it’s due to the current impossibility of any adage-promised reciprocity. Sometimes you give and you don’t get. Like an abusive relationship. Like an abusive relationship with New York City. How difficult it is to know one’s worth when standards for rewarding that worth might have little to do with effort or ability. How lucky that “discovering one’s worth”—and maintaining integrity while doing it—even gets to factor into Hannah’s and Adam’s respective ideas of growing up, which is, to become artists.

Girls, as well as our relation to it, is about investment. Adam thinks his time (or, more exactly, his creative talent) equals someone else’s $2,000. He tells Hannah in the pilot: be no one’s slave, except mine. Except, now  in a mutually dependent—genuinely striving-to-be healthy and happy—relationship, Adam needs to return his ear to Hannah:  “you have to teach them how to please you. Or you have to compromise.” “She’ll show you her tits if you give her some ice cream” no longer flies. Sometimes you’ll have to pull $5 from your shorts instead of your dick with the trust that your bond is stable enough for the other to reciprocate similar love in future.

Jessa thanks Thomas “for handling the cheque” who, as a venture capitalist, knows his share about risky investments. His logic here might not even be entirely unfamiliar: buy two girls some drinks and they’re more likely to come home with you. Open an expensive bottle of wine and, accordingly, they’ll certainly be more likely to sleep with you. Following such investment logic, Thomas translates spilt wine on his $10,000 rug–a rapid escalation in the cost of the night’s events–as meriting some serious sexual payback: “If you’re really sorry you better be planning to make this a very special night for all of us.” (That the inverse of this also applies is suggested by the fact that Jessa is no longer employed: she doesn’t put out and so is laid off.) It’s like Adam revenge sex part two and, indeed, something about Chris O’Dowd’s whine reminds me of a 15 year old’s incredulous disappointment. “This can’t be the way that this goes,” he cries. Welcome to the girls’ world, Thom. We’ve all discussed how Dunham’s girls run this world—without consequences or violence; with minimal risk. O’Dowd’s over-the-top character (tipping into caricature) makes him a weirdo, but it doesn’t make him a rapist or an assaulter. He doesn’t scare the viewer, and he certainly doesn’t scare Jessa. How much this incident will come to haunt Marnie really? He never made them pay. And where did I learn to think like this?

Lili, will you be my friend? I want to braid your hair. I want to enter into a conversational braid that involves you and Evan and Phil too, except rather than talking about makeovers and makeunders, I’m going to tease out a sentence strand you made in parentheses: “I love that Jessa is this programmatic about her distress.” How to be a friend? For Marnie, it involves patience, because Hannah is distracted (even if, as Jessa says, she’ll later repent by “apologizing for it like you’re going to shoot her”). Sometimes it involves sitting around while a friend ignores your present needs. The nice thing about braids, though, is that there requires more than two strands. Cue Jessa.

If Hannah is learning how to be a good friend, Adam is navigating how to be a boyfriend period.  For Hannah, standards might have seemed low until now but—even for a girl who has only gay men as exes (whatever that indicates)—they do exist. So, first learn to apologize. Because in relationships there are rarely do-overs, only make-overs. Lili, you wrote about makeovers as an act of love, and Phil earlier spoke about forgiveness in Girls. Forgive me for braiding my own hair, and largely ignoring yours in this post? Cue Evan? Phil?

Sorry sorry,

Makeovers, Makeunders and Makeouts (Episode 8)

Dear Jane, Evan, Phil,

I’m so grateful for your insights into last week’s episode because I kept digging through the Bushwick crust and coming up empty on the other side.

Marnie, Marnie Marnie. When Episode 8 showed her in an old t-shirt and bedhead hair, I realized I always think of Marnie as sporting a French braid. Even when she isn’t, and she generally isn’t. Her hair, like her personality, is wrangled. It’s never greasy, never unbrushed, and never, ever down. (This is why the Brooke Shields comparison rang false to me, even the first time. Keira Knightly seems more apt: the angularity, the tight jaw, the compulsion to pluck and pull any excessive hair.) Her upbraiding by Elijah cracked her composure (sorry), and it’s becoming clear now that the show’s structure is sort of a braid, bringing in the abandoned strand when you’d more or less forgotten it.

Girls braid each other’s hair. I experienced it myself, recently, when the internet went down in our hotel room in England and my friend Irene turned me into Lady Mary, Warrior Princess. It doesn’t have to be braiding, nor does it have to be hair, but a significant part of many a female friendship consists of seeing the capacity for glamour in someone with whom you’re intimate. That’s quite a trick, because glamour (Irene points out) is distancing: it’s marvelous, not quite human, and without cracks of any kind. It is therefore incompatible with intimacy. But friends—in a strange trick of double-consciousness—see it and narrate it and produce it in each other. Considered as a kind of primate grooming ritual, this makes sense: Cher saw herself as a bit of a saint in Clueless because makeovers are (in an obscure and secondary way) an act of love.

That’s a long way of saying that friends are good for helping us build up whatever sense of a “public self” we have. And that friendship is often, at least in part, a process of trying to live up to that ideal self that someone else sees in you. This is why Adam’s fellow actor is crushed: Adam’s not just withdrawing from the play, he’s withdrawing his good opinion of his partner’s abilities, his creativity, his artistic scope and his personhood. It’s the ultimate “makeunder.” Adam’s visions of people are hard.

I feel like a caveat’s in order here: female friendships obviously aren’t the only source for this kind of self-making for girls, nor are male friendships for boys. There’s a reason the woman who wants to remake a man is a comedy club trope. Trouble is, they miss the underlying socialization, the intimacy that underpins the impulse. In hetero pairings, it’s starting to happen to Hannah (who Adam  is teaching to run, barking at her his sense of who she can be) and to Adam, whose redemptive scene at the end is in strict response to how Hannah has reacted to his performance and its possibilities. Look at what happens to Marnie when Charlie’s image of her can no longer sustain her sense of herself as a woman who inspires excessive and suffocating love.

Back to the girls. What I liked about this episode was how successfully it mapped out the trio’s (or braid’s) shifting dynamics. Hannah’s been single and unhappy; Marnie’s been loved too much. Marnie can’t help but experience the inversion of their roles as horribly destabilizing. She hasn’t just lost a boyfriend (she never really cared about him anyway–Hannah’s right). What she’s lost, and what she’s mourning, is the loss of the source of her public self; Charlie’s devotion built her to a degree she’s only just beginning to realize, and to the extent that Hannah defined Marnie as the functional one, the stable one, she’s lost that too. Marnie’s selfhood is as raw and sensitive as Jessa’s ghost-fucked thighs.

That’s when Jessa shows up at the apartment asking for Hannah, with whom she “had a date” to console her for losing her job. (I love that Jessa is this programmatic about her distress.) Hannah’s forgotten, so she and Marnie are stuck in a room without their usually go-between, and boy, was that a beautifully understated moment of crisis. Had Jessa left, it would have been a tacit admission that she and Marnie are not friends and never would be; the braid that holds Jessa, Marnie and Hannah together would have been seriously mussed.

So they start with a communal anti-makeover by ragging on poor Hannah’s unwashed forehead. Pity for Hannah. Gossip over Adam. These things have nothing to do with Hannah or Adam; they’re currents which Jessa and Marnie can safely navigate, taking small risks to see how far they can trust each other.

And then Jessa gives Marnie the gift of her surprised admiration:

“You look really gorgeous. I love you all stripped down.”

“I’ve never been this miserable in my life,” Marnie says.

“It’s totally working,” Jessa says, truly arrested by Marnie’s appearance.

It’s a rapport-making moment, but then Jessa pushes things along a little too fast. She starts comparing Marnie favorably to Charlie’s new girlfriend. Marnie, Jessa announces, a little theatrically (you can tell she’s starting to enjoy her role as a proto-Cher), is “a striking and classic beauty in the vein of Brooke Shields.” It’s a crappy observation whose crappiness is confirmed when the venture capitalist repeats it, and Marnie calls her out on it. “You don’t have to do this,” she says. “Pretend we’re friends.”

Jessa is all astonishment, but Marnie’s relentless. Her hair’s a mess, her face is naked and she’s not performing: “We’ve known each other for six years; you’ve known my name for three.” The code is pretty much on the surface: Marnie’s evidence against their being friends is that she has never, before the compliment Jessa paid her on the couch, caught her attention. You’ve never seen me as anything more than I am.

Then Jessa makes one of those interesting mistakes that Dunham does so well: she starts listing what she perceives as Marnie’s good qualities, and in so doing, she proves Marnie right. The list is pretty devastating: Jessa admires Marnie’s “work ethic” and her “commitment to hygiene.” “I think you’re–” she starts up again, in search of an adjective. “Uptight,” Marnie interrupts. And Jessa has the grace to admit it. “A bit, yes.”

That was an important admission both because Jessa’s honesty was crucial to this particular braiding moment, but also because it lets Marnie respond. The assumption of her uptightness is paralyzing, she says, because it means that possibilities are foreclosed on. Nobody ever asks her to go to Rome. Later, when Jessa follows her to the venture capitalist’s apartment and it’s clear that he wants a threesome, Marnie’s thrilled. She’s been asked to go to Rome. She doesn’t particularly want to, however, although she does want to hang onto the feeling a little longer. She kisses Jessa, awkwardly, in a desperate plea to extend her newfound glamour in front of this man-as-audience, and Jessa plays up beautifully. When Jessa kisses Marnie back, the eroticism is subservient to the budding friendship: I see you, that kiss says, I see you the way you want to be seen, and I’m making it come true.

See you,