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.

4 thoughts on “Risky Business

  1. “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].”

    Beautifully put. And (to add another remembered layer to a pretty complex scene), there’s the complicating fact that Thomas, whose name I’d forgotten, calls Jessa “Jenna” at the bar. Her contempt was always there, but that’s when it fructifies, and some of her subsequent actions in his apartment definitely serve the twin purposes of letting Marnie roleplay “sexual adventuress” *and* punishing Thomas for negotiating badly. You don’t forget a prospective client’s name. I’m pretty sure Tony Robbins says that somewhere.

    This just reinforces your point about Haslett’s banker’s anticapitalist hipster: Jessa’s enforcing the etiquette of venture capitalism—its most conventional trappings—even as she becomes a sort of avenging fury against it, fighting homo economicus by relegating him to spectatorship (hey! kind of like a TV show, which is funded by capitalists who only get to watch!). Meanwhile Marnie, her near-brush with a threesome notwithstanding, is having a pretty hard time despising anything about Thomas’ world. She’s into the apartment, and the rug, maybe even the turntabling. I don’t know what to do with that in this particular reading, except to note that it shows negotiations operating three ways, where kissing Jessa is a kind of counteroffer?

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