Girls, Girls, Girls: "Don't Try to be Anything You Aren't"

Hannah, Shoshana, and Marnie confab at a party in the frst episode of Girls season 2

Girls creator, producer, and star Lena Dunham has been, to say the least, a divisive figure in pop culture and feminism in the past year. As a writer who focuses mainly on pop culture and feminism—and an unabashed fan of Girls—I really wanted the opportunity to be able to write about the new season. Because whether you love it or hate it, there is not much like it currently airing on television. I'll be recapping each episode this season, so if you're watching too, get ready to talk female friendships, feminism, race, class, extremely awkward sex—which if, my 2012 was any indication, I'll be pretty good at discussing—and Dunham herself.

Late in this season's premiere episode, "It's About Time," Marnie (Allison Williams) and Elijah (Andrew Rannells) have an awkward, unfinished sexual encounter. Both are in tenuous places in their lives: Marnie has just lost her art-gallery job, and Elijah has ejected his much older boyfriend (who is bankrolling his life) from a housewarming party after he drunkenly baits the guests. After their clothes are haphazardly reassembled, Marnie tells Elijah, "You don't have to try to be anything you're not." He snaps back, "Neither do you."

When Girls premiered last year, so many pop culture–loving feminists had pinned hopes on the show that it disappointment was almost inevitable. As we know, the Internet is an intense place, and almost as soon as Girls bowed, there were dozens upon dozens of think pieces both critiquing and defending Dunham's very white, not-so class-conscious portrayal of Brooklyn twentysomethings living in self-obsessed, middle-class squalor. In a raft of post–Season 1 interviews, Dunham hinted that many critiques of the show—chief among them the issue of its attitude toward race—would be addressed in Season two, so it's safe to say that there are more eyes on this season than ever.

Dunham has clearly grappled with those many critiques, and just within this first episode Girls feels like a more authentic and familiar show. The episode revolves around a housewarming party that new roommates Hannah (Dunham) and Elijah are throwing, and while it's slightly unnerving that a mere scan of the party scene reveals that Dunham took the race criticism, Girls' Brooklyn is noticeably more diverse than last season. Couple that with Hannah's new don't-call-him-boyfriend, Sandy (Donald Glover), and it'll be interesting to see how race relates to this season's plot development.

With the exception of Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), last season the characters often felt pigeonholed with specific characteristics—Marnie as the type-A prude, Jessa the wild party girl, Hannah  the needy-yet-selfish friend. Season two appears to be adding more dimensions to our characters. Marnie, with the loss of her job, is in a similar place to last season's Hannah—aimless, broke and lonely. A lunch scene with her mother (Rita Wilson, in spot-on casting), who gives Marnie such helpful advice as "you look thirty" and tells her not to be so prudish, adds to our understanding of the character, and encapsulates a complicated mother/daughter relationship brilliantly.

Hannah, on the other hand, seemingly has things a bit more together. She's mildly employed, actually working on her writing, and has apprently grown some romantic backbone. As you may recall, Adam (Adam Driver) was clipped by a van at the end of last season; as this season starts, he's laid up with a full-leg cast, and despite their breakup Hannah is acting as his nurse. He, however, refuses to acknowledge the split, citing his love for Hannah and her one-time admission that he made her "whole body feel like a clit." Tired of helping him pee, and continually having to justify her reasoning for not wanting to be his girlfriend, Hannah eventually breaks down, shouting " I'm an individual. I feel how I feel when I feel it. And right now I feel like I don't ever want to see you again." Compared to last season, when she continually let Adam mandate the terms of their relationship, it was nice to see Hannah stand up for what she wants, on her terms. In this episode, those terms included a late-night visit to Sandy's place.

Girls still has the qualities that made me love the show in the first place. The opening scene, in which Hannah and Elijah spoon sleepily in her bed, echoes the series' pilot scene with Hannah and and a retainer-sporting Marnie. It's a scene that ushers in now-typical but perfectly executed Girls moments of awkward sex and even more awkward post-sex interactions. At the end of last season, Shoshanna lost her virginity to the older, cumudgeonly Ray (Alex Karpovsky). When Shoshanna comes to Hannah and Elijah's housewarming, she describes herself anxiously as "deflowered but not devalued," and the subsequent interactions between Shoshanna and Ray are perfect, with lingering looks, awkward hellos, and forced compliments abut cheese plates. Shoshanna, with her at-times ditzy persona, is a character who was easy to write off in Season One thanks to her Sex and the City obsession and the many "likes" peppering her speech, but she's developing into one of the strongest and most lovable characters on the show, with complexity that hopefully continues to play a larger role in this season. (And her inevitable drunken kiss with Ray is executed with just the right amount of beer spillage.)

While this first episode stumbled in places, I'm looking forward to the next nine. Hints of a Marnie-and-Charlie reconciliation are obvious, and it'll be interesting to see if future episodes offer more insight into Jessa (Jemima Kirke)—in this one, we see her only briefly, rudely jumping a taxi line at the airport with new husband/tool Thomas John, back from their whirlwind honeymoon. Despite its problems, Girls is a womancentric portrayal of twentysomethings that may not represent the whole of a generation but, keeping critiques in mind, can feel pretty damn familiar. And that's a good thing.

Favorite Things/Quotes:

Hannah describes previous boyfriends as "dementos, slugs, and weirdos." Preach.

Giddy new roommates Hannah and Elijah planning theme parties varying from a Gertrude Stein-esque salon night (Hannah: "Ive always suspected I'd be really good at cutting hair!") to a Japanese snack night. The latter idea may well have been a nod to Dunham's upcoming book, whose chapter on Japan has been roundly dinged for cultural insensitivity. Then again, if you've tasted Japanese Doritos or Kit-Kats before, you'll know this is a very appealing party theme.

Marnie and Elijah karaokeing Sarah MacLachlan's "Building a Mystery": Perfect.

Got your own Girls-related thoughts, insights, and frustrations? Leave them in the comments...

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Comments

8 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I'm in love! I'm in love! And I don't care who knows it!

I'm in love with this show. Yes, I hear the cultural criticisms, but anyone who thinks that Lena Dunham is putting Hannah Horvath on a pedestal as representing all of her generation needs to re-evaluate. She is not saying that all twenty-something women are like Hannah. She is not saying that Hannah's behavior is exemplary. In fact, I think she skewers Hannah pretty well. She is portraying Hannah as Louis C.K. portrays Louie; as Larry David plays Larry on Curb. A character to laugh at. The show captures weird, awkward moments with such hilarity. I can't wait to see the rest of the season.

I get what you're saying, but

...but the criticism written about the show rarely ever explicitly addressed Hannah's whiteness (and the universality of it) as the problem. The main focus was usually how devoid the show was of POC despite being set in an extremely diverse, real place, and it was often supplemented with the fact that Dunham espouses feminist and progressive politics, meaning she should be more sensitive to these kinds of issues.

To characterize the criticisms like you are here is doing them a disservice. You can love a show (or an actor, etc.) and it not be perfect.

Some things I thought were

Some things I thought were improvements (ranging from slight to very good):

1) More autonomy and complexity given to Elijah, the only recurring non-straight character on the show thus far. I'm still rankled by the last season, where Hannah is surprised to discover that Elijah suddenly "became gay." The conversation between the two is comedic and wonderfully acted, but Hannah doesn't listen to Elijah's elaboration on his sexuality (where he indicated that it was probably fluid). Because Elijah "looks" and "sounds gay," and because apparently bisexuality is never an option, Hannah typecasts Elijah as gay, pure and simple. His orientation is nothing but a prop to highlight Hannah's bad experiences with men, and he vanishes until the end of season one.
In the second season premier, we finally get to hear from Elijah himself. I was initially worried that "Girls" would follow "Sex in the City" in typecasting gay male characters as one-dimensional supporters and secondary characters to straight women. But despite the presence of some stereotypes/tropes, nuance in Elijah's character is shown in his relationship to his much older boyfriend and his dialogue with Marnie, in which we hear about his sexuality from himself: "People are so prejudiced against bisexuals, though. It’s, like, the only group of people you can still make fun of. It’s, like, bisexuals, and Germans. And I happen to be both." It's a comment that is both funny and complex, highlighting Elijah's struggle to define himself while realizing that people who don't fall into a monosexual category face erasure and limited acceptance. Alas, bisexuals are questioned and policed everywhere, and one awkward sexual encounter indicates whether or not the self-described bisexual is lying or not (including the stereotype that people hide behind a bisexual label to escape homophobia). At least, that is how I took Marnie's "You don’t have to try to be anything you’re not" comment. Still, sexuality is not always straightforward (pun intended), and neat labels don't always work for messy lives. Here's hoping that Elijah will continue to have the final word on the subject.

2) Are we beginning to see a more diverse Greenpoint, a more diverse Brooklyn? If someone got information on the neighborhood and borough from Season 1, they would think that the only kinds of inhabitants were wealthier, assimilated white Americans (save for Jessa, who has a British accent). Any people of color, both American and immigrant, are sidelined--they are part of the environment, but they do not share the same spaces or experiences as the protagonists. If this were handled better (in the way that Mad Men offers a critique of its time period), it would seem more realistic--there ARE people like the protagonists, who are used to not interacting with people not like them. But, save for the one incisive episode with Jessa and nannies (who are mostly older immigrants of color) in a children's park, this perspective is hardly challenged, or held up to a critical light. The homeless Black man, the competitive Asian intern, are all one-dimensional characters that appear on screen for mere minutes; it seems only by accident that they interact at all with the main character. The fact that the protagonists live in Brooklyn also seems to be an accident; little reference to the neighborhood and its range of inhabitants is given. Greenpoint, for example, is home to a thriving Puerto Rican community, and the focal point of one of the largest Polish communities in the world (referenced only in a shout-out to pierogi, a kind of Eastern European dumpling, in the S2 premiere). Fun fact: white people overall make up less than 50% of Brooklyn. The demographics are changing thanks to gentrification, but the fact that even this is not addressed indicates to me that the writers have a dangerously myopic view of this part of the world. Frustratingly, even the sub-par show "Two Broke Girls" does a better job with at least superficially addressing New York City's diversity, albeit forcing all of the characters with foreign accents and the characters of color into stereotyped and often offensive roles.
While some have criticized Donald Glover's character (many have interpreted his limited role in the episode as evocative of the historic marginalization of Black people in mainstream [read: white] US media), I for one love Glover's acting in the episode, and hope that Sandy has a bigger role to play in the episodes to come. Precisely because he got so little screen time and because we know so little about him is why I'll wait for the next few episodes before seeing whether the screenwriters are capable of writing multifaceted people of color as well as they are with writing multifaceted white people.

Agreed!

Mandy!

I agree with all the things you said, especially re: Elijah's sexuality. I hope that we get more discussion about sexual fluidity and his thoughts on his sexual orientation, especially now that he will be a more regular member of the cast. And I also am super glad that Elijah is more fleshed out, especially because I think like you said with Sex and the City and other shows on television that gay men can be depicted almost as an necessary feminine accessory and aren't given the opportunity to become fully formed characters.

I'm also very curious to see what they do with Sandy as well. I really like Donald Glover and think he's terrific, so I'm hoping that we get some interesting (and hopefully not disappointing) discussion of race on this season.

I love this show, I'll have

I love this show, I'll have to say.
I agree completely with Mandy (above). I think one has to remember that the first season were 8 short episodes, and even then we hardly got to know even the central characters. So I think we owe the show to watch the next season in terms of the critique it has gotten (the inclusion of people of color and different social classes especially).
I was saddened by this critique, because even though relevant and true, it has overshadowed all the things that Girls does right. Which (to name but a few!) is realistic depictions of female bodies, passing the Bechdel test with flying colours, and problematizing the act of sex for a young person in an over-sexualized society. As a 21-year old woman, I feel hugely connected with this show, and very respectful of it. It does a lot of things right that the old bible (SatC) did wrong.

Another thing that I'll add as a last comment (I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!) is that I feel that often when females star in shows or do other types of art, a direct link between the art and the artist is made. I understand that Lena is the writer and of course very much the creator and mind behind the show, but she is not Hannah Horvath. This is true of Taylor Swift and Sarah Jessica Parker and their art as well. She is being blamed for being selfish and self-absorbed because of something Hannah did on the show. This is a very dangerous way to interpret art, and it hurts the creation and expression. I feel women are being targeted worse than men when it comes to this.
Hannah is extremely far from perfect, but the fact that her character has resonated so much with so many young people surely shows that what she is dealing with and the way she is handling it (sucky or not, one remembers her encounter with her sexist boss in season one!) means something and should be addressed and discussed.

Hannah is not every young woman, but she doesn't claim to be either (neither does Lena, btw, which she is often blamed for). She is being jumped all the time for her weight and personality, which is a thing young, male scriptwriters and actors almost NEVER have to deal with.
She needs our critique, but let's be a little gentle on her. She is extremely young and doing a lot of things right, and battling an industry and a society that is hostile to her.
Let's hold our heads high for season two :-)

Lena Dunham is NOT Taylor Swift

I don't understand your comparison of Taylor Swift to Lena Dunham. Lena is an actress playing the character of Hannah so no, of course, we don't expect every little thing about Hannah to be an exact reflection of Lena.Lena didn't approach Girls the way SJP approached Sex and the City. We knew from day one that SJP was playing a freelance writer who had complicated friends and a complicated love life. It was well established that this was a character that the actress was playing; she may tap into some life experiences to play the role, but its a role. Lena approached Girls like she approached Tiny Furniture; its an exaggeration of her life and her friends.

Lena is the one who got up on the Golden Globes stage and made reference that the shows success has helped with her own insecurities, as if the show is a documentary of her life. So when people draw comparisons between Hannah and Lena, knowing she is the writer, knowing she is putting so much of herself in the role, I feel Lena has to suck it up.

As for Taylor Swift, she says herself that her music is her; that she writes about her relationships and emotions. So when you hear a T.Swift song, you're hearing her life from her POV. she's not an actress playing a role, she is sharing a bit of herself with her fans, she doesn't have a team of writers, a network and a supporting cast. Lena and Taylor are not the same, and neither is their "art". When people criticize T.Swift, they are criticizing her vocals, lyrics and her life directly because that is the source. She is solely to blame, unlike Lena who has an entire team to work with to make sure the show is a success. If she falters as Hannah, another character can step up and save the scene/show, so that safety net is in place. Unlike T. Swift.

Also, Louis C.K and Larry are both playing caricature versions of themselves. Lena isn't playing Lena-so it's not the same thing. So your comparison of those characters was lost on me as well.

whoa. "cumudgeonly"? that

whoa. "cumudgeonly"? that sounds dirty

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