HBO's Girls: Startling, Uncomfortable ... and Incredibly Accurate
The second episode of Girls aired on HBO Sunday night (we wanted to wait for the second one before we gave a verdict) and, frankly? We freakin' love this thing! Whole-heartedly! Lots of other critics have also received the show well, a few have absolutely despised it ("In its first three episodes, the comedy series establishes a new low... in its level of sheer unwatchability" said Mother Jones) and blog commenters and TV-viewers all over the place seem frustrated and aghast at the content of this show -- particularly about the fact that none of the characters is easy to like the whole way.
Guess what, angry viewers? That's the whole point! The young women in the show aren't perfect. Sometimes they do stuff that is incredibly stupid and frustrating to watch, but that's why this show is so great -- it's honest and it's unflinching and it perfectly captures the hideous discomfort of newfound adulthood and the responsibilities and trials that come with it.
In Sunday night's episode, watching lead character Hannah (played by Lena Dunham -- the creator, writer, director, and producer of Girls) hitting Google to research her concerns about STDs was hilarious and mind-boggling. Her searches included: "Diseases that come from no condom for one second" and "Stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms." Yes, it's juvenile. And yes, you want to shake her. But not only is it funny -- be honest, ladies -- there's probably a tiny part of you that sympathizes with this scene (and if you don't, you're not remembering your youth accurately).
We are of the generation that was raised to believe we were all on the verge of contracting AIDS every time we so much as even look at a penis. And the Hanna character is 24 years old. Which means she would've been in high school during the Bush years when helpful and informative sex education in schools was annihilated in favor of abstinence-only courses and a whole heap of misinformation. If Hannah is terrified that condoms aren't enough to protect her, it's probably because of a realistic lack of education paired with terrifying ad campaigns about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.
To be fair, Hannah does later explain that "Stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms" Google search to her friends in a way that makes some degree of sense: "Okay, so when a guy finishes, there's ... the material ... okay?" she begins. "And then that stuff can leak out from around the sides of condoms, and here's how I figure it. He will leave his penis in you from when it's hard to when it shrinks because that's what men are wont to do ..." This is correct, everybody -- admit it. "And then when they pull out: fucking mayhem!" This is also correct, everybody. "I've been diagramming it in my head all afternoon. And no one speaks about this!"
And there's the key to why Girls is so watchable, so very important, and so totally divisive. It speaks about the things that no one wants to believe young women say and/or have to deal with. From: "I never know when I'm gonna get my period and it's always a surprise and that's why all my underwear is covered in weird stains," to guys who say insane things in the middle of sex, like "You're a junkie and you're only 11 and you had your fucking Cabbage Patch lunchbox and you're a dirty little whore and I'm going to send you home to your parents covered in cum." These young women don't always make great choices, and they're not always likeable. But that's reality, folks -- who's perfect in their early 20s?
The relationships between the four key women are realistic too -- bordering on ugly, actually. They bathe in front of each other, they pee in front of each other, and they say passive-aggressive and shitty things to one another without it turning into a massive drama, followed by a heart-warming reconciliation. The first 60 minutes of this show portrays female relationships more accurately than 24 hours of the Lifetime channel.
People don't want to believe that young women aren't always hideously traumatized by the issue of abortion. People don't want to believe, in a post-feminist age, that women are being subjected to terrible sex because they're not sure how to speak up in the bedroom without feeling bad for ruining the guy's good time. People don't want to believe that it's possible for young women to make jokes about rape, or to have a cavalier attitude about contracting HIV. But all of the above is entirely true -- not for all women, of course, but for at least some (we wanna say a lot of 'em, actually). And until now, no one has represented those women on television for fear of making other people uncomfortable.
Sex and the City was frank about sexual matters, which was extremely important -- and refreshing! -- for women at the time. They even used the word "cunt" occasionally, which felt terribly liberating. Girls is the next natural progression. Where Sex and the City hung onto the idea of being fabulous and frivolous at all times -- even in times of crisis -- Girls points out that these days, college graduates don't move to the big city and start buying $500 pairs of shoes and meeting with editors at Vogue. In reality, they're supposed to feel grateful for unpaid internships and literally have no idea how to survive while they're waiting for the fantastic job opportunities they've been promised for the past two decades.
Last week, we saw Hannah asking her parents, like a spoiled, entitled child, to continue giving her $1,100 a month for the next two years so she could finish writing her memoir. It was impossible not to want to slap her across the face during that scene. This week, we see her interviewing for a job (having been dropped from her unpaid internship for requesting a wage), engaging in witty and fun banter with her interviewer, then blowing the entire thing by making a joke about date rape.
Hannah, as a character, isn't as assertive as we want. She's not as self-sufficient as we want. And she's not as smart as we want. But, dammit, watching Girls, you do believe -- or at least hold out hope -- that in 10 years' time, she will be all of those things. At this juncture, she's still figuring everything out, and we get to watch her doing it, (genital) warts and all.
Maybe I love this show because I am the type of person who had a best friend in college who lied to the head of a university course about her mother having cancer, in order to get an extension on handing in coursework. Maybe I love this show because all of the women I have ever known who've gone through an abortion or a date rape or any degree of sexual harassment have simply had frank conversations with their friends about it, accepted that this is life (for women), dusted themselves off and carried on living their lives. It might look flippant from the outside. Or irresponsible. Or selfish. And, yes, it looks ugly when you put it on television. But in reality, it's merely survival.
Lena Dunham is an extraordinarily brave young woman for collecting what are very clearly the most uncomfortable parts of her life thus far and declaring them to the world, via the medium of a television show. A very funny television show at that. We should all applaud her honesty -- not vilify her for telling it like it is.