In the very first scene of the pilot episode for Girls – Lena Dunham’s new HBO comedy series – 24-year-old aspiring writer Hannah (played by Dunham) is told by her parents over a fancy restaurant dinner that they are cutting off their financial support, which has enabled Hannah to work an unpaid internship – what the mother dubs as her ‘groovy lifestyle’. Part of the excitement felt in watching this scene is its sense of nostalgia. The funny family dynamics captured in the script, the beautiful desaturated photography, the genius casting of Becky Ann Baker: it’s as if Dunham had fulfilled the collective wish of her generation to revive the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks after its untimely axing in 2000. But a more general explanation for the appeal of Girls lies in its ability to ‘ring true’.
In a way, Lena Dunham’s short career is not dissimilar to that of multi-hyphenate hipster Miranda July. Both have created screen personas that we perceive as platforms for them to ‘tell the truth about themselves’. Dunham and July become heroic in their effort to unflinchingly show us who they are. Dunham seems the more successful one in this respect, less insistent on convincing us of her character’s whimsical misunderstood genius, more committed to describing a specific social milieu (even if the milieu is that of privileged white girls in New York). There is so much of Girls that feels recognisable and eminently relatable: Hannah’s casual exploitation by a publishing company, the terribly accurate observations of the politics of social media, the anxiety around gender role-play in the bedroom. There’s a moment in the first episode where Hannah misguidedly proclaims herself ‘the voice of my generation… or at least a voice of a generation’, which is meant as a joke but this is somewhat true. Twenty-somethings rarely see such an accurate depiction of their lives on the small screen.
There is, however, a problem with this strategy of ‘simply reflecting reality’, as articulated by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni in ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, their 1969 Cahiers du Cinema editorial:
‘[R]eality’ is nothing but an expression of the prevailing ideology. Seen in this light, the classic theory of cinema that the camera is an impartial instrument which grasps, or rather is impregnated by, the world in its ‘concrete reality’ is an eminently reactionary one. What the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthought-out world of the dominant ideology.
How, then, does Girls reflect the dominant ideology of today? One of the most interesting commentators on Girls has been Katie Roiphe (author of 1994’s The Morning After and general pariah amongst feminists), who picked up on the show’s skittish attitude towards sex. For example, we watch Hannah give neurotic running commentaries while having sex, her friend Marnie recoils from her boyfriend’s lack of masculine assertiveness, and another character’s public bathroom hook-up is awkwardly interrupted by the discovery of menstrual blood. Here’s Roiphe in Slate:
Awkwardness may have more comic potential, it may be more interesting or fruitful to film in certain ways, but it also represents its own kind of stylized evasion. If there is in Girls an implied critique of Sex in the City for depicting women having sex in $100 bras all the time, for romanticizing sex, this kind of comic deflation represents its own kind of distancing from the usual truth of these things, which surely involves a little more erotic investment than is being copped to here.
There is another interesting element to the sex depicted in Girls though – its fascination with sadomasochistic desire. Hannah consensually participates in S&M role plays with her kind-of boyfriend (episode 2 begins with her pretending to be an 11-year-old junkie that he has picked up off the street) and her friend begins fantasising about an artist after he tells her that he will have sex with her and she will be scared, ‘because I’m a man and I know how to do things’. These are the two poles of sexuality in Girls: at the one end you have ironic detachment from sex; at the other, violent sadomasochism.
What is the significance of these sexual extremes? In his lecture ‘The Superego and the Act’, Slavoj Žižek describes soldiers who participate in today’s virtual warfare. They kill people but no longer in direct combat. They only experience war abstractly through the mediation of computers, as if playing a video game. The result is not, however, that they feel less guilty but, rather, that they feel an unbearable anxiety. Their psychic defence is to fantasise about a violent face-to-face encounter with the enemy, ‘which although it would make him guilty would give him a real guilt’. In other words, they invent the trauma of a violent confrontation as a nostalgic substitute for the horror of depersonalised warfare.
Following a similar logic, Hannah’s ironic commentaries during sex and Marnie’s aversion to sex both seem to express a desire to avoid the messy, passionate reality of sexual experience, and the characters’ recourse to sadomasochistic fantasy appears as an overcompensation for this anxiety. What’s missing from this picture is the simple scenario in which its characters simply engage passionately in sex as active participants. The self can stay guarded or entertain a fantasy of obliteration; the only thing that seems truly taboo in Girls is the intersubjective experience of a sexual encounter with another person.