|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Girls: "It's About Time" by Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak and Dear Television
January 14th, 2013
This Week on Dear Television:
"Time of the Season"
THE TITLE OF GIRLS Season 2 Episode 1 was “It’s About Time” — referring, exactly, to what? What is it we’ve been waiting for? Hannah’s (kind of, sort of) split from Adam? Marnie’s (kind of, sort of) return to Charlie? The return of the show itself? Probably mostly the latter: “It’s About Time” was a pretty conventional season premiere in that it mostly just eased us back into the milieu the last season had already established, concerning itself more with tone than with plot, character development, or theme.
Still, time was a theme, of sorts. Dunham has opted for the now-commonplace narrative gambit of skipping over an unspecified period of time (seemingly a couple of months) between seasons, so that a number of important events have occurred in the interim. (How is there not a TV Tropes entry for this practice?) Hannah is now having sex with Sandy (Donald Glover), unbeknownst (presumably) to Adam, who she is (reluctantly) nursing back to health after his accident; her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah has moved into her apartment, and is (platonically) sharing her bed; Shoshanna and Ray made some attempt at a relationship which fizzled out, due in part to her profligacy with emoji; Jessa and Thomas-John have been on a long honeymoon in Mexico (frankly, it would have been fine with me if they’d stayed there). Time marches on!
What I noticed most in this episode, though, were not the principals but the disaffected older characters, like Marnie’s embittered, narcissistic mom (Rita Wilson, playing against cutesy-pie type), or Elijah’s older boyfriend George, who has a karaoke-induced meltdown and then chastises the kids at Hannah and Elijah’s housewarming party for not having the right kind of fun (“When I was your age, I was snorting cocaine on twinks and dancing with my tits out!”). It’s interesting that the older people in Girls are frequently either attempting to re-enter the magic circle of twentysomething culture (like Jessa’s boss Jeff from last season) or passing angry judgment on it — or, in George’s case, both.
This intensifies a device Girls was already using intermittently last season: introducing older people at the story’s margins (most often parents, teachers, and bosses) in order to admit a corrective self-consciousness — or the possibility of self-consciousness — into the show’s mostly hermetic post-collegiate universe. Sometimes these older characters have some wisdom to dispense, but what we mostly see in them is a longing to return to youth, coupled with a scorn for how the young people of today are wasting it or doing it wrong. (“You look — can I be honest? — 30 years old,” Marnie’s mother tells her; translation: you don’t appreciate what you have, and you’re about to lose it.) It’s to Dunham’s credit that she can write convincingly for people over 30, but it must be said that she also takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in humiliating these characters, or emphasizing their most pathetic aspects: the scene where Hannah locks George out of the party (while still insisting, over his protests, that she’s “a sweet girl”) is both a case in point and a good allegory for the show’s general strategy vis-à-vis grown ups.
I wonder if, to some extent, the marginal presence of these voyeuristic, disapproving adults is Dunham’s way of working through the staggering amount of attention she’s received since the first season’s premiere. Much has been made of how popular Girls is with the generation it depicts, but it’s also, clearly, a source of continual fascination for older people as well, many of whom are vaguely (or not so vaguely) perplexed and disapproving. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the season. If the last season (or the episodes Dunham directed, anyway) had a preternatural confidence, this one came closer to swagger: the final shot of Dunham stripping felt like a real manifesto moment, since nudity — and particularly Dunham’s nudity — has been the catalyst for so much of the aforementioned perplexity and disapproval. It emphasized something that’s too easily missed: that Dunham shooting herself naked isn’t just an exhibitionistic compulsion, or a sign of millennial shamelessness, or (pace Howard Stern) "a little fat chick trying to get something going," but a directorial signature.
On a shamelessly exhibitionistic note, glad to be back in the fold here at Dear Television! Looking forward to hearing what the rest of you have to say.
I talk to my friends way worse than this,
"You Wanted This, and Now You’re Getting It"
Evan, unlike how you feel about Jessa, I am very glad to have you back for this season, especially because you’ve drawn our attention to the dynamic of kids v. grown-ups that was so thick in the premiere last night. One of the things that sticks out to me in terms of Dunham’s treatment of the aged is the way that she situates them on a spectrum of sexual idiosyncrasy. Now, of course, everyone on Girls is on such a spectrum, but the moves with which she characterizes and articulates the sexuality of her “grown-up” characters have consistently been some of her boldest and even wisest. In the first season, we had the gynecologist in episode one, exhausted by Hannah’s neuroses about STDs; the naked depiction of mortality and aging in her parents’ anniversary shower scene; her new boss’ attempt to de-sexualize sexual harassment; even the bougie, tone-deaf, curated threesome that Thomas-John (whose career in finance qualifies him as something of a “grown-up”) tries to cook up with Jessa and Marnie. Being “grown-up,” it seems, doesn’t mean sex is any less weird or unsettling. It simply means that you’ve come to terms with it. Grabbing your secretary’s breast isn’t a new, mysterious titillation. It’s just part of the job.
I’ll get back to the bedroom habits of people who both look and are over thirty in a moment, but, before that, I want to expand on something you said about Dunham’s need to work through the vast archive of critical thought that has been spilt about Girls. Yesterday, the Atlantic critic Ta-Nehisi Coates live-tweeted his belated first viewing of the first season of Girls.
Two things are notable about this. The first is that, in between sharp insights (“Broader is not synonymous with better”) and 11-month-old observations (“Feel like Lina [sic] Dunham's Hannah is heavily influenced by Tina Fey's Liz Lemon.”), Coates’s Twitter feed felt like a piece of performance art, reproducing, anatomizing, and kind of sort of critiquing the year’s biggest TV criticism maelstrom. (Like the guy from Dirty Projectors covering a Black Flag album from memory.) Intentional or not, it was a pretty valuable, sometimes surprising, and, as ever for Coates, clear-headed act of critical engagement.
The second notable thing about the live-tweet was that it implicitly revealed that Coates, the author of one of the more considered responses to the Girls race issue, had not actually seen any of the show when he wrote about it. Whether or not this is a kosher critical practice is another question — and a question Coates is seemingly interested in talking about — but, for now, at the dawn of season two, I think it’s not a bad idea to ask what this particular critical practice has done to Girls. Over the course of the first two waves of backlash and the first two or three waves of hype, we read think-piece after think-piece, written by commentators right- and left-wing, excited and repulsed, who opined about Dunham’s meaning as prophetess of a new generation. Because of this, much critical consensus about Girls was formed by passionate cultural critics working from between 0 and 1 episodes-worth of evidence. So, in light of this, how does the show deal with being both a show — made up of episodes, in which characters say things, get into situations, and advance plots large and small — and the idea of a show?
As we at Dear Television collectively toggled from watching Lena Dunham clean up at the Golden Globes to watching Hannah Horvath hold the chamber pot for her invalid ex-boyfriend last night, there was a palpable sense that the show would/should/had to respond to the criticisms leveled against it over the past year. Nowhere was this clearer than the shot at the end of the cold open in which Sandy (played by Donald Glover) feeds Hannah lines as she sits astride him, naked as ever: “You wanted this…and now you’re getting it.” We then cut to the title card in, you guessed it, black and white.
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The line is vintage Horvath. Throughout a full season of Girls and two handfuls of sexual encounters, if there’s one thing we learned about the proclivities of our heroine, it’s that she likes narrating desire. You wanted this, and now you’re getting it. It’s also a layered nod at what Jenni Konner recently stated as the thesis of season two. That is, this season, we’re going to find out what it’s like for Hannah to get what she wants. Nestled inside that thesis are some questions. For instance, what exactly is it that Hannah wants? And also, does this mean we’re going to see a rise and fall story of success, or are we going to see a Dunhamanian riff on the monkey’s paw? Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
And then, of course, it’s also a punchy meta-joke about what we might call the diversity critique of Girls. While there’s ample evidence — again, see Jenni Konner — that the makers of Girls perceived and began to think through this particular soft-spot long before even the earliest of critics pounced, it’s worth thinking about this act as a critical engagement. We can read it as an unapologetic kiss-off, we can read it as an apology outright. We can also, and this is where it gets interesting, choose to read it as an internal statement. Is it possible, in our wildest imaginations as critics, to think that Lena Dunham is not speaking to us this season? While the phrasing of that line enables critics to feel addressed (“you wanted this”), it also enables Hannah to feel addressed. It’s meta, but it makes sense even without the backlash. Furthermore, it is, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, a statement very much in the language of the show. Marnie’s mom is sleeping with cater-waiters. For her, as a grown-up, it means very little. For Marnie, it means she’s trying to recapture youth through the trashiest of means. One act can mean a lot of different things. If, in the logic of Girls, to be grown-up is to be beyond ascribing meaning, neuroses, and drama to the identity of a sexual partner, then maybe this is a portrait of Hannah, even the littlest bit, growing up. It might also be a provocation for her critics to do the same.
Like a conversation, between two people,
It’s exciting to be back for another season of TV microscopy; that the season premiere of Girls followed the most memorable (and perplexing) Golden Globes in recent history temporarily blew out my circuits. From Dunham’s struggle to the stage in her high-heeled shoes to Foster’s anger at — and sideways refusal to play — the character of herself Coming Out At the Golden Globes (even as she did so), things felt raw and exposed at an event that usually frosts everything into a sugary confection.
Speaking of confections, we last left Hannah eating a slice of Jessa’s wedding cake on the beach after being robbed. That was load-bearing cake, representing as it did everything that had dissolved by the end of that first season: Jessa’s withdrawal from the foursome, Shoshanna’s lost virginity, Marnie and Hannah’s friendship, Adam and Hannah’s relationship. The wedding that usually ties things neatly up became, instead, an instrument of dispersal.
Many critics have noted how chaotic the show’s relationships have become: Elijah and Hannah sleep together platonically; he and George might have broken up but are “entwined” because of Elijah’s economic dependence on him; Elijah and Marnie’s platonic friendship takes an abortive turn. And Marnie is transitioning from the “downsizing” at her job (that was “not a firing”) and from her close friendship with Hannah. Now that she can no longer sleep platonically with Hannah, she turns to Charlie. Hannah tends Adam while hanging out non-platonically with Sandy — the only character, oddly, with whom she constantly asserts a boundary. Meanwhile, the show’s most disorderly principal, Jessa, is off being rather conventionally married. None of this is that interesting. What is interesting is that all the Girls’ friendships are (practically speaking) gone; the only scenes of connection and friendship take place between girls and boys. The girls have become slippery towards each other.
The other thing that tickled me, once I noticed it, was how the show was expressing the (non-)boundaries of these new relationships through food. In a universe sapped of conventional definitions — mother/daughter, girlfriend/boyfriend, friend/lover, and even friend/friend — we get two scenes, back to back, that anatomize relationships through conversations about eating.
Impossible to talk about eating in Girls without referring to your argument, Jane, about how Girls uses food as a kind of expository metaphor. You suggested that formal meals symbolize something like adulthood in the show, whereas snacks represent Hannah’s rejection of adult responsibilities: Hannah’s parents inform her that she’s cut off at a dinner; she eats her famous cupcake in the tub.
But you say, too, that food tends to be secondary to what’s going on. “The paradox in writing about — or filming — scenes of eating,” you write, “is that any meal is, narratively speaking, a snack, in that it's not an end in itself but a brief interruption of some more crucial ongoing action.”
I think this is right and true, and yet, in the conversation between Marnie and her mother, we get a really interesting exception: the meal isn’t an occasion for plot development. It’s strenuously and obsessively about these two women and how they’re wrangling their relationship through food. A formal meal, and therefore “adult,” the scene is nevertheless shot through with Evan’s theory of Girls’ perennially disappointing adults snatching at youth. Marnie’s mother, like almost every older character on this show, starts with an insult. She reproaches Marnie for looking old and not eating enough even as she herself refuses to take so much as a bite of her salad. “I’m not starving myself on purpose,” Marnie replies evenly, then falls into her default friendship pattern, which is basically comparative. “I’m not going to do what Hannah does, and, like, order six pizzas to make me feel better,” she says. And in this scene we learn where she got that friendship model from: Rita Wilson’s disquisition on girls who look like floats isn’t a simple case of parental hypocrisy, nor is it an instance of “do as I say, not as I do.” It’s something quite different, and Marnie understands what’s actually going on: her mother is trying, intentionally or not, to “sabotage” her by encouraging her to eat in the guise of maternal concern. Meanwhile, she will continue to lose weight until she resembles the Macy’s parade floats she derides. They are locked in a secret competition — this is how Marnie has been taught to view food and friendship. This is a mother-daughter dynamic I’ve seen firsthand, and its toxicity arises out of the pretense that mother and daughter are now “friends,” where friendship implies competition and victory. (Remember when Marnie says Hannah would lose it if she found out Elijah was bi?) It’s a dark little sunlit scene, with eating disorders hovering over the table like ghosts. But it’s adroitly done, and clarifies why Marnie is so absolutely controlled.
In the next scene, in contrast, Hannah and Elijah are happily playing house. “It’s so important to entertain,” Hannah says happily. “It’s what keeps you young.” This makes no sense; to “entertain,” by which most mean throw a dinner party, is almost a caricature of adulthood. Then Hannah explains what she means by “entertaining” and “theme nights”: Japanese snacks and fondue. “All your nights can’t be food nights, though,” says Elijah. But they can, for Hannah. The informal consumption of food is central to the version of domesticity she enjoys, which conspicuously lacks the attendant adulthood. No lunches, no dinners in this world. No boyfriends or demarcations of time — except when it comes to telling Marnie that no, she really has no time for the two of them to hang out. Instead, snacks and theme nights.
And then the party happens, the food goes back to being just an expository excuse for interaction (the cheese plate!), and Shoshanna (bless her) gives as good as she gets. Against the backdrop of insincerity, half-truths, and relationships that aren’t, Shoshanna sparkles with definition. Despite her communication via emoji, there is no food-facilitated blurriness. Everything is crystal clear: her feelings are hurt but she has on her big-girl pants, and you can shut up about the cheese plate.
“I am tired of being insulted before a compliment, so I am now leaving,”
We’ve come full circle from whence we began. Are the four of us really going to tackle the second season of Girls? I agree with Phil’s provocation to the disdainers who cannot disdain in quiet:
Just wanted to get that out in the open again and emphasize that, yes, we take television seriously, and yes, we take Girls seriously, and yes, we might even take Lena Dunham seriously. Spoiler alert.
As one who has, by these conditions, often defaulted into the corner of Leave Lena Alone, my inbox has been filling with opinions and reflections on the season two premiere. Some thought it was so good, end stop. Some couldn’t tell me how wrong that opinion could be. At times, I felt somewhat condescended to — as though that brand of parental lament placed upon Dunham might also be displaced onto her blindsided audience. Dear TV, all three of you spoke about the fuss made over age discrepancies in this episode and I agree, as Evan writes,
Elissa Schappell put it quite plainly yesterday: “I’d argue that Dunham’s youth is less a problem than her gender.” If writing on Girls has reached a critical mass — and looking through recaps yesterday my god has it ever — said writing has also achieved a few critical commonplaces. (I know, I know, but please restrain from weeping for the future.) One apparent commonplace is, as A.J. Daulerio summarized in Gawker, that “even though [Dunham] is a 26-year-old woman of prodigious creative talent, her harshest critics sometimes dismissed her as a 12-year-old art project contest winner.” Dunham is too young, will become creatively stilted, this is a tragesty. (The future doesn’t need your weeping.)
One curious point with the obsession over Dunham’s age (which should not and cannot, we know, be separated from her gender or race) is how critics have actually placed themselves between a rock and a hard place in attempting to do the same with Dunham. Dunham is growing up prematurely, but she should also start acting her age. Writers criticize her immaturity and juvenile conceits, while also holding her to the impossible standards of an auteur whose every decision must cohere into a narrative telling of their artistic, and oftentimes political, approach. To predetermine a 26-year-old’s creative trajectory and future productivity, no matter how famous she is getting, is still very much to make assumptions about what fame does if entered upon too early. She’s good, these critiques seem to say, but she could’ve become so much better. The future is the floodgate of our collective past tears. I don’t have much new to say about the specificity or vagueness of the “space” Dunham hopes Girls will make for women, though I do agree that if there’s any space she has made, if only a little wider, it’s that which allows women and the so-called Youngs to make mistakes. Dunham has made a lot of them, and who wouldn’t under such scrutiny, but part of the countering frustration, I presume, is how she has continued on with her work unabated and unabashed.
Evan wrote that Dunham “takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in humiliating these [older] characters, or emphasizing their most pathetic aspects,” and Lili followed up in a reading of Marnie’s mother to prove how very real this pathetic behavior could be. By making adult characters both interesting and secondary, Girls has attempted to level the playing ground – what if Dunham doesn’t take any particular glee in making adults look awful? What if adults just are awful? We might grow older, but that doesn't necessarily mean a linear trajectory along the path of growing up.
Marnie’s former boss uses the professionalized bureaucraspeak of “downsizing” to fire her, and her mother corroborates: “Don't say fired. You're transitioning. They downsized.” This is right after Marnie’s boss admits that she can’t fire Yoohoo boy because she slept with him, and right before Marnie’s mother boasts about hot cater-waiter. Is this 40? “I fucking hate grown-ups,” says Hannah, when forced by Elijah to take his sugar-daddy George from the party. Closer to the truth (and the joke) of this line is that Hannah hates the idea of grown-ups, since George is in the other room absolutely trashed and, dare I say, ruining everything by acting too trashy. If grown-ups hate the idea of Girls as a show, they need not worry. Girls hates them too.
To cast the pathetic old man at the party as gay was my favorite aspect of this episode. George briefly alludes to what a real party means for someone who’d been queer during the eighties (“when I was your age I was snorting coke off twinks and dancing with my tits out”) but his drunken ranting also observes how the youth of today are ignorant to the cultural history of their swaggering sartorial choices (“what are you looking at, fake lumberjack boy?”). That George left because he was becoming an embarrassment (out of the closet, but not inside the party) and that Elijah then tried to have extreeeemely uncomfortable to watch sex with Marnie made me think (more than I did of the generational gap among NYC’s complacent hipsters) of what exactly happened to that other NYC generation. It was a generation that wasn’t talked about while they were living it, and whose stray members continue to get represented in strange spurts, starts, and mostly, stops.
The musical Hannah watches with Adam is Bye Bye Birdie, but viewers could miss it if they’re not listening to the audio carefully. Hannah makes clear at least that it is a musical — “I really like a world where people spontaneously burst out into song and dance, so sue me” — but the title is never raised. What is made apparent, though, is the shame that remains attached to certain forms of culture (Adam’s not about to sue anyone, but he’d rather watch Bagger Vance) such as the movie musical, which isn’t associated with gay men only, but adolescence as well. The featured song from Bye Bye Birdie (by the way) makes a promise that “You’re alive, / So come on and show it / We got a lot of livin’ to do.”
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