|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Girls: "Bad Friend" by Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak and Dear Television
January 30th, 2013
This Week on Dear Television:
Last Week on Dear Television:
THIS WAS THE FIRST episode of the season that made me laugh. Hard. A lot. Jazzhate! Power-clashing! “Just Leave your fucking mark, Hannah.” (Hannah pauses, whispers: “In urine?”) One can really go through their whole life wearing shorty-shorts and offend almost nobody is a hell of a line, especially coming from a place of blind rage. And Andrew Rannells’s delivery during his confession was pitch-perfect, but I especially loved how thoughtfully he said “yeahhh, she’s very ribby.” Elijah might be pathologically selfish and really, really high in that moment, but he’s trying hard to answer Hannah’s question honestly and completely. He’s a fifth-grader with a No. 2 pencil.
Then there’s poor Laird, so quick to tears, so fond of Pom. Of his turtle: “I will never not have him.” The scene in the pharmacy aisle was comedy gold, as were Marnie’s facial expressions during sex with Booth Jonathan. How wonderful, by the way, was her outburst afterward? It’s rich territory, the terrible urge to laugh when a bad partner gets carried away while one watches, waving, from the station. Booth’s, alas, is the comedy of the failed dom: great setup, no follow-through. “Give me everything,” he says, sure he’s programmed Marnie as promised in season one, when he said he’d scare her because he was a man and knew how to do things. Poor Marnie. After Charlie and Elijah she just wants some good sex, even if it’s mind-gamey sex, but instead she gets locked in a TV booth and forced, again, to watch. Booth: “Let me control you. (Grunt.) Look at the doll. Look at her. Describe her. How is she feeling?” Marnie, gamely: “Uh. She feels sassy?” “NO SHE’S SAD.” Grunt grunt grunt.
I will never tire of Girls’s mission to showcase the myriad forms of awkward sex. I understand and sympathize with many criticisms of this show, but I don’t understand critics who complain about this issue in particular. Do you really want glossy soft-lit teenagers gliding against each other like gaspy porpoises? Or neatly bathrobed twentysomethings with shiny hair who imply, over coffee, that everything went according to sublime erotic plan? THAT IS BORING AND STUPID. Enough with the gymnastic sylphs! A lot of sex is bad, and bad sex is the sort of shame-tragedy that harbors comedy gold. It just needs to be extracted properly, which requires, in turn, that we overwrite the only bad sex joke we really have. (It’s a bad joke. You know the one. Family Guy does it all the time. Peter and Lois have sex. Peter comes too fast, rolls over and Lois lies there, unsatisfied. Ha.) Seriously, however traumatized we’ve been by that one joke, let’s acknowledge that we need more bad sex on our screens and in our comedy. Marnie laughing her head off is a step in the right direction.
Speaking of old jokes, this episode was positively swimming in anachronisms. Ray makes Shoshanna watch Ally McBeal, Jessa reminisces about the time one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers complimented her (“they don’t construct a sleeve like that anymore”), and Elijah justifies his behavior with a Grease reference: “As Rizzo says in Grease, 'there are worse things I could do.'” Booth Jonathan remembers the glory days of Teddy Ruxpin and 3-2-1 Contact. His dollhouse references The Shining. The booth he locks Marnie in is made up of old televisions (who says TV can’t be high art?) while Duncan Sheik, that one-hit wonder of the “suburban” 90s, plays in the background. Then, as Marnie watches screaming babies and wild animals, Booth — who has made himself some espresso — checks his email. And suddenly we’re transported to another time, a time when AOL ruled the internet and cybersex was a thing. Booth’s computer says “You’ve got mail.” The gay Andrews are competing against stacked decades of references, up to and including Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel, channeled by Laird, becomes Extremely Close and Extremely Loud. (This should be the title of Booth Jonathan’s greatest work, yes?). But the archaic tendency goes further still — Hannah asks how to “procure” cocaine. Marnie’s Blackberry seems dated. Even Jazzhate feels like 2007 Jezebel (allusions to xoJane notwithstanding).
I don’t know what to make of all this except to note that the nostalgic object does tend to have a depressive effect. First there’s the joyful surge of recognition (Teddy Ruxpin!!!). You remember the excitement, the novelty, the potential. Then there’s the comedown when you recall what it wasn’t and isn’t. (Ohhh. Teddy Ruxpin.) It’s a pattern that matches Hannah and Elijah’s coke-fueled walk down memory lane. The references do get at the vicious flip-side of nostalgia: things were never that great — not for Hannah and Elijah when they met in the computer room at Oberlin, not in the '80s Booth grew up in and dreams of now, and not in the '90s when Duncan Sheik barely breathed — but the expectation of loyalty, of promises made then, remains: “I was meant to be your last!” Nostalgia authorizes high dudgeon and iffy claims to moral ground. (From Hannah, of all people, who last week told Marnie she refused to exploit her sexuality, and this week sleeps with Laird “for work”.) Finally, and I hope one of you writes about the Bad Friend fight, I’m glad to see Hannah and Marnie interacting again. I’ll be the first to recognize that Hannah with Elijah is at least as entertaining as Hannah on coke, but I’m ready for the Muffins Are Tasty wireless network to come to a stroppy end. I liked Madame Ovaries better too.
We have so many memories,
“YES, YES, YES, YES. Marnie’s with Booth Jonathan.” So says Hannah this episode and yes, Hannah, yes. Ever since BJ proclaimed his manhood to Marnie on the High Line last year, I’ve been anticipating his return. Apparently, Marnie has been too — stalking to and fro before his apartment is her version of Hannah casually appearing at Adam’s in knee socks. Maybe it’s because I’m a Marnie at heart, but Booth has always seemed a far more familiar genre of smeej than Adam. Driver is a phenomenal actor with uncanny delivery, but his character has regressed this season into some pseudo preadolescent stage where he can only bark non-sequitur adages. Adam needs Hannah suddenly, and Hannah does not like. Cue BJ as the new Adam of Girls: suave, lightly bearded, and in possession of the ability to frame all his propositions in the form of demands: “Oh, you're a person who's about to have sex with me.” Seductive, no?
If Booth Jonathan is any kind of conman artist, he’s first one of foreplay. It’s all fun and Duncan Sheik until the porpoise is actually bumpin’ on top of you. Lili, I loved your reading of the bad sex, because, yes, the best affective response Marnie could have given is the one she did: laughter. Booth might be a smeej, but he is an addition to Girls that I welcome. As yet, he seems to have done more for Marnie’s growth than Charlie ever did. Booth might be a terrible person, but he offers Truth. I’d buy that dollhouse (which, by the way, did anyone else read as a nod to Laurie Simmons? Simmons herself even knows this conman firsthand.) Like Marnie, my response to “Children’s Death Games” is along the lines of “I love it,” if for somewhat different reasons. We’ve seen so little of Booth, but he and his art feel so real. “What's the blood made out of?” asks Marnie, looking at Booth’s dollhouse. “Oh, it's blood.” Hyperreal.
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“I love that,” says Booth, when he learns that Marnie has turned to hostessing after being fired from the world of art curatorship. He continues: “I love when young people are passionate about something and then they just give up the second that they have to struggle.” Does this not describe nearly all of Hannah’s behavior thus far? I begin to wonder, aside from all that white male privilege, if Booth is successful in part because he’s just so relentless. Privilege breeds entitlement, sure, but even I feel one might learn a thing or two from Booth’s consistent swagger.
Is Booth a sociopath? Maybe. Are many privileged white men, Adam included, sociopaths? Um. Or maybe the point is not to psychologize the characters of Girls in terms of madness or idiocy. Booth, Adam, and Hannah aren’t any more monstrous than they are blindly selfish and determined. Through Booth’s counterfeit art, there’s something to be learned and gained, even if it’s not the artist’s intention. And if Damien Hirst can garner so many affective and intellectual responses, why can’t BJ?
Booth puts Marnie inside the “best thing he’s ever made,” and locks her in there for what seems, at least, the length of “Barely Breathing.” Marnie’s first reaction, like all of Hannah’s this episode, is immediately to want out. But Booth leaves her there and goes on to brew some coffee, without concern that the experience will be claustrophobic, traumatic, or enough to make Marnie leave. It’s not. Marnie grimaces for a moment, but she’s still breathing. By the end, she’s actually enjoyed it.
Perhaps I enjoy Booth so much because he seems to reflect so much of the core philosophy of Girls: suffering begets valuable experience. You’ll learn from this. Booth tries to educate Marnie about 1980s American media history, but her sarcastic response means to teach him something as well. Booth is a silly, silly man — and Marnie knows that, even as she’s drawn to him. This is often how it goes with intelligent women and confidently condescending men, and Girls does this kind of man very, very well. But this sex scene, as with all of Marnie’s, makes the male partner by far the more vulnerable. And if sex is a form of experience, as Girls seems to insist it is, then Marnie hasn’t yet had any of actual pleasure. Sex is important for Girls in that it’s almost always bad and awkward. Rather than show Marnie and Booth (or Hannah and Sandy) falling into bed, the camera almost always cuts to sex as it’s already happening. This compounds the awkwardness, but it also does away with the visual clichés that often equate sex with the realization of love. Sex scenes with Charlie and Elijah are uncomfortable because they’re weighted as moments of conflict and depression. These scenes are also points of realization for all involved, and I love that Marnie’s erotic life is so clearly a means of learning about herself. “When was the last time you had sex?” asks Booth, and in that moment I really did believe that Marnie could go eight months without a penis inside her and be just fine.
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Meanwhile, Hannah and Elijah are high on coke, dancing without inhibition to “I Love It.” I love it! But love means never having to say you’re sorry and this kind of love in the club only lasts so long. Taking a tip from Booth, Hannah arrives at his doorstep to demand an apology from Marnie. She gets it, and more — watching Marnie’s and then Elijah’s reaction shots to Hannah’s anger was truly depressing, and even somewhat poignant. I felt so much for them then because it felt, suddenly, like none of these characters actually knew one another — as if Marnie and Elijah had never had to deal with this streak of Hannah’s that is already so familiar to us as viewers.
Hannah has always wanted it both, if not all of the ways, and she does it by lying constantly to everyone who cares about her. Patronizing and shaming Laird for following her around, Hannah immediately inverts this opinion to chastise and embarrass Marnie: “He’s not a junkie… He’s clean and he’s basically my guardian angel.” After grilling Marnie and then effectively shaming her into admitting the position of “bad friend,” Hannah uses this loss as a means of placing blame on Elijah: “You ruined my article. You ruined my night. You ruined my relationship with Marnie.” Hannah might not believe it later, but in this moment she is trying her damndest to remain unimpeachable and blameless through flamboyant self-victimization. It’s utterly watchable. I love it! I’m so excited to see what happens next.
Alongside Marnie’s impulses (leaving work midway is a-okay!), is this episode trying to tell us that Hannah’s choices only make sense if she’s on cocaine? Coke exacerbates Hannah’s already impulsive nature, but it also makes her tirade about the difficulties of writing checks more realistic. But never mind, this show isn’t about that kind of realism and, further, the question has ceased to be about whether Hannah is myopic and monstrous, for she certainly is. What’s more interesting now is how Girls will manifest the consequences of such wholehearted self-absorption.
Earlier, Phil reminded us of what Jenni Konner stated as the thesis of season two: they wanted to see what would happen if Hannah started to get what she wants. Well, Dear TV, Hannah getting hers is terrifying.
This episode, I love it.
"Hipster Inoculation, or Radical Sheik"
ON ANOTHER MEDIA PLATFORM entirely, an esteemed person has pointed to the use of Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing” in “Bad Friend” as a self-conscious invocation of “Ivy Leaguer elites who make popular/populist art (top 40/television).” Sheik, in his reading, was not just a one-hit wonder but a "one-hit wonder WHO WENT TO BROWN," just as Lena Dunham (Oberlin ’08), according to this interlocutor, is fated to be another briefly successful bid by a privileged kid to enter the pop mainstream “on their own terms,” ultimately discarded as jejune and embarrassing. Thus:
To paraphrase Public Enemy, Duncan Sheik was a hero to some but he never meant shit to me, so I not only completely missed the subtext of "Barely Breathing," I missed the text (i.e. I didn't even recognize the song: was too distracted by the crying babies and decomposing dogs). Not having bowed down before this particular bourgeois, I missed out on all the embarrassment and sublimation and Schadenfreude and so on.
[And as long as we’re going down the interpretive/credential-checking rabbit hole: this episode was directed not by Dunham but by Jesse Peretz, former bass player for “the Cambridge-based rock band The Lemonheads” [genteel euphemism courtesy of Peretz’s Wikipedia page; a little further Googling reveals that he did, indeed, go to Harvard]. Music cues are frequently chosen by the director (or music consultant) rather than specified in the script, so the use of “Barely Breathing” could have easily been Peretz’s call rather than Dunham’s. Is this one Ivy-educated alt-rocker pranking another (which is apparently the spirit in which Sheik himself took it)?]
Nonetheless, the “hipster inoculation” thesis is interesting: it’s true that Girls does tend to use Top 40 pop (like Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” last season) as a way of creating or extending ironic distance. And while I didn’t recognize the Sheik song, I did get, intuitively, that it was meant to signal that Booth Jonathan’s art was shit. So perhaps the show does “try to read as ‘art’” by holding pop at arm’s length, and perhaps “Barely Breathing” was a particularly sophisticated and self-aware example of that tactic. I would say, though, that the art world is more relentlessly invoked/distanced on the show than is pop; witness not just Booth but all of the awful gallery owners Marnie encounters (including one played in the last episode, as Jane points out, by Dunham’s mom, artist Laurie Simmons). So, I don’t quite know what this does to the “IN the market but not OF the market” problematic, since the fine art field kind of invented that whole move (at least according to Pierre Bourdieu).
To biographize a bit: Dunham is a child of artists (her father is Carroll Dunham, a well-regarded painter) who is currently a darling of popular culture; her show enacts a fairly systematic rebellion against the former milieu while cautiously embracing, and being embraced by, the latter. But she is surely smart enough to know that this mutual infatuation won’t last, and that she’ll need something solid — a degree, some credibility — to fall back on once the wave passes. So she is, as our friend suggests, playing a complicated double game: in the market but not of it, dancing in the nightclub screaming “I LOVE IT!” along with Icona Pop (perfect name for this line of discussion, no?) but already preparing for her future Whitney retrospective and Criterion edition. The mistake of someone like Sheik, I suppose, is that he didn’t plan better for his fall from pop grace (though he seems to be doing all right for himself writing musicals these days). Dunham is the savvy, wary millennial to Sheik’s profligate Gen Xer: partying (and exposing herself) like she doesn’t care, but making herself a little nest egg of cultural capital, a diversified portfolio of art and pop assets. (This is one way, maybe, of parsing the difference between Hannah and Lena.)
Anyway. A few other things about this episode: I am a big fan of Jon Glaser, who regularly gives TV history’s most nuanced ski-masked performance on his own show Delocated, so I was very excited to see him pop up as Laird, Hannah’s turtle-owning, on-the-wagon guardian angel. I am hoping he will have at least one scene with Adam before the season is out: maybe they can bump into each other while stalking Hannah. And I also hope to see more of the jazzhate offices: the idea of Hannah writing for a popular website opens up a yawning abyss of meta-reflection that Girls can’t afford not to dive into. I’ll be super-disappointed if, like the Donald Glover cameo, this is just a way of coyly glancing at the fact of all the attention the show’s gotten without really engaging with it — in the end, just another inoculation.
Outside my comfort zone, where the magic happens,
“You Probably Think This Show is About You”
A WHILE AGO, the great critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick had this to say about the criticism of her moment: “to apply a hermeneutics of suspicion is widely understood as a mandatory injunction rather than a possibility among other possibilities.” I bring this up not to make an argument for a “reparative” reading of Girls — though I do think one exists and I hope that this column is at least philosophically in agreement with whatever it might be — but to call attention to a particular trend in our criticism today. Since months before its release, Girls was subject to numerous different critiques that all sought to expose or otherwise reveal the seedy underbelly of the show. Girls is racist. Girls is the product of nepotism. Girls is too insular/presumptuous/spoiled/entitled/big for its britches. The impulse to agitate for a more responsible television landscape is right, but this critical mass has come to define Girls more than the content of its show does. Critics want to solve Girls, in other words, and often that has come at the cost of Lena Dunham’s agency as an artist. If the show’s problematic elements are accidental, then they are the result of a lazy, myopic, or overly privileged creative mind. If they are intentional, then that very intentionality is evidence of a callow attempt to subvert criticism through “hipster inoculation.” Either Beyonce lip-synced or she didn’t, Taylor Swift is pissed that Adele won her Golden Globe, and all this time we’re spending on the unworthy Girls could be spent on something else. Learning a trade or working at a soup kitchen or writing about Enlightened.
I think it’s easy, in an online scenario, to mistake reception for content. We spoke a few weeks ago about the assumption that Girls is in constant response mode to its critics, and we have that notion echoed back to us today. But if we begin to imagine that Girls is structured in such a way that fully 70 percent of its energy is spent responding to critics or inoculating itself against criticism, I think we start to both overstate the impact of criticism and underestimate the creative power of the makers of the television show. They get one episode and then they’re playing defense? Certainly, one might say, Girls is asking for it, because of the extraordinary lengths it goes to to show self-awareness. But if the show was not self-aware, if it didn’t signal that it hears its critics on occasion or knows its weaknesses and hypocrisies, would we be happy with that? How weird is it for us critics to take the occasion of Girls to write about the ramifications of our own criticism? If Lena Dunham didn’t exist, would Gawker have to invent her?
Girls has a point of view. As Lili said, the show is invested in bad sex, in the representation of grim slapstick intimacies between people with great but directionless desire. It’s invested in both embodying and critiquing the notion of “experimentation” as it relates to the privileged life philosophy that nothing bad will ever happen. It’s interested, to some extent, in friendship — what constitutes it, what can and can’t destroy it, what it means for narcissists to be “friends” with each other. It’s interested, I would argue, in the idea of whiteness as a socially, economically, and culturally constructed identity category. And it’s interested in a distinctly feminist body politics. I think the critical response to Girls is interesting too, and I think the small nods the show has made to its critics have been provocative, but I think that there are far more interesting things about this show than its reception history. At what point does Girls become an adjunct to the criticism written about it?
I am really glad that there is such a vibrant conversation about this show, and I thank people like our pseudonymous interlocutor yesterday morning for taking our criticism and Girls itself seriously enough to argue about them. I think there’s even a place for ideology critique and suspicious reading when it comes to Girls, especially in terms of topics like class that often get trod over in favor of glitzier problematics like race or sex. (See Nona Willis Aronowitz’s great piece on Girls, Shameless, and the difference between “broke” and “poor” for a generous and inventive critique of class on the show .) I think also, though, that there’s a place for formal analysis, for paying attention to this show in a way that brackets the global critiques that keep it in the spotlight. The popularity of this show is in many ways buoyed by its controversy. We write about it here because it’s funny, it resonates with audiences, and because there is a nearly unprecedented critical maelstrom surrounding it at all times. Duncan Sheik possibly was a self-aware nod to Dunham’s own prestigious pedigree, or maybe it wasn’t. But it was also, as Lili points out, a part of the dense fabric of nostalgia that cloaks this show and that — as was the case when Hannah returned home last season — is one of the main ways Girls keeps the theory and practice of “embarrassment” constantly on the table. Evan did a better job than I at weaving an argument out of Hannah’s representation of the art scene, and this, to be fair, is not so much a response to the episode as it is a response to a response to a response. (One that, it should be noted, has gotten Evan in a good bit of trouble with Duncan Sheik fans on Twitter.) There are many rooms in Lena Dunham’s dollhouse, some of them troublesome, some of them innovative, some of them full of anxieties. We will try to explore them all, but we must also be wary of our own identities as critics creeping in. We are spectators, not participants, in Girls. There are other shows, and there are better shows. Girls is a show on TV. And if Lena Dunham thinks that doll feels sassy, let’s go with that for a minute before we tell her it’s sad.