Reality Hunger: On Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

For Hannah, talking is a way of coming to terms with, and owning, her appetites.

By Jane HuApril 28, 2012

    Reality Hunger: On Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

    MOST REVIEWS OF LENA DUNHAM’S new HBO show Girls so far have focused on its “realism,” which immediately begs questions. If Dunham’s show is meant to be realistic, then we’re obliged to judge whether it’s either refreshingly on target, or entirely missing the mark. Do we, the viewers, feel represented and reflected by the conversations and scenarios that Girls presents? Or do we feel alienated from them? Do we identify? Or do we feel something in between? 

    In the promotional trailer for the series, Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath sits before her parents and proclaims: “I think I may be the voice of my generation,” only to retreat instantly behind the modification: “or at least a voice … of ageneration.” This line, tagged as the catchphrase of Girls in the lead up to its pilot, was received almost as a dare. Someone, finally, was going to take on the challenge of speaking the real and raw truth for recession-era youth! For all its overwhelming narcissism, though, the line also anticipates the mix of recklessness and reluctance that the show cultivates. Girls wants to have it both ways: it wants to be both brash and unsure of itself, universal and specific, speaking (when it wants to) for a generation but reserving the right not to specify which one. 

    Based on the internet chatter, there seems to be a voracious desire to find oneself in Girls, implying an urgency to locate a voice for this generation, a generation that understands itself to be diverse. As The Hairpin’s Jenna Wortham says about these girls: “They are us but they are not us. They are me but they are not me.” The show’s representations of race, class, and gender have generated an expansive range of reactions, not least because of the show’s monolithic middle-class whiteness. It seems like the one thing anyone can agree on is that, unlike Hannah Horvath, they don’t eat cupcakes in the bathtub.

    But if we’re looking for what’s truly universal in Dunham’s depiction of young, white, upper-middle-class life in New York City, then maybe the cupcake isn’t such a bad place to start. Eating is, after all, about as universal as it gets. The overwhelming excitement about and immediate backlash to Dunham’s show both seem to suggest a profound hunger on the part of its audience for something nourishing, sustaining, and nutritious, prepared especially for them. This is fitting, because hunger, in all its manifestations, drives Girls. As with all lost generations, there seems to be a profound sense of lack among Hannah’s friends. Hannah showcases her appetite for attention, sex, and food, none of which prove exclusive to one another.

    The first shot of the pilot shows Hannah in an upscale restaurant seated in front of multiple plates of food, inhaling alternating mouthfuls from each plate. Her mother tells her to slow down: “You’re eating like they’re going to take it away from you.” To which Hannah responds (childishly, mid-bite): “I’m a growing girl.” For her, eating and talking are inseparable from the process of growing up. Hannah is, in turn, interrupted mid-bite, for her parents have chosen dinner as the opportunity to announce that they will no longer be supporting her unpaid internship in New York, or as her mother describes it, “bankrolling your groovy lifestyle.” Shocked and outraged in all of her un-self-aware entitlement, Hannah announces to her parents that she cannot see them tomorrow evening since she has a “dinner thing,” and then will be “too busy becoming who I am.” This scene of furious public ingestion looks forward to a future of relaxed, private digestion: Hannah needs to eat, and then she needs to figure her shit out. Throughout the Girls pilot, there is a sense that the world as we know it will slip away if we do not get to — and through — it fast enough. What these girls are running toward, and who they are busy becoming, they have yet to discover. But resources are scarce, and no one is getting younger.

    Consuming and facing the reality that there might not be enough left to consume are seemingly incompatible in Hannah’s world. When she’s let go from her internship after her request for a paying position is denied, Hannah’s boss (played by Chris Eigeman, familiar as a privileged slacker from Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach movies) assures her: “When you get hungry enough, you’ll figure it out.” To which she responds: “Do you mean like physically hungry or like hungry for the job?” The line is played for comic effect, but it also expresses Hannah’s confusion about exactly what she might get hungry for. An appetite, and an appetitive drive, is what Hannah and her fellow girls need in order to “become who they are.” If you lack hunger, then you just might be lost. But, then again, you might still be anyway.

    No matter: talking and eating will keep us distracted from the object of our hunger. Later on, Hannah tells her roommates in a typically melodramatic moment: “I can last in New York for three and a half more days — maybe seven if I don’t eat lunch.” The running joke behind these statements is that Hannah’s livelihood is not actually at stake (even her roommates roll her eyes during this moment of self-pity) since, when push comes to shove, Hannah’s parents could just take back what they said about buying a lake-house and bail her out instead. Yet Hannah’s fixation on ingestion is no less real or urgent. Food, as both a metaphoric notion and a real, onscreen substance, is essential to Girls. The tentative title of Hannah’s memoir-in-progress is, after all, Midnight Snack. A title is supposed to be suggestive and representative of a body of work, but really all Hannah’s (unfinished) Midnight Snack indicates is that she still has not learned how or when to eat like an adult. As for talking, she has only just begun.


    The paradox in writing about — or filming — scenes of eating 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. Exceptions, such as Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre and Francis Veber’s Le dîner de cons, only emphasize the latent narrative potential surrounding cultures of eating. Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes— a film that strings together vignettes of café scenes — finds the narratability in visualizing a break or snack. Snacks are by definition inessential, unstructured, and irregular: you never know when the next one might come. The snack does not offer satisfaction or closure; in fact, it demands a more responsible future that might justify the present indulgence.

    Food is meant to help us fuel up so we can get on with life, but food in Girls becomes the very excuse to avoid the mundane reality of growing up. Scenes of eating, which abound in the pilot, are pauses in the real work that constitutes a bread-earning life. Rather than showcase the necessary regularity of eating, however, Girls uses food scenes as a way of driving plot, and exploring character development. A meal is an opportunity for Hannah’s parents to tell her “No. More. Money.” (and, by extension, no more food). When the waiter asks if they would like more of anything, Hannah’s mother drives the message home and speaks on her behalf: “No, she’s fine.” Food is also the gateway to Hannah’s method of coping with her new economic status. After twenty-four hours of being financially cut off, Hannah comes home (notably late for her “dinner thing”) and drinks a cup of cooked opium leaves upon mishearing that it “tastes like Twix.” (It, surprisingly, does not.) Where a proper, scheduled restaurant dinner facilitates Hannah’s “final push” into adulthood, she responds by consuming a drug (masked in the form of a drink, or a chocolate bar, or even better, a midnight snack). Characters’ motivations and affective responses are, here and elsewhere, displaced onto food.

    In terms of development — narrative, character, and otherwise — food is a means to an end. It will bring the girls of Girlstogether, but it also differentiates them. Hannah eats her bathtub cupcake while complaining about her situation (and her body) to roommate Marnie. At the dinner party for their returning friend Jessa, a last-minute invitee occupies a seat at the table that was never meant for her, though this finally matters little as her presence feels inconsequential since she will not eat: “I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m just not really into eating this week.” Unsurprisingly, further development of this character stops at this sentence. 

    As pauses, eating is both what keeps us from attaining our ideals, as well as the literal driving force for life, and thus living the good life, itself. For all that is clichéd and flat about the show’s glancing portrayal of Joy Lin, the Asian intern who got hired because of her Photoshopping skills, the show establishes common ground between Joy and the rest of the girls through her privileged relationship to food. Her one line in the pilot — “Will you get me a Luna bar, and a SmartWater, and Vitamin Water?” — indexes her socioeconomic status more precisely than it does her racial one. A health bar and two types of bottled water? If Joy can care about what she consumes, it’s because, as a skilled and paid employee, she can afford to. As a point of fixation, food becomes an excuse and distraction to keep Hannah from facing up to her imminent shift in financial conditions. Again, the joke is that there is always enough food around to provide a distraction from worries about not having enough food.  


    The intermingling of appetites for food and for sex in fiction, film, and even television long predates Girls. A few examples: François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Marco Ferreri’s La grande bouffeI Love Lucy, and, like, all of Evelyn Waugh. What makes narrative so directly contingent on physical drives? (“You’re tired of eating him out,” Hannah tells Marnie about her submissive boyfriend, “because he has a vagina.”)

    If our culture has mostly neglected food in its discussion of Girls thus far, it’s got sex pretty well covered. Coinciding with the broadcast of the pilot, Katie Roiphe wrote an article on submissive sexual appetites for Newsweek and, following the premiere, another on the performance of sadomasochistic sex in Girls for Slate. While many have responded to Roiphe’s ideas on female fantasies of sexual domination with appropriate rage, more have received it as mostly dull and uncritical. In comparison to Roiphe’s earlier pieces, which seem controversial and infuriating because they struck something about her generation’s ideas of modern womanhood, her latest take on heteronormative desire seems to be getting tired. In Troy Patterson’s take on Girls (also for Slate), he both quotes and comments on Roiphe’s loss of steam:

    The movement against date rape is a symptom of a more general anxiety about sex. … The crisis is not a rape crisis, but a crisis in sexual identity.” I think that Roiphe had a strong point back then. It is unclear to me what she is saying, now, in lamenting the awkward sex of Girls. She is lamenting human nature? She is disappointed that non-marital sex still had yet to achieve zipless perfection?

    Roiphe’s retrograde reading of female desire does not take into account the possibilities of displacement and suppression that could lead to conclusions other than, simply, that women wish to be dominated. Girls might really represent a generational shift that diverges from, or at least complicates, Roiphe’s concepts of female submission and, more importantly, sexual identity in general: that get us talking again. Who is eating whom out anymore in Girls?

    What is seen as realism in Girls is exactly what we would not expect to be able to see in our everyday interactions with others: uncomfortable scenes involving food and sex. Sex is explicitly bad and unsatisfying in Girls, but in an unfazed way. Dunham’s camera takes us into the bathtub and the bedroom as though she were just narrating another chapter in our shared diary. In the sex scenes between Hannah and her “boyfriend” Adam, Girls plays on the expectations of erotic submission but fails to go all the way. Through mimicking, rather badly, the narratives of submissive sex, the show exposes the potential for disengagement and humor in sadomasochism through its overperformance. Indeed, sex for Hannah seems to feed her appetite to analyze her environment. (At one point, mid-thrust, Adam tells Hannah: “Let’s play the quiet game.”) In turn for the bad pornographic script that Adam feeds her, Hannah responds with her own. She wants to focus on the talk that occurs not just around — but also during — the act of sleeping with another person. When Adam offers Hannah a Gatorade after a particularly unappetizing round of sex for the latter, Hannah pauses then responds: “No thanks I’m good.” An exercise in pleasure for Adam means he’ll need a snack to replenish; but Hannah not only does not need a drink, her rejection of nutrients also signals an implicit rejection of the sex to which it would be a response. For Hannah, talking is a way of coming to terms with, and owning, her appetites.

    These scenes, lurid in their will to show what is unsexy about sex, are outside our ordinary purview, except, as Girlsseems to suggest, when girls are with their closest female friends. Even when Hannah is having sex with Adam, there is still a sense that her best friend, Marnie, is there with them as a judgmental third. Sitting back in her apartment, Marnie tells her own boyfriend: “I know exactly where she is. She’s off having gross sex with that animal.” For all that writers have spoken about Girls’s appetite for sex — bad or good — these scenes often seem like just another appetite that drives the show’s deeper dynamic of female friendship. Men are often only the catalyst through which women connect. Marnie’s boyfriend Charlie is, literally, the outsider, who keeps trying to insert himself where he does not belong. He interrupts Marnie conversing with another girl in the bathroom not once, but twice; first sharing the bathtub with Hannah, and again just after Jessa, on the toilet, confesses to being pregnant (he is shooed out with a disgruntled wave of Marnie’s hand). “Dude, it’s never ‘just your girlfriend’ in here,” Hannah tells Charlie, and really, it seems like he would know this by now. Unlike the men that interrupt Hannah and her girlfriends, however, Dunham’s camera is allowed to stay inside with her female protagonists, inviting viewers to become a part of the talk that happens behind closed bathroom doors.

    The camera’s ability to insert viewers in intensely, even uncomfortably, intimate scenes of female bonding is at the heart of Dunham’s art. Unloading your shit is a process that takes place in more than one form, with more than one body, in the bathrooms of Girls. Dunham’s visualization of these moments of too-closeness is, however, how she prompts moments of visceral identification from her audience. In his article, Patterson compares Dunham’s interaction with the camera as

    kind of like an SNL player doing body art [...] Has any of the commentary around Dunham’s use of her nude or naked body in her work bothered to compare her to Tracey Emin, Pipolotti Rist, Vanessa Beecroft, Marina Abramovich, or for that matter Matthew Barney?

    As a type of performance art, Dunham’s manipulation of her body engages viewers because she treats her body wholly irreverently. Like Hannah, Dunham has a desire to “take control of her shape,” and she does this through bold portrayals of her naked body, in bizarre contortions, on screen. As the person who gets to script, direct, block, and portray her own body, all the arguments about Dunham’s resolve to degrade herself fall apart on screen. Viewers might not have a hard time deciding what they think about Hannah’s use of her body, but they will have a harder time locating Hannah’s, or Dunham’s, own take on sex since these acts are never fixed in the sexual identity of one body. Like body art, Dunham’s directing of Hannah’s body-alongside the psychological characterization she attributes to it undoes any clear notion of what it is that body is doing, and why.

    Patterson’s placement of Dunham among the pantheon of feminist body artists might, however, be slightly off key, as Dunham, ultimately, communicates her body via a television character. The immediacy of body art is precipitated by the real, physical fact of a viewer’s confrontation with the live body of the performer before them. What makes Girls a piece of art (and entertainment) of its time is precisely its ability to maintain a distance and anonymity from its viewers by virtue of the televisual medium.

    The second episode of Girls concludes with Dunham lying flat on a gynecologists’ table, while she makes a characteristically insensitive, and provocative, remark about her body. Though a large part of Girls runs on forcing the audience to contend with Dunham’s body, Hannah, in this moment of vulnerability, wants nothing more than to escape her corporeality: “Maybe I’m actually not scared of AIDS. Maybe I thought I was scared of AIDS, but really what I am is... wanting AIDS.” This is not Ron Athey or Tim Miller, however, whose performance art demanded one’s response to the very real, very immediate consequences of AIDS. Like Dunham’s treatment of food and sex, AIDS now stands as just another vehicle for her fantasy of escaping the current moment. Dunham goes on to tell her gynecologist that her fear of AIDS is like a “Forrest Gump” — that is, a cinematic — type of fear, one that only occurs when you are detached from the real, distanced from the object that prompts this fear. The scene is stunning in its portrayal of Hannah’s narcissism, but it also shows Dunham’s complete unawareness that her privilege lies in her ability to dramatize disease, starvation, and sexual degradation as forms of liberation.


    Though its first season might be scripted, shot and ready to air, Girls — like its characters — is still feeling out a precarious situation, trying to find a space of identification for viewers that is neither too insular and restrained nor so expansive and universal that it stops signifying anything meaningful at all. So far the show seems stuck somewhere between its characters’ sense of the emergency of the present moment and the magical ability to postpone emergency, seemingly indefinitely, because they have the economic and cultural resources to do so. Talk about Girls, too, is coming at us hard and fast in a way that forestalls, rather than forecloses, our developing sense of what it’s about. If Girls truly resembles performance art, as Patterson suggests, it is in its ability to precipitate lively talk about itself almost instantaneously. Our responses are vital and urgent, but provisional, and we should remember that Dunham’s show is still becoming what it is. Writing about Girls instantaneously on the internet, however, we might be chewing on a lot — and for a long time — before we get a chance to look down and really examine what it is that we’ve been digesting. Maybe we’re afraid they’ll take it away from us.

    LARB Contributor

    Jane Hu is a critic who lives in Los Angeles.


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