This week on Dear Television:
Girls and the Labor of Self
By Anne Helen Petersen
March, 17, 2014
IS HANNAH A MARXIST? Of course not. But she might be a Liberal Arts Marxist. Hannah went to Oberlin, a small liberal arts college, where you take a freshman seminar and have a very heated and slightly hungover discussion about Marxism, with the takeaway that labor should be meaningful and fulfilling, and when it’s not — when we become alienated from it, a favorite Liberal Arts Marxist phrase — it’s proof that Capitalism is broken and the masses should rise up or, in Hannah’s case, tell her co-workers that they’re “dead souls” in “a sweatshop factory for puns.”
That’s a hackneyed understanding of Marx, of course, but most of our understandings of philosophers from freshman year are hackneyed. And we’ve known Hannah long enough to believe that she’d use a freshman seminar thinker — or any concept, at any point — to justify her actions, especially quitting a job. This episode was all about labor, though, and not just Hannah’s, but how each character labors, and more importantly, how he or she conceives of labor, goes a long way towards explaining his or her trajectories through Season Three.
Marnie famously wants a “pretty person job,” but what she really wants — what working in an art gallery is all about — is to be so perfect as to disappear entirely. Opinions are scary and divisive — she can’t even tell the photographer whether the piece should move up or down — as is starting your own place or being an artist yourself. For someone who’s never had to be interesting, just pretty, the gallery girl position is ideal….and totally stagnant. Marnie started the series as a gallery girl, and now she’s back in the position, only this time, her self-indulgent boss is even younger than she is. Marnie’s under-valued and resents it, but she’s never shown that she actually has worth as a laborer. When she sings, she’s always covering songs, and never with any value added — if anything, her covers devalue the originals.
Which is why the open-mic night was framed as a breakthrough — or at least a potential one. The only way for Marnie to stop being an unsatisfied assistant is to produce her own work, and Desi helped convince her that her ramblings “written on Ambien” were worth something. Her thoughts, not her body — which is part of what makes his resistance to her beauty so refreshing. Marnie’s not pissed that Desi doesn’t desire her; rather, she’s completely befuddled that someone could find her talented for something other than being pretty. Marnie can embrace and act on that attitude — or just fall back into old habits, seducing the talent and flattering it.
Jessa doesn’t work. Even when she has a job, she’s not working: she’s just Jessa-ing around. We’ve never heard Jessa talk about money (save mention of the rehab facility, which was the only one her grandmother would pay for) because, like royalty and presidents, she's removed from the actualities of commerce. When she needs a place to sleep, she has Shoshana’s; when she needs a drink, she has a man buy one for her. Her clothes emerge from a seemingly ever-lasting fount of old lady vintage. Jessa would never conceive of her behavior as mooching — that would require seeing herself as taker and others as givers. Jessa’s coping strategy (although she’d never call it that) is to simply conceive of everyone as being in the world — it’s a handy way to obviate how significantly her father took from her.
So when Jessa takes a job, it’s not for capital. In Season One, she’s bored with being back in America, so she takes a job as a nanny — not because she likes kids or even has skill at taking care of them, but simply as a change of scenery, a different landscape in which to Jessa around. She takes the job at the children’s store as a means of distracting herself; when it proves stultifyingly boring — when there’s no customers for her to perform for/agitate — she tries to attract them with inappropriate window mannequins. She takes the job with the photographer at the gallery as a distraction from the stultifying reality of being off drugs. Jessa doesn’t labor; she “experiences” working.
That experiential attitude to life is part of what makes Jessa so magnetic. When Hannah talks about how Jessa used to dance on the quad in rain boots and a bikini, juggling knives, I knew exactly the type of girl she was talking about — I’ve been beguiled by several — but also knew just how destructive that tremendous self-focus can be. It’s not that Jessa needs to have a job so much as labor for something outside of herself — including, but not limited, to fixing what she’s broken with Shoshana.
For Shoshana, work is quite literally a mental concept. We’re to understand that she’s labored diligently for the last four years to set up her “fifteen year plan” for adult success, and that labor has been all about immaculate grades. But you never hear Shosh talk about a class, or a theory, or even something she’s passionate about that isn’t a pop culture reference — I’d love for her to be a media studies major and all her conversation to be cultural studies work, but I have to guess she’s either Communications or Business. Practical choices for a practical future, but also completely unchallenging — at least not for Shosh. When we see her struggling to study, it’s never because the material is hard, but because other things in her life (boys, Jessa) interest/distract her more.
Like so many second semester seniors, she’s over college — but she’s also over her friends treating her like shit and screwing boring yet hot boys. I can’t wait for Shosh to graduate and be faced with the boringness, the very lack of velocity, that accompanies an actual job on the route to her 15 year plan. When what, to this point, has all been well-practiced theoretical concepts — of academics, of life — are put in practice.
When Jessa first sees Adam in Season One, she comments that he does look like “the original man.” With his hulking frame (and generalized lack of shirt), it make sense — as did his general antipathy towards organized capitalist labor. If he could live in a world without currency, where people just bartered and appreciated each other, he would; his privilege, manifest in the form of monthly money from his Grandmother, enabled him to approximate that philosophy as closely as possible while living in a place that is neither Eugene, Oregon nor Burning Man. But Season Three Adam has been filled with disclosures — that his weird sex habits were to distract him from wanting to drink, for one, but also that he always acts like he doesn’t care (especially about try-outs) because he does.
Adam has always valued embodied labor: he might not have made much, but he prided himself on laboring at something that didn’t involve looking at a computer screen. Acting is just another form of embodied labor, only for the first time, someone who is not Hannah has validated that skill. In Zen terms, he’s a fiercely present person; that’s why he hates phones: because he wants to be doing what he is doing. Hannah sees his desire to extract himself from their relationship as selfish and unfair, but for Adam, it’s the only way he knows how to labor: wholly.
Hannah should recognize this desire. When she tells her fellow GQ writers that “I want every day to be exciting, and sexy, and a rollercoaster of creative experience as if I’m making a new life for myself in France,” she essentially talking about an embodied, wholly present experience, when you live and breath your work, blood and tears and triumph, like our well-worn dreams of Hemingway pounding on his typewriter in a Paris flat. It’s a romantic vision, and part of what Hannah finds so sexy about Adam is his ability not just to speak about laboring in this way, but to do it.
But Hannah is incapable of laboring like that:, and her breakdown at the end of Season Two underlined as much. She’s a talker, not a do-er; when she comes home from work, she wants to endlessly process. Before Adam, she had Marnie; before Marnie, she had Elijah; before Elijah, she had her parents. She’s cycled back to Elijah now, but the only way Hannah knows who she is — the only way she can be the “truly authentic person” she prides herself on being — is through speech. Writing, sure, but speech above all else: she and her labor are authenticated only through others.
Twitter, blogging, e-books — these are all public modes of writing that attract outside acknowledgement. Not of skill, necessarily, but of presence and labor: she is a writer because others recognize her as one, and part of her labor as a writer is talking about wanting to live an embodied artistic life while never doing it. It’s the same impulse as Tweeting about wanting to go on the Amtrak Residency, or dreaming of the secluded wilderness cabin. With age, we realize that we like thinking about these things more than doing them, and that fantasies, even ones we’ll never pursue, are just as crucial to identity as the lives we do lead. But Hannah lacks the wisdom to see the difference between what she wants and what she needs — or, more precisely, what can and should remain a guiding philosophy and what’s tenable and translatable to a lived experience.
We live in a post-industrial economy, and the vast majority of labor, especially for privileged, white, educated 20-somethings, is phantasmagoric: a performance of personality, not skill. The problem with that equation is that normal Marxist critiques don’t apply: you can’t be alienated from your labor when your labor is being yourself. Or, if you are, it entails a fundamental breakdown, an existential crisis: if I hate what I do, and what I do is “myself,” do I also hate that self? Each of Girls character is grappling with this question, or its spectre, and maybe, to some extent, each of us is too — which is why, for all of its inconsistencies, we’re still watching.
Everything’s my business,
Anne Helen Petersen