A FEW MONTHS after I moved to New York, blown-up posters of Lena Dunham’s face began cropping up around the city. Awash in a shimmery, copper light and just out of focus, she looks holy, angelic; the photo brings out the sparkling hazelnut of her eyes, the soft curl of her hair, the creaminess of her skin. It even makes her smile, two white jewels of teeth prominent between parted lips, seem devout. Though the word “GIRLS” is spread across the advertisement (for the second season of the HBO show, now available on DVD), the show is really only about the one: Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath. And beneath the title, a caption reads: “Almost getting it kind of together.” This is the Girl’s mantra, her pledge to a life of indeterminacy rife with choices and mistakes, failures and corrections, and eventually, one hopes, progress.
In a bold moment during the pilot of Girls, Hannah claims, “I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, the voice of a generation.
Some things you should know about Hannah if you don’t already:
- Hannah is a twentysomething girl living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, trying to make it as a writer.
- A recent Oberlin grad, she’s just been cut off by her parents, and must now support herself financially.
- She has three girlfriends who’ll become her collective foil (in parentheses, all you need to know about them): Jessa (free-spirited boho), Marnie (uptight), and Shoshanna (precious, emoji-loving princess).
- When she makes the above proclamation, Hannah is high on opium.
High though she was, Hannah’s line carried with it a sting that’s stayed with the show’s audience and critics since its delivery. It is the fault line upon which the entire series rumbles forth – its problematic credo, perhaps – and the yardstick by which we measure Hannah, accept and reject her. The contradiction of Hannah’s phrase – the surety of the “the,” followed by the hesitancy of the “a” – speaks to how we feel about her. (When I say “we,” I refer to the subset of a generation that Hannah ostensibly represents, namely twentysomething lady writers living in New York – the group that I belong to as a Brooklyn-based writer in my twenties.) Indeed, we regard Hannah with a simultaneous respect and repugnance. Sometimes we want to be like her; we admire her ability to speak her mind, her willing tenacity, and gumption. At other times, we want little to do with her; we tire of her solipsism, and when she wears a regrettable outfit, sleeps with the wrong guy, pushes away her friends, or misses her subway stop, we feel the cringing pangs of embarrassment for her. Ultimately, we have a problem with the idea that this complex, self-centered, unstable woman could be the voice of our generation. If Hannah’s the voice of our generation, what does that say about us?
“We’re the ladies”
Where the advertisement for the second season of Girls focuses on one girl almost getting it kind of together, the poster for the previous season features all four girls – who are, according to the slogan, “Living the dream, one mistake at a time.” Though the message virtually stays the same, as the emphasis shifts in the adverts for the first and second seasons, from the group to the individual, the same happens on the show. There was a far stronger sense of group solidarity in the first season. In the second episode, for example, Shoshanna makes a statement nearly as audacious as Hannah’s: “We’re the ladies,” she informs Hannah and Jessa, as she waves around a self-help book entitled Listen, Ladies: A Tough-Love Approach to the Tough Game of Love. Ann Friedman uses this scene to introduce her New Republic essay on the evolution of the word “Lady.” In it, she cites the Britney Spears song, “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” to argue that “‘Lady’ has come to occupy the middle ground.” This is the same cul-de-sac in which we find the group of Girls.
Although we begin here, with four “ladies” at the crossroads of maturity and adolescence, the ambivalence that holds them together is what splits them apart in the next season. That uncertainty originates in the gap between their generation and the previous one, the “in between” that Spears warbled about, and Friedman enunciated. Though the girls want to extricate themselves from their mothers, there’s a reluctance to do so entirely – perhaps because they want the freedom to figure themselves out, but feel that the comfortable, satisfying middle-class life available to their parents isn’t within their reach, especially in a city as costly and competitive as New York. Being the same age, and sharing this liminal terrain, the girls are lost, together. And by extension, we drift along with them.
But for the Girl to gather her life together, she must leave the group. Hannah begins to do this in the first season, as she busies herself with writing and then working a day job as a barista, gradually falling out of sync with her friends. (As Britney Spears sang, “All I need is time, a moment that is mine” – and no one else’s.) However, in the second season, when Hannah needs the group’s support most – as she lands a book deal and consequently cannot write a single page – she doesn’t find it. Nevertheless, regardless of her friends, “This girl will always find her way.” As this group of ladies – albeit hesitant ones – go on to lead individual lives as girls, the formula is thus curiously inverted; the group makes the Girl.
It’s About Time
Hannah is a later model of the Girl we’ve inherited from a particular tradition, which began with Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel, The Group, a coming-of-age story centered on eight Vassar graduates as they assemble their respective adult lives through work, marriage, sex, travel, and friendship in 1930s New York. For its time, The Group was considered provocative for its discussion of sex and contraception (it was banned in Australia because of this, and perhaps for the same reason was a New York Times bestseller). And yet, like Dunham, McCarthy attracted copious criticism despite her novel’s success. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that The Group appeared on the reading list Dunham distributed among the Girls writing staff. Though much has changed for women in the half century since it was written, we might read The Group as a precursor to Girls.
Although the show’s story lines don’t echo the plot of The Group, its first season finale inverts the novel’s first chapter, copying the impromptu trip the group takes to Coney Island following group member Kay Strong’s wedding – except in Girls, after Jessa’s surprise wedding to Thomas-John, it’s not the group, but the Girl that ends up in Coney Island, as Hannah sits on the beach alone, digesting a bad breakup between mouthfuls of wedding cake. Flashes of McCarthy’s characters also appear in Dunham’s: Shoshanna (“the least virgin-y virgin”) exhibits a similar resolve to her prim predecessor, Dottie Renfrew, in losing her virginity; Marnie’s high maintenance is reminiscent of Helena Davison’s punctiliousness; Jessa’s effortless allure smacks of Elinor “Lakey” Eastlake, the group’s most experienced and well-travelled member; and Hannah, ever fluctuating in temperament, is perhaps a crazy salad of all McCarthy’s girls.
McCarthy’s classic also inspired Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (1997), a collection of essays drawing upon her sex column in the Observer. In Bushnell’s introduction to the reissued edition of The Group in 2009, she wrote of her mother giving her the novel at seventeen, and her editor later urging her to revisit it at thirty-five as she was working on SATC. Reading Bushnell’s writing on McCarthy, I’m easily reminded of Dunham. Where Bushnell admires “McCarthy’s determination to embrace life as it really was as opposed to how one might wish it were,” we either respect or repudiate Dunham on the same terms. Just as, in Bushnell’s words, “McCarthy doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to either her plots or her characters,” neither does Dunham. Indeed, like those “who desire ‘likeable characters’ in their fiction above all else,” and are “disturbed to find that every one of [McCarthy’s] characters is flawed,” those who seek agreeable figures on television will be disheartened by Girls.
Yet the show’s endeavor to tell the truth about the milieu it depicts is arguably the most valuable heirloom The Group has bequeathed to Girls. Though often unlikeable, the characters of McCarthy’s novel and Dunham’s show are also exceedingly rich and multidimensional, portrayed not as they ought to be, but as they’re becoming. By giving us imperfect characters who threaten to be as human as we are, McCarthy and Dunham discard the curated versions of women that pop culture likes to show us, upholding not a mirror but a magnifying glass to their respective generations in order to learn more about them.
As critics have frequently pointed out, Girls is often talked about not as a television series, but as a kind of framed reality. It’s generally accepted that Hannah is really an embellished version of Dunham, her amplified avatar set forth on a similar albeit less successful trajectory as a writer living in New York. As we’re worried by Hannah’s veracity – and self-conscious about our potential resemblance to her – Girls is concerned with its verisimilitude. From the accuracy of its location (shooting in restaurants, shops and bars revered by twentysomething New Yorkers), to its never too matchy-matchy wardrobe, and messy sex scenes (until “On All Fours,” I’d never seen semen on screen outside of porn), Girls has an effervescent off-screen life in a way that perhaps no other television series has. It is hyper-reality: an augmented reflection of our existence.
Binge-watching the first season from the couch of my apartment in Greenpoint – behind the scenes, so to speak – it occurred to me that, since Hannah and I could be neighbors, I must live in a cool neighbourhood. Girls gave Greenpoint a new glamor. I began to notice it around me: the swanky apartment complexes – like the one where Jessa’s now former husband, Thomas-John lives – sprouting up on the waterfront steps away from defunct warehouses, and the thirty-dollar Voss water my local grocery store stocks next to its Poland Spring. Meanwhile, a number of the Polish family-owned stores on Nassau Avenue were closing down, to be replaced by pseudo-hip cafés offering vegan treats and free WiFi, and boutiques displaying retro dresses that Jessa would wear in the window. As our broker explained to my roommate and I, as she struggled to find us an apartment, “everybody wants to live in Greenpoint now.”
Indeed, it’s become increasingly difficult to live in the neighbourhood – as it is to land a seat at one of its best coffee houses, Café Grumpy, made famous by Girls as Hannah and her friend Ray’s workplace. Before I watched the show, I was a Grumpy’s regular, but as hype for the second season accrued, the Girls fans settled in, and now I opt for weekdays or occasionally brave weekends. On a recent visit, I overheard a conversation between a couple sitting nearby. Both were shouting into their respective smartphones, complaining about the expensiveness of crappy apartments they had viewed, and the crappiness of expensive apartments; they were looking to move to Greenpoint. “It was not this difficult when we moved to DC,” the girl insisted between phone calls. As she pushed back tears, her partner ordered her a consolatory cup of Grumpy’s. Having experienced a similar plight moving to the neighbourhood, I gingerly offered her my broker’s phone number, which she took, and after answering a few Greenpoint questions, wished her luck, and left, briskly walking the four blocks back to my apartment.
I Get Ideas
I didn’t just identify with Girls as a Greenpointer; I encountered it as a writer. Recapping the second season for Flavorwire angled on the show’s reality – namely, “How real was Girls this week?” – I began watching the show with an acutely heightened sense of its veracity. Each week, I aligned my experiences to those of the show’s characters accordingly, looking out for resemblances and disparities between the fiction and reality. The only thing that qualified me for the task was my being in the same demographic as the cast of Girls – the vague possibility that I could be Hannah Horvath; Hannah Horvath could be me.
But just as I judged the characters of Girls against my reality, I felt as though mine were being judged according to theirs. Was life becoming an episode of Girls? Or was Girls making an episode out of life? Thinking back to when our landlady had added to our lease in biro pen, after it had been signed, that we would have no overnight guests (read: no boys, hoes) and to the disparaging looks she sometimes shoots me when I pass her in the hall – if my hair’s somewhat dishevelled that day (she thinks I’ve just had sex), or I’m wearing a dress with a V neck (she thinks I’m about to have sex) – I wondered whether Girls, and the image of Brooklynite twentysomethings it perpetuates, could have anything to do with it. Or if not Girls, it’s certainly something to do with it – the field of ideas and assumptions surrounding it, like all the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms. Like Hannah in the show’s second episode, “Vagina Panic,” we’re left wondering, what about that stuff?
Leave Me Alone
By the next episode, Hannah’s convinced herself that some of that “stuff” is HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that she might have contracted from her now gay ex-boyfriend Elijah – though she can’t be sure whether her current “hang,” Adam, is telling the truth when he insists that he’s been tested by a “dick doctor” and doesn’t have it. After her bad day, Hannah winds up at home composing sympathy-seeking tweets (“You lose some, you lose some,” “My life has been a lie, my ex-boyfriend dates a guy”) before promptly deleting them. Instead, she tweets a motto (also the episode’s title) heard from a friend: “All adventurous women do.” As the tinny sound of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” emanates from her laptop speakers, our girl begins to dance around her room, throwing her arms in the air and flicking her hair. And when Marnie comes home, in one of the season’s most affecting moments, the two girls dance together.
But later, Hannah finds herself really dancing on her own, to a longer, melancholy song. With the return of her OCD, signalling her psychological decline in the latter part of the second season, it’s clear that the friendships made in the first season have nearly dissolved altogether in the next. Though Hannah’s there for Jessa after her marriage to Thomas-John fails, Jessa abandons her. Meanwhile, Shoshanna’s preoccupied by sabotaging her relationship with Ray. Yet, it’s Hannah’s friendship with Marnie that’s threatened most – especially when Hannah (on cocaine, no less) intrudes on her friend’s date in “Bad Friend,” accusing her of being just that.
But the girls are most disconnected in the season’s finale, “Together,” when Marnie eventually visits her old friend. As Hannah hides from Marnie, the latter lets herself in to her former apartment, and spots a sentence on an open Word document, presumably the incomplete opening of Hannah’s book: “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance…” Hannah’s words reminded me of Charlotte’s suggestion in an episode from the fourth season of Sex and the City, “The Agony and the ‘Ex’-tacy,” when she announced to the other three ladies, “Maybe we could be each other’s soulmates, and then we could let men be these great nice guys to have fun with?” But where this moment brings together the quartet of SATC – as Carrie ponders the existence of soulmates, admitting her loneliness without one, and the ladies vow to be the loves of each others’ lives – Hannah’s unresolved sentence, for all its hope, carries with it a hovering uncertainty that keeps her and Marnie apart.
Though Hannah’s real tipping point comes an episode before in “On All Fours,” when her anxiety causes her to puncture her eardrum with a Q-Tip. Calling her parents in pain, they suggest Hannah get her friends to take her to the hospital, but she goes by herself. Wandering Brooklyn alone and pant-less (at the time of the incident, she’s lounging around in her knickers; another thing you should know about Hannah is that she’s a casual exhibitionist), she’s at her most vulnerable. However, we require Hannah to be on her own; we need to be the Girl’s closest friend.
All Adventurous Women Do
When my mother visited me in Brooklyn, I made the irremediable mistake of introducing her to Girls. We’ve since had several Skype discussions teetering on arguments about Girls, which she has continued watching in England. Initially, my mother liked the show, and admired its audacity to show real women in real life situations. She saw Girls as a pared down Sex and the City, less fabulous forties, more “Fuck! I’m in my twenties,” and in smaller, more affordable heels. But the shoes were still hard to walk in. Soon enough, my mum tired of the characters, and though they all became unlikable, Hannah was the worst. Every choice Hannah would make, from her calamitous outfits (“she’s a pretty girl, but those shorts do nothing for her figure”) to the men she sleeps with (“Patrick Wilson… I think I’ve seen him in something before, but he’s still too old for her”), perturbed her. But above all, my mum felt uncomfortable watching Girls because, she admitted, it’s as though she’s watching me. “I hope you’re not living your life like that, darling,” she cried over Skype, probably worrying that boys were treating my heart like Grumpy’s coffee beans. My mother really wanted me to tell her that I wasn’t Hannah Horvath – that living in Brooklyn, learning how to be a writer, and a person, didn’t have to be the way it was for Hannah – but I couldn’t find an answer for her.
My mother, now in her forties, had me at twenty-one. Growing up, she understood that when she introduced a boy to her parents, he would be her fiancé. Though she loved my father when she married him, she felt pressured to settle down and start a family. She wanted to go to university, but pushed that dream aside for us. Instead, she became the good Greek-Cypriot girl my grandparents wanted her to be. When I moved to London at eighteen to live with a serious boyfriend – that is, when the pattern of my life began to look somewhat like my mother’s – she was disappointed; she didn’t want me to repeat her. A few years later, my mother was happier to see me off to New York. Perhaps my mum’s problem with the show began here: her vision of my life here somehow started to resemble Hannah’s; the reality doesn’t match the dream. As Bushnell’s mother handed The Group to her daughter, my mum gave me Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women as a child and Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret as a teenager, and in my twenties I’ve given back to her Girls – and with it, a bundle of representations, some truths and others misconceptions, about my life.
One Man’s Trash
For all her solitude, Hannah is given room to mature as a character in the second season as she does in the excellent episode, “One Man’s Trash,” in which she has a fling with an attractive 42-year-old man (Patrick Wilson). To the episode’s credit, it’s shot in the style of a short film more than it is television – its temporary departure from the series enhancing the Girl’s removal from the group – as the screen pans in on Hannah playing house with a grown-up, making tea and toast, and reading the Times in his sweater that cost more than her rent. On her own, Hannah’s able to find her voice as a writer whilst exploring her sexuality, and since she writes about her sex life, these are confluent processes. (Indeed, the story of “One Man’s Trash” could be that it is a story – that this sexual experience didn’t really happen, but rather Hannah wrote it.) Nevertheless, Hannah can engage this experience, and then walk away from it – namely, because of where she lives.
The Return II
Returning to Hannah’s proclamation that she “may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, the voice of a generation” – that pivotal sentence, upon which the entire series is predicated – let’s consider the binary opposites contained within it. The first part establishes the individual as a strong voice, and the second suggests the individual as one of many in a babel of voices. As the city similarly harnesses individualism and offers anonymity, New York’s very format supports the Girl as she makes her choices and mistakes almost seamlessly; when one street doesn’t work out, she’ll try another, or walk a block in the other direction. In short, because New York is perpetually organizing and re-organizing itself, the city offers the Girl the necessary haphazard structure in which to lead an improvised life, and to acquire experience through sexual and intellectual practice. As such, there’s no better site for the girl’s self-discovery. Without the city, there’s no Girl at all.
All Adventurous Women Do II
During the first season of Girls in “The Return,” when Hannah goes to Michigan for her parents’ anniversary and ditches their plans for a one-off date, Hannah’s mother defends her with a sentence as rambling as one of her daughter’s: “She knows how to have fun, she does what she wants when she wants to do it, and she has fun, and then she thinks about that fun and she learns from that fun.” Although she isn’t really like Hannah’s mother, my mum’s always made it clear that, though she doesn’t always agree with some of my choices, outfits, or opinions, she’s glad that I’m nevertheless making those choices – even when they turn out, as they sometimes do, to be mistakes. As it matters less the mistakes that Hannah makes, but more that she makes them, living in New York, I’m learning that just because a choice is wrong doesn’t mean it isn’t right.
McCarthy established in her landmark novel that “Experience was just a question of trial and error.” It’s this wise little nugget of truth that seems to be embedded deep in the soil of New York, wrapped up in The Group, passed down to Girls, and handed from Hannah to me. Almost getting things kind of together, I’m learning more about the person and the writer I’m becoming, and not who I ought to be. So I’m not Hannah Horvath, and the girl isn’t me – but she’s helping me to become myself.