Obvi, We’re The Ladies
Lena Dunham, “Girls”
2012, 30 min, television
You may not have read about it, but in 2012, Lena Dunham wore shorts. Short-shorts. It caused an uproar. Hollywood told her to put her pants back on. Lena Dunham didn’t listen. The twenty-six year old “Girls” creator doesn’t have the perfect Hollywood body, as she doesn’t have the perfect “Hollywood” show—and that’s a good thing.
Lena Dunham bares her gams (and her soul) for ten Sunday nights a year on Home Box Office Network. “Girls” has lead me to the realization that all writers should wear short-shorts. Otherwise we’ll never see if they’ve got the legs to carry us through another season, another story, another world. “Girls” may resemble another successful half-hour comedy on HBO—but let me warn you upfront—“Girls” may be centered around four female leads, who have a lot of sex, in the big city—but the similarities stop there.
Full disclosure: I am a New Yorker and will be candid about my claim on New York City. Season two of “Girls” isn’t really about New York1—at least, not in the same way “Sex and the City” is (Thank God! The bus tours!). Instead “Girls” is about another place entirely, a seemingly vast geographical area which we all must cross, located somewhere in between the realms of “college student” and “adult,” a place that I would like to call “lostinyourtwenties.” Add a hashtag if you’re feeling trendy.
Season one introduced us to our winning foursome: Hannah, “the writer” (Dunham), Marnie, “the uptight one” (Allison Williams), Jessa “the free spirit” (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna, “the
virgin recently-deflowered-virgin” (Zosia Mamet). The pilot closes with Hannah dealing with the hard truth of being an “independent woman” (Holla, Destiny’s Child) as two years after graduating from college, her parents have finally financially cut her off (Hannah’s Mother: “I’ve worked hard, I deserve a lake house!”). After stealing the twenty-dollar bill left for the maid from her parent’s hotel room, Hannah hits the streets of Midtown Manhattan, ready to grab her ironic Mary Tyler Moore moment. When a homeless man calls out after her, “Oh girl, when I look at you, I just want to say, Hellooooooo, New York!” it makes you almost want to pull a Wizard of Oz and take a running leap and click your heels together just so you can follow Dunham down New York City’s yellow-brick/concrete road yourself.
Throughout season one, the worldview of “Girls” stays close to the young, white, somewhat-privileged, twentysomething New York City lifestyle: strange raves in sketchy warehouses in Bushwick, Shoshanna’s precious dream-studio in NoLita, the scene in The Jane Hotel at Hannah’s nemesis’s book launch party, Weather Up! in Prospect Heights … and Dunham truly outdoes herself by ending season one by ending with Hannah lost, and truly alone in “Heaven,” otherwise known as Coney Island. And sure, you’re right, New York City is still the setting for “Girls”—the location, the impetus for action, the backdrop that engenders story—but something has happened to Dunham’s television show between seasons one and two. The question “Girls” poses as a piece of art trying to reflect “life,” has evolved. In season one, Dunham asks: how do I make it as a young person in New York City? The storylines of Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna aim to answer that question while making us both laugh and cry, but season two’s question is much starker. This season, Dunham asks how do I make it in life? And you can bet she’s looking in the mirror, still wearing last night’s eye makeup, and not wearing pants while she does.2 In season two of “Girls,” Dunham moves beyond the specifics of her personal history—that in fact, she is a New Yorker—and instead translates her experience into what makes great television: she aims for (and, I think, achieves in reaching) the universal, despite the particulars of her seemingly “limited” world.
If season one of “Girls” established the Millennial concept of “failure to launch,” season two has only complicated it. Dunham essentially does “launch” her characters in the first season. After all, in the end, the girls of “Girls” got what they wanted: Hannah converts hookup Adam (Adam Driver) into boyfriend, Jessa finds family with Thomas John (Chris O’Dowd), Marnie frees herself from Charlie (Christopher Abbott), and Shosh gets laid. But remember, Dunham is wearing her short-shorts. The girls of “Girls” may have gotten what they wanted, but not what they needed—so cue up the neon and pastel title cards for season two.
This year, Dunham has turned her girls’ journeys inward, which is why the strongest moments of the show don’t depend on the “external” setting of New York, but instead as meditations on navigating the “place” that Dunham and her character’s are in life. Hannah must look inside herself to see if she really has the mettle to write, while taking a newly empowered position in her love life; Marnie confronts the realization of her self-worth when her only marketable skills suit “pretty people” jobs; Jessa tackles her relationship with her parents as well as her understanding of herself as her impulsive marriage dissolves; while Shoshanna begins to understand the difference between love and lust with boyfriend Ray (Alex Karpovsky). The girls of “Girls” are growing up, and finding that it just gets harder to tell when you actually are “growing up.”
In the latter half of the second season of “Girls,” Hannah finally gives voice to the issue that Dunham has been circling: that despite what we may say or seem or pretend to be, despite the witty quips and the easy dismissals, deep down we are still trying to figure “it” all out—and we’re terrified that we will never find “it,” and also, maybe even more terrified that we will. In a “bottle” episode reminiscent of an indie flick that could be directed by Sofia Coppola, Hannah has a two-day affair with “grown-up” doctor Joshua (Patrick Wilson), who lives around the corner from Café Grumpy’s where she works as a barista. Both scared of and desperate for connection after their random sex/relationship bender, Hannah has a startling, extremely self-aware realization about her life: “I realized I’m not different. You know?” she says to Josh (she refuses to call him Joshua, “It’s just an extra syllable,” she says, maybe a nod to Jay Gatsby, but still the difference between crazy-twentysomething and stable-fortysomething). “I want what everyone wants. I want what they all want. I want all the things. I just want to be happy.” Dunham’s character shares the ultimate unspoken truth—not of “Girls’” world, but of the world. This is not the same fantasy of “having it all” propagated by “Sex and the City,” but instead a relatable, universal, even cringe-worthy “having it all,” a confession that reaches down and grabs Hannah’s sincerest self and reaches out through the television to grab ours.
While backlash from season one of “Girls” exploded all over the interweb about the specificity of Dunham’s dramedy (specifically regarding the lack of diversity on the show, though the addition of Donald Glover from “Community” as Hannah’s new boyfriend is Dunham’s not-so-subtle and not-so-satisfying answer to the cries of the blogosphere), I do think it’s admirable that Dunham extends the “diversity” of “Girls” by examining the “adults” of the show more in-depth this season—with star turns by Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari reprising their roles as Hannah’s parents, Ben Mendelsohn as Jessa’s absentee-but-well-meaning-yet-still-incapable father and Rosanna Arquette as Jessa’s crunchy-hippy step-mother, Jon Glaser as creepy-ex-drug-addict-downstairs-neighbor Laird, Jorma Taccone as egomaniac-artist Booth Jonathan (of Lonely Planet fame), and Bob Balaban as stern-psychiatrist-cum-successful-robotic-dog-children’s-author.
Yes, “Girls” gets a lot of flack for being uneven, imperfect, maybe even unfinished, but I can’t help but wonder that if it was “polished” that it would lose what makes it special. That, if buffed, we would lose “Girls’” Hannah for “Sex and the City’s” Carrie or, God forbid, “Friends’” Rachel. What makes “Girls” special is its unevenness, and I know, I know, an obvious statement to argue but that is because Dunham, a twentysomething herself, is creator, director, writer, and star. She hasn’t made the move out of #lostinyourtwenties yet—she’s still figuring it out. Unlike “Sex in the City” we aren’t (and can’t be) comforted by a droll, pat voiceover delivered by writer-Hannah at the end of the episode placing the antics of the last half hour into context and perspective.3 On “Girls” there isn’t always a moral, an answer, a message—which seems much more truthful and admirable.
If you’re still not convinced that you could relate to a show about four girls in New York City, having sex, living it up, screwing it up, I’m going to cite a moment from last season that I can’t help but think about whenever I watch the show or talk to others about it. On the eve of Jessa’s abortion, Shoshanna, Hannah, and Jessa discuss a self-help book that obviously pokes fun at the impracticable dating commandments of Life 101 called “Listen Ladies: A Tough Love Approach to the Tough Game of Love.” The three banter back and forth, arguing about who “the ladies” are. Ahem, I have the answer as delivered by Dunham: we are the ladies. We aren’t really that different. We want what everyone wants—all the things. We just want to be happy. “Girls,” in season two, proves Dunham’s standing as a voice of our generation (and certainly a voice of a generation), as she questions not just life for women in their twenties, but for us all—you know, the ladies.
So long live short-shorts. Especially on girls like Lena Dunham.
Anabel Graff is a twentysomething who recently moved from New York City to Texas to pursue her MFA in Fiction Writing.
1 Okay, I’ll give you Shoshanna’s illicit hookup with an on-duty doorman as a particularly New York moment.
2 She’s also probably listening to Robyn. And hung over.
3 Which may be why, I find “Girls” lately rather more depressing than funny. A friend had expressed similar sentiments to her boss who had responded with the quip: “Why, does it remind you too much of your own life?” To which the rest of her colleagues sassy-laughed as an insult, but which I would argue is a compliment for Dunham’s show.