HBO’s Girls: Sex In Place of Experience makes for Mediocre Art with Hannah & Co.
“Ugly sex is hot. Some of the best sex I’ve had is with people I can’t stand.”- Anthony Merentino
Its hard to deny that Lena Dunham’s Girls is one of the best shows on television and although it is comprised of characters who are the most unlikable individuals perhaps in the history of great tv, watching them maneuver through their 20s in New York City by way of Brooklyn is a true delight because the writing of these horrors is exceptional. Rarely do I identity with any of the characters however, mainly because they all seem to be caricatures of the worst millennials have to offer. What drew me to the show and what keeps me watching is the hope that we will see Hannah succeed as a legitimate writer.
Like Hannah, I too moved to New York after finishing liberal arts college and found myself living in a railroad-style apartment in Bushwick (well before it was referred to as East Williamsburg on craigslist) dreaming of becoming a writer a la Carrie Bradshaw via Sex and the City. Being a columnist was my goal, largely because like Hannah I wrongly believed that my 20 something experiences were more interesting than the really were and also because the advent of blog culture as a substitute for magazine writing was relatively new in 2009. Unlike Hannah or Carrie Bradshaw and friends however, I lived in the real Brooklyn and then Harlem. It’s important to note that unlike countless shows about New York like Girls, How I Met Your Mother, Friends and more, most people do not have all white friend groups in New York. Nor are they totally clueless about most cultural things of import happening around them besides the occasional warehouse party and darling coffee shop run by a curmudgeonly 30 something who cant manage to swing any friends his own age.
The stunning lack of diversity on Girls given it’s setting has been noted ad nauseam. However I think the shock comes in spite of the fact that most white people hang out exclusively with other white people, but because no one who resides in Brooklyn has a lily white life, devoid of interactions with a plethora of diversity at every turn. One of the most beautiful aspects of New York life is that it is impossible to be surrounded by homogeny of any kind if you move through the city at all. And better still, the diversity in part is usually what draws people to the storied metropolis because there you can encounter things you wouldn't other wise in a way that is only possible in New York alone.
It is the desire to make oneself great by way of being in New York that propels Hannah and her artistic-ish friends to the city. Marni, Hannah, Elijah, Adam and Ray all have creative dreams and temperaments albeit mediocre talent. However, Hannah and her friends manage to live in New York for the better part of 6 years without any cultural awareness and as a result, most of them seem incapable of establishing any self awareness or participate in anything interesting that does not involve gossip about their small circle aside from Adam’s plays and Hannah’s Moth Radio reading.
Shoshanna and Ray are the show’s closest thing to anything resembling normalcy and in the Girls universe this is tough to come by. One of the best episodes of the series happens during Season 5, episode 3 titled Japan, when Shoshanna was living abroad in the title’s namesake. So far, this is one of the few moments on Girls where non-white culture is not a floating concept but a way to propel Shoshanna forward to discover positive qualities about what she is capable of in a new setting. Unlike Donald Glover’s guest appearance as a black republican, Shosh’s journey to Japan was not about exotifying the culture. Rather it was a way for her to learn about people outside of her normal prevue and a way to distance herself from her shallow friends who remained state side. Shonshanna approached the experience with grace, humility and openness. She is the only character who does not explicitly use sex as a means to make her life more interesting for the sake of her entrepreneurial future.
Unlike Shoshanna, the other ladies on Girls are all crippled by their self-serving ways, but better still they are blind to their lack of character due to willful ignorance and sheer lack of trying. Rather than bothering to practice, or work hard Hannah, Mari and Jessa all prefer to use their sex lives to propel them forward into realizations that usually do not come with serious introspection. Instead of going to museums, speaking to non white people, reading, walking around one of the greatest cities in the world, riding the staton Island ferry (which is free) or enjoying a myriad of the plentiful oddities New York has to offer, these ladies prefer to have toxic sex. They seem to believe that those encounters guarantee vague artistic realizations about themselves that largely fall into the category of tiny tragedies that may begin to have life long consequences.
In keeping with the trite myth about being a creative, a buzzword which has come to mean a self-branding, self-obsessed young person who enjoys the idea of pursing the arts, but may or may not have artistic talent, the young women of Girls wrongly believe that their desire to create art and live as they believe artists live makes them promising budding talents. We hardly ever see them invest in themselves or their potential talent, none of which has yet to be realized in large part because none of the characters work at their craft with the exception of Adam and sometimes Hannah.
Marni for example, supplements her desire to improve her song writing simply by jumping from one unfulfilling relationship to another. Her boredom with the men she sleeps with is a reflection of her own lack of personality, one which seems deeply rooted in self-pity due to complete lack of trying, even when it comes to making small improvements.
So far during Season 6 we have seen Marni fall back into old habits , which includes sleeping with addicts she is too self-centered to notice are high beyond reproach until they literally throw the drugs in her face. Marni is propelled back into Desi’s pill popping arms due in large part to the dullness of being happy with Ray. Marni is often lulled into a stupor whenever she is loved and comfortable. Perhaps because she is so sheltered and so disconnected for anything that isn't related to the small lives they all lead their scarce but likable personality traits gets lost in the background of the big city. Because Marni’s focus is almost entirely insular she has nothing to write about and even less to sing about. Her desire to create better music is what drives her to sleep with Desi, not her love for him. At this point I am not convinced that Marni loves anyone on this show with the exception of Hannah and even that seems to be due in large part to the fact that none of these people could make friends with anyone else at this stage in their development. Without her tryst Poughkeepsie all Marni would have is coffee beans with Ray and the incessant sound of him calling her baby.
Although Girls may have set out to the be a modern day Sex and The City, it has carved its own path for a new brand narcissistic white women. While both sets of characters live in a big city full of diversity, that goes completely unnoticed by all of them most of the time. However, in Girls, they never seem to notice that they live in the most interesting city in the world. New York could be any where, for the Girls even though New York is the reason the Girls manage to maintain their friendship, its big and scary why bother tying for something else. While Sex and The City ensured that the sex was the catalyst for all of Carrie’s “art” it was also a love letter to the city and fashion in a way that Girls is not. Girls seems to suggest that the main premise of the show is young women trying to discover who they are while forging paths on the road to making it New York, hoping for a big pay off, the reverence, if any for New York is not as pronounced, the idea of making it New York is what matters.
While Hannah is often lauded on the show as a good writer, we hardly ever see this being true. With the exception of her Moth Radio hour story about Jessa stealing Adam and her Modern Love Column about the same topic. We often see Hannah perusing questionable sexual partners in the hopes for their affection, but also in large part for the story that will come as a result of what often feels like inevitable rejection from men whose company none of these women are sure they even really want.
Being a writer is a difficult task, being a good writer even harder still. Hannah seems to struggle with the idea more than she actually wrestles with it because she rarely writes. The most compelling idea about Sex and the City and Girls is that the central characters are women writers who give validity to autobiographical texts that center on making mistakes rather than success. Although Girls does not demure about the use of sexual encounters, it often fails to engage the possibility that some of those moments can allow you to learn more about yourself. The ladies in Girls seem to see these missteps and often cringe worthy encounters as fuel for their stories of shared misery which is often the result of bad sex. There is little enjoyment in having sex in New York unlike its predecessor SATC. The women in Girls are not only having bad sex, they aren’t having much fun either. Instead they are being disappointed in the hopes that they can write something compelling about their self inflected pain.
The first episode of Season 6 was a promising change of pace that finally centered on the possibility of joy in a space that includes a more realistic view of the world, one where not everyone is white, clueless and morbidly self centered. While Hannah skips surf camp to happily shack up with Paul Louie she finally realizes the benefit of being young and free. She also sees that sometimes you can have interesting moments that are rooted in happiness, where you can happen to have sex but are not doing it solely for the sake of getting a gut wrenching story that ends in despair and superlatives for disappointment.
Only time will tell if Hannah and Marni will move past their old habits of being mediocre undisciplined artists who use sex as a ploy to create semi interesting writing. For women who believe they are empowered female artists, they spend allot of their time overly concerned about the affections of men who have little to offer besides unsatisfying sexual encounters that usually include more head aches than orgasims.
When I was riding the B train all the way from Brighton Beach Brooklyn, having finished teaching swim lessons at a Russian Jewish community center on my way to Harlem in Manhattan, I called my mom to tell her how my life in New York was going. I was writing a little in Central Park mostly, close to the Columbus Circle entrance on Saturdays. I wrote on the train on my way to work, mostly poems, mostly terrible. I had 3 jobs and slept about 6 hours every night. I felt discouraged and tired but I was having fun. I felt exhilarated and I was thrilled that I was surviving, it made me proud. More than anything walking around the city made me feel small in away that helped become a better thinker, even if I didn’t write as much as I thought I would. Then, she reminded me that the most important thing about being a good writer was having an interesting life.
Its easy to believe that being a New Yorker or being young makes you inherently interesting and we see the characters in Girls believing this as well. But the thing that makes writers compelling is their ability to see the world in a way that others do not and to explain why that vision is important. The Girls characters have seen little of New York and even less of themselves. Their shallow lives are not yet interesting, nor are they pleasurable.
Hannah’s encounter with a famous author in episode 3 of this season, American Bitch had the potential to be revelatory for Girl’s main character because it was Hannah’s chance to forgo the habits of her past by thrusting herself into bad situations for the sake of having a story, even if the story was largely centered on the pain she is sure to experience due to her own lack of self care. Instead we see her engaged in a manipulative dance with a sly sexual predator who eventually crosses a boundary and brings Hannah back to her sullen anger that is almost always connected to her inability to divorce herself from chasing sex for stories.
Art is difficult to create out of thin air, lived experience is crucial. But living in New York is a perfect excuse to push the boundaries of who you are well beyond the typical and into the surreal. Rather than running around a 5 block radius of Brooklyn with her friends and sleeping with dirt bags, I hope the women of Girls go the Guggenheim, get lost in the Cloisters, or play chess in Union Square well past midnight and have more discussions with people that do not look like them. Without that, Girls will always about ladies who were not brave enough to live in the world they were in, but instead chose to skip out on the magic of the city, have sad sex and even sadder friends.