Hannah’s not-quite-boyfriend comes at her like a cat with a bell toy, muttering fantasies to himself while effectively masturbating with her body. By way of pillow talk, he squeezes her spare tire and tells her, encouragingly, that she could easily lose a few pounds. He (probably) gives her a sexually transmitted infection, denies it, and makes her apologize for accusing him in the first place. Naturally, he never texts her back, but Hannah keeps showing up at his apartment. “It was really good to see you,” she tells him after one session. “I’m glad. Thanks for coming,” he responds.
I’ve been there, give or take a few details. As a woman in your twenties, you sometimes serve as a human Fleshlight, and you sometimes thank the guy for the privilege, and you sometimes pay for it when the STI or the pregnancy test, or both, come back positive. Our lives, like any, are made up of small humiliations.
But our specific humiliations are rarely the stuff of comedy (if often the stuff of porn), and when they are, they are usually depicted in caricature. In Bridesmaids, that incontrovertible proof that women can be funny, Kristen Wiig played a punchline in heels – stomaching her manfriend’s nonsense, stumbling through a deadbeat stupor, disgracing herself at a microphone. The film demonstrated that women are trainable – that we can be dropped into stock comic roles and stand our ground – but the humour wasn’t inherently female; the movie could have been called Groomsmen, and the Farrelly brothers could have directed it a decade ago.
Girls, however, the HBO show written, directed, and starring 25-year-old Lena Dunham, is sourced from the embarrassing minutiae of its characters’ lives: Marnie (Allison Williams), Hannah’s responsible roommate; Jessa (Jemima Kirke), her worldly and irresponsible British friend; and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa’s virginal cousin. The show has been buzzed about since Dunham and co-executive producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner sold it to HBO – the hype hinged primarily on its realness. The characters of Girls scramble to pay for their lousy apartments, and hit up parents for the money they’re not making at their internships. They schedule abortions and grapple not with how awful the procedure is, but with how awful, exactly, they’re supposed to feel about it.
The material is shockingly honest, but it’s also shockingly mundane. Shocking because, among ourselves, young women are often about as attractive as Louis CK in bed with his ice-cream bowl; and shocking because homely women – homely as in human – rarely make it onto TV.
Men can choose from a pantheon of male screw-ups, but even in their worlds, our existence is barely acknowledged. Woody Allen doesn’t date women with guts and upper-lip hair; they are the terrible fate he escaped by his wits. In Dunham, our people have an ambassador: someone willing to be 145 pounds and yet naked on camera; a character willing to state, at the sexual-health clinic, that her period is irregular, and therefore all her underwear “are covered in weird stains.”
As a performer, Dunham engages in emotional hara-kiri, exposing herself naked on all fours; splayed out in gynecological stirrups; eating a cupcake in the tub first thing in the morning. She performs a service in the process – when you can laugh at yourself, you’re no longer ashamed – and not only for young women, but for her age demographic in general.
Girls opens with Hannah at dinner with her mom and dad, who have been funding her “groovy lifestyle” since she graduated from college, and are now cutting her off. She reacts to the news with bratty self-righteousness, the tone most twentysomethings default to around their parents. And yet, we don’t hate her guts right away. There is something in Dunham’s honesty – a self-awareness that anticipates all slings, that breaks through even the worst taboos. And one of the worst taboos among entitled kids is admitting to parental help (which is as common as HPV).
This is one of a few significant ways in which Girls differs from its most obvious predecessor, Sex and the City. Its characters are a good decade younger, of course, suspended in the nether zone between figuring it out and not having to, and they feel entitled to the riches that Carrie Bradshaw – who was hatched in a much healthier economy – seemed to promise them. Carrie embodied her audience’s aspirations, but Hannah embodies its shortcomings. (She’d make a great match for a young Alvy Singer, although both parties might think they could do better). We’re all a little embarrassed by the illusions we once had about our economic prospects, our romantic lives, and our careers, and the only way forward is to laugh at ourselves.
Girls speaks to another hallmark of our cohort: We are arguably more self-aware than our elders ever were, but we still screw up in exactly the same ways.
Predictably, reactions to Girls have divided along age lines. Critics out of their twenties sometimes note Hannah’s antics with maternal concern; writing for The New Yorker’s Culture Desk, Lorrie Moore acknowledged “a protective, parental feeling” toward Hannah and her gang. Twenty-four is a rather graceless age, which is why people tend to forget what it feels like once they get past it. But being 24 in 2012 is very similar to being 24 in, say, 1982: It’s still the age when you learn how to pay the rent, how to conduct yourself at work, how to be good in bed. It’s when you start to square how you thought your life would be with how it actually might go. Like all transitional periods, it’s strange and awkward and occasionally joyful when you’re trudging through it with your head down, but terrible in hindsight, once the detritus has settled.
“You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again,” says a doctor, while administering an internal exam on Hannah.
“They’re not paying me at all,” she replies.
So far, though, what makes Girls great – what elevates it from niche TV – is the fact that it’s not only for its subjects; like any good narrative, it culls the universal from one world in particular. The unhealthy power dynamics, the embarrassing admissions, the awkward confrontations happen to everyone. Dunham has an excellent ear, a knack for distilling life’s humiliations into tight, devastating dialogue that rarely feels contrived. (She doesn’t do this alone, of course, and her writing team includes Lesley Arfin, the former Vice columnist to whom my age group owes a big, big debt.) By representing its world faithfully, Girls humanizes the entitled brats we love to hate and often are, as well as the young women who are way grosser in our private lives than most fiction would indicate.
Gross is where jokes are born.
Special to The Globe and Mail