I must admit that watching 25-year-old Lena Dunham have sex on television while I was in the viewing company of my 19-year old daughter gave me pause.
Pause? I think my heart actually stopped for a moment. But I kept my eyes on the TV screen, and when the scene was over I rubbed my face with my hands, as if I’d just seen a ghost, and muttered the word “Jesus!” loud enough for her to hear.
That way, she knew that I knew that we knew that we had just done something very modern together: A father and his daughter had watched a television scene in which men and women had sex. Suddenly, at a sharp turn in history, we’re the same.
The sex scene was the famous one in the second episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s already legendary weekly half-hour biopsy of the lives of four 20-something women setting forth as adults in Brooklyn. The show ran its first season finale this week, whereupon The Daughter and I began to re-watch every episode.
Admittedly HBO is famous for graphic fare, so I should have known. On the other hand, Girls is classified 14-plus. If I’d watched that scene in the company of my mother when I was 14, we’d both still be institutionalized.
In it, Adam – the primordial but often sweet, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t boyfriend of Hannah, Ms. Dunham’s character – masturbates (yagh!) while openly verbalizing his fantasy (whoa!) that Hannah is an 11-year-old junkie (eep!) who can no longer go home to her parents because … Well, you begin to get the picture.
It’s a short but radioactively complex scene: At one point Adam turns Hannah’s face away so he doesn’t have to look at her; afterward, he is unpredictably tender. But when Hannah makes a joke about it later, the fantasy is so trivial to Adam that he doesn’t remember what he’d said. My wife (smart and open-minded) found this deplorable, and warned The Daughter not to put up with men like that. I kept my mouth shut.
But The Daughter watched the scene without judgment. “She’s into him,” she kindly explained to me later. “So she goes along with it.” Nothing so human is only good or bad, and Ms. Dunham is not afraid to say so to her generation. This makes for thrilling television. The Euro Cup is as exciting as the Shopping Channel by comparison.
“But why am I embarrassed?” I said to my daughter. (This made me feel 186 years old.)
“Well, it’s weird to watch sex with your parents, don’t you think?” she said, reasonably. Yes, what was once utterly private is now sported in public like a spring hat. “That scene is something that I, as your child, know adults do. You, as my parent, know that it is something young women do. But it’s private, so when we actually see it, we kind of think about the other people we’re watching it with. To be honest I think I’m embarrassed partly because I’m worried that you’re embarrassed. We’re always worried about other people’s reactions to our own reactions. Which is what the show’s about, as well.”
How did she get so damn sophisticated? Partly by growing up in an age of brilliant television, in which Girls occupies a level of its own. Coming of age with TV in the past decade is the equivalent of growing up in London’s West End in the 1950s, the last truly innovative age in theatre. Girls makes the widely admired Mad Men look like Mister Rogers – Mad Men has great-looking clothes, furniture and people, but next to Girls its characters are cartoons.
What really flipped my crank of embarrassment was the nudity. Hannah’s best friends – uptight Marnie, free-spirited Jessa, virginal Shoshanna – are all more conventionally attractive than her. But only Ms.-Dunham-as-Hannah is ever totally naked.
She doffs her duds the way she snacks – frequently, sloppily and at random. She has a slightly shapeless, untoned body that is unremarkable in every way except in its unremarkableness, which is what makes her nudity so unconventional on TV. I flinched every time the girl flung her clothes down, wanting to protect her from the judgment and disdain I knew were flying her way, sometimes even from me. “Put some clothes on, Hannah!” I wanted to shout.
But why should she? And why am I so locked into what I think I should see, as opposed to what is actually there? Hannah’s nakedness revealed me as much as it revealed her.
“She behaves like a man,” The Daughter said: Men blithely shed shirts and shorts regardless of how hideous we look. But on Girls, women do it too. On Girls, the women also behave like insensitive louts a great deal of the time, and the men are often the insecure, hurt ones.
“It’s not just about girls being needy and vulnerable,” The Daughter said. “She doesn’t judge them. And so she allows you to accept yourself. It makes you feel like you can be honest, and free.” This moved me to the point of losing my composure.
On Mad Men, the old order between men and women persists. On Girls, they are finally equal and independent, not just of each other, but even of their own genders. None of this makes it easier to get along, alas.
“I’m offended by all the supposed-to’s. I don’t like women telling other women what to do!” the unreliable Jessa shouts in one episode, after Shoshanna claims that doggy-style sex is demeaning to women. “What if I want to feel like I have udders?”
Gender solidarity is now less important than personal self-fulfillment. As Hannah tells her parents, by way of explaining why they should support her for two more post-college years (at $25,000 per): “I’m busy trying to become who I am.”
The season ended as it began – with Hannah stuffing food she didn’t pay for into her ever-gaping piehole. “Like a pig,” The Daughter laughed, not unapprovingly. And like men, who were called pigs by feminists two generations ago. Equality at last, which is good for all Daughters.
I admit I occasionally wish for a woman to look up to. But a level gaze lets you see farther.