Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why I Can't Stop Watching Girls

I've seen the first season of Girls, the HBO brainchild of twenty-six-year-old writer/director Lena Dunham, twice, and was rabid with excitement to see the premiere of season 2 last Sunday (thanks for the HBO Go, Nat!). This, despite not liking some of the characters all of the time, and all of the characters some of the time. The titular quartet, Dunham's Hannah, along with best friend and roommate Marnie, "cool girl" Jessa, and neurotic Shoshanna, are oftentimes self-involved, arrogant, cruel (to themselves and others) and clueless. So why do I watch? I think it has something to do with nostalgia.

Not the kind of nostalgia that Jonathan detailed in his post about why we love today the shows we loved as kids. Girls is nothing like what I watched as a kid, and nothing, really, like that *other* show featuring four women in New York City that initially seemed to be the go-to basis for critical comparison, Sex and the City. Rather than the pleasurable nostalgia of revisiting loved objects, the show for me provokes the kind of self-recognition that is so familiar, it's painful--sort of like the sore tooth your tongue can't help but return to, just to make sure it still hurts.

Girls looks at a stage of life, for both the male and female characters, where the desire to express oneself verbally and artistically is on the one hand able to be fulfilled completely for perhaps the first time (without the censorious eye of family or the conforming eye of high school/college social circles), but on the other hand crippled by emotional immaturity and lack of experience. Hannah and her friends and lovers are in their mid to late twenties, dealing with the sorts of losses (of first loves, first jobs, and, crucially, parental financial support) that they lack the language to adequately handle or process. Hannah, especially, talks all the time. About herself, her difficult relationship with her complicated sort-of boyfriend Adam, her writing, her jealousy. But she doesn't do so in a way that explores or exposes the stories she's been telling herself about herself, and how those stories contribute to her frustrations. This also goes for Marnie's inability to make a clean break from her college sweetheart, Jessa's aggressive non-conformity, and Shoshanna's virginity. And this is incredibly frustrating, to watch and for the other characters to listen to, but it's also achingly, embarrassingly, familiar.

This is more personal than I usually get in this forum, but Girls is a show that makes its breakfast in the personal. So I also have to admit that Lena Dunham's decision to make Hannah's naked body a frequent and unapologetic feature on the show is particularly meaningful to me. I've struggled with my weight for as long as I can remember, and when I picture myself, I picture myself looking like Hannah. The way that that her "unconventional" (by Hollywood standards) body is shown enjoying sex, and being enjoyed sexually by others (i.e., men who have "conventional' [by Hollywood standards] physical frames), is something I've at least not quite seen before in pop culture. Hannah's body is not a joke, or a liability over which she obsesses, but it's also not unremarked upon by other characters. During the lead-up to a gut-wrenching fight, Marnie (conventionally attractive by any standard) agrees to lend Hannah one of her dresses, though "it'll probably be tight on you." Dunham's treatment of Hannah's, and therefore, her own, physical self is one I am deeply grateful for.

So, though I think some of the situations contrived, and the treatment of race and class not as complicated as it might be, Girls seems to be something I can't quit, because it would feel like disavowing an imperfect, but undeniable, part of my past, and myself.

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