One of the strangest things I’ve noticed on Lena Dunham’s show Girls is how much the character Hannah closely resembles the public persona of the show’s creator. She’s a brash, narcissistic know-it-all who tends to talk until everyone around her becomes bewildered, angry, or both. What I find so interesting is that author-insert characters tend to fall into two camps: one in which they’re righteous and correct in every way, sometimes defiant of all logical reasoning (a la M. Night Shyamalan in Lady In The Water) or simply passive observers who add and subtract very little from the main story, instead choosing to take the scene in as a whole (e.g., Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five).
Dunham doesn’t fit in either category. Instead, and this is what I find most perplexing, her character acts as Dunham would appear to while the people within the story give some nasty feedback towards her less desirable impulses. And by God does it get dark sometimes. I’ve never seen a show with such blunt confrontations from people who supposedly like each other. For a chunk of time watching Girls I wondered why any of them were still friends after all the stuff they’d brought up about each other. Even Bojack Horseman, a show that’s no stranger to hurtful comments, still has lines the characters wouldn’t reasonably be expected to cross.
Then I realized that’s exactly what real life is like. People can be real dicks to the ones they love, but they always come back to each other. Or they don’t. Or they do and then they leave and then they come back in a constant state of flux. The point is this: life–especially for young men and women in their late twenties–exists in a perpetual state of possibility, like balls hung in the air waiting to choose where they’ll land. Relationships, friendships, and jobs all seem like reliable buoys to anchor one’s sense of purpose and status in an ever-changing world, but that is proven time and again to be false. Nothing remains permanent as the tides of life toss and writhe, dragging the figure clutching for stability into the murky depths of adulthood.
Girls obtains a certain level of immersion based on a balance of comfortability and the lack thereof. Plotlines and entire episodes strike close to home, but that proximity can sometimes be overwhelming. The first episode deals with Hannah meeting her parents for dinner and finding out she’s no longer being financially supported–a common fear among the white upper middle class living in or around Manhattan that ultimately comes off as quaint as far as horror stories go. Fast forward a few seasons when Hannah’s facade of a starving artist comes crashing down when her publisher relates how shitty her latest work has become and demands a book’s worth of material in a single day, sending her spiraling down a tunnel of mental anguish and bad haircuts. I mean, Jesus.
As characters become further removed from the comfort of college and living at home, the tension ramps up effectively with the severity of actions taken and withheld becoming increasingly substantial. Saying I love you to a long-time lover doesn’t just mean you’re in it for the long haul anymore–marriage must be considered. Failing to do your job won’t lead to a low GPA–it could mean getting fired or sued. The implications become too harrowing for some to fully accept, leading to breakdowns and/or coping mechanisms.
And how does one cope with this lack of control? What measures can be taken to ensure financial and emotional stability in an ever-changing environment? Well the easiest in the ensemble to dissect, Marnie, tries to plan and organize absolutely everything. Chaos is a realm she’s not willing to adjust for, and like Pete Campbell in Mad Men, everyone getting exactly what they deserve is the only way to truly maintain some semblance of a system. Her ideal career path–gallery curator–fits this desire to oversee and micromanage, but it also doesn’t quite make sense. Marnie isn’t an artistic or creative person but she hangs out with creative/eccentric types, went to a liberal arts college, and pursues a side career as a singer. Looking at the way she sings (“Stiff and hopeful,” as Elijah describes it) I assume Marnie likes art because of its disorganization, something that needs to be fixed and neatly arranged. Her singing–while competent–has a trademark measure and tone, which can only be the result of either truly fine acting or me looking way too deep into things.
For Hannah–Marnie’s antithesis in many respects–control can only be enforced through counting. Hannah’s life has been a constant struggle towards keeping herself totally in check, which sometimes manifests itself in OCD. (Sidenote: I defy anyone to tell me the scenes where Hannah compulsively counts to eight after every single action aren’t the most effective PSA’s for OCD awareness in the history of television). Hannah is used to disarray and manages it much better than Marnie, but that doesn’t make her perfect. She needs someone to care for and need her, and when she feels the world has turned its back on her, there’s no telling what Hannah will do (as evidenced by the aforementioned haircut and tattoos). Adam provides her with the necessary affection, but his own system of management has its flaws, too.
Adam only lives in chaos. He doesn’t fall into conventionally attractive standards of beauty, doesn’t work or act “normal” when he doesn’t feel like it, and he tends to shut people out at the first sign of trouble. Adam, as I assume, has always been an oddball, and never getting close to anyone had its advantages until he met Hannah. By his own admission, Hannah gave him a purpose–to teach someone about the world from the ground up–that he’d never experienced before. He switched from job to job, place to place, doing what made him momentarily happy until it wore off and he moved on. He’s a perfectionist who demands perfection of others, but this can sometimes lead to an odd scenario, like with his and Hannah’s relationship, where the flaws of both characters end up binding them closer together while also driving a wedge between them. Adam respects Hannah’s humanity, but he doesn’t quite accept it.
Jessa similarly draws herself towards flightiness, but Hannah–like Adam–acts as a touchstone, a constant not to be disturbed or totally immersed in. Jessa isn’t made for a life sitting down, but with each passing encounter where someone remarks on her “adventurous spirit,” the smile on her face fades just a little bit more. Drugs are a natural outlet for someone so pleasure-seeking and wayward, but the high highs and low lows leave room only for emptiness, knowing that the high will inevitably end and the low seems to last longer each time.
Is there a point to these behaviors? I believe Girls and the many illusions used to create a modicum of security helps understand the biggest difference between the current generation of mid-twenty year olds as opposed to those in years past. Take Mad Men for instance: most of the characters had jobs straight out of college or didn’t bother going, whereas in Girls, not only is college a necessity, it’s often not enough. This struggle of economic dependency, a lack of relatability with the older generation, a need for individualism in a society dominated by the self–all points to mass hysteria and a total existential crisis fueled by self-doubt and isolation for an entire group of people.
Girls has a deep sense of self-awareness, knowing exactly what their target demographic is thinking and feeling across a bevy of spectrums. It can sometimes be uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, so is life. It’s just a matter of getting through it one day at a time, and for that I commend Girls for its understanding of what drives–and hinders–the generation they wish to portray.