Nudity and graphic sex? Lena Dunham and ‘Girls’ can do better
Once upon a time not so very long ago I was a young woman living a writerly life of working poverty in New York City, which, for better or worse, engendered certain expectations from HBO’s “Girls.”
I admired though did not love the first season and felt hopeful about the second — creator Lena Dunham is smart and sharp-eyed, unafraid to wallow in the sticky brine of self-love and self-loathing that marks a certain time of many people’s lives.
But lately watching “Girls,” which has its second-season finale Sunday night, just makes me feel old. And impatient in a vaguely maternal way, like when you see a lovely but irritating wild child running naked around the playground, shouting “vagina” at everyone and peeing in the sandbox.
Yes, yes, creativity expresses itself in many ways, and it’s good to know the correct terms for the female genitalia, but at some point someone needs to put that kid’s clothes back on and show her where the bathroom is.
In this season’s penultimate episode, Hannah (Dunham) wanders the streets of New York with no pants after jamming a Q-tip in her ear. Marnie (Allison Williams) sings a terrible song in public, then has sex with her ex (also in public). Adam (Adam Driver) ends his sobriety and then, in an act some viewers considered date rape, ejaculates on his new girlfriend’s chest.
I didn’t see it as rape so much as a very unfortunate sexual encounter, but then I was too busy being angry about so many other things, including how Adam’s character has been jerked from one extreme to another and back again in service of the increasingly disjointed thing that passes for the show’s plot.
Dunham keeps telling everyone that the second season of the show was about the characters experiencing free fall, and she apparently felt the show should go with them. For me, “Girls” hit bottom in the previous episode, when Hannah suddenly developed full-blown, eye-rolling, head-twitching, potato-chip counting OCD.
The script tried to pass it off as a stress-induced reoccurrence. Instead it played like the introduction of an Evil Twin, a narrative Hail Mary that only served to instantly expose Dunham’s limitations as an actress.
But then, as any therapist will tell you, this is what happens when you reward the use of ambient nudity, urination and graphic sexual acts as a replacement for story — you will get more of the same.
When midway through this second season Hannah played topless ping-pong, I figured Dunham, who is at her most brilliant when nailing the increasingly self-referential nature of popular culture, was commenting on her own propensity for nudity and the media’s fixation on that propensity. Because honestly, does anyone ever play ping-pong naked?
But when, last Sunday, John Cameron Mitchell’s disappointed e-publisher rejected Hannah’s book, asking “Where is the pudgy face slick with semen and tears?” just as if that were not precisely what “Girls” has been offering us since Day 1, I began to wonder: Is this a cry for help? Has Dunham gone so meta she’s forced to self-cannibalize her own self-cannibalization?
Taken separately, I don’t mind any of the nudity, urination or even the show’s troubling view of sex. Hannah entered our consciousness on her hands and knees in joyless relations with Adam, after all, and Marnie was, at one point, locked in a cage that passed as an art installation and came out not angry, but aroused.
I do mind that none of it seems to serve any purpose beyond providing high-octane Twitter fodder and racy recap talking points.
After two years of “Girls” it is still unclear what Dunham has to say about life, beyond the unsurprising revelation that it is difficult and confusing to be young. And her decision to tell her characters’ stories almost exclusively through their sexual lives is the opposite of revolutionary; young women have been reduced to the sum of their parts and partners since time began.
Even the insistence that Hannah/Dunham is heroic in her willingness to expose her haphazardly tattooed and non-swimsuit issue-type body and her neuroses has become tiresome. Exposing oneself is what writers and performers do, and at some point it has to transcend self-narration.
It’s difficult to write a television show, particularly when it’s been granted the HBO pedigree and relentlessly touted as the Next Big Thing. Heaven forbid Dunham write an episode of her half-hour comedy that is just funny or touching.
No, with the voracious media attention so seriously outweighing the show’s actual viewership, each and every episode has to throw something outrageous against the wall, most usually in the form of a bodily fluid.
Dunham is young and inexperienced, but she is also quite talented and increasingly influential; the ability to stand up to pressure, from the network or the media or the craven zeitgeist, is now part of her job whether she likes it or not.
A television show written in real time by one of its own characters loses the often-weighty baggage of hindsight, but it also loses the benefit. Many tales of youth are undone by unrealistic nostalgia or a patronizing tone, but there is undeniable value in knowing where the story is going.
“Girls” has always relied more on mood than structure, more on observation than analysis, but the point of naked realism is insight not nudity. Dunham knows how to nail down a moment with a look or a line, but too often she seems so busy looking for a tree to pee on, she forgets to consider the breadth and depth of the forest that surrounds her.
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