Sunday, November 17, 2013

Girls, Season One: Intimations of Reality

“Act like my life is real. Because my life is real.” This line from Lena Dunham's Girls, delivered by a young man to the girlfriend who's broken his heart and then seduced him into getting back together, while she's straddling him in bed, is not a good example of realistic dialogue, but it is thematically central to the show. The white, middle-class, liberals arts-educated modern Emma Woodhouses of Girls, who've reached their 20s with very little to distress or vex them, are monsters of narcissism, which the show plays for laughs and shock except in the rare, differently shocking moments when they and the viewer become momentarily aware of another (usually male) person's reality. The girls of Girls are so selfish, competitive, and critical in their friendships and so obsessed with maintaining the upper hand in their interactions with men that it's difficult to feel much sympathy when things go wrong for them, but if we can't feel it for them, we can occasionally feel it for their victims.

Not that the recognition of another person's reality always takes the form, in Girls, of a flash of empathy from someone whose life you've been treating like a game. Something similar occurs when Jessa, the most unapologetic predatory sociopath of the group, suddenly decides not to go through with seducing the married man she's been babysitting for, although her recognition that his life and his wife and children's lives are real is preceded by a different kind of recognition of his reality: her reaction of revulsion when he starts sobbing on her shoulder, overwrought from their adventurous evening, in the course of which she got him beat up. Dunham's acute interest in and fascinating treatment of sex is what distinguishes her most clearly from bleak, self-conscious male comedians she resembles, like Woody Allen, Larry David, and Louis C.K., and one of the ways in which sex permeates Girls is that the characters are (like their creator) pornographic fantasists who, however, are constantly confronted by a reality that does not perfectly assume the shape of their desire. So Hannah offers to fuck the boss who's been groping her only to have him demur and point out that he's a married man; or a venture capitalist picks up Marnie and Jessa in a bar and persuades them to come back his apartment, only to have them refuse to let him join in when they start making out.

The fabric of Dunham's universe is made up of this constant tension between the characters' fantasies and the stubbornly independent existence of other people, their lives, and their contrary wills. It doesn't matter whether your boyfriend is peeing on you in the shower in a mistaken belief that you'll find it funny instead of a bizarre violation, which happens to Hannah in one scene, or whether he's loving you when you're not ready to be loved. The latter situation occasions an hilarious exchange where Hannah tells her victim, as a lame excuse for ducking out of living with him, “I didn't think you were into that,” and he replies sarcastically, “Into what? Love?” Love can be a bizarre violation in the universe of Girls. Hannah might want it in theory, but she doesn't necessarily want the responsibility that goes with it, the heaviest part of which might be the responsibility to love back.

The girls of Girls veer between shrinking from a reality that's too demanding or too unresponsive and trying desperately to make their lives more real to themselves. To that end, Jessa, realizing that her career as a femme fatale is a dead end, suddenly gets married to the “venture capitalist,” whom we last saw flipping out when she and Marnie spilled wine on his priceless rug and lecturing them hysterically on the hard work through which he's achieved his material success. He's a real, grown-up man with a real job and grown-up money, representing everything that Jessa has rejected and thinks, for now, that she needs, and the joke is that this attempt to achieve stability is Jessa's wildest move yet. No matter how hard she tries to start living a real life, it just turns into a more elaborate game. Growing up doesn't involve learning how to treat other people's lives like they're real; it involves starting to treat your life, too, like a game.

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