Culture TV

Girls will be girls

Lena Dunham, creator of HBO series Girls. She also plays Hannah, the main character in the show. Flickr photo by david_shankbone.
Lena Dunham, creator of HBO series Girls. She also plays Hannah, the main character in the show. Flickr photo by david_shankbone.

In a recent episode of Girls, Hannah, the main character of the show, snorts cocaine, goes to a club where she literally loses her shirt (and for the rest of the episode she wears a mesh tank top and no bra), imposes on her best friend during a one-night stand, and then seduces a former crackhead who, earlier in the episode, she describes as having leprosy. The impetus for all this drama? Hannah’s new editor challenges her to get outside of her comfort zone, because that’s “where the magic happens.” When Hannah asks what she should write about, the woman points to this sign, a physical illustration of her “get-outside-your-comfort-zone” mantra.

As far as specific article ideas, the woman suggests nonchalantly, “You could have a threesome with some people you meet on Craigslist. Or do a whole bunch of coke and then write about it.” The entire premise of HBO’s Girls, in fact, seems like it might have been spawned by this conversation. Hannah makes mistake after colossal mistake, and this seems to be the point of the series.

In the drama, true living is equated with free, regret-less mistake-making of the highest order. Hannah repeatedly turns to Adam, a character who she claims treats her “heart like monkey meat,” for casual sex, even after he admits to having other sexual partners and repeatedly subjects her to “abusive sexual rhetoric.” Around the same time in the series, she tries to seduce her 50-something employer “for the story.” In season two, in addition to doing cocaine, she sleeps with a 19-year-old she meets through Jessa’s family, and then with a complete stranger whom she meets at her coffee shop and follows home.

The other main characters engage in similar activities — impulsive sex, bad relationship decisions, drugs, etc. — to various degrees. All this the girls do unquestioningly, in the name of garnering “experiences.” When Jessa accuses her very temporary husband of only marrying her to break the status quo of his own yuppie lifestyle, she says, “I am going to look 50 when I’m 30! I am going to be so fat because I’m full of experiences!” Marrying her, she tells him, will be the only adventurous thing he’s ever done. In season two, Marney, when explaining to Charlie why it’s all right to commit to one another long-term, says, “we’ve already had our experiences. Now we can settle down.”

I am all about gaining experiences. In the years directly after college, in fact, this was my full-time pursuit: I moved to Montana to work in a national park, studied questions of God, identity, and community at L’Abri, interned at a publishing company, and finally moved to Vancouver to start graduate school. I, like my fictional peers on Girls, thought that to even consider larger commitments like marriage, kids, and mortgages before having these kinds of adventures was cowardly, unwise, and worse of all, boring.

So what is my issue with Girls? In the show, having experiences means getting outside of one’s own comfort zone. So far, so good. However, if the “comfort zone” her boss is describing is a lifestyle of safe sex, thoughtful maneuvering in romantic relationships, and abstention from drugs, I personally would like to stay inside it.

It’s true that casual sex and drug use are outside of many people’s comfort zone. It’s just that there are so many other things outside it as well. Other things like moving to a place where you don’t know anyone, making conversation with the stranger at the coffee shop, reading your work aloud at a writer’s group (which Hannah does try once), volunteering with battered women, auditioning for a play, etc.

Goethe says that “boldness has genius and magic in it.” Hannah embodies this magic at certain moments on the show: when she spontaneously kisses the wealthy doctor whom she’s only just met, when she confronts Adam in the hallway of his apartment complex and frankly tells him what he’s doing to her and what she needs, when jokes inappropriately — but hilariously — with her potential boss during an interview.

Clearly Hannah was not exercising good judgments in all of these decisions; however, she was certainly exercising spunk. Boldness. Initiative. Spark. My problem with Girls is what Hannah, and largely the other characters, decide to do with this spark. Because in the series, what they generally decide to do with it is self-destruct, in various and many-splendored ways.

Screenshot courtesy of HBO
Screenshot courtesy of HBO

What if Hannah and the other girls channeled their boldness into bigger things than sex, drugs, and bad relationships? Even though Marney’s musical debut in the second season is painful to witness, it’s actually one of the few positive instances of “stepping out of the comfort zone” in the series. Here, Marney pushes herself to perform in a difficult setting, showcasing a talent she’s not sure if she even has, in an attempt to fulfill her ultimate vocational dream. True, the song is a tremendous failure. But at least we see one of the characters stretching herself, and taking a risk to self-actualize, not to self-destruct.

And what if, even more crazy, the characters used their gifts not just to self-actualize, but to help those around them? If the central problem for these characters is that they are in curvatus in se, curved in on themselves, what would they — and the show — look like if they applied their passions to the broader world around them?

What if Hannah chose to write about and publicize social injustices in NYC and around the world? What if Marney used her looks to charm and welcome those who are excluded, using her power as a young, beautiful woman to broaden the nets of social acceptance? Or if Jessa harnessed her wild artistic temperament and used it to actually create something inspiring and beautiful?

It can be done. My own sister joined the Peace Corps in her mid-20s and moved to Guatemala to teach health education in a tiny village. My friend Ross moved to Africa to make a documentary about South Sudan and fell into the role of co-director at an orphanage where he stayed for five years. Less dramatically, but still important, I have friends making powerful art, traveling, showing hospitality, and making progress in other quietly radical ways. And I doubt they’ve done any of this with the explicit intention of acquiring experiences: they simply went out into the world with the hope of making it better, and the stories followed.

I’m not saying young adulthood is easy. Certainly the struggle to find a job, find a mate, and find oneself, especially amidst the hyper competitive jungle of New York, isn’t easy. But it might be much more if these girls channeled their talents into building something — a life, an identity, a vocation, a cause — instead of directing their charisma and intelligence inward, into a downward, navel-gazing, self-effacing spiral.