Note: I am currently writing my masters thesis at the University of Copenhagen on the realism in HBO's Girls. What follows is the first of probably many musings on the series as I attempt to work my way around its complexity. Bear with me.
This is why I love Girls.
Hannah tells Adam: "I don't even want a boyfriend. I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time, and thinks I'm the best person in the world, and wants to have sex with only me."
The fluidity, weirdness, and unsteadiness of the romantic relationships in the series epitomize the confusion we girls/women have in our mid-twenties. No one wants to commit but they want intimacy anyways, the sex is disappointing, and self-doubt and insecurity may prevent us from realizing who is truly good for us at this age.
Gone are the late teen years, when everything felt like an angst-y yet somehow carefree, monumental game. Now, pressure to "figure out who you are" comes internally, as if we're bursting from the seams, because we're sick of being unsure. So we try on personalities to see if they stick. Hannah, an aspiring writer who talks about writing much more than she writes, does everything for The Story, accumulating experiences and tough skin. Jessa is "unsmoteable" when it comes to sex but can't get the rest of her life in order, and Marnie thinks she knows who she is until she dumps Charlie and loses her job, at which point she's not so sure.
I don't just love Girls because of self-identification; it's not just because I see parts of myself in the female characters. Because doesn't every narrative strive for some type of sympathy or empathy? What I love about Girls is its ability to show the commonplace, un-showable awkwardness of life for people in their twenties.
Especially the awkwardness of sex. No one seems to know how to have great sex at this age - and Girls shows just how true this is. From the first episode, awkward sexuality rears its head: Adam, Hannah's casual fling, commands her to lie on her stomach, hold her legs up behind her, and stay there while he grabs lube - and he'll "consider" getting a condom. Then he proceeds to have sex with her in that clearly uncomfortable position on the couch, while she talks her way through her discomfort, and Adam tells her to play the quiet game. Clearly, sex and communication are both murky waters here.
Then there's Charlie's coddling love for Marnie, who finds it suffocating. She wants a real man instead, maybe like Booth Jonathan, who gets her so hot that she goes and masturbates in the office of the art gallery where she works. This, by itself, has made a lot of people uncomfortable, because we're apparently not supposed to see female sexuality displayed in this manner on tv. But in Season 2, episode 3, it gets more uncomfortable in a different way: Booth's dominating masculinity is laughable as he straddles her on his hipster bed. She can't help but burst out laughing when it's over - all that bravado came to this terrible sex? For Shoshanna, it's her virginity that takes center stage, and stamps her like a pariah (she wants to be so much more than her inexperience, but she exudes it). For Jessa, sex with multiple partners is linked to her wandering - she's good at superficial encounters, but she needs guidance in the rest of her life.
This terrible sex (which also features Lena Dunham's bravery of showing her very normal, not supermodel naked body), has so much honesty that it feels true and also absurd. And that's why it's funny. It's not quite the Cringe Comedy epitomized by Ricky Gervais and The Office, because we're not laughing at the characters' own social ineptitude, flaws, or lack of self-awareness. The girls of Girls have all of those things, but the comedy doesn't target them. It's an "I've been there" comedy that is deeply sympathetic and honest about how hard it is to make sense of it all, inside and outside the bedroom.
This awkwardness of sexual encounters is the most acute example of what makes this series progressive. In the evolution of sex on screen, we've moved from censorship and ellipses to gratuitous sexuality and the fantasy of the sex symbol. But even in the quality drama currently on cable, sex is rarely honest. Too often it's a plot device or a time for gazing. Rarely does it show a less-than-perfect body. But in Girls it fills the characters with honesty, because it capitalizes on insecurities, miscommunications, and messy expectations--therefore showing just how human they are.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, sex presents these women as an extension of their personalities, desires, and big questions. This works quite well for the show's realism, because what other place is more honest than the bedroom? Yet in a setting that film and television usually marks as matters of "private life," in Girls the striving for intimacy (and often not achieving it) is an exposure technique that takes young women's private lives into the public sphere. This is because sex is sex, but it also becomes a metaphor for the uncertainty of the young female mind, with all the pressures, hangups, misgivings, signals, and overwhelming everythingness of being a 24-year-old woman. So thanks, Lena Dunham, for showing the world what it's like to be us, inside-out.