What “Girls” Says about Relationships Today

by Kay Hymowitz

Brooklyn - Williamsburg: Girls

When we started working on “Knot Yet” about a year ago, HBO’s “Girls” was just starting its first season. At the time it struck me as the Recession era sequel to “Sex and the City,” grittier of course, but still sanguine about young women’s resilience in navigating the sometimes harsh realities of the post sexual revolution dating scene. Not so the second season, which took us into very mournful, even sinister, territory.

Of course, the first season’s depiction of sex and the contemporary single girl was not what you could call buoyant. In the early episodes Hannah Horvath, the main character played by Lena Dunham, is in a humiliating relationship with Adam, a hulking but magnetic enfant sauvage with pronounced sadistic tendencies. She was diagnosed with an STD and when she very responsibly met up with her ex-boyfriend to give him the news, he informed her that their relationship had helped him understand that he was actually gay. Her emotional state was not improved by her parents’ refusal to play bank for her as she tried to become “a voice of [her] generation.”

Still, the series maintained a mild air of youthful possibility. Hannah had a few writing gigs that made it seem she might have some literary talent. She was able to move on from Adam. She had her three, devoted girl friends. It seemed like eventually – maybe - she would spin her relationship dross into artistic gold, improve her self esteem, and, as they say, “make better choices.”

Instead, season two became one long meditation on emotional and sexual misery entirely unresponsive to the familiar bromides of women’s empowerment. More than a few critics had written off the first season’s sexual humiliations as useful material for the young writer-in-the-making and a route to a fuller understanding of her own “sexual needs.” Dunham has something less hopeful in mind. As she suggests in Adam’s relationship with a more normal-seeming woman named Natalia, the human psyche often defies self-understanding and “communication.” During their first sexual encounter when he had complimented her for telling him what she wanted in bed - “I like how clear you are with me” - Natalia had asked, “What other way is there?” She soon finds out. In the penultimate episode titled “On All Fours,” Adam orders her to crawl like a dog toward his bed where he proceeds to masturbate on her chest, a treat he had already given to a more ambivalent Hannah in the first episode. The scene was disturbing enough it had women bloggers pondering the dividing line between rape and “bad sex” for days.

Season two gave us lots of food for this kind of thought. Emotional and sexual exploitation are the stuff of every episode. Hannah is hired to write an ebook, but when she shows her editor some early pages, he tells her he wants more sex; “where’s the pudgy face slick with semen and sadness?” he demands. Hannah has eight-second sex in a rural cemetery with a 17 year old because she assumes her friend Jessa is expecting her to. Jessa hints at having been molested as a child by a teacher; she yells at her flaky, hippie father that “leaving a wife and child isn’t a casual, f***ing nothing .”

Another friend, Marnie, recoils when the pompous artist she’s been seeing offers her $500 for helping him throw a party since she is his girlfriend. “I don’t have a girlfriend,” he responds indifferently. Poor Marnie. She has been forced to don a slutty hostess uniform for the only – or at least the highest paying – job she can get. By the last episode, she has reunited with her ex-boyfriend whom she had previously dropped for being so boringly devoted to her, but who has now become a start-up rich guy. “I’m not getting back with you because of the money,” she says as she pledges her love, but of course, she is lying to him. The best you can say for her is that she is probably lying to herself as well.

I suppose I should point out that “Girls” supports Knot Yet’s findings that single twenty-somethings suffer higher rates of depression than their married peers. But that seems a pale response to this flawed but surprisingly deep show. Dunham is not writing a thesis on delayed marriage or on the Millennial predicament. She is – thankfully - an artist not a sociologist.

But the mental breakdown Hannah suffers in the final episodes of the season is a reaction to the cruelties she and her friends suffer in a world whose currency is sexual posturing and what Dunham has called “post-modern distance from [your] own emotions.” Dunham shows that the human hunger for deep connection cannot be happily put on hold while young women and men have “adventures” and pursue their artistic “passions.” In one episode, cunningly titled “One Man’s Trash” clearly meant to refer to Hannah, she tells the handsome doctor with whom she has a brief affair that she’s “lonely, in a deep, deep way.”

Dunham knows she’s not the only one.