“Girls” has been generating so much furious discussion about portrayals of race and diversity on and behind the screen that what felt like it could have been a provocative topic when watching the first three episodes of the show all together at SXSW actually seems a lot more mild in comparison. “Vagina Panic,” the second episode in the series, opens with a pair of (once again awkward) sex scenes before turning to the topic of where that activity can sometimes leave you — with child. Jessa, played by Jemima Kirke, revealed herself to be pregnant at the end of the pilot, and in this one schedules, then quietly freaks out about and then avoids an abortion.
The way the show approaches these decisions is both brave and a cop-out, in that Jessa ends up getting her period at the end of the episode — problem solved without actually having to go through with the deed. (Whether abortion can ever be the stuff of comedy, and whether we’d ever want it to be used as such, is another question.) I asked Lena Dunham about this when we talked in March, and she said that she wanted to include an abortion storyline from the beginning.
I actually put it in my original pilot, and everyone was like — uh, maybe not that? Not because it wasn’t something we wanted to look at, but because you want to know these people a bit more before you watch them struggle through something like that.
That was part of our decision to have Jessa ultimately not go through with that procedure — we want to know her more before we have to deal with the aftermath of that. You don’t want to have an abortion and have the next episode be like “We’re all headed to the bar!” You want to deal with what that would mean emotionally for her, and we didn’t necessarily have the real estate or the desire to do that yet.
But we did want to see the way that this made [the characters] all think about their bodies and their futures and the possibility of being mothers, and also the way it made them turn everything into being completely about themselves. It’s the best excuse for all of them to spin out and become totally self-involved.
At least the topic is given some serious consideration, the lack of which in executive producer Judd Apatow’s own “Knocked Up” always bothered me. Dunham’s character Hannah is absolutely correct when she says of Jessa, “What was she going to do — have a baby and take it to her babysitting job? It’s not realistic.” What “Girls” does best in taking on the topic is show how no one has any idea how seriously they should be treating the procedure.
“I feel like people say it’s a huge deal,” Hannah announces, “but how big a deal are these things actually?” Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) brings snacks to the clinic. But Marnie (Allison Williams) insists that “it’s about the most traumatic thing that can ever happen to a woman.” No one has any doubts that you should be allowed to have an abortion, but they also seem to have a sense that as responsible, contemporary young women, you probably shouldn’t need to have one because you’re careful and insist on protection.
But as Dunham pointed out, Jessa’s pregnancy scare is really just an excuse for the characters to, in their own fears, indulge in being ridiculously self involved, leaded to two great smackdowns. First, Hannah teases Marnie, who’s upset that Jessa hasn’t shown, by saying “You’re a really good friend, and you threw a really good abortion.” And then Hannah, rambling on about how her fear of HIV may actually be hiding a desire to have HIV for the pity she’d get, is told, “That is an incredibly silly thing to say” by her exasperated doctor. It’s a moment that makes you both appreciate the fundamental self-centeredness of being young (because what else do you know?) while also being reassured of its ridiculousness, one of the things that “Girls” does best.