It's impossible not to want to talk about the sex scenes in HBO's new "Girls" -- not because they're that frequent, at least not by the permissive scale of cable television, but because they're deglamorized, raw and not always mutually enjoyable, a means by which the characters broadcast their vulnerabilities by pretending they don't have any. They're not like anything else on TV, though they are in the same realm as the ill-advised encounter toward the end of "Tiny Furniture," creator Lena Dunham's most recent film, a fumbling, tough to watch tryst that takes place in the shelter of a drainage pipe.
The scenes in "Girls" don't hit aim for quite that level of mortification. Bohemiam Jessa (Jemima Kirke), who arrives back in New York trailing evidence of a romantic mishap of her own, initiates an impulsive hook-up at a bar that's mostly horrifying in its context. The perfect Marnie (Allison Williams) has started to find the adoring accommodations of her longterm boyfriend so smothering and unpleasant that she requests sexual positions in which they don't have to look at each other. And Dunham, as Hannah, takes the brunt of the scenes with the most exposure, emotionally and physically -- her character is dating Adam (Adam Driver), an out-of-work actor/writer/woodworker to whose apartment she heads when he deigns to answer her texts, and who in bed treats her more as an accessory that an actual participant.
The sequences featuring Dunham in particular have attracted a lot of contradictory attention. The ever-contrary Katie Roiphe at Slate asks "Is sex always as unfun or awkward as it is on the show?" (Of course not -- but it can be, just as much as it can be fun and effortless.)
She goes on to claim that it's indicative of "old-fashioned moralism very sleekly packaged for a new age," misreading the show almost as spectacularly as Liel Leibovitz does over at Tablet, where he insists that Dunham chooses to be "objectified and exposed," and that "We’re supposed to feel bad for Hannah, a sweet and immature woman who falls short of society’s stringent ideals of beauty and who is being, quite literally, fucked by the world."
Even Frank Bruni at the New York Times expressed bemusement in his column two weeks ago, suggesting that watching the scenes make you wonder "Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?" He concludes that the show raises questions "about whether less privacy means more intimacy and whether sexual candor is any guarantor of sexual satisfaction."
There are still few enough shows representing a female voice that when something like "Girls" comes along, it's forced to shoulder unwieldy expectations of representing the experiences of an entire gender, or at least the members of it that don't yet think of themselves as "women." Stemming from that comes a sense that a show like this needs to be aspirational, that it should highlight a character's successes and finer qualities and freedoms -- if these girls are coming of age in an era less encumbered by old sexual mores, than they should be having a good time, because they're allowed.
But there's a difference between being able and actually doing. "Sex and the City" gets name-checked in the first episode of "Girls" not just because the comparisons are inevitable, but because these are characters who are meant to have grown up watching it and internalizing the types of lessons the show represented.
Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte lived their lives according to an underlying narrative that they needn't deny themselves things because of their gender -- they vowed to have sex "like men," without needing attachments. Leaving an encounter in the pilot episode, Carrie says "I left feeling powerful, potent and incredibly alive. I felt like I owned this city."
But what if you have no idea how to go about getting laid, or you don't take it for granted you're attractive, or your numbers are in the limited range of the "two and a half" people Hannah has so far gone to bed with? "Girls" presents a world in which its characters venture out with diminishing expectations in search of the shoes, fabulous jobs and orgasms they've been promised are out there, the fun and trouble they would totally have to manage if they only had somewhere to be and an excuse to leave the house. "You are from New York, therefore you are just naturally interesting," Hannah mantras to herself in the mirror, summing up the show's gap between aspiration and reality -- no matter where you're from, you're just you.