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The Good Side of the Bad Sex in “Girls”

The Good Side of the Bad Sex in "Girls"

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.

When Hannah is told “Let’s play the quiet game” by Adam because he thinks she’s talking too much during sex, we’re not supposed to feel sorry for her — she’s not a victim, she chosen this, and feels plenty sorry for herself anyway. We’re supposed to feel that she’s young and inexperienced and doesn’t yet know to not put up with that. She gamely plays along with his role-playing and desire for her to dress up because she believes that’s what being fun and sexually adventurous and open-minded involves, and because she doesn’t know what she wants yet or how to pursue her own pleasure or make requests of her own.

Hannah is comfortable with how uncomfortable she is with her body, just like she’s happy to be open about her limited romantic and sexual background — her abrupt honesty is a way of deflecting from her own inexperience, a means of being up front in order to actually pull attention away from larger insecurities.

In a scene in the third episode that’s more difficult to watch than any of the awkward sex, Adam jiggles Hannah’s belly until she squirms away, laughing “This is so horrible!” and covering herself up. He suggests indifferently that she lose a few pounds if it bothers her so much, and she whirls on him to affirm that it doesn’t, that she has other priorities, just how much she does care openly warring with her need to not be the kind of chick who gets dragged down by body image issues.

So much of “Girls” is about the gap between the women these characters think that can be, think they should be, and who they actually are, and the pain that divide can cause until you figure out how to let those expectations go and just live.

And nowhere in the show does that come through more than in the bedroom scenes, in the sight of sex-positive and totally open but actually pretty inexperienced Hannah bravely heading out in black eyeliner, a miniskirt and teased hair in pursuit of some Carrie Bradshaw adventures, and getting her heart and her self-esteem a little trampled by the reality of what she experiences.

That’s part of life, too, especially in those uncertain years right after college, and it shouldn’t be shot down out of a misguided sense that the young women on screen or those watching it need to be protected. Aspirational fantasies have their place, but so do the failures, blunders and embarrassments that are part of growing up — how people learn and move on is just as important as how they succeed.

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