The “Girls” Outrage Tracker (GOT) is your weekly guide to HBO’s most controversial show.
Episode: 402, “Triggering”
What are we outraged about this week? At the Iowa Writers Workshop, Hannah (Lena Dunham) reads an obviously autobiographical passage about a woman named “Anna” who asks her boyfriend to punch her during sex. She warns her classmates that the imagery may be “triggering,” but what the story actually triggers is a wave of disgust at her presumption and privilege. That their criticisms sound a lot like some of the ones most frequently directed at “Girls” and Dunham is… not accidental.
How outraged are we? Let’s say 6 out of 10. We’re hip to the joke, but it’s too clever by half, a way of acknowledging the criticisms without actually responding to them.
Outrage justification level: Justified — or is it? The writing-workshop scene is what “Girls” does both best and worst. The interplay between Hannah’s fellow writers is a master class in microaggression, and it’s especially keen in pairing Hannah’s excruciating comeuppance with the praise lavished on the story by a black student named D. August. (Minor side controversy: Is it D. August, DeAugust, or D’August? HBO confirms it’s the former: D. August Shore.) “Gut-wrenching,” says a classmate played by “Appropriate Behavior’s” Desiree Akhavan. “And not asking to wrench our guts, just wrenching them.” “You played with gender in a way that was really surprising and almost offensive, but not offensive,” says another, named Chester Chong. Watch the eyes of frat-boy type who later accuses Hannah of ignoring “the male perspective” as they flit towards D. August after complimenting his story, waiting to be recognized for his generosity and perspicacity. Hannah, the insecure new kid with the faux-edgy material, makes for an easy counterpoint, a way for her classmates to prove they only drool over the “right” stuff. (In a perfect reversal, the only student who comes to Hannah’s defense is D. August.)
On the other hand, channeling complaints about “Girls'” self-congratulatory embrace of race and class privilege through the medium of a grad-school writing seminar that looks like a carefully race- and gender-balanced focus group is an awfully easy way of casting the show’s critics as pretentious knobs. Based on that excerpt Hannah’s not much of a writer, but none of her colleagues sound sharp enough to be any good at it either. (That, of course, prompts the question of what any of them are doing in one of the country’s most prestigious MFA programs.) It’s as if the show wants credit for acknowledging its problems but doesn’t want to actually do anything about them.
How are we handling it? With a grudging “‘Girls’ will be ‘Girls'” eyeroll.The interplay between New York Times reviewers Joe Coscarelli and Lydia Polgreen sums it up. As Coscarelli points out, “The criticisms are played as a gag… [B]y combining them all in this meta-hodgepodge, the legitimate complaints are conflated with the nonsense.” Polgreen responds, “Having been the only black person in many rooms, I am familiar with the experience of receiving uncritical praise, and know how unhelpful and downright condescending it can be. The student graciously accepted their praise, playing along with the shuck and jive.”
Erin Whitney, Huffington Post
Hannah’s story is about a girl experiencing a form sexual assault from her boyfriend — but she insists it’s unrelated to her while the rest of Hannah’s class can’t get over how autobiographical the character seems. While this story is nothing close to the sexual assault events described in Dunham’s book last year, it does raise questions. Is Dunham trying to express how she, as a writer and a personality, grapples with the blurry lines of fiction and reality? Hannah refuses to publicly admit her work is personal, so perhaps Dunham feels this same lack of responsibility to fess up to what’s inspired by real life and what’s not? But why raise eyebrows with a story of sexual assault, especially one which Hannah says her character wanted from the boyfriend, instead of coloring it as wholly unacceptable?
Joshua Alston, A.V. Club
Even when evaluated by sitcom standards, a scene like Hannah’s peer critique doesn’t completely work because it’s an effort to eschew vanity that goes so far overboard as to become vanity. I’ve been in enough grad-school workshops to know how sharp-elbowed and contentious they can be, but Hannah’s peers seem to care too much about Hannah. Their feedback on her work is so hostile and personal, the scene doesn’t resemble real life so much as a daydream Hannah would have in the bathtub. Hannah, who drum-rolls her piece by calling attention to its more “triggering” aspects, would love nothing more to incite her classmates to this kind of ad hominem. That kind of reaction is too easy to dismiss or, as Hannah later does, attribute to the oversensitivity of someone for whom a personal chord was struck.
Jordan Ferguson, Next Projection
All of this feels very much in character for Hannah, and that her crisis results in her running to an undergrad party makes perfect sense, but it still feels like an act of narrative cowardice from the show, like the series got halfway into a story it was afraid of telling. Even that peer critique scene feels like it only gets three-quarters of the way there, for how fiercely the students criticize and engage with Hannah’s piece. Real pain doesn’t come from someone hating your work; it comes from someone reading it and coming away with nothing. What Hannah experiences here, and throughout the episode, feels too tailored to her expectations and her desires. “Triggering” is too far inside Hannah’s perspective, to the point that it loses the reality that can make this show so bracing.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
There’s a point at which a show can disappear so far up its own navel that story and character vanish in the meta. That’s true even of one like this where the lines between fact and fiction can occasionally get very blurry. But the various Iowa scenes worked, just as the Glover scene in season 2 did, because they weren’t an excuse to lash out at the people who hate “Girls” and/or Dunham, nor were they any kind of stirring defense of either woman. Rather, they took the discussion that swirls around the show and its creator and simply used it to generate laughs, in scenes that steered right into the damn skid by making Hannah appear every bit as obliviously privileged as her fellow grad students accused her of being (and as Dunham so often gets tagged as).
Britt Hayes, ScreenCrush
“Triggering” does a fantastic job of exploring criticism and its effect on the creative process. As expected, Hannah doesn’t take criticism very well, especially from her peers, and has a difficult time abiding by Workshop rules and remaining silent during the discussion around her short story. She feels the need to correct and revise their opinions, basically telling her peers that their opinions are factually inaccurate, but they’re expressing subjective reactions to a subjective piece.
David Sims, The Atlantic
The title of the episode comes from the ridiculously self-inflated warning Hannah gives before reading her work aloud, inviting her classmates to quietly leave the room if they find her writing too emotionally devastating to handle. Instead, they mostly call her derivative—it’d be funnier if it didn’t feel like Dunham was filling the scene with her real-life critics. Should we give her a pass just for demonstrating self-awareness?
Tyler Kane, Paste
It’s a great nod, especially to those who tune in to the show regularly. Hannah finds herself silenced during the critique, while the tale we’ve all heard before in some form—booze and menthols, and how they relate to a person working at a grocery store—is praised without question. What a cool opportunity for Girls writers. And while the story is told with our lead Hannah in mind, maybe we can suspend our own disbelief enough to see that, through Hannah’s eyes, the black-and-white critiques felt that rough. That’s the only way it works, but I do think it works.