Book Expert: Television Rewired: The Rise of the Auteur Series

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What follows is a chapter from my recent book, Television Rewired: The Rise of the Auteur Series (University of Texas Press, July 15, 2019), which is an account of when and how the American television series became a platform for artists. The excerpted chapter, about Lena Dunham’s Girls, has been slightly modified for this website; I have edited out the endnotes, and some of the more scholarly references to feminist theory. Readers interested in the expanded version are invited to check out the full text in Television Rewired.

The main point of my book is that until 1990, the American television series was a story product, conforming to repressive conventions that forced storytelling into a formulaic straightjacket. How formula works in television is nicely expressed by Shonda Rhimes in her recent autobiography, Year of Yes: How to Dance it out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person. Rhimes says of her days as a fledgeling writer “So I learned to lay track quickly. Artfully. Creatively. But as fast as freaking lightning. Lay some fiction on it. Smooth some story into that gap. Nail some imagination around those edges.” Rhimes vividly conveys the kind of industrial understanding about its storytelling that it should be fun and full of speed as it envelops a passive viewer, and drives him/her toward an inevitable denouement at which point there are no possibilities, only certainty, a world narrowed to one circumscribed destination, THE END. The train trip ends here, at this station; think no further on this.

Rhimes is talking about what I call in my book the “perfect narrative.” The perfect narrative is a way of storytelling that features a perfect hero (male or female) or a perfect villain who aspires to and attains control over the outcome of the story. How perfect is the formulaic narrative? Depends on who you ask. I have extracted this term from a conversation I had with David Simon, the creator of The Wire and Treme, among other television series. Simon was using the term ironically, to invoke the static, airless, dissociated quality of formulaic television. Rhimes, in her enthusiasm for becoming part of the business of storytelling, appears oblivious to the way, in order to make the series run on tracks, formulaic television reduces the scope of storytelling. No longer a vehicle of expression, though often entertaining and sometimes clever, it is more like a pinball machine than narrative. I say this much in the spirit in which Martin Scorsese called Marvel movies more like theme parks than cinema.

In my book, I observe how formula TV, now and then, requires a “perfect hero” and reduced sensory palette of visuals and sounds to ensure that there are few distractions from the progress of the perfect hero along the tracks of the perfect narrative, distractions that would disturb the passive viewing experience fabricated by formulaic television story products. But the lion’s share of my chapters are about the way the auteur series, by contrast, makes many changes in the form and tone of television series narrative. With their “off track” storytelling, television auteurs neither need nor want a perfect narrative; nor do they believe in the truth of the perfect hero or villain, or a diminished sensory palette to tailor the fictional world to the control of this fabricated figure. Rather, they follow in the footsteps of the great modern American authors, who made a radical shift away from traditional beliefs in absolute values, continuity, definitive solutions, certainties, and unified identities, all of which are embodied in the perfect, formulaic, television series. Increasingly, through the offices of modern physics, philosophy, art and psychology the modern world sees itself in terms of a discontinuous, random, uncertain universe of boundless energy inside and outside of us, ceaselessly moving particles, and relative cultural and linguistic systems, as do the television auteurs.

In Television Rewired, I contend that the rise of the television auteur began in 1990, when David Lynch, when, with the assistance of Mark Frost, he brought Twin Peaks to ABC-TV. Everything about American television changed after Lynch’s series went live. But while almost all of the changes involved cosmetic adjustments of formulaic series, which superficially appropriated the startling images of Twin Peaks and gave lip service to its adult themes and situations, while maintaining the reductive storytelling of the perfect narrative, there are a handful of genuine auteurs who picked up the torch after Lynch showed the way. Among these television auteurs, in addition to David Lynch, are David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire and Treme), Eric Overmyer (Simon’s co-creator on Treme) Matthew Weiner (Mad Men)–and Lena Dunham who created Girls. Television Rewired is, of course, very controversial in its selection of new auteurs and the new auteur series. Many may disagree with my choices, which are intended to stimulate discussion. Perhaps you will be intrigued enough to sample the other chapters about each of the great American television auteurs. In any case, here, I offer, at the gracious invitation of, my chapter on Lena Dunham—Chapter 6 in context. It will provide a taste of how the book generally approaches the current state of American television at its best and of my thinking about what can happen to feminism in the hands of a television auteur.

October 14, 2019

Lena Dunham: Girls

“The wager is that all the affects of subjectivity, all the significant facets and complexities of subjects, can be as adequately explained using the subject’s corporeality as a framework as it would be using consciousness or the unconscious. All the effects of depth and interiority can be explained in terms of the inscriptions and transformations of the subject’s corporeal surface. Bodies have all the explanatory power of minds.”

Susan Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism

Lena Dunham completes the inner circle of new television auteurs to date. By far the youngest of the group and the only woman, Dunham adds something new and crucial to auteur television, a connection with new feminist ideas about the material, corporeal body. The obvious presence of body in Dunham’s series Girls (2012-2017) has been abundantly noted by many. But, by and large, body in Girls has been misread as a form of rebellious transgressiveness. This is understandable, since, for our culture, open displays of bodies and bodily functions are transgressive. Pioneering feminist, Laura Mulver, set the tone in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by defining the mass media as a place within which the female body is inherently transgressive, and formulaic TV feminism subscribes to that perspective. However, there is a problem with viewing Dunham through that lens. That’s not how she sees it.

Dunham has repeatedly stated that displaying her body is not transgressive for her and to view Girls through that convention is to obstruct our vision of her auteur feminist narrative. The art and originality of Dunham’s comic vision in Girls depend on her revelations about all bodies as the challenging sites of complexity and indeterminacy that Mulvey ascribed to media presentation of women’s bodies alone. There is a different lens for seeing the human comedy, the feminism, the art of Lena Dunham and we need to look away from Freudian based feminism to find it.

Freudian based Mulveyan feminist theory is appropriate to analysis of formulaic feminist TV narrative, as for example in Nurse Jackie (2009-2015) and Enlightened (2011-2013). In these series, body is female and male authority is of the mind that represses it. In both of these shows, the female hero’s body resists the patriarchal order through the now familiar trope of the “unruly woman,” a popular culture type explored by Kathleen Rowe in The Unruly Woman: Genders and The Genres of Laughter (1995) and by Linda Mizejewski in Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics (2014). Thus the signature image of Enlightened, an image of heroine Amy Jelicoe (Laura Dern) prying open the doors of an elevator with her bare hands in tear-soaked rage, her mascara streaking her contorted face, is also a signature image of the unruly female body in conflict with the male dominated corporate world. The body of Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco), drug addicted and at war with all the conventions of male dominated society in Nurse Jackie is also a signature of the unruly woman. But bodies and women remain one rung down.

By contrast, as a storyteller, Dunham resonates with the work of feminist philosophers like Susan Grosz, with her interest in establishing the non-transgressive existence of all corporeality male and female, as we humans stumblingly make our various ways. This view of body challenges the ideas that have depended on our thinking of women’s bodies only in terms of the subordination of body to mind within a gendered hierarchy that supposes women are “naturally” subordinate to men. Such imagined hierarchies do exist within the culture but now so do speculations supported by the scientific work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio whose experiments also make an interesting reference point for thinking about Girls. Damasio’s work suggests not only that the conventional mind-body hierarchy is erroneous, but also that it is impossible to polarize them, since in order to function the mind checks constantly with the body for the information it depends on to make decisions. Also pertinent, are controversial psychologists pursuing therapies through attention to the body, like Eugene T. Gendlin, who therapeutically ask their patients to examine the often illegible visceral experience of what is happening to them rather than relying exclusively on a mind-centered “talking cure.” All bodies make meaning in fraught but fascinating collaboration with minds.

In Girls, Dunham connects us to her revision of ideas about body, gender, and transgression, when and her auteur series distance the audience from the conventional sitcom narratives of hierarchal mind-body dualisms and the way they have pigeon-holed bodies, relationships, family, and procreation, joining with the chorus of body-centric feminists, philosophers, neuroscientists and queer theorists who have explored the way bodies make non-transgressive meaning.

In Girls bodies are not pigeon-holed; all the bodies, male and female are unruly; the cultural order itself is unruly. There is much that is anxiety producing in this vision, but there is also the wonder of how bodies, relationships, men, and women make meaning outside of the patterns of middle class life. Once the gendered hierarchies of men and women, bodies and minds are levels in Girls, at the very least, stories of women and men free of those formulaic tracks. At best, the result is a daring and freshly feminist revision of the hierarchical fiction of the American sitcom and its assumption of a comfortable, solid American middle class, with its prescriptive recipes for the maturation process, friendships, male-female relationships, family constellations, and social success. As with formula sitcoms, friendships, romances, family, and social success are also the central concerns of Girls. It is a sitcom. By contrast, however, Girls contains no templates, but rather depicts how the indeterminate dynamics of minds and bodies make clarity and definition impossible.

Telling the stories of four friends, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham); Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams); Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshonna Shapiro (Sozia Mamet), living in 21st century New York, Girls maintains the sitcom emphasis on what is usually depicted as the solid, comfortable middle class, but questions whether it is either comfortable or solid. Rather, from a body-centric feminist perspective, all middle class platitudes are buffeted by the presence of visceral forces in every day events and their disconnect from logic, ideas, and words. The irreconcilable pressures from both body and mind in each episode leave the characters confused about the nature of relationships and never allow us to be less confused than they are.

The indeterminate, larger reality of New York City is crucial to the modernist narrative context of Dunham’s Girls. New York culture is a cacophony of social forces; its energetic fluidity its most distinguishing characteristic. The location of the series is not just a passive setting for the characters. On a micro level, the lives of Dunham’s girls reveal the indeterminate relationship between mind and body that lies at the heart of the ambiguous realities of the big metropolis, introducing into the sitcom an entirely new indeterminacy of experience, relationships, and girls. If formulaic TV feminism is about the pain and suffering of hierarchal constrictions, Girls is about the fear and wonder in the drift and flow of life out of that box.


Episode 1, the pilot, introduces us to the world of Girls, by taking the standard sitcom structure of the A and B stories, or beats, and sending them decisively off the formulaic tracks. In what should be the A story, Hannah Horvath, the main character in the show and two years past college graduation, is cut off from financial support by her parents, who have come to New York from their home in East Lansing, Michigan to belatedly insist that she now become completely self-supporting. Hannah has been working for free as an intern for a publisher while trying to launch a career as a writer. In what should be the B story, Jenna Johansson returns to New York from many foreign travels, reuniting a group of four friends, Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, and Shoshonna. The A and B stories define experience as a chorus of fluid, indeterminate comic conversations between mind and body of whatever gender, as Dunham tries to get her hands around what she calls the “wriggling, terrifying monster that is human interaction.”

In the “A” story, Hannah is shocked by the sudden alteration in her life and wants her parents to change their minds; in the B story, Jessa is welcomed home, mostly by an informal party in the apartment shared by Hannah and Marnie. If this were a formulaic sitcom, the pilot would be organized by a linear narrative about how Hannah devises a plan to continue receiving financial support from her parents in collusion with the now united quartet of friends. The quartet, as in Sex and the City (1998-2004), would be composed of four neatly defined feminine types, as for example we find in Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), the normal one, Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the sex pot, and Charlotte (Kristen Davis), and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), two varieties of career girls. If Girls were formulaic, one major business of of the pilot would be to identify the types and how the series will unfold to reveal predictable plot permutations and combinations.

But the first episode of Girls humorously distances itself from the puzzle like structure of formula TV with its ultimately interlocking pieces. In the pilot of Girls, the upshot of Jessa’s return and Hannah’s dilemma is an unredeemable mess. Illegible meanings implied by the body and mind doing their complex dance and Marni, generally without Hannah’s help, gives Jessa a party. The party is disorganized despite Marni’s characteristically organized best efforts. Both Jessa, the guest of honor, and co-host, Hannah, arrive late. A friend of the quartet of girls, Ray Ploshansky (Alex Karpovsky), has arrived with a stash of opium twigs and causes further turmoil by cooking them up as a tea, which Hannah drinks and becomes extremely high. Under the influence of the tea, she barges in on her parents at their hotel and passes out as she incoherently argues her case for their continued monthly stipends.

Instead of a perfect narrative, we are offered the characters’ failed attempts at coherence. In the first scene, the Horvath family is in a restaurant having dinner, as Loreen Horvath (Becky Ann Baker), Hannah’s mother, and Tad Horvath (Peter Scolari), Hannah’s parents, attempt to lay out a highly rational plan. Hannah has had two years of a free ride after college at their expense and they, living on the extremely moderate salaries of college professors, can’t afford to continue supporting her. But Loreen and Tad are hard pressed to establish this new policy, as words misfire and visceral responses run wild. Mother and father aren’t coordinated about how to talk to Hannah, and it is Loreen rather than Tad who takes the most direct tone, usually associated with masculinity, and Tad who wants to be more oblique, an attitude most associated with femininity. It’s not a fictional world built on reason or linear action or a division of labor assigned according to standard definitions of gender.

Hannah angrily and confusedly rejects her parents. Unable to marshal her own reasons against them and having no idea what to do next, she can neither hold a neat sitcom discussion with them nor formulate a tidy sitcom course of action. Instead, she meanders over to the apartment of Adam Sackler (Adam Driver), with whom she has an undefined emotional relationship, but a very clear sexual connection. They have sex orchestrated by Adam whom she tells about her problem but who is more concentrated on orgasms. Hannah is distracted. But when she leaves Adam, Hannah is no clearer about what kind of relationship she and Adam have, or about her relationship with her parents.

The episode moves toward closure of a sort as Marnie and Jessa offer ideas to Hannah about how to handle her parents which come to nothing because Hannah is physically under the influence of the opium tea. The opium momentarily fortifies Hannah’s body with a feeling of connection and purpose and also diminishes her already depleted capacity for thought. Running on purely corporeal energy, she makes her way to her parents’ hotel room to make a final plea to them to continue her regular stipend by showing them a few crumpled pages that she ludicrously presents as the evidence that as a great writer in the making and deserves their continued support. She insists that she may be the voice of her generation—or, on consideration, a voice of a generation. It’s an idea, all right, and one calculated to undo her mother’s idea about the appropriateness of Hannah’s fiscal independence. But under the influence of the opium, Hannah passes out as her parents confusedly and anxiously look on. Her ideas and plan dissipates as her body takes over. It’s a mind-body stand-off.

When the episode cuts to the next morning and Hannah’s parents are gone, she finds that they have each separately left her an envelope containing money. The gesture speaks, but not clearly; we have no idea–nor does Hannah–why each has done it, why they didn’t use one envelope. There is just Hannah, hungry for breakfast, which she cannot get from room service, because the room account has been closed out and she needs to leave. Welcome to a world of enigmas, shifting perceptions, and uncertain limits, both of the mind and of the body. “What next?” is meant to be the question stimulated by a continuing sit comm pilot. Here the question is, “What?” We have seen in other auteur series’ how the complex impact of the subconscious can derail linear narrative; here we see how the enigmas of the body can do the same, but with one crucial difference. The subconscious packs the punch of crucial absence while corporeality packs the punch of enigmatic presence. There is feminism in the series pilot, but it is not rooted in the expression of neatly framed oppositions. Rather, feminism in Girls envelops us in a complex laughter at the parity of men and women in the arena of modern confusion.
As it progresses, episode 1.1 humorously and pointedly distinguishes itself from other shows about the lives of girls and women that are formulaically clear. In the “B” story, its distance from Sex and the City is made abundantly and hilariously explicit in the scene in which Jessa, home from her travels, arrives at her cousin Shoshonna’s apartment with her luggage, back in New York and set to stay temporarily as a guest. In welcoming Jessa, Shoshonna, a girl interested in a career in marketing, makes her first of many attempts to come of trying in vain to give her life the legibility of a consumer item. As the sophisticated Jessa tries to get from Shoshonna what a traveler needs when she has just arrived, something to eat and a place to settle in, Shoshonna gets lost in trying to give formulaic shape to the moment by profiling her relationship to Jessa using Sex and the City as her frame of reference. “You’re funny because you’re definitely like a Carrie with like some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair. It’s like a really good combination,” she tells Jessa, and she wants to tote up her own profile too. “I think I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but like sometimes, sometimes Samantha kind of comes out. I mean when I’m at school I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat.” Jessa clearly regards Shoshonna as a fool; while she styles herself as a cool, hip cosmopolite more “with it” and attuned to the wisdom of the body. While Shoshonna gets tangled up in her failing analogy, Jessa keeps grounding the conversation in material basics. Can I come in? Do you have something I can eat? But Jessa isn’t always in touch either. She is as lost in a world of bodies and minds as Shoshonna is, albeit with more panache, as becomes clear in future episodes and seasons.

The focus on male-female parity in the experiential chaos of bodies, ideas, and experience continues over the course of the series, expanding, deepening, and intensifying,but always leaving questions, not answers. Two vivid examples of the expansion over the seasons are “Beach House” 3.7, an episode about a weekend in the country organized by Marnie for the four girls, and “Home Birth,” 4.10, an episode about how Caroline Sackler (Gaby Hoffman), Adam’s mentally aberrant sister does through the most physical of experiences, giving birth; Shoshonna gets a job as a marketer in Japan; and Marnie is forced to go on as a single act when her partner in the act, also her fiance Desi Harperin (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), fails to show up at their scheduled gig.

“Beach House” is a particularly evocative depiction of the plight of middle class men and women plunged into the muddle of words and bodies. The beach house of the title is the location in which Marnie is hell bent on creating order out of what she sees as chaos. She feels the four friends have grown apart and she is particularly unhappy about her ruptured friendship with Hannah, who was very angry when she learned that her one time boyfriend, Elijah Krantz (Andrew Rannells)–who has turned out to be gay–has recently had sex with Marnie. The fluidity of Elijah’s and Marnie’s sexuality is humorously presented, as is the transition between avid interest and an encounter that is not satisfying to either of them. Certainly, there is also an unusually neutral, for sitcoms, perspective on the liminality of corporeal desire, its indeterminacy. And there is humor in Hannah’s unquenchable rage about a very confusing situation. But most humorous of all are the dynamics of mental and material energies.

Marnie’s formulaic plan to deal with the distance that has grown among the four girls—who may or may not be friend–is satirized in this episode. Marnie likes to organize life logically and beautifully if possible, and in “Beach House,” as always in the series, she makes us laugh with her determination to structure the weekend. As Marnie prepares for her friends’ arrival, she arranges flowers for each of the guest bedrooms and places them and hand written cards to identify room assignments; on the soundtrack we hear the non-diegetic strains of the kind of harpsichord music that is frequently used in movies based on Jane Austen novels, the misconstrued mother of domestic television comedy. As in standard TV sitcoms, Marnie’s preparation reduces the very complex Austen to simplistic ideas of patterned social manners and mores, and for a moment she feels she has the situation in hand. Gratified by the precision she has created, with chatelaine-like composure and style, she flings open french doors that lead to a balcony. She overlooks her domain. And then life takes over.

As soon as the girls arrive, all Marnie’s plans begin to fracture, slowly at first and then, as the day wears on, at warp speed. Marnie’s stylish expectations collide with fractious, irrepressible bodies, male and female. She responds by generating new patterns to impose and the response is more wild energy. As soon as the girls get into the house, they physically fight each other to take possession of the rooms, despite the organizational plan of the place cards. She is not the only one with abstract expectations, and nothing but disorder ensues, as they fight and grumble whether they are in a pool or on the beach, or food shopping. When they bicycle into town to get provisions, Hannah refuses to wear shoes or a cover up over her bathing suit, because, she insists, it’s a beach town. But it turns out that she’s barred from the food store for inappropriate clothing. Then, by chance, Elijah, his new gay lover, and two gay male friends, run into Hannah and she unalterably ruins Marnie’s plans by inviting them over to the beach house for dinner. There isn’t enough food for seven people.

Momentarily it seems that Marnie’s debacle of overly rigid planning brought on by Hannah’s anarchic rebellion—here we do have transgression—will be saved when Gerald (T. Oliver Reid), one of Elijah’s friends, who dances when he gets drunk, choreographs a dance number for the girls to the tune of Harry Nilsson’s “You’re Breakin’ My Heart,” a comical collision of lovelorn lyrics with exhilarating rhythm, and upbeat melody that contains its own self-parody: “You’re breakin’ my heart/You’re tearing it apart, boo hoo” and the even more parodic, “You’re breakin’ my heart/…So fuck you.” Gerald’s response to the mismatch is to go full throttle with campy, choreographic cliches. It works! The bodies of the four girls, now embraced by the looseness of the dance make hilarious corporeal meaning out of the song’s nonsense, and the evening seems to have renewed energy. Then Marnie gives her response, restoring rigidity by insisting they repeat and polish it until it is as perfect as it can be. All the energies in the girls revolt and the evening reverts to a rebellious disorder that tapes into all the girls’ simmering resentments of each other that have been brewing for the four seasons of the series. The recriminations lead to Shoshonna’s climactic tantrum. Shoshonna has spent the previous episodes desperately trying to curry favor with the three other girls, as she tries to fit their friendship into a pattern that she can feel makes life meaningful. Now she vents furiously, wondering “if my social anxiety is holding me back from meeting the people who would actually be right for me instead of a bunch of fucking, whining nothings as friends.” Marnie has put the finishing touches on the disaster through her misguided yearning for brittle, yes, formulaic order.

Or has she? The next morning, it is impossible to determine whether healing took place or not, but some indecipherable meaning has come out of the collisions of ideas and body that does not betoken reconciliation while it hints at ongoing connections. In the early light, the recently awakened girls move around in a strangely impersonal spirit of cooperation cleaning up the accumulated garbage of the evening. No one tries to take charge. No one gets in the way. Their bodies are all moving separately but almost as one. Then at the bus stop, waiting to go back to New York City, each staring straight ahead, a similar process takes place as they begin moving haltingly, but together through a series of spontaneous moves that they physically sense the others are doing rather than seeing and imitating them. And the episode is over. It’s a small comic gem that effectively critiques the idea of the transgressive female body that needs to be restrained and controlled—whether by men or other women.

By the time we get to The “Home Birth” episode, 4.10 we have seen enough of the discrepant multiple levels of mind and body to be ready for a modernist portrayal of the pregnant body as a privileged case of the mind/body dialogue. At the center of the episode, the fourth season finale, is Caroline Sackler’s body as she goes into labor. Caroline, who appears and disappears as the seasons unfold, is the manic depressive sister of Adam Sackler. Here, her labor process stands as an image of the murky yet exhilarating interface between body and mind when new situations—and what is newer than birth?–present themselves. Everyone in the episode is affected by the procreative shattering of old realities. In her own thread, Shoshonna isn’t sure whether to plunge into the unknown of Japan, when she receives an unexpected job offer from a company that, even more unexpectedly, will required her to live in Japan, decides to take on the challenge. In a third thread, Marnie’s professional partner and fiancé Desi, without explanation, fails to show up for a performance they are scheduled to give, jumps into the immediacy of the moment. The inauguration of her career as a solo performer.

This child is no harbinger of the purported bondage patriarchal culture places on women. Rather, childbirth becomes a renewal, a break in old patterns, a transformative event in which body and mind converse. It is the first of several major allusions in Girls to the transformative power of the female body that takes the place of the combative female body—women rebels like Amy Jelicoe and Jackie Peyton and also Xena, Warrior Princess, and Jessica Jones–in formulaic attempts at feminist narrative. As she goes into labor, Caroline articulates New Age fantasies about a kind and gentle welcome into the world for her baby at home, in a tub full of warm water, theoretically replicating the environment of the idyllic womb, and at the same time, her body speaks of a high risk breech birth—not so idyllic. The episode comically juggles the abstract romance of the idea of birth, and by extension ideas about the beginning of anything, and the physical reality of birth and all beginnings. In the story thread of Caroline’s birth adventure, the camera is trained unwaveringly on Caroline in the tub, as she chants and gives a running commentary on the ecstasies of birth, a perfect narrative she tells herself, that bears little relationship to the pain she is suffering.

She isn’t the only one avoiding experience of her body and of the uncertainty and wonder of birth. Hannah, Adam, and Hannah’s downstairs neighbor, Laird, the baby’s father, are all trying unsuccessfully to avoid looking at Caroline’s corporeal bulk, in labor, as the camera dares an arguably unwilling audience to avoid looking at it too. It is not a sexual spectacle, despite the explicitness of the visibility of the large breasts with large dark aureoles around the nipple, the visibility of Caroline’s abundant public hair, and the insistent movement of her torso. It is a naked body stripped of erotic seduction by its devotion to the hard work of birth and its need for help because the baby is dangerously in breech position. Caroline’s new age patter morphs into screaming as the body makes its points. Her birth plan dissipates. Nothing is left but the insistent, reality of her body, before which all of Caroline’s narratives are helpless.

Now the dialogue between body and mind turns dynamic because the birth is a cathartic moment of immediacy for Caroline and her friends and breaks open old habits of thinking. There is no abstract THE BABY, in the way that Lee Edelman theorizes procreation in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. In Edelman’s book, he argues abstractly that the way procreation is viewed in Western society is a damaging repressive way of tyrannizing the future. In Dunham’s series the rubber hits the road. Procreation is about bodies, and birth is a physical experience that propels the characters to leap creatively into the future out of their boxes. Specifically Jessa makes a sudden decision to study to become a therapist and Hannah, with equal immediacy, leaps into a new romantic relationship with Fran Parker (Jake Lacey), a fellow teacher at the school where she too is working. At the same time, Marnie and Shoshonna make their own leaps, to giving a solo performance and to accepting the job offer in Japan, respectively. The materiality of experience is the dancing partner of systems of thought in this series, not the subconscious.

But birth does not erase the confusions, paradoxes, and liminalities of modern life. Birth only creates a surge to an ongoing mind/body conversation. Caroline is a manic depressive. What is in store for this baby once the moment of birth, creating a sudden serenity for Caroline is past? Similarly, Jessa’s post-partum state of bliss and warm comaraderie which births her revelation to herself that her destiny is to be a therapist, Marnie’s solo performance, and Shoshonna’s decision do not bring about neat transformations. Jessa’s glow is already fading when Shoshonna tells her, “You’re going to be such a good therapist.” Jessa responds, “I know. You’re going to make a really great geisha.” Shoshonna’s Japanese idyll will not last, nor will Jessa find that she is meant to be a therapist. Marnie, who breaks an old pattern and gives a solo performance turns out to be a mediocre talent; she will go nowhere in the music business, it’s a physical triumph over fear and just for the moment.

Hannah’s afterbirth epiphany with Adam is perhaps the most intriguing of all. What happens when the rupture of old rigidities send people in opposite directions? In the after glow, Hannah and Adam, whose now ostensibly defunct relationship has left many loose ends, are alone staring into a bassinet at Caroline’s baby in the hospital nursery, and across it at each other. Adam now experiences a deep visceral regret that he terminated his relationship with Hannah and is certain that he made a mistake, as he once experienced a visceral certainty that he wanted a different woman. But Hannah’s body is telling her something else. She finds it unusually hard to speak; its all happening in her viscera. ‘I can’t,” she says. Instead, she jumps into a new relationship with Fran. But in the next season, Adam is in a hot romance with Jessa and Hannah literally runs screaming from Fran. Out of the vortex of birthing bodies, expectations, idyllic plans, and strong intimations of love, the art of Girls pulls a depiction of life as a comic continuum of disconnects–between discursive constructs and feelings and between the organic sensations of the body in time and space.

This sense of life’s vicissitudes is part of a larger picture that arises from many such brief interludes. Girls emerges with a new perspective on that central preoccupation of sitcoms, the mysteries of relationships which are more mysterious in Hannah’s world than ever. What can they mean in this funny, sad, traumatic, euphoric, inharmonious, rudderless universe?


There is no clear answer to this question in Girls. Rather, by depicting relationships as bewilderingly shifting and indeterminate, Girls works the territory of modern literature and thought, which suggests that human connections may in fact be stories we tell ourselves about a phantom we have named relationships. The most dramatic portrayal of the dubiousness of the “relationship story” in Girls is the break up of the twenty-five year marriage of Hannah’s parents. Although, they are initially the picture of mid-western (read all-American) conventionality, representative of the story of ordinary middle class marriage, the link between them thins out to a ghostly, unsubstantial apparition when Tad reveals that he is gay. His “story” of a stable marriage with Loreen is in conflict with his physical desires. There is a similar slippage in Marnie’s story threads because of her constant creation in her mind of stories about the men she intends to be involved with, which keep breaking down as she experiences disappointment and astonishment at their failure. Marnie is, for example, oblivious twice to the fact that the men with whom she fabricates romance and intimacy are drug addicted.

Everyone is telling a relationship story to everyone else. When they are “together” at the beginning of the series, and Hannah frequently wonders if she and Adam are a couple, but they keep trying to perpetuate the narrative, sometimes literally with role playing games. Similarly, the relationships among the girls often boil down to badly fitting stories. How this plays out on Girls constitutes a modernist redefinition of relationships on television sitcoms, laying bare the gap between stories we tell ourselves and reality. When they are a couple, Adam and Hannah literally compose their connection as a series of stories, engaging in role based on lurid pulp fiction cliches about sex and romance. Eventually, the stories dissipate and there is nothing. Jenna has her stories too: “I want to have children with many different men of different races,” she says. She marries Thomas-John (Chris O’Dowd) a very eccentric, very wealthy man she hardly knows with whom she has a lot of sex, and fantasies of idyllic, unconventional days together, but there is nothing binding them that engages that indefinable, mysterious corporeal energy that means relationship in Girls. She has the same kind of attraction toward Ace (Zachary Quinto), a hipster who fits her “outsider” self image, but that attraction too is a chimera.

Relationships among the main characters slip and slide, but the series does not encourage bitterness or sadistic laughter, but rather the sad, sweet, secret knowledge that we have all been there despite the persistence of our private mythologies about our personal associations. However, nowhere is the elusiveness of what it means to be in a relationship more tellingly depicted than in the digressive episodes, the ones in which one or two of the girls takes time off from slipping and sliding around the discontinuities of their usual associations to drift into a brief orbit with a passing stranger that are the most telling and revealing about modern confusions about the differences between phantom connections and solid bonds. Two of the most interesting of these digressions are “One Man’s Trash” 2.5, an atypically bittersweet episode about Hannah’s one night stand with an affluent doctor; and “Video Games,” 2.7, an atypically painful episode about Jessa’s family life.

In “One Man’s Trash,” 2.5, Hannah drifts away from the her usual circle of associates and into the apartment of a young, handsome, wealthy, kind doctor named Joshua (Patrick Wilson) a man whose house stands two blocks down the street from Grumpy’s, the coffee shop in which she is working temporarily. It’s a brief idyll that replicates the isolated relationships of formulaic television but defamiliarizes the anomalous disconnection from the flow of life that conventional sitcoms romanticize as coupledom. Joshua walks into Grumpy’s one day to complain to manager Ray Ploshansky that the coffee shop’s garbage is winding up in his garbage cans, leaving no room for his own refuse, and Ray behaves badly. He is combative with Joshua, a reasonable man seeking a neighborly discussion. In a grumpy tone that lives up the the name of the establishment, Ray blusters at Joshua, using obscenities and trying to intimidate him, to the effect that he has his own dumpster for his own garbage and that he has no time for what he is convinced is nonsense. Actually it isn’t. Hannah has been dumping the garbage at Joshua’s house. She does not tell Ray, but instead precipitously quits her job and shows up on Joshua’s front steps to admit her culpability and apologize, and he invites her in. She accepts the invitation from this stranger and stays overnight, the next day, and the next night in what turns out to be a strange, fleeting relationship laboratory. Hannah arrives on Joshua’s doorstep with almost no idea of why she has come, or why she walked two blocks to his trash bins from Grumpy’s instead of using the restaurant’s dumpster, or why she accepts his invitation to come into his home, knowing the danger of strangers. Joshua’s male model looks and his expensively furnished domain bring to Hannah’s mind the story of the infamous Ted Bundy. But she initiates sex with Joshua anyhow, and he doesn’t turn out to be a murderer of women, just a man who is, for not apparent reason, so completely responsive to Hannah’s overtures that he decides to skip his work the next day and stay with her in what has now become their bower of bliss, or why the connection dissolves silently after a couple of intimate days.

The lack of conventional motivation in this interlude is not a matter of bad writing. It is Hannah’s chance, and the show’s, to live out the rom-com, formulaic sitcom non-contextual coupledom that is not Girls. Hannah creates that chance out of some combination of the typical a story she is creating for herself, and the compulsion of corporeal desire. She romps around a beautiful house that Hannah herself describes as resembling the upper class heaven of a Nancy Meyers’ movie, drawing Joshua into a number of various roles as lover. What formula TV presents as the zenith of romance can only take place on Girls within brackets, and only briefly; this idyll will not last. Sergio Dias Branco has pointed out in “Situating Comedy: Inhabitation and Duration in classical American sitcoms,” that spatial brackets are part of the aesthetics of what I am calling formulaic sitcoms and create the definitions of relationships in those series’. For our purposes, Branco’s fascinating insight translates into another way we can understand how formulaic conventions limit possibilities and define relationships with clarity. The modernist aesthetics of Girls precludes that kind of bracketing. A bracketed relationship in Dunham’s series is possible only in minutes and hours as an anomaly, not the basic reality of modernist fiction. However, that said, the bracketed time Hannah and Josh spend together is a kind of relationship, and adds to the complexity of what relationship means in Girls, as it tantalizes us with a phantom appearance of an old, familiar romance cliche.

As it turns out, before it dissipates, Hannah’s attachment to a beautiful man in a beautiful apartment only leads to her experience of her deep loneliness within patterns culture has idealized and to impel her to drift away, after throwing out Joshua’s garbage in his garbage bin. The episode is there to raise questions about the formulaic romantic idyll in Joshua’s beautiful brownstone, not to answer them. And, like Hannah, we have emerged with only questions and a sense of detachment.

The funny paradoxes of connection/disconnection in Girls are pushed to reveal the tragedy that underlies all comedy in “Video Games,” 2.7, which takes place entirely in rural upstate New York, where Jessa has taken Hannah on a trip to visit her father Salvatore Johansson (Ben Mendelsohn), his new girl friend, Petula (Rosanna Arquette), and her teenaged son Frank (Nick Lashaway). As a family visit, it is a painful study in the bizarrely phantom nature of domestic bonding. Most of the episode consists of moments when Johansson is not there. He is very late to pick the girls up from the train station; he goes to a lecture with Petula that night instead of staying with his daughter whom he rarely sees; and when the next day he convinces Jessa to stay for the next night, he drives her and Hannah to a grocery store to get food for the meal he tells Jessa he will cook for her, sends the girls in buy the food, and then disappears completely from the episode. His corporeal absence is juxtaposed with brief bursts of his verbal declarations of awe at his daughter’s beauty, brief moments of repartee the two share, and sudden emotional accusations they level at each other of abandonment.

The core of this episode is the dialogue of detachment that arises from the collision of verbiage and body an paradox underscored by the moment when Petula tells Hannah she thinks that daily life has all the insubstantiality of a video game, and behaves in exactly that way. She is right, of course, in describing her life with Jessa’s father and Jessa’s experience of being his daughter. Yet the video game sense of family life is also repeated between Hannah and her parents at the end of the episode when Jessa abandons Hannah completely, disappearing and leaving Hannah to find her way home by herself. As Hannah waits disconsolately at the station for a train, suffering the sharp pain of an advanced urinary infection, she calls her parents to ground herself and tries to express her gratitude for the way they have loved and protected her, but this provokes Loreen’s suspicions that Hannah is trying to manipulate her with fulsome praise. Her body is painfully present, her family bonds elusive. Is it the phone? Would physical presence that would have involved a context Hannah shared with her parents have made a difference?

The interplay that goes into making family disconnection, so intensely depicted in “Video Games,” is revealed in varying degrees of pathos throughout the series. Marnie’s divorced mother is distracted by her desire to relive her flaming youth while Marnie is most in need of motherly support. Similarly, Shoshonna’s divorced parents, glimpsed only briefly when Shoshonna is picking up her diploma from New York University, are so pre-occupied with continuing the battles that broke their marriage that Shoshonna is barely visible to them, either as a new graduate or a daughter. When Tad Horvath decides to own up to his homosexuality, the conventional parental role he had with Hannah virtually dissolves and Tad is consumed by experimenting with new found honesty about his sexuality while Loreen is filled with self-pity and terror about the future. Her fear and melancholy become so dire that when, in the sixth season, in a drunken stupor, when Hannah tells her that she is pregnant, Loreen tells her daughter that every time she looks at her grandchild’s face she will see her own death (in 6.5, “Gummies”) What does the parental bond mean as families fragment and devolve into individual units? Is family, despite its blood ties, too only a story?

Completing its spectrum of relationship Girls also depicts the comedy of over energetic conversations between mind-body connection in “I Love you Baby,” 5.10. Hannah is now suffering as a witness to the story of Adam and Jessa that is in full swing, as Loreen and Tod are suffering from the dissipation of their marriage story. Hannah turns her jealousy into an actual narrative, which she tells at the Moth, a club that features competitions for writers. Ironically, while Hannah is struggling through her anger and Loreen andTod are playing out their confusion about a connection being thinned to nothingness, behind Adam and Jessa’s apartment door, their grand passion is reduced to an uncontrolled the clash between ideas about coupledom and corporeal rebellion against them. Adam and Jessa’s initial low level bickering about anything and everything that presents itself from feeding Caroline’s baby to the triangle with Hannah escalates to yelling that becomes an orgy of throwing things. The wild and enigmatic nature of the brawl is emphasized by a visual allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining when Adam breaks through the wood of a locked door behind which Jessa is hiding from him, and he snarls through the hole, as Jack Nicholson’s maniacal, demonically possessed Johnny.

That image is funny here, albeit bordering on frightening, because the allusion to Kubrick’s great horror film resonates only too well with what has been misunderstood by formulaic sitcoms as the zenith of romance. What is a bizarre exception to normality in The Shining exists on Girls, as little more than an extreme aspect of ordinary relationships at their most passionate extreme. The mystery of Adam and Jessa’s relationship is what endures in the final image of their fight, as they end up naked on the floor, the apartment filled with wreckage around them, completely drained of energy, they are not free, only corporeally unable to either continue the fight or get away from each other. The wreckage is the physical evidence of their connection in a world in which connection, for all the words exchanged, is so difficult to name or analyze. Juxtaposed to these main threads of 5.10 is a collateral thread about Marnie’s absurd stories about her so-called primary romantic relationship with Desi, her partner in a music act that is about to go on tour, and her now and then relationship with Ray, her go-to relief from her sexual and professional battles with Desi. When last we see them in this episode, Ray is serving as a battering ram for Marnie, banging on the door behind which Desi is being fellated by a groupie he has only met a couple of hours before, and bellowing for Desi to open the door so Marnie can get her open toed shoes for the performance. As usual, Marnie’s relationship narratives are at odds with her life.

The episode is also sprinkled with cameos of two pairs of people happy in their companionship, who have no history and no future. Shoshonna and Hermie (Colin Quinn), Ray’s good natured, middle aged business partner in a new coffee house called Ray’s Place, are closing up the shop; it is after hours, and they break into a carefree dance with each other, filled with joy and momentary pleasure because they are not dealing with the expectations of a relationship. Similarly, Loreen and Elijah, uproariously drinking beer together on the street, after Hannah’s reading at Moth, are filled with laughter and comraderie as they joke about their non-relationship. Whatever relationship may be it is complicated and beyond the controls assumed by formulaic sitcoms.

The ironic summation of the episode is in a final montage for which the soundtrack music is “I Love you Baby.” With its bright, bouncy, infectious melodic celebration of the ecstasy of love, it contrasts so starkly with what we are shown of relationships and at the same time ironically seems more compatible with those pairings that are barely relationships at all. The song reiterates the cultural story about the bliss of coupledom, and parenthood, while the episode events suggest that life is a twilight zone and that kind of defined elan is a story that culture tells itself. That kind of light hearted joie de vivre only exists in the flesh in moments between people, preferably moments between people who are not involved.

Girls poses question in each episode about how people connect to ask with a comic insouciance “what is a relationship?”; “What do we think they are?” and “What bodily experience do we have of them?” And these are serious questions, especially in a fictional universe in which relationships and love are almost all that seem to matter, and are all but impossible. This makes Dunham’s vision inherently the most scandalous and radical of all of the visions of the auteurs we have studied, none of whom question the very notion of human love and connection despite the troubled relationships they depict. These questions lead to others, about what we glean from the seemingly inexplicable nature of experience. Dunham’s equivocal laughter about middle class life extends to questions about whether we can, under these circumstances, learn and mature as characters do so neatly in pre-Peaks domestic comedies.


Is maturity also a story we tell ourselves? In the comic world of Girls, it would seem to be. In Hannah’s world, to be an adult does not equate with wisdom, responsibility and the rational management of life that formulaic sitcoms have identified with satisfactory maturity, but rather with lengthier experience of the complexity and/or impossibility of relationships. The middle class characters depicted in Girls of whatever age begin and remain an atomized lot. Age and experience seem to yield little but recurring instances of misbegotten stories told and retold with deepening pain, as in Jessa’s experience with her father. Experience doesn’t improve Marnie’s relationship stories either. Charlie, her first boyfriend, who was overly solicitous of Marnie’s approval when they were together does go on to become a successful businessman after they break up, but if personal growth seemed to be indicated, it all collapses into confusion again. When we last see him, he is living the life of a dissolute drug addict. Marnie’s next serious boyfriend, Desi, is a drug addict for the entire time they are together, a problem he successfully hides from until a final confrontation, and from which he can not extricate himself. Loreen’s seemingly stable mature identity as a professional woman, a wife and a mother cracks when the reality of her ignorance of Tad’s homosexuality shatters the image. When the series concludes we are left with unanswered questions about whether anyone has grown, matured, and/or found some kind of sense to life.

The “Goodbye Tour,” 6.9 and “Latching,” 6.10, form a two-tiered denouement for the series with a double layer of comedy about the possibility of growth, development, and maturation. In 6.9, Hannah says goodbye to New York City, contemplating her move to a teaching position at a college in upstate New York, and we say goodbye to the four girls as they meet at Shoshonna’s engagement party. In 6.10, Hannah has her first successful connection–to her newborn baby, a success qualified by everything we know of this fictional universe.

When last we see the four girls together, in 6.9, they are at odds with each other, as usual. Some things have changed among them; some have not, but only questions remain as to whether we can call the changes maturity. Shoshonna has made her leap away from Hannah, Jessa, and Marnie, and is engaged to marry the respectable looking Byron Long, whom neither the audience nor the other girls know. Shoshonna is poised to enter what she calls, in her distinctive way, the world of ”pretty girls, with purses, and good personalities”–or the world of public order as Shoshonna understands it, the world as it is presented in formula sitcoms—and leave what she perceives as the shambles of lives that Marnie, Jessa, and Hannah are leading.

In any formulaic sitcom, marriages are happy endings and Shoshonna, as the one core girl who has attained middle class marriage would, in a story product sitcom, represent maturity. Here she raises as many questions with her impending spur of the moment marriage as the other girls do as they continue to blunder around their single lives. In fact, Jessa and Hannah display new capacities for empathy as they make strides past the rupture in their friendship; past Jessa’s illusions about herself as the arbiter of how things are; and past Hannah’s judgmental condemnation of Jessa. On the other hand, Marnie remains stuck in her stories that have never served her life, as she swans around at the party as the center of a group of admiring men and herds Jessa, Hannah, and Shoshonna into the bathroom in one more futile attempt to make them talk out their differences. It doesn’t work.

But, as in “Beach House,” there are food and adult beverages at Shoshonna’s party and most of all there is dancing, the corporeally anchored vehicle of choice in Girls for communication, at odds though it may be with verbal conversation. In the final moments of the episode, we viewers watch the blur of the girls’ bodies as they dance, alone, together, with people we don’t know. As the camera moves away, we watch through the windows, as they all become smaller and part of a much bigger picture. With the characters all on the brink of finding new directions and connections, not necessarily what they expected, but still open to possibilities, Girls makes a penultimate summation of this world at this party, the last time the four girls will be together.

The final closure occurs in “Latching,” 6.10, the last episode of the series, where there are signs that experience may opens channels of receptivity to a sense of problems we all share that passes for a kind of maturation. At the beginning of “Latching,” Hannah is a single mother, who, characteristically for her, lashes out at anyone who tries to support her, including Loreen, because no one plays the correct role in the stories she tells herself about motherhood in general and breastfeeding in particular. However, unlike in previous episodes, Loreen does not go on a counter attack, but rather expresses a fellow feeling for Hannah and for all other human beings. “You know who else is suffering?” she asks. “Who?” asks Hannah. “Fucking everyone,” answers Loreen, unsentimentally, but compassionately. Loreen is opening empathetically. By the end of the episode, Hannah too moves in that direction. It is the flowering of maturity as the modernist storyteller of Girls imagines it.

Like her mother, Hannah has come a long way from where she began as a spoiled, over-privileged young woman, with few responsibilities, and less concern for any responsibility she might undertake. She has failed at every job she tries in the early seasons once her parents took away their financial support, and she fails at the writer’s program at the University of Iowa. When she decides to be a teacher, what she can give plays no part in the decision, as she gleefully announces. If those who can do do and those and those who can’t teach, since she can’t do she will teach. She gets a job at a private high school, St. Justine’s, for which she needs neither certification nor educational credentials. During her tenure there, she is unprofessional and irresponsible, by rational standards. She abandons her classes on impulse and barges into the classroom of another teacher, Fran Parker, her boyfriend of the moment, while he is teaching, for the same reason. She blatantly treats Cleo (Maude Apatow), one of her students, as a personal confidant, as if the two of them were peers, openly discussing personal matters with her and with others both in class and in the hallways. She chafes at the professional limits and expectations that require preparation of class material and equal treatment of students, blatantly playing favorites and venturing opinions on literature she hasn’t read in years.

Her immaturity is hilarious but egregious, particularly when during her break one day, she and Cleo go to a tattoo parlor intending to get friendship piercings of their frenums and engineers it so that Cleo goes first as a guinea pig. When Hannah sees how painful the piercing process is, she backs out without giving a single thought to the way she has used a girl who is supposed to be in her care. And during a conversation in the office of Principal Toby (Douglas McGrath), when he is gently critical of her behavior, she flashes him a glimpse of her unpantied crotch to disconcert him, in a moment that recalls the infamous interrogation scene between Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and suspected serial killer Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct (1992)–the definitive backlash film of the 1990’s against the progress made by feminists in the 1980’s. The allusion stands as a hilarious, if hyperbolic, comparison between one of the most sexist images of a pathological movie seductress and Hannah’s effect on St. Justine’s. Yet the resemblance implicates the public realm in its own confusions when Principal Toby is genuinely unhappy when Hannah decides that St. Justine’s is not for her and resigns her post, just as Nick Curran is drawn to Catherine despite the mounting evidence that she is a murderess. There is no hard and fast line between personal immaturity and immaturity in the public domain in Girls, where the momentary immediacy of the body weighs equally in the scale with the phantom like quality of rational judgment. Whether this is good or bad is not the point in this series. These are the realities of people in positions of responsibility who are supposed to be mature and in charge.

In season 6, questions about maturity revolve, to a large extent, around Hannah’s motherhood and they sum up everything that has happened in the series. Her pregnancy is the result of promiscuity, which Adam tries unsuccessfully to redeem by building around Hannah and her baby a middle class narrative of love, marriage, and parenthood. Yet a real connection is the result of Hannah’s evasion of the grip of what sitcoms misunderstand as stability. In 6.1 “All I Ever Wanted,” Hannah slides into a relationship of sorts with a likeable drifter named Paul-Luis (Riz Ahmed) as a result of which she becomes pregnant, and in 6.8,“What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” 6.8, she is unable to revisit the possibility of relationship with Adam who is suddenly possessed by a need to explore his lingering feelings for Hannah and help her raise her fatherless baby. In 6.10, she is swept up in feelings of disconnection from her own child. By the time the baby arrives, he is already in over his head in ambiguous disconnected connections.

In 6.1, Hannah spends several days with Paul-Louis, who is in charge of teaching surfing at a surf camp because she is on assignment from a trendy online publication named Slag Mag to write about his rich, bored female patrons. This interlude is somewhat reminiscent of her time with Joshua in “One Man’s Trash,” both of them inescapably temporary hiatuses. But with time come differences in the two adventures. Hannah emerges more disconnected than ever from Joshua’s consumerist paradise. Paul-Louis by contrast immerses Hannah in connection, but not with him, but rather with a conscious appreciation of the body of the world, the magnificence of the ocean, and a philosophy of pleasure in experience that finds it easier to love than to hate. However, that vision of connection is embodied in her pregnancy with his baby. The series does not overlook the symmetries and asymmetries of the two discontinuous interludes in her life. Hannah is surprised to find that Joshua is the doctor assigned to her at the emergency room to which Hannah goes because of a painful urinary infection who reveals to her that she is pregnant.

Adam’s decision to help Hannah raise her baby and her surprised openness to his overtures are the last gasp of Hannah and Adam’s sitcom storytelling. also a blur of irrelevant ideas, and the moment to moment passions of the body that abruptly terminate his relationship to Jessa and equally abruptly initiate a reprise of his relationship with Hannah. Unlike in the formula sit com which thrives on such fantasies, the Hannah-Adam idyll is revealed for the impossibility it is by Dunham’s vision of reality in her fictional universe. Hannah and Adam tenderly have sex and stroll blissfully in Brooklyn and begin to shop for the baby. All sweet and indisputably present moments. Moreover, the scenes seem to embody what formulaically passes for mature, responsible behavior and the promise of a happy forevermore. But it’s all just a formulaic story that, like Hannah’s idyl with Josh cannot withstand the flow of reality.

Reality hits when Hannah’s mouth begins to quiver and her eyes to water. Not a single word passes between them about the realization rising within her, unbidden, that they have reached the outer limits of a fantasy. Adam knows it too once he sees her body language. This cannot go forward. After six seasons of bodies floundering, staggering, blundering, we see some young green shoots of wisdom arising in Hannah and Adam from those same bodies, a wisdom that the mind belatedly recognizes, much in the mode of models of behavior evolved by neuroscience which maps out human knowledge as a message that passes from body to mind. Here it happens after time and experience. It is some kind of maturity. There is a recognition of the emptiness of the seemingly appropriate words. But that recognition leaves a void. What will Hannah do as a mother?

The question is and is not answered in “Latching,” 6.10. Hannah, now confronted with a real child, is still caught between her ever shifting stories about how things are and her visceral impulses. She is having trouble breast feeding Grover, her baby boy. The frustration leads to her lashing out in frustration verbally and physically, as she did when we first met her. It would seem that no development has taken place. She is dictatorial with Marnie and contemptuous of her mother, who have both come at some inconvenience to them to help her with Grover, in her new house in upstate New York where she has been given an appointment in a small college. Storming out of the house after an argument with her mother, she leaves Grover unceremoniously and irresponsibly with Loreen and Marnie. It’s Hannah’s ongoing immaturity–until she comes face to face with a mirror image of herself.

By chance, on the road Hannah meets a nameless, crying teenager (Rubyrose Hill), who isn’t wearing pants or shoes. Hannah makes no effort to find out what is happening, but rather immediately enmeshes her in a story of her own invention. She unquestioningly spins a formulaic story around the girl about her putative escape from an abusive home from which she must be rescued. After giving the girl her own jeans and shoes, leaving Hannah in the bad position in which she found the girl, Hannah receives a shock when she discovers the girl has stormed out of her house, in a tantrum, because her mother has insisted she do her homework before she goes to see her boyfriend. She is an ordinary, immature teenager, as Hannah was and still is to some extent, now stripped of pants and shoes, walking a road in of her new home town. An anonymous policeman pulls up next to her in a police car, asking the usual police questions, but seeming to understand, inexplicably and comically, this bizarre spectacle when she tells him she has just had a baby.

The collision between Hannah’s mental cliches, her physical plight, and the understanding of the communal representative, the policeman yields embodied meaning and transformation. There is no discussion of the change, but Hannah reaches a new point in her conversation with life, maturity, and relationship. Walking onto the porch of her new home, she, Manie and Loreen all hear Grover cry, and Hannah refuses their their help, but goes to him herself. As Marnie and Loreen each contemplate their futures on the porch, Grover latches on to Hannah’s breast. We don’t see him do it; we see only the look on Hannah’s face of surprise and pleasure and then we hear his contented gurgling over a black screen as Hannah murmurs and sings to him. 8 The inconclusive but thoughtful conversation between Loreen and Marnie is the acme of their maturity in this series. Hannah’s patient nursing of Grover is her zenith. In this fictional world where there the flow of life is both physically and mentally chaotic, they have made significant progress.


Girls gives new meaning to “the world spins” through its auteur revisioning of the sitcom narrative. Relationships are highlighted as cultural spin about connection and disconnection. Experience highlights the spin about maturity. The series also responds to the spin that passes for feminism in the mass media. Feminism as usually narrated only in terms of systems and rebellion is too removed from the mind-body dialogue that is reality in Dunham’s series. Standard feminist concepts abound in Girls, but, as we shall explore below, they are thin and comical in contrast to the final images of Hannah, Marnie, and Loreen dealing with themselves, each other, and Grover.

Here it is necessary to make a distinction between Dunham as storyteller and Dunham as feminist activist, which are two different domains for her. And here again this study departs from the bulk of current discussion of Dunham which is undertaken in a way that makes her life the paratext of her work. However, I would like to suggest a crucial difference that suggests that the elision of Dunham’s life and work is limited in its usefulness in illuminating Girls. Dunham’s well known and publicly documented controversial and much criticized activism is sharply defined as to her political goals. Dunham as storyteller, as artist, is in a different position. As the creator of Girls, Dunham is a complex observer of women’s lives. Dunham’s instinct to use the bodies of her characters centrally to depict who they are and how they and everyone exceed the limits of social discourse and organization, of course means that female and male self-assertion alike will be prone to comic confusion. Art is incompatible with the logical linearity of propaganda; political action requires a logically coherent linear agenda. These are unreconcilable differences. Demanding that the pieces fit together is a regressive position that modern frameworks of thought we have alluded to in this study has exploded. Dunham’s art is simply not a piece with her activism, and her activism is not material to this study. Her feminism in Girls is.

Dunham’s art in Girls has resulted in narrative that makes fun of the traps we can fall into if we reduce feminism to slogans and marching orders. This is true and funny when Hannah uses half baked feminist dogma only for her own selfish purposes in the earlier seasons. It is even truer and more comic in in the final season of the series as Hannah moves out into the world and into a more far reaching domain of reductionist dogma. We can get a handle on how the last season takes comic pleasure in its satire of simplistic feminism if we look at three funny and disturbing scenes relating to Hannah’s career in in 6.1, “All I Ever Wanted” in 6.3, “American Bitch,” and in 6.9, “Goodbye Tour. In 6.1, Hannah is interviewed and immediately hired by Chelsea (Chelsea Peretti), an editor at Slag Mag to write an article about a surf camp. In 6.3, Hannah interviews Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), an author she has admired but who has been accused in print by a number of women of being a sexual predator. In 6.9, “Goodbye Tour,” Hannah is interviewed and hired on the spot by the department chair of a small college, a woman with the ominous name of Phaedra (Ann Dowd), the doomed incestuous stepmother of Ancient Greek mythology.

The “interview” scenes make us giggle at numerous shifts between an older model of obliviously self-centered, bumptious Hannah not yet fully dead and a new model of savvy, more focused Hannah not yet fully born. They also satirize the rise of an old girls network as skewed and foolish as the old boys network of the pre-women’s lib days, particularly the episode in which Hannah interviews a fictional famous author, Chuck Palmer. Hannah is shakily making her way as a feminist, but only two cheers for female liberation. Feminists too are embroiled comically in a confusing mind/body dialogue.

In 6.1, Chelsea’s enthusiasm about Hannah as a writer for Slag Mag thrills Hannah, but raises all kinds of alarm bells. Chelsea may be willing to go all out to support her sister writers, but, to put it mildly, she is not a responsible journalist, nor does she bode well for women in the profession. The interview is funny, but also troubling as we watch Hannah jump through hoops for Chelsea, who expresses a voyeuristic, puerile enthusiasm for the story Hannah published based on the Hannah-Jessa-Adam triangle, which Hannah. Chelsea displays no understanding that Hannah regards her article as a deeply felt discussion of emotional complexities. Chelsea also upholds no journalistic standards, blithely ignoring the first rule of responsible reporting: objectivity. Chelsea tells Hannah what to say about the surf camp that neither of them has yet seen. Hannah jumps right on board. She wants the assignment. Chelsea’s feminism is everything Girls mocks; it is everything that sexist authorities have been accused of; it complicates Hannah’s success by embroiling her in the kind of dissociated storytelling that has been discredited in every episode of the series.

Something similar happens in 6.9, during Hannah’s interview with Phaedra. Middle aged Phaedra wants to energize her department with the energy of, as she puts it, “young cock” and the amazing vitality of young mothers and pregnant women, and she is interviewing for a faculty member who can bring that energy to teaching students about the Internet. Sold on pregnant Hannah as soon as she walks in the door, Phaedra reverses the long standing prejudices against women in hiring practices, but is her enthusiasm for Hannah really progress? Indeed her groundless decision to hire Hannah for her pregnant belly and her breast made fuller by the pregnancy is appallingly funny. Hannah has no credentials. She has neither any advanced degrees, any publishing record, or any teaching experience. Too much uncritical sisterhood makes for a very undistinguished moment in feminist history.

But the plight of doctrinaire feminism in an indeterminate world of minds and bodies is most piercingly presented in “American Bitch,” when Hannah interviews Chuck Palmer, a highly successful author with charisma to spare. Hannah’s arrival in Palmer’s beautiful apartment has some echoes of her first look at Joshua’s apartment in “One Man’s Trash.” In both cases, she is already seduced before the action begins by the wealth that passes for satisfaction in materialist America. She leaves Joshua with many questions about what relationships are to her. She leaves Chuck’s apartment, as we do, with many questions about what feminism is to her and us.

When Hannah arrives, she announces to Chuck that she appalled by recent claims by many women that he sexually molested them, and spouts a fairly standard feminist doctrine about abuse and non-consensual sexual touching is abuse, with which most in the audience will be in agreement. The episode then, in a darkly comic mode, destroys the concept of clarity about what it means to give consent, as Palmer administers a lesson in the complexities of corporeal experience of sexism. It isn’t clear whether his “lesson” is pre-meditated, but Jenni Konner, the executive producer of the series, has expressed a belief that it is unlikely to be. Unlikely. And the episode suggests that she is accurate. There are questions about his behavior and Hannah’s behavior rather than certainties.

After Chuck listens politely to Hannah’s ideas, she relaxes and he has no trouble leading her to his bedroom as they engage in literary conversation. He’s got a signed first edition of Phillip Roth’s Good-bye Columbus, originally titled American Bitch, that he would like to show her, and of which he spontaneously makes a present to her. A thrilled Hannah literally clasps the book to her bosom. Then, in an affectless tone, Chuck asks her to lie down on his bed with him and to keep her clothes on. He pompously tells her he just wants to maintain the proper boundaries but also feel close to someone at this moment. She lies down next to him and he pulls his penis out of his pants so that it rests on her thigh. She looks down to see it, pink against her back stretch pants, and touches it without any invitation from him, surprised to find herself doing so but proceeding anyway, only to pull back in alarm and throw Roth’s book away from her.

The question of consent is now fiercely in play, and it is never to be comfortably resolved. Is Hannah manifesting some kind of hard wiring in women that instantly provides service when men “take care” of us? Or is it some kind of social conditioning to the same effect? What, if any, of the events in Chuck’s bedroom were consensual? Existing on two levels of mind and body, that rarely coordinate, the innate behavior of the characters in Girls is almost always at odds with ideas as ideas are at odds with bodies. At that point Chuck’s adorable daughter arrives and Hannah’s feminist outrage is further complicated by her observation that love for his daughter radiates out of every pore in Chuck’s body. Are we in the presence of Lee Edelman’s THE CHILD syndrome? Dubious, as it is Chuck who is subdued, rather than empowered. It is Hannah whose doors of perception are opened. As Hannah drifts out of the apartment, while Chuck obliviously is involved with his daughter, Hannah looks behind her and sees a long line of women at Chuck’s door, women of all descriptions, the only moment in the series when a visionary, surrealist image is employed. It’s an important moment that I would contend defines the central character of Girls as a feminist fable. Instead of concluding with a familiar indictment of Palmer, as a sexist, the episode removes us to the plane of imagination and asks us to contemplate a broadly as possible rather than to judge gender relations.

Men, women, abuse, consent. Hannah is lost. Her body has been violated; this much is clear to her. But, as is typical of the series, Hannah has no conceptual, logical, discursive clarity about whether she consented to it or how Palmer feels about female persons. This is an important part of the feminism of Girls, Hannah arrives at her own inner analysis of the relationship between what passes for standard feminism and the experience she has, anchored in her body, of male authority and power. This is not activist Lena Dunham speaking, it is contemplative Lena Dunham, the storyteller, who takes the opportunity of the art of her sitcom to plunge into the complexity of the ideas that she more simply cleaves to in the world of action. Should we laugh or cry at the spectacle of Hannah’s interview with Chuck? The incongruity of that very pink penis suddenly draped over her black clad thigh joins the comedy in Girls of the failure of families, the dumbing down of social discourse, the collapse of language, the chaotic notions about what relationship means, and the tragi-c0mic possibility that no one actually ever matures. Chuck Palmer is a ruling patriarch, but in the end there is the comic reality of Chuck’s divided identity because of his daughter. This is Dunham’s comic take on what Lee Edelman envisioned tragically as the procreativity that cements the tyranny of patriarchy.

In Laura Mulvey’s “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and narrative Cinema,” the groundbreaking mother of feminist film criticism identifies as the quintessential female tragedy the death of Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) in Duel in The Sun, because she is unable to establish a stable identity in a hierarchal patriarchal world. In Lena Dunham’s comic televisual vision, Pearl would just be one of the befuddled guests dancing at Shoshonna’s engagement party, or one of the crowd of “American bitches” Hannah imagines converging on Chuck Palmer’s apartment. Because in the groundbreaking modernist television of Girls‘ feminist auteur, you know who can’t establish a stable identity? In Loreen Horvath’s comically mournful words, “Fucking everyone!”

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