HBO’s Girls and the Good Life: Anticipating Season 3

An introduction to weekly episode coverage of season 3 of HBO’s hit series Girls, forthcoming from Jon Catlin on The Airspace

Eagerly awaiting the third season of HBO’s Girls (which comes out Sunday, January 12), I’ve been thinking more seriously about the series and what it has to offer twenty-something viewers like myself. Someone who grew up watching a lot of television, I’ve never watched more than one complete season of any show other than Girls as an adult. About halfway through most series seasons, it occurs to me that it’s just television, and that it’s wasting my time. So how is a TV-hater like myself so drawn to this series in particular? More importantly, why do I think it’s worth writing about every episode in the coming season, as I will do here on The Airspace. As I will go into below, I think Girls is an excellent starting point for discussion of many live issues, but especially two tropes synonymous in almost all other television shows: sex and happiness. Inspired by several philosophers, but especially Michel Foucault, I have come to see Girls as one of the rare places where sex and happiness, often represented as inseparable—what everyone wants as part of the American Dream—are instead divorced and perpetually put into question.

The series has been praised and bashed in almost equal part by writers all over the Internet. I think Girls’s greatness is most evident in the scope of writing it has provoked, especially on Generation Y’s new valuations of sex and work. I won’t defend the uniqueness of Generation Y compared to any other, or Girls to television generally; each generation has its own cultural movement and corresponding television show. But Girls writer Lena Dunham (who also plays the show’s protagonist Hannah) explicitly wrote the show attempting to explore the struggles of this generation. We can say that Generation Y is the generation of student loans, graduating college during the recession, in the age of the Internet. The factors combine to alter generationally received conceptions of how to romance, and how to live more broadly. The show has been criticized for reflecting only an elite corner of this Generation Y: white (especially in the first season), elite-college-educated (the Girls cast on the show and in reality met at Oberlin), and privileged (obviously) girls living in a bougie urban place like Brooklyn (also where Dunham moved after college, by the way). These are the simple realities of the author’s biography, and so many others like her—the identifiable group who paid a fortune for an elite college education and has little more to show for it than a couple of fairy tale tattoos several years out. Regardless of whether these conditions apply to us, we can learn much from watching how these four young women navigate their world—however much they mess up along the way.

Girls and Sex and the City

In the very first episode of Girls, Shoshanna points out a poster on her bedroom wall to her new roommate Jessa. Asked, “Don’t you just love it?!” by an overeager Shoshanna, Jessa responds that “Sorry, I’ve never heard of that movie,” much to Shoshanna’s disappointment. It’s no mistake that this happens in the very first minutes of the series. Dunham wanted to create a show that embodied the weight of the real lives the fabulous four of Sex and the City lived, but with a lot more reality and a lot less glamor. Instead of Sex and the City’s successful women—the lawyer, the art dealer, the writer, and the publicist—Girls gives us the girls who may or may not ever achieve that kind of success: the student, the art gallery attendant, the failed ebook writer, and the traveling artist. But I want to suggest is that they aren’t just failing to live up to Sex and the City’s ambitions. Rather, these girls may not even want those lives. Success, marriage, and happiness itself remain questions for each of the girls. While by the end of the second season, Shoshanna and Marnie seem on something like the Sex and the City track, Jessa and Hannah are anything but.

As critic Elaine Blaire distinguishes the two shows:

Sex and the City trades in coarse satirical categories; everything that happens to the main characters turns out to be an example of some contemporary social or sexual phenomenon, every man or woman they meet is caught, chloroformed, pinned, and labeled as a particular urban type. Girls, on the other hand, shows a young woman deep under the influence of coarse categories. [1]

This coarseness is a compliment to Dunham’s ability to write complex characters. While we may not identify with any of the girls because each has such unflattering moments and many flaws, this is the reality of real people. The trick of Sex and the City is that you can see yourself in each woman, which stops you from thinking beyond those categories. Shoshanna is stuck in this web of narrow categories. The most sophisticated way she describes herself in the show is in the first episode, to Jessa of all people: “I think I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes”—her smile widens—“sometimes Samantha kind of comes out.” She then hastily adds, “And then I mean when I’m at school I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat.” This urge to label everything, as per Sex and the City, is an obsession of our culture and especially women’s magazines, with their endless personality quizzes promising the truth to easy sex and what kind of man you’ll end up with.

Hannah says that her writerly personality has led her to value having and taking up everyone else’s experiences at the expense of her own success. Jessa tells us that she’s come from such an unstable family that she’s gotten used to taking everyone elses’s shit. These two characters experience only brief moments of happiness in the series, and don’t have Shoshanna’s young age or Marnie’s competence to fall back upon. When they fall, they fall hard; season 2 ended with Hannah cutting all her hair off and rupturing both of her eardrums due to OCD, and a newly divorced Jessa nowhere to be found. Obviously, these characters would rather not have been in these truly depressed states. This is not their idea of success, but I don’t think it’s fair to call their falls complete failures either. In their career and romantic failures, these characters are most themselves, just the way Marnie and Shoshanna are most themselves on the tracks to success and relationships. It’s undeniable that after watching the first two seasons, Hannah and Jessa don’t simply want to be Marnie and Shoshanna, however much they may envy their happiness at some points. I think we can say of both of them that they are living their lives with a view to something other than happiness. They repeatedly make the same mistakes, but that doesn’t mean that the floundering characters we see aren’t their true selves, the people they want to be.

The place where this speaks clearest is in Hannah’s attitude in the final scene of season 1. Marnie has just told Hannah she’s moving out. She has plenty to be worried about: she’s working a dead-end job at a coffee shop, she just found out her now-gay ex-boyfriend Elijah gave her HPV, and her friend Jessa has just gotten hastily married. After hearing Adam say that they’re “in it for the long haul,” Hannah shuts him down by deciding he can’t move in with her. She bashes the relationship cult of Marnie and Shoshanna: “Your relationship is not a thing. Your relationship is not an achievement. I’ve got actual things I would like to achieve before I focus on that.” Adam freaks out: “You chase me like I’m the fucking Beatles for six months and when I finally get comfortable you shrug?” Hannah confesses that she has no idea what she wants. She’s terrified of everything and doesn’t love herself. Adam counters with the truth: Hannah doesn’t know herself, and she doesn’t know real struggle.

Hannah falls asleep while alone on the subway ride home. Her purse is stolen and she’s left at the end of the line, Coney Island, at daybreak with nothing but a slice of wedding cake. She gets off the train, walks to the beach, slips her shoes off, sits down and watches the sun rise while she enjoys her one slice of cake. She eats quickly and licks her fingers in delight. As Dunham comments at the end of the season, this is the point where we can be sure that whatever Hannah goes through, she’ll be all right. She’ll continue to take in experiences and grow. This is what makes Hannah Hannah. She is a woman living in the present, not afraid to slop up its last bit of frosting.

A former HBO poster for the series ran with the headline, “Living the dream, one mistake at a time.” The word dream here refers to something universal. We could limit it to something like the American Dream, but then we would be stuck with another Sex and the City—not what Dunham was going for. The tumultuous, but not necessarily failed, lives of Hannah and Jessa remind us that desire, or dreaming, doesn’t always have to have an object. There is a type of person left out of the four types of women that Sex and the City codified: the woman who loves who she is (do I need to remind you of how many times we’ve seen Hannah’s breasts?) and at least right now, in their mid-twenties, don’t want or need to be governed by goals. This is not to say that Hannah and Jessa are radical feminists, despising marriage and joining artist colonies. After all, Hannah wants a job in publishing and Jessa did think she wanted marriage. It is only to say that they don’t center their lives around marriage or career success—the markers of stability that allow for traditional happiness.

In episode 2 of season 1, Jessa reveals that she is pregnant and the girls go with her to get an abortion. A few hours beforehand, the girls are siting on a bench eating froyo when they enter into this very discussion: what should one want from a relationship? When Jessa observes that Hannah has been acting “bananas” lately, Hannah remarks that Adam is driving her crazy: “When we’re together, he’s so there and he’s so present. And then he disappears for two weeks and doesn’t answer any text messages and I feel as though I invented him.” Shoshanna, at this point the virgin who has never been in any relationship asks, in all seriousness, “Did you invent him?” to which Hannah replies, “If I invented him, I wouldn’t have a giant bruise on my ass.” Shoshanna has a little epiphany: she’s “got something to contribute here.” She reaches into her backpack and pulls out a hot pink copy of Listen Ladies: A Tough Love Approach to the Tough Game of Love. She reads out such quips as, “If a man doesn’t take you on a date, he’s not interested, point blank. ‘Let’s meet up with friends’ is not a date, it’s a date for him to decide if you’re truly good enough to date—and that’s unacceptable, ladies.” Hannah chimes in, looking confused: “There have to be exceptions to that rule…” Shoshanna keeps reading: “Sex from behind is degrading. You deserve someone who wants to look at your beautiful face, ladies.” Shoshanna, in spite of her lack of any actual sexual experience, is full of this canned relationship wisdom. But is it really wisdom? Why are girls like her such eager consumers of any relationship advice someone bothers to blurb in Cosmo or Seventeen?

Here Jessa comes into her own. “What if I want to focus on something else? What if I want to feel like I have udders? This woman doesn’t care about what I want.” Hannah raises a serious question: “Who are the ladies?” Shoshanna responds, “Obvi, we’re the ladies!” which prompts a back and forth exchange with Jessa. “I’m not the ladies,” Jessa repeats with increasing force. “You’re being unfair. You can’t force me to be a lady.” Shoshanna’s laughably barren response—“Ok, I’m a lady, she’s a lady, you’re a lady, we’re the ladies”—is telling. Who has really thought about the target audience of these books, or whether any such manifesto has the right to tell a woman how she should run her own sex life?

Jessa storms off, calling the book idiotic. Hannah confesses that she “may have read that book” but only in a moment of desperation at an airport. Shoshanna’s manifesto is everything Jessa hates, but in cautiously reading it Hannah falls somewhere in-between. “It might be pink and cheesy,” Hannah says, “but there’s actually some very real wisdom in there about how to deal with men.” Jessa interrupts, “I’m offended by all the ‘suppose to’s.’ I don’t like women telling other women what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it. Every time I have sex it’s my choice. If I wanted to go on some dates, I would, but I don’t—because they’re for lesbians.” When Hannah starts asking her if she’s okay and what she’s feeling right now she snaps, suspicious of Hannah’s writerly curiosity: “I’m not a character for one of your novels. Stop staring at my face so hard.” But she softens up: “You know, I want to have children. I want to have children.” She interrupts Hannah’s “and you will have children…at a time when your life…” with “I’m going to be amazing at it. I’m going to be really good.”

In this moment, nobody is telling Jessa what she should do. In the hours before she is about to get an abortion, a product of her promiscuous and flighty lifestyle, she comes to the same conclusion the other girls would: she does want to be a mother, only not now. At whatever cost, these choices are hers and hers alone to make. Drinking at a bar when she should have been at the abortion clinic, Jessa is about to hook up with a guy in the bathroom when she realizes she got her period after all. Jessa’s earlier realization ended up being a false alarm, but she learned something from herself in the process. No life experience in Girls goes unexamined.

“Bad sex” and new possibilities

This episode is the same one that really polarized critics with its almost painful sex scene between Hannah and Adam. He fantasizes that she’s an eleven-year-old junkie who he found in the street walking alone with a cabbage patch lunch box. Hannah laughs at first, then plays along realizing Adam is serious. He ends the episode: “You’re a dirty little whore, and I’m gonna send you home to your parents covered in cum,” and “from now on, you have to ask my permission whenever you want to come.” “That was really good,” Hannah says half-heartedly. “I almost came.” While most critics dismissed the scene as “bad sex,” Elaine Blaire wrote in her excellent piece “The Loves of Lena Dunham,” that this is simplistic and misses the point of the scene, which she calls “one of the most complicated and intelligent sex scenes I’ve seen.”

Afterward, while she is getting dressed, Hannah jokingly refers to herself as the eleven-year-old girl. Adam looks confused and asks what she’s talking about. Hannah reminds him about his fantasy, but clearly her joke has fallen flat, and the disparity between their respective experiences of sex is further amplified: Adam had been blissfully lost to himself while they were doing it, while Hannah was taking mental notes. It is, among other things, an amusing metaphor for Hannah’s chosen profession: the writer is the one busily jotting in her notebook while other people are having orgasms.

This two-minute scene obliterates several norms of television. When about to finish, Adam snaps off his condom and masturbates over Hannah’s torso. When have you ever seen that in a show? Even though it’s an ordinary part of sex, its rarely portrayed. Why? And then there’s Adam’s fantasy coupled with the fact that he’s not a pedophile and lives a normal life. The implication of this highly original scene seems to be that this should count as normal sex. The haste with which critics immediately labeled it crazy or impossible should give us pause. It’s probably exactly what Dunham wanted in writing the scene: shock factor, but not for the sake of shock. The shock is meant to destabilize our expectations for the show to tread in the tracks of other shows, and to broaden our horizons beyond what we already immediately expect. As Blaire writes, Girls primarily accomplishes this destabilization through sex, but its implications spread out to the lifestyles of the Girls in general. Who are we to judge them in their various capacities? Is it really so weird that they defy convention? Why not? The point of the show is to spread this questioning beyond the screen and into everyday life.

While it is easy to criticize Adam for disregarding Hannah’s sexual needs and leaving her unsatisfied and confused, is there not something praiseworthy in Adam knowing exactly what he wants? Blaire writes:

In other words, with her humane and humorous depictions of both characters, Dunham has set the viewer free from having to keep score on either the man’s or the woman’s behalf. We can admire the two actors’ chemistry together. We can feel the erotic charge of the scene in spite of its limitations, qua sex, for Hannah. We can contemplate Hannah’s lack of sexual confidence without condemning Adam. We can appreciate, rather than lament, Hannah’s attraction to Adam despite the fact that he is wont to do things like dismiss her from his apartment with a brusque nod while she is still chatting and gathering her clothes and purse.

Starting with sex, the scope of Blaire’s argument broadens to the status of their relationship:

We can just generally marvel at the complexity with which Girls treats a relationship like Hannah and Adam’s. They are not boyfriend and girlfriend. Adam never returns Hannah’s text messages, and she has discovered that the most reliable way to get an audience with him is to show up at his apartment with little notice and hope that he’s in a mood to see her. He also sees other women. Hannah has, thus far, accepted his terms, though she feels uneasy about them. The two are obviously attracted to each other. Their conversation is fast and exuberant and funny, although it is, again, more on Adam’s terms than on Hannah’s: he’s the one who does the teasing and wise-cracking, while Hannah, who is full of barbed observations when she’s with her friends, seems to hold her fire around Adam. In their romantic scenes together, Hannah can’t seem to channel her general sense of attraction into acute sexual pleasure. Although she repeatedly seeks him out for sex, she isn’t able to lose herself sexually—perhaps because she already loses so much of herself in the rhythms and arrangements of their relationship.

And narrows in again back to sex:

Hannah’s predicament is common enough in life, but it’s not one you see often, if ever, on film. Indeed, romantic comedy (and its television variations) devotes its energies to obscuring the possible gaps between things like companionability, attraction, and intense sexual arousal. Hannah’s is also a situation that would be impossible to depict without a graphic sex scene, and offers a clear example of what sex scenes are good for. If all you want to do is convey an erotic tension between two people, you can leave out explicit depictions of sex acts. But if you are interested in the psychological implications of what happens between people during sex, you need to show something of the sex.

Blaire notes that the question of female satisfaction, probably the biggest issue in real sex, is regularly obscured by Hollywood sex scenes, which more often than not are only before and after scenes without actual sex.

Through sex, Blaire writes that Girls is able to show “the common facts of life that romantic comedy has never been able to show.” In the case of Hannah, “that you can be wildly attracted to someone without having great sex.” In the case of Marnie, Hannah’s roommate who has the opposite problem, “that you can have landed a handsome, funny, devoted boyfriend and then one day find him completely repellent.” Marnie’s sexual moment comes when a confident artist, makes boldly ridiculous moves on her, which she finds strangely hot, coming from her boring romantic life with Charlie. In the second season, the same man locks her in an art installation of televisions blasting the 90s song “Barely Breathing” and scary images, then makes her stare at a doll as he fucks her from behind. While some viewers may have been horrified, Marnie laughs. Even the most tight-laced girl comes to think of sex as a journey:

Such moments in Girls seem always to contain within them the implied potential for something else on the horizon—better sex, sure, but also continuing revelations about self and others. For all of its emphasis on sexual and romantic experience, Girls never suggests that a smoothly pleasant sex life is something worthy of serious aspiration. The ultimate prize to be wrung from all of these baffling sexual predicaments is a deeper understanding of oneself. We never quite forget that Hannah is a writer, specifically a writer of personal essays, a form dedicated to investigating the humiliating, perverse, and self-defeating aspects of one’s own nature.

The ability for such exploration is indeed a product of the girls’s privilege. Blaire rightly puts the problem of privilege into the context of sex and life in general, rather than just college, finances, and work, as most critics have:

Many critics have noted that the girls, all from seemingly financially secure families, are members of a privileged class. A slightly different aspect of their privilege is the relative confidence we feel that they can seek sexual experience without being in physical danger, that any revelations they receive will be useful and interesting rather than damaging or crushing, and that the people in their world will not punish them for their curiosity or high spirits. The girls feel confident of this too. They have an air of extended innocence, a girlish exuberance (behind a scrim of polished good behavior) that is the characteristic bearing of American upper-middle-class young women.

This freedom is undoubtedly a product of the sexual revolution earlier generations of women fought for. But, as Frank Bruni asked in the New York Times, writing on Girls, “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” [2]. But the point is not simply that “liberation”—lots of casual or weird sex—is the goal. The point is that unless such escapades are an option in one’s horizon of possibilities, one’s mental categories, the choice for a traditional relationship is a non-choice. One by one, starting with Hannah and Jessa and moving on to Marnie and finally Shoshanna, the girls experiment with casual sex to the point that they realize it either is or isn’t what they really want. Only after this experience can they really know the answer to this question. And this experience doesn’t have to have a particular goal; it’s not that they experiment so that they realize what kind of guy they want to settle down with. Not settling at all, or at least a few more years of experimentation, remains a live possibility.

“One Man’s Trash” and Foucauldian friendship

With this in mind, I want to focus on my favorite episode of HBO’s Girls, “One Man’s Trash” (season 2, episode 5). This is the defining episode in which Dunham showed us she’s not afraid to take risks. The setup is simple. An upset area man (Patrick Wilson) comes into Grumpy’s coffee shop while Hannah and Ray are working wanting to know why trash from Grumpy’s keeps filling up his personal dumpster. (We later find out that Hannah lost her dumpster key and didn’t want to tell Ray). After Ray rudely dismisses the man and denies that the trash is from Grumpy’s, the man leaves. But for some reason or another, even though she is off the hook, Hannah follows the man back to his brownstone and accepts the man’s invitation inside for some lemonade. She is immediately in awe: the home is beautiful and expansive, with a piano and its own manicured back yard. Predictably enough given this information, Hannah kisses the man before they have even exchanged names. He at first stares back at her blankly, then kisses her back, and they have sex. The rest of the episode tracks Hannah’s next few days living with the man (Joshua) in his home, both of them blowing off work to carry out what many critics disparaged as Dunham’s most self-indulgent fantasy yet.

This episode really makes one think. The ending is totally ambiguous and you never really understand why either of the characters go along with what happens—just like so many romantic episodes in real life—and so unlike the easy resolutions of most television episodes. There are a number of mysterious things about the encounter, but this is what I find most personally interesting: that Hannah and Joshua’s relationship can’t be categorized. The most defining line in the episode is Hannah’s reaction to Joshua’s request as they warm up to sex, “I want you to make me come.” She pauses the action, rolls over so she’s on the bottom, and whispers his line right back to him.

This leads me to one of the most influential texts I’ve ever read: a short interview the French philosopher Michel Foucault gave in 1981 for the gay magazine Le Gai Pied [3]. Entitled “Friendship as a way of life,” the interview offers the closest thing I’ve come to someone in the modern world articulating a coherent way of life. Whereas most philosophies are difficult to translate into a mindset that would actually inspire the individual to a certain kind of positive action (most postmodern philosophies are only critical or negative, predominantly telling one what not to do), Foucault—a philosopher through and through—goes out on a limb here to suggest that the Socratic, examined life today is to be found through sex, and gay sex in particular.

Foucault’s 1976 first volume of The History of Sexuality became a handbook of the gay liberation movement. The book’s argument is highly original for the time. In a political moment of “liberation” for women, minorities, and queer people, where it seemed that freedom was just around the corner, Foucault raised the bar for what such movements should really fight for. Foucault dispels the traditional story sexuality, which he calls “the repressive hypothesis,” which he think distorts how sexuality actually became controlled and supressed. The repressive hypothesis argues that sexuality, relatively uninhibited for most of human history (think of Socrates seducing his young pupils), was repressed by the Victorian regime of bourgeois puritanism, which idolized chastity and supposedly made sex a taboo subject. But this the same era that produced countless “scientific” books on the detrimental effects of masturbation, which frequently included blindness and bodily “corruption” that lead to death. Foucault thus argues that rather than repressing sexuality, the Victorian regime actually multiplied sexuality by putting it into a purified scientific discourse that fueled a psychiatric and moralistic craze.

Thus rather than eliminating sexuality, the regime of psychiatry takes control of sexuality from the moral voices of the church, and with this move acquires a new power over individuals. “Tell me your desires, and I’ll tell you who you really are,” the psychoanalyst claims. Harmless sexual preferences get labeled “perversions” and this new class of diagnosed individuals becomes subjected to often psychically damaging treatment. Individuals are thus told what they are, based on their desires, rather than, as Foucault would have it, inventing who they are through pleasures. Gay “liberation” is based on a simplistic fantasy that if we had the truth about sexuality, we would be free, which only further entrenches us in the grip of psychiatry. As Foucault phrases the problem here: “Between each of us and our sex, the West has placed a never-ending demand for truth.” Foucault’s ultimate message is that there are relations of force and power behind all claims to truth—to be wary of the institutions that bear its flag, namely science and medicine, but also politics and religion.

While we’ve moved on from turn of the century psychiatry and the explicit institutionalization of sex, magazines like Cosmo still use claims to the “truth about sex” to sell issues, and consumers still seem wrapped up in this fight for the truth. Foucault wants to imagine a world in which we stop turning to others to discover the truth sex and instead create pleasure for ourselves—something like Hannah’s inversion in asking Joshua to make her come.

But what Foucault’s message in The History of Sexuality means for political reality is far from clear. Like any profound thinker, Foucault withholds easy answers from us and thus demands that we determine the appropriate “technologies of the self” on an individual level. But he is also clear that experimenting without an explicit program “does not mean blindness—to be blind to thought.” It in fact demands “very careful attention to what’s possible,” which can come across as still challenging even in its positive articulation. In place of this, Foucault provides only forms for us, ways of being that trace back to ancient philosophy. Namely, he returns to the stoic principle “Take care of yourself,” which is an ethical practice of constant self-invention, away from the “Know yourself” famously taken up by the Enlightenment, which always returns the self to the idea of a natural self or fixed identity that is waiting to be discovered.

To get us beyond that trap of what is Foucault—himself gay—entertains the idea of a homosexual lifestyle that incorporates forms of diversification that destabilize existing social categories like class, profession, and culture. In place of these existing forms, he suggests that this diversification itself could be a form of relationship and would constitute a “way of life.” The idea of a shared way of life across age, status, and social activity is still, I would argue, fairly remarkably achieved by gay culture, and does, as Foucault suggests, “yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalized”—yield not only a culture, but an ethics through the ascesis of self-invention. “To be ‘gay,’” Foucault concludes, “is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual but to try to define and develop a way of life.” This is what readers of The History of Sexuality have been waiting for: a way to go about inventing a new self.

The proper question of humanism, of an ethics of the self, is not “Who am I” or “What is the secret of my desire?” Rather, Foucault suggests that perhaps it would be better to ask oneself, “What relations, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, multiplied, and modulated?” And the positive statement of his program follows a similar path: “The problem is not to discover oneself in the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.” Considered as a vehicle toward new forms of relationships, “homosexuality is not a form of desire but something desirable.” Homosexuality constitutes not simply an identity category, but an orientation of one’s being. Rather trying to “discover,” one’s proper identity through the throwing off of repression, Foucault writes, “Therefore we have to work at becoming homosexuals and not be obstinate in recognizing that we are.” Despite all of his connections in Paris and exposure to various gay lifestyles, being gay is indeed still a question for Foucault. He innocently asks a question “as a matter of existence: how is it possible for men to be together?”

His attention to gay forms of relations come up in interviews regarding spaces for gay life such as bathhouses that allow anonymity and thus act as spaces of relative freedom from the constraints of law and social norms. “What is it to be ‘naked’ among men, outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie?” That the word “naked” is in quotation marks indicates that Foucault is using it expansively, as a nakedness not only of an exterior shell of clothing, but also one of all the layers of identity one wears in public. This historical form of gay sex life seems to be Foucault’s image of “the art of erotics” described as being nothing more than bodies, but never named as such in The History of Sexuality.

The moment she enters Joshua’s house, Hannah is similarly naked of her identity. This is one marker of fantasy: whether a stranger’s home or a gay bathhouse, new places allow you to create a new self who might be closer to what you actually want to be than the self you left at the door.

Here Foucault turns to gay desire, but not as desire to be a couple. Rather, “It’s a desire, an uneasiness, a desire-in-uneasiness that exists among a lot of people.” That the experience is shared yet built upon a fundamental uneasiness is I think important in constituting Foucault’s understanding of friendship as a category of relations that slices diagonally across ages, genders, and classes, far beyond our traditional focus on the couple. Foucault says that in a conventional marriage, between an older man and a younger woman, their expected relationship is already scripted, and they can simply act out the form of married couple. “But two men of different ages—what code would allow them to communicate?” For gay men at the time of Foucault’s writing, there was no culturally received “code” for how to relate to another. “They face each other without terms or convenient words, with nothing to assure them about the meaning of the movement that carries them toward each other.” The simple act of communication, which seems totally banal for the married couple, is radically unscripted for the gay men, radically open to new possibilities. Unlike in a marriage, the men are posed with a challenge: “They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship: that is to say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure.” Thus, as he corrects himself in a later interview, these are “friendships” in the plural, in that they remain formless and multiple.

Compared to Aristotle’s notion of friendship as stability, Foucault’s program is revealed to be one of pleasure without regard for happiness. Foucault’s life of pleasure would be an unnecessary risk for Aristotle: heartbreak, the risk of sexual violation, and the often-accompanying drugs and rock and roll lead to a life of tension that keeps the possibility of happiness in stability out of reach. And for Foucault, the kinds of pleasure Aristotle has in mind—the pleasure of the company of another virtuous man, for example—would fall into what he calls “middle-range pleasures that make up everyday life,” which he claims “are nothing for me.”

Foucault thus conceives a “neat image” of homosexuality based on pleasure. He tries “not to present homosexuality as anything but a kind of immediate pleasure, of two young men meeting in the street, seducing each other with a look, grabbing each other’s asses and getting each other off.” This conception “cancels everything that can be troubling in affection, tenderness, friendship, fidelity, camaraderie, and companionship”—relationships that our society fears for the new alliances they might unpredictably create. Thus it is not primarily the homosexual sex act, but the way of life homosexuals follow, that makes homosexuality “disturbing” in a real political sense. By crossing and destabilizing affective boundaries, individuals’ publicly loving each other in new ways “at one and the same time keep [love] going and shake it up.” They “introduce love where there’s supposed to be only law, rule, or habit.” The varying intensities of these relations—is it friendship, or love, or just sex (and why just sex?)—“short-circuit” love’s dependency on institutions or socially sanctioned forms of relation for legitimacy.

What is so remarkable and personally inspiring for me about Foucault’s approach to resistance is that he does not simply bemoan our society as conformist, though he certainly could, as is done popularly on the left. He instead proposes ascesis, a stoic term he borrowed from his compatriot Pierre Hadot: “the work that one performs on oneself in order to transform oneself or make the self appear which, happily, one never attains.” While asceticism has bad connotations for renouncing all pleasure and setting one into a mental routine of control and stability, Foucault’s ascesis trains the mind for just the opposite: self-invention. Whatever the problems today, he writes, “it’s up to us to advance into a homosexual ascesis that would make us work on ourselves and invent—I do not say discover—a manner of being that is still improbable.” But this always remains a question, a radical possibility: “Is it possible to create a homosexual mode of life?” Whether we are capable of this or not, we should nevertheless try to create ourselves around practices of self-invention, for which sexuality proves a powerful domain.

In another interview from 1978, Foucault even calls such a sexual life a form of political resistance:

It is strategically important to live in the most explicit way possible, with someone you love, who can be a boy if it’s a boy, a man if it’s a man, an old man if it’s an old man. It’s strategically important, when you meet a boy in the street, to kiss him and possibly make love to him, even in the back seat of a car, if you want. In the same way, I’m saying it’s important for there to be places like baths where, without being imprisoned or pinned in your own identity, in your legal status, your past, your name, your face, and so on, you can meet the people who are there, and who are for you—as you are for them—nothing more than bodies, with whom the most unexpected combinations and fabrications of pleasures are possible. This is absolutely an important part of erotic experiences, and it is, I would say, politically important that sexuality can function in this way. [4]

Through anonymity, places like bathhouses allow one to “desubjectivize” oneself, and thus to “desubjugate” oneself from regimes of force present in ordinary life. Le Bitoux describes the experience of not feeling pinned down—reduced to an “identity”—by anyone in the bathhouse except oneself, and thus made aware of the scheme labels and associations with which one thinks about one’s own sex acts. “Anonymous in a bath, you are free to dispossess yourself of that as well.” And besides, “To be the same is really boring.”

Hannah and Joshua’s escapade is something like Foucauldian “happiness in discomfort.” They indeed have to “invent from A to Z” their entire friendship. It wasn’t a relationship, but it also wasn’t just hooking up. It was the multiplicity of pleasures that is friendship. Age here was a variable factor that led to us having to invent the relationship. But there are other radical differences to be had with other people that can compel one to have to experiment.

Critics tended to read “One Man’s Trash” as merely the epitome of Lena Dunham’s self-indulgence, but I don’t think that’s a legitimate criticism. It’s a tough episode that raises issues similar to those in Foucault’s essay. Hannah breaks down on day three of their adventure an falls into Joshua’s lap crying. What does Hannah really mean when she says, “I just want to be happy” and that she’s sick of experiences? Is that the real her speaking? Is that true of everyone, including professed anti-happiness folk, namely hipsters? How much happiness in a settled life like Joshua’s can the writer-type take before she goes back looking for meaning?

Do we really want happiness?

Hannah and Jessa refuse to settle, and this is their defining characteristic. Whatever they lack in common sense and knowledge about the world, they know themselves and they way they want to live well. My suggestion is that their desires, their dreams, can exist without pointing in a straight line or at some particular life ahead of them. This is a life of “experiences,” as Hannah calls them, or what we might call the life of meaning, as opposed to that of happiness. This life is measured not by success or achievement, but by how hard one presses oneself, how many trials and experiences one goes through, and in turn how much one knows oneself. Not surprisingly, in Girls, Hannah and Jessa, the jobless writer and the starving artist, are the ones to take on these unhappy roles. While meaning isn’t mutually exclusive from happiness or success, it entails serious costs and risks that are amplified in the big city life of living away from home without a job for the first time.

The question the early seasons of Girls ask us is: Do we really want to be happy? Happiness has costs as well as benefits. As Foucault suggests, it is not the end in itself, that thing ads have told us our entire lives that we want. For philosophically-inclined people, there are more important things we can do with ourselves than feel content. We can go into the world and influence others in ways happy people who merely spread happiness can never imagine.

Hannah knows this, and it’s why she remains such an interesting person at all costs, including the most embarrassing failures. She knows that she could sell out like Marnie and become a hostess and live comfortably, but she refuses this path. Through all of her ups and downs and apparent lack of motivation and work ethic, she does indeed maintain one identity: that of a writer. The writer is the one who is maximally receptive to the world around her, whatever forms that happens to take. To be a great writer, you have to be great at learning from others. As easy as it is to make fun of Hannah, to dismiss her character as unbelievable, is this not true of her? Girls isn’t going to have some trajectory like most drama series do—say Sex and the City—and have the girls eventually get paired off and happily married. Their status as girls is not simply a “coming of age” phase; it is the way they have all chosen to live. What most of us find so difficult to stomach is that they could actually want Foucauldian “friendships,” focus on their relationships with each other, and not play the marriage game. And the difficulty of locating where and how to live the “friendship” way of life today is an open question, since gay life has since largely gone the way of straight life (marriage) since Foucault gave that interview in the 1980s. Perhaps that life is to be found in Brooklyn, 2013.

Friendship or happiness? Maybe we can have both. Gay or straight, sexual or non-sexual, friendships are the ultimate opportunities for self-discovery (Foucault even suggests that if Socrates were alive today, he would be gay). Yet happiness is not the enemy here. You’re allowed to get married, sell out your career, and work toward a nice house. At some level, we all need the promise of happiness to get us out of bed in the morning, and there is no shame in that.

Yet such visions of the good life can become dangerous when they turn into fantasies. In her book Cruel Optimism, literary theorist Lauren Berlant describes how so-called “good life fantasies”—of the American dream of owning a home, having a stable marriage, achieving “happiness”—have intensified since the recession, precisely as they have become less attainable in reality. This constitutes a relationship of optimism about the future that becomes cruel in that these fantasies can be so destructive that they become obstacles to living in the present. Her question is as follows:

Why do people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasies—say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work—when evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear cost abounds? Fantasy is a means by which people hoard idealizing theories and tableaux about how they and the world “add up to something.” What happens when those fantasies start to fray—depression, dissociation, pragmatisim, cynicism, optimism, activism, or an incoherent mash? [4]

While Berlant focuses on the good life fantasies of disenfranchised groups (sexual minorities, undocumented immigrants, and the like) I think Girls is a great setting to examine this question in its own way. Hannah is precisely in the process of realizing how far she has to fall in the future, yet she doesn’t turn to a good-life fantasy of success. Rather, she is directed to intensely absorb the present, exactly what is typically masked by characters’ “big dreams,” their cruel optimism, in most shows. Faced with struggles like the recession for Hannah’s generation, we turn to other less success-based kinds of meaning: “Cruel Optimism turns toward thinking about the ordinary as an impasse shaped by crisis in which people find themselves developing skills for adjusting to newly proliferating pressures to scramble for modes of living on.” Strangely, as the “blueprint” for the American Dream has faded with the declining of the American working class, “that fantasy has become more fantasmatic, with less and less relation to how people can live.”

Berlant’s most important argument is that transitional moments like Hannah’s, from college to the real world, aren’t without frameworks as they seem to be. Rather, they possess their own transitional, unstable, dynamic frameworks that we could perhaps learn from, just like Foucault’s. They themselves are frameworks of learning from others by being dependent on others, what she calls the “crisis ordinariness” of our unstable capitalist system. In order to keep going in everyday life, we have to constantly reinvent and cling to a version of the good life to look forward to, however impossible that life may be: “while people comfort themselves with stories about beating the system or being defeated by it, they ‘continue to struggle for existence in painful, costly, and obsolete forms.’” Girls seems poised to suggest a life without such a dream, a way of living day to day that escapes from this cruel logic and opens up the possibility of an authentic existence for the young, the aspiring, and the unemployed.

So if we are to know ourselves—the singular starting point for us to truly be ourselves, to live out the life we have chosen—happiness must always remain a question, not a given. We are left with a few options. Should we believe Foucault and jump onto the (long past) bandwagon of casual, anonymous sex, or read “friendship” as a call for new forms of relations that are perhaps more committed, for example unmarried men and women living together—something that was unheard of 30 years ago? Blaire has great insight here, and correctly singles out the show’s groundbreaking potential here, especially in regard to the questions it shares with its inspiration, Sex and the City:

The first episode of Sex and the City, which aired in 1998, raises the question of whether women can have sex “like men,” which is to say, casually, without emotional entanglements. The answer, supplied in the same episode and in ninety-three subsequent ones, is that while this is perhaps not the most exalted form of sex—sure! Why not? Its definition of a rich sex life is one that meets a certain threshold of frequency and variety; when one of the Sex and the City characters goes for three months without having sex, it’s an occasion for panic and pity.

Girls, too, raises questions in its opening episodes about how young women are to understand and make use of their sexual freedom. Should they multiply sexual encounters and partners in a spirit of adventure, brushing off embarrassing or uncomfortable episodes as all part of the alleged fun? Or should they, as Shoshanna’s self-help book would advise, demand tacit declarations of serious intent from a man before even having sex?

Both strategies are ways of containing one’s messy, inconvenient, and embarrassing emotional vulnerability, which has always seemed an obstacle to reaping the rewards of the sexual revolution. But sexual freedom is, in a way, least about sex itself. The sexual revolution is a social revolution. Men and women are free to talk to each other without prior vetting or pretext, to see each other in any setting. We can form acquaintances and friendships that are laced through with attraction and desire (or not), and of course we can form romantic attachments as well. All of us can know more people in more ways than was ever previously allowed.

In the face of such vast possibility, to think of one’s romantic life as a game of numbers and animal pleasures, on the one hand, or as one long search for a spouse, on the other, is to miss the point. We can only justify our freedom by giving full attention to the human relationships formed by sex, even if those relationships are brief or strange. We would like our movies and television shows, the ones that devote themselves to matters of love and sex, to give their full attention to these relationships too. Girls seems poised to do exactly that.

In Girls, Dunham tries to show us as much of relationships as she can without categorizing them. Yet critics will undoubtedly keep trying to label these more complicated relationships one way or the other. At the end of season 2, a desperate and depressed Dunham calls Adam for help. He runs across Brooklyn to her apartment and the season ends with him heroically carrying her in his arms. But does this mean they’re a couple now? That they’re going to turn into Marnie and Charlie? Not at all. Adam will keep liking weird sex, Hannah will remain as selfish as ever, and the two of them may just remain their own unclassifiable thing.

Anticipating season 3

I’m not going to speculate about what season 3 holds in store before the episodes are out, but its worth thinking about these themes as they appear in the trailers:

Critic Verne Gay writes after previewing the first three episodes of season 3 that Dunham is in a sense selling out to her fans:

It’s hard to precisely pinpoint what’s missing this season besides Charlie, though to a certain extent “humor” is on the short list. Having seen the first three episodes, “Girls” is simply less funny, less sad, less shocking, less empathetic and more… predictable.

You’ll note that’s a lot of “lesses” and one very unwelcome “more.” But while a critical backlash may be scheduled to begin, there’s little chance a viewer one will. The reason is that “Girls” is still a show fans want to see their reflection in—and which still has enough self-awareness to give them an ironic detachment from that reflection. [6]

All this amounts to a “B” grade for the season. I most enjoy that Gay retains nostalgia for season 2’s sadness! While season 2 was certainly depressing, and served to show Hannah at her lowest point in many regards, this doesn’t mean that season 3 has to be a “return to normal” just because Hannah’s mental state improves. That is to say, season 3 doesn’t have to be happy. Hannah can become a healthy person again without in any way selling out: she can recover the energy to get out of her bed, actually work on her e-book, and keep collecting the experiences that make her Hannah.

Jon Catlin will review each episode of Girls season 3 as it is released, beginning January 12, on The Airspace.


[1] Elaine Blaire, “The Loves of Lena Dunham,” The New York Review of Books.
[2] Frank Bruni, “The Bleaker Sex” The New York Times.
[3] Interviews and work by Michel Foucault: “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (New Press, 1997 The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (Vintage, 1990).
[4] Michel Foucault, “The Gay Science,” interview with Jean Le Bitoux for Le Gai Pied in 1978 (Critical Inquiry 37, Spring 2011).
[5] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, 2011.
[6] Verne Gay, “‘Girls’ Season 3 premiere review: Strong, but predictable,” Newsday.

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