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The Secret Moral Message of Girls
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 print issue of the Intercollegiate Review.
There are reasons not to watch the HBO series Girls. For one, we see way too much of Hannah (Lena Dunham) way too often. Ms. Dunham, the show’s creator, doesn’t know that when it comes to nudity, less is more. But Hannah’s promiscuous nudity is not pornography. That, as Flannery O’Connor explained, requires the idealized, sentimental detachment of sex from its hard relational purposes linked with birth and death.
Yes, Hannah’s body is “unsculpted.” For more reasons than that, her nudity plays as pathetic, as the sign of a wounded soul. It embodies her detachment from the forms that shape a decent life. There’s nothing safe—and nothing idealized—about Hannah’s sexual life. The main reason she’s so “inappropriate” with her body is that she’s very confused about what it is for.
We could also wax indignant about the show’s vulgar language and disgusting incidents. Maybe Girls goes too far, but for diagnostic purposes good art can exaggerate what’s revolting. And everything that is genuinely revolting here is portrayed that way. We see time and again, for example, that there’s little more degrading than casual sex in the absence of love. When we’re shown an abortion clinic, or women contracting STDs, or a string of pathetic hookups, and whiny, brittle, pretend marriages, we see the stupidity and misery of an abysmally clueless life. The show’s bitter, intended irony is this: while these girls are so proudly pro-choice, they lack what it takes to choose well.
What’s wrong with these Girls (and their boys) is that they lack character. Their easygoing world of privilege has saved them from any experiences that might build it. Their affluent parents are hardly “role models,” and they’re too flaccid to give their kids the “tough love” they need. Aristotle was right: your skill at soundly using your moral freedom depends a lot on how you were raised.
We also see plenty of evidence that what these girls really want is meaningful work and personal love. But they have not the first clue on how to get them.
Their education has failed them—another piece of realism. Hannah majored in film studies at a school in Ohio that we know is really Oberlin (Dunham is an Obie). Her major was neither “liberal” nor “vocational.” She learned nothing that would help make a living, but she did glean enough vanity to make her unfit for the “entry-level” jobs for which she barely qualifies. She also fancies that she can earn a living as a writer. While her prose style is pleasing, she has nothing “real” to write about. She didn’t read with passionate care any “real” books in college. Her education taught nothing “real” about her responsibilities as a free and relational being.
So here’s another solid takeaway from the show: few students whose majors end in “studies” have the education, talent, or discipline to succeed. In lieu of marketable skills and a work ethic, they boast a rich sense of entitlement. They spend lots of time, quite shamelessly, figuring out how to thrive as parasites. Their extended undergraduate adolescence prepared them only to scheme to stretch dependency out ever further. The girls aren’t becoming women. They do know they’re supposed to grow up, to change in a maturely relational direction. But they lack most of the resources—beyond mixed-up longings—to figure out how.
In the first show of the second season, we see Hannah try to change. She will no longer be the exploited sexual victim but the victor. She has cured herself of love. She starts to sleep around with calculated self-confidence and good cheer. She forbids men to speak to her of love. She’s having (emotionally) safe sex now. So it’s only fitting that her new libertarian boyfriend is a fan of The Fountainhead.
As the season goes on, Hannah slowly surrenders the fantasy of autonomous control. In one particularly poignant show, she aggressively seduces—and then plays house for a few days with—a rich and handsome older man. This wealthy doctor is lonely because he just separated from his wife. The desperate Hannah makes him the object of her fantasies. She opens up to him: I’ve been wounded since childhood, I’m deeply lonely, I finally admit that I want to be happy (or not just have random experiences to write about), I really believe I feel more deeply than other people, and: “All I really needed was to look at someone and be, like, that person wants to be there after I’m dead.”
Those confused, self-indulgent words do link happiness with loving and being perfectly transparent before another—who, at least in a way, is her personal connection to eternity. The physician, who was merely diverting himself, is clearly repulsed by them. So Hannah limps home, more lonely and wounded than ever. She’s ashamed that she didn’t know the first thing about the man she’d “loved,” who didn’t care to know the first thing about her. Hannah spoke the truth about who she is and what she wants but not to someone who was willing to listen.
In the final episode of the second season, Hannah’s obsessive-compulsive disorder returns, as one of many symptoms of a dark, wounded, hyper-narcissistic soul. The scene where Hannah regresses to infancy and is rocked like a baby by her savior, Adam, is really quite something—something Christopher Lasch describes in The Culture of Narcissism. And who can deny that Adam (who has been as screwed up as, and in some ways more brutish than, the other characters) has become, in a way, both redeemed and a redeemer by freely assuming the responsibility of personal love?
Hannah’s fall from false, godlike self-sufficiency to baby-like helplessness exposes how displaced she really is. Like the rest of the Girls, she has never learned a human being’s place in the world.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia and editor of the conservative quarterly Modern Age, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. His most recent book is American Heresies and Higher Education.
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