Lena Dunham’s HBO series has been hailed for its sharp, insightful snapshot of 20-something young, white, straight women navigating their New York City lives in a post-Sex and the City moment in which (Bridesmaidsaside) nothing has really seemed to catch the zeitgeist from a women’s perspective.Dunham, who plays Hannah, the lynchpin of the quartet of friends on whose overlapping lives and close-knit friendship circle the series will focus, shines with a particularly smart, offbeat on-screen charisma.  She radiates intelligence in a way that few women on television do, with the exception of Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie, Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife, or (sometimes) Laura Linney in The Big C.  In some ways, Hannah reminds me of Jane Adams’s character in the much-missed Hung (also from HBO).

Hannah is not a waif-like, flighty young woman, but someone with dreams, desires, and something to say.  Her body size doesn’t conform to conventional impossibly thin standards, which means her clothing (she remarks how expensive it is to look “this cheap”) hangs differently around her.  Her haircut doesn’t seem outrageously expensive and she doesn’t seem to wear make-up.

In other words, her appearance immediately breaks the mold of most young women seen on television and in films.  And even though she comments on her weight and her clothes, bemoaning how they don’t hold up to the ideal, it’s still a pleasure to be invited into the life of a normal-looking woman.

Her friends, though, conform more closely to typical beauty and behavior standards.  Marnie (Allison Williams), Hannah’s roommate, has long brown hair and a svelte figure and, in the pilot, bemoans the excessive attention of a hovering beau.

Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), their motor-mouth, hyper but earnest friend, is also thin and attractive, if slightly more “ethnic” (read Jewish; her last name is Shapiro).

And Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna’s British cousin, is chic and sophisticated—or at least her accent makes her sound that way.  Jessa, it soon turns out, is also pregnant, so her body looks strangely more like Hannah’s.

Rebecca Traister, writing admiringly of the show in Salon, notes how these four women’s primary intimacy focuses on one another.  In the show’s opening image, Hannah and Marnie spoon in bed together as the alarm goes off in the morning.  Marnie, it seems, wants to escape the smothering embrace of her boyfriend, which she had accomplished the night before by hanging out in Hannah’s bed watching Mary Tyler Mooreshow reruns and falling asleep.Later, the friends bathe together, Marnie shaving her legs wrapped in a towel and Hannah lounging naked beside her, eating a cupcake for breakfast.  But even though Hannah mentions that she’s never seen Marnie’s breasts, Marnie demurs, insisting that she only reveals herself to people she’s having sex with.

And thus my basic hesitation with Girls so far.  I love the focus on female friendships, which we so rarely get to see on television (Sex and the City aside—I was never a fan.  And I long for Alicia and Kalinda to be friends again on The Good Wife).  But much of the Girls pilot works overtime to secure these women’s heterosexuality.  Marnie and Hannah have slept together, but we’re not to mistake them for lovers.  Later in the episode, another of the friends makes a crack about lesbians (clearly, I’ve blocked it out) that’s meant to underline, again, that she’s not one.  And despite Hannah’s penchant for having sex with inappropriate male partners, same-sex choices don’t appear to cross her mind.

If these women truly are intimate with one another emotionally and logistically, I’m not sure why sexual relationships between them have to be so quickly foreclosed.  For young women who are sharp, sophisticated, and observant about social mores and patterns, such heteronormativity bespeaks a limited imagination, a cultural palette that fails to explore the full spectrum of human relationships.

Hannah’s tryst with Adam (Adam Driver) in the pilot has provoked some viewers with its awkward, explicit sexual nature.  Adam drives their exchange, telling Hannah how to position herself, taking her from behind, and clearly using her for his own enjoyment without either one of them appearing to be very concerned with hers.  Hannah talks throughout the sex, asking him if she’s doing what he wants and explaining why she’s not interested in being penetrated anally.  He finally asks her to be quiet, shutting down her ruminations and, it seems, her sexual agency.

Perhaps this is how Hannah prefers to have sex.  Fine with me.  But as a television representation, it sends a certain message about how women prioritize (or not) their own desire.  Hannah, of course, knows that she’s compromising and apparently, in future episodes, is caught in the typical muddle of nice guy v. bad guy boyfriend dilemma.  Girls wants to represent women and their desires differently, which I admire.

Of course, I’m basing my impressions on only the first episode.  I’ll keep watching and hoping that the show gains a confidence that will let it leave aside its implicit homophobia and think more openly and creatively about how intimacy among friends—and sexuality among women—can be expressed.

The Feminist Spectator

Girls on HBO, Sundays at 10:30 p.m.

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