Things American: Authentic Desire & the Root of Sexuality in HBO’s “Girls”

What if I said I do not believe in desire?

As the holidays wind down, and with them the inundation of images of midnight smooches on New Year’s Eve and nuclear families unwrapping presents by the tree, I am always left with that seasonal-depression-idea that I’ve somehow failed to live up to the status quo—those unreachable expectations. And then I pause and think, “Wait, why do I care? That’s not even what I want.” I’m thrown by how much those desires feel, momentarily, like my own.


Adam Driver and Lena Dunham in HBO’s Girls

HBO’s Girls, which premieres on January 12, gives us something of a window into how these unshakable images can inform or dictate our sexual desires.

Take the language the character Adam Sackler, Hannah’s love interest, uses during sex—it is clearly derived from normative depictions in pornography and other media. What fragment of this behavior, if any, stems also from a legitimate internal desire?

But what is “legitimate” desire? Does it exist?

We often explain away behaviors as biological, and therefore difficult to modify (i.e. the need to dominate or be dominated in bed, and the frightening complexity of that specific spectrum of desire). But our desires are an aggregation of biology and culture. The specific acts of desire portrayed in Girls, I would argue, more often derive from cultural norms than biological impulses. Our minds are inextricable from our intake, as our bodies are from the food we eat. Though it is difficult for me to discern what I actually want from what I think I want, this distinction is often negligible—so long as the outcome feels good for all parties involved. But as L.V. Anderson observed in Slate, “Porn’s widespread availability, the growing embrace of Dan Savage’s philosophy of the ideal sex partner (‘GGG,’ or ‘good, giving, and game’), and deeply entrenched differences in how we socialize boys and girls combine to create sexual encounters in which both parties are doing what they think they should be doing, and yet neither is fully satisfied.”

In Season 2, Episode 9, Adam has just drunk for the first time since he was seventeen, after running into Hannah outside a party.  Back at his apartment with Natalia, he tells her to get on all fours and crawl to the bed across his filthy floor. “I want to fuck you from behind, hit the walls of you,” he says, to which she replies meekly, “Okay.” She objects to him coming on her dress, quickly pulls down her top, and he finishes on her bare chest. With Hannah, Adam’s domination-oriented tendencies were amusing and playful; with Natalia, he becomes aggressive and even dangerous. Perhaps it’s because Adam had his first drink after many sober years. Perhaps a part of him is angry with Natalia for not being Hannah. Or perhaps this is a subconscious effort to push Natalia away.

I don’t believe Adam’s actions are an authentic representation of his desires. They seem, instead, to be motivated by images and sound bites he’s heard others use, assumptions about a woman’s desire to be dominated, the neuroses of his addictive personality, and a whole slew of other issues I’m not licensed to diagnose. These complexities neither excuse Adam nor villainize him. The brilliance of the show is that Adam is made out to be no more scoundrel than hero—or he is both at once—just as Natalia is not reduced to victim status. She, too, was unaware that she wouldn’t enjoy this encounter until she was forced to find out; in going along with Adam’s sexual desires, she learned about her own and took agency within that lesson. In episode 10, when we again see them in bed together, Natalia proactively tells Adam what she wants, and that his aggressive manner doesn’t turn her on: “I can like your cock and not be a whore. Do you understand?”

There has been much discussion about whether or not their encounter in Episode 9 was consensual. For me, the heart of this question lies in the moment after she’d experimented long enough and told Adam he was hurting her. Was that instant a reversal of her initial, albeit unenthusiastic, consent? As a viewer, I find myself forgiving Adam this violation, and in no way do I begrudge Natalia’s staying with him. We have all, to some degree, found ourselves in situations where we realize halfway through that this is not, in fact, what we desire. That this desire is someone else’s we are wearing like a mask.

The seemingly happy ending of the season 2 finale is a tableau of this same push-and-pull between authentic and cultivated desire.

When Marnie and Charlie sit down to a blissful brunch after sex that is finally satisfying, Marnie says to Charlie, “See, this is what I keep trying to tell Hannah—when she’s talking about all of her wandering—is that there’s an endpoint. We have all these experiences. So eventually we can settle down…Like, we have our experiences. And now they’re behind us…We’re old fogies now.”

Marnie’s is a false, romantic view of life and partnership. It is recirculated from romantic comedies, literature (Victorian to contemporary), or other HBO shows like Sex and the City. Of course we know that marriage is not the end of experience and wandering, as we so often see in cinema, but another beginning to a breadth of experiences, good, bad, and in-between.

But even if we know better, this coupling is what the viewer has expected, wanted. Sex and the City, though initially a show about female sexuality and friendship, could not seem to find its end but within the conventions and confines of its genre: a woman must find her man to find happiness—her story arc cannot resolve without him. This is what we’ve been trained for all our cinematic lives. We want Marnie and Charlie to be happy, to be equals in bed and in life—but not like this, with Marnie blundering and groping wildly about for stability.  Marnie’s lines sound like something she’d heard in a movie that she always wanted to say herself—but she remembers them wrong and the words get twisted as they come out: “I want to see you every morning and I want to make you a snack every night. And eventually I want to have your little brown babies. And I’m gonna watch you die.” Charlie responds in kind, with his own clichés: “Everything good I try and do, I do it because of you. I try and get away but I keep coming back. And that’s because I love you.” A large part of me wants to scream at him that perhaps he is addicted (to Marnie, to being rejected by her?), that he also craves stability and familiarity, and that he, like the rest of us, is afraid of ending up alone.

For Hannah and Adam, too, there is that uncomfortable mix of dread and hope: we want Hannah to save herself; we want her to be saved by Adam. From the pits of her OCD, Hannah finally asks Adam for help (after asking the other men in her life). Though Hannah has been self-absorbed all along, this particular addressing of her needs feels like a kind of redemption. In the final montage, relief bubbles up when Adam drops everything and runs shirtless to her side, and yet part of her (the part that says “No, you don’t have to come”) knows this is not the answer. Sure, there’s a romance in being swept away by sweaty, bare-chested men who understand us like Adam, in being taken care of by someone who loves us deeply, darkly, who isn’t scared off by this snotty face, this haircut, this bad habit.  As viewers, we’ve hoped for the conventional happy ending. Marnie may genuinely feel fulfilled in this moment—her smile is easier; life suddenly seems manageable; it’s all going to be okay. Likewise, I believe Hannah believes this is what she wants. But both our cinematic expectations and the characters’ desires are steered by cultural intake.

Most likely the voice of doubt will rise above the rest in Season 3. These girls will realize that their acted-out desires for that brand of fulfillment may not, in fact, fully belong to them. Marnie’s sappy lines are delivered with such conviction and sincerity, we must struggle to remember (and, I believe, we’re being asked to remember) the context of this show: Girls portrays privileged white Brooklynites flailing about in their sexual awakening by tackling and undermining the conventions of this kind of drama. The fact that Marnie states this sentiment so overtly—that youthful turmoil ends here—announces itself as a challenge to how the plot must proceed. That this height of happiness and resolution arrives at the end of Season 2, rather than the end of the series, also calls attention to itself: these women have found their men, have been saved, in the middle of their story arc. Where most sitcoms will have us wait until the end of the series for the couple we’re rooting for to come together (Lori Gilmore with Luke, Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski, you name it), you can bet that Girls will not end in idyllic nuptials. (In any case, with Christopher Abbott leaving the show, real life seems to necessitate a breakup.) More likely, the show will resolve in separation, perhaps in divorce from New York City itself. By the time the series comes to a close, these characters will be 27 or 28—not an age at which I see Hannah finding a life partner. The only “settling” will be into Hannah’s understanding and acceptance of herself. Perhaps next season will end in Hannah reaching out to Marnie instead of the men in her life, reviving the friendship that began the show. Then again, maybe that’s another trope and expectation ready to be deflated.

This is the great marriage of (and tension between) irony and sympathy that the show manages: Girls employs the inescapable sincerity of these tropes while simultaneously disputing them. It is unsettling, playing on the contradictions of expectations within the characters, as well as within the viewer. I, for one, balance within myself these two contradictory truths: I want a happy ending in love and life; I don’t believe, and am in fact too cynical to believe, in happy endings.

I, too, want to knock into a room in a fury of kisses, rip off my clothes without taking a breath, fall gracefully onto a bed, or the kitchen table. And trust me, I’ve tried, perhaps unwittingly, to reenact these scenes, and it turns out that doors need to be unlocked, and it’s hard to take off clothes quickly without dangerously bonking heads, and, to be honest, with all the logistics of the real world, it’s difficult to sustain the fury. To not know what you want, to not have a grasp of your own desires, and therefore to not know yourself, is frightening. I find myself tackling these questions in my fiction and in my life.

Hannah finds Adam’s bedroom talk both amusing and sexy. In bed, Hannah makes that language and those positions her own. She sets out to have unique sexual experiences that are, in the end, familiar and that we (Hannah included) have seen before (i.e. sex in a graveyard with a teenage boy, a fleeting affair with an older wealthy man, etc.). If the character Hannah is half-aware that what she’s doing is imitating documented sexuality in order to document it herself, thereby owning and reclaiming those experiences that are now designated as cliché, Lena Dunham is hyper-aware: she portrays our complex urges by borrowing and undermining rom-com, sit-com, and pornography tropes. For the characters, the results can be dark and damaging. To the viewer, however, the show offers a study and reclamation of the expectations of our sexuality.

Carmiel Banasky is a writer and teacher from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Guernica, NPR, The Rumpus, Anderbo, TheThe Poetry, and Tottenville Review, among other journals. She earned her BA from the University of Arizona, and her MFA from Hunter College, where she taught Undergraduate Creative Writing. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Bread Loaf, Ucross, Spiro Arts, Santa Fe Art Institute, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and other foundations. She’s tried her hand at grassroots organizing while living in Mississippi, and studied for a year in London. She now divides her time between Port Townsend, WA (working for Goddard College) and writing residencies across the country.

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