Deconstructing Hannah

Deconstructing Hannah: ‘Girls’ Goes to Grad School

There’s no degree in Dunham Studies just yet, but academics are reveling in critical studies of the HBO show.

Michael Buckner/Getty for SXSW

Perhaps, as Hannah Horvath decides what to do with her life, she should consider graduate school.

The students and professors in the ivory tower have already begun considering her.

Horvath, Lena Dunham’s alter ego in the HBO hit show Girls, was the subject of a panel discussion at the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago this month, an annual gathering of thousands of literature scholars. Girls and the F Word, as the panel was called, featured papers on topics such as “‘My Shoes Match My Dress… Kind Of!’: The Politics of Dressing and Nakedness in Girls”; “She’s Just Not That Into You: Girls, Dating, and Damage”; and “Dancing on My Own: Popular Music and Issues of Identity in Girls.”

At one point, according to Nancy Miller, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a respondent on the panel, discussion turned on what was exactly meant by the “F-Word,” in the group’s title: “Female, feminist, fucking, or fat?”

Within the next year, two new essay collections about the show are expected to be published. One, called HBO’s Girls: Questions of Gender, Politics, and Millennial Angst, is being put out by a Greek professor of film theory and a social policy professor SUNY. It features essays like “‘I Want Somebody to Hang Out With All the Time’: Emotional Contradictions, Intimacy, and (Dis)Pleasure,” which, according the introduction of the book, “uses textual analysis to examine the ways sex is portrayed between Hannah and two of her partners to discuss how Dunham represents intercourse, intimacy, and emotional conflict.” Or try “Girls: An Economic Redemption Through Production and Labor,” in which a University of Arkansas education academic “offers a rich theoretical background on labor through a Marxist lens and addresses the criticisms Dunham has received regarding the show’s focus on a seemingly privileged group of educated young millennials.”

The second anthology, set to arrive later this year, is called HBO’s Girls and the Politics of Race, Gender, Class, and Privilege.

Although it is not possible to get a degree in Dunham Studies quite yet, the hallowed halls’ embrace of the show should not surprise, not in an academic environment where Jersey Shore had an entire conference at the University of Chicago devoted to it and where Rutgers University offers a class on the theology of Bruce Springsteen.

Tahneer Oksman, the director of the writing program at New York’s Marymount Manhattan College, said she proposed the panel even though she’s not a part of the early twentysomething liberal-arts graduate cohort the show valorizes—“I don’t dress well enough to be comfortable in Williamsburg, for example.” She said the idea came to her because at the previous year’s MLA, most of her colleagues were discussing the show over coffees between sessions.

“We talk a lot [in academic circles] about ‘breaking down the wall’; there is an academic MLA conversation that happens, and then an everyday conversation about what goes on in the media, and the idea is these should not be separate discussions,” Oksman said. “I was a bit surprised they accepted it, actually.”

Many scholars pointed out that even though “Girls” is a half-hour comedy, it attempted from the very start to announce itself as something more significant, with a stoned-out Horvath proclaiming to her parents in the first episode, “I think I might be the voice of my generation—or at least a voice of a generation.” And even before the first episode aired, journalists and cultural critics seemed to treat it as such.

“Deconstruction, third-wave feminism—there are a lot of newfangled theories that I think can be read into Girls,” said Margaret J. Talley, the co-editor of HBO’s Girls: Questions of Gender, Politics and Millennial Angst. “There are questions on authorship, uses of humor and irony among irony natives. Academics are a lot less in the clouds than they used to be.”

If anything, it seems as if there could be a dispute about which corner of the campus will claim the show as its own. Elwood Watson, co-editor of HBO’s Girls and the Politics of Race, Gender, Class and Privilege, said the show could be read from “a psychological perspective, a philosophical perspective, a gender perspective, a historical perspective, an anthropological perspective, a sociological perspective. It has everything, really.”

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Indeed, one chapter in Talley’s volume examines Girls through the lens of Queer Theory, because the women in the show “try to exempt themselves from the reproductive culture which ensure…’ the futurity of the Child and the fantasy of wholeness’ allowing single white females to occupy the queer space.” In another chapter, titled “Occupy Girls: Millennial Adulthood and the Cracks in HBO’s Brand,” a scholar argues that the show criticizes politicians who dismissed the Occupy Wall Street protests by portraying a group of well-educated young women who remain unable to find meaningful employment due to recent convulsions in the global economy.

“To me, the most interesting thing about the show is the critical response it gets from the audience, said Oksman. “People love the nudity or hate the nudity. The complications of race or class either ruin the show for them or they like how it complicates these issues.”

“You don’t get that kind of negative reaction about shows that try to do the same thing from a male perspective,” she added, pointing out that complaints about the all-white, all-middle-class milieu of Breaking Bad or Mad Men were almost unheard of.

The show is only in its third season, but a number of academics interested in Girls said there is likely to be more critical inquiry to come.

“It is part of the rise of cultural studies, which came to authorize any cultural object as being worthy of study,” said CUNY’s Miller. “There is really no object too small, too limited, or too ostensibly vernacular to be studied. It is open season on just about anything.”

Miller said the show could be placed alongside Gertrude Stein and Roland Barthes in a course on self-representation, and can be read in a long tradition of feminist theory, especially considering the lengths to which Dunham goes to expose her unconventional—from a movie star perspective that is—body type.

“I think there is something fascinating about this sense that not only are there certain kinds of bodies that can be considered sexually attractive or have happy endings, and in that sense the show is feminist and is a constant provocation. The body in the show is very hard to get around.”

And she noted as well that although Dunham often looks glamorous when photographed off the set—witness this month’s Vogueon Girls, “She dresses in a way that could not make her look worse.”

It is a notion that has caught on among scholars in the burgeoning field of Fashion Theory who have studied the show.

“I am using the show within a framework of work on nudity and clothing,” said Laura Scroggs, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “Fashion theorists have been talking about this idea of how clothing shapes the naked body, so that whenever we see a unclothed body, it is automatically shaped by the clothing we expect it to wear. Part of the critical reception identifies Lena Dunham’s naked body as unacceptable or gross. It is actually a reaction to her poorly fit clothing. As a fashion theorist it is interesting to think about how the naked body is performative in certain aspects.”

If all this seems unworthy of critical inquiry by the academy, Dunham-ologists like Miller say just see what some of their colleagues are working on.

“Is it really more obscure than another panel on some new translation of a medieval manuscript you have never heard of?”