HBO’s Girls has always been a lightning rod for critical reaction, whether it be allegations of nepotism, privilege, or racism. It’s impossible to imagine a week going by without someone, somewhere, having an adverse reaction to the Lena Dunham-created comedy.
And that’s okay: art is meant to trigger emotional responses. I’d far rather watch a television show that stirred up feelings within its viewers—that challenged them to watch something complicated and often uncomfortable—than a show whose main goal was simply to please the most people, across all demographic swaths, week after week.
Girls is most definitely the former rather than the latter. It’s a show that revels in its own complexity, in the often-unlikable natures of its characters, in the comedy of the awkward that follows. This week’s episode (“On All Fours”)—written by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner and directed by Dunham—expectedly led to all sorts of responses from its viewers, many of which were of the outraged variety.
Joe Flint at the Los Angeles Times yesterday penned a reaction to this week’s episode of Girls, focusing in particular on the graphic sex scene between Adam (Adam Driver) and his new girlfriend, Natalia (Shiri Appleby), which was challenging to watch: after making her crawl to his bedroom on all fours, he proceeded to engage in some disconnected, rough sex with her and then finished himself off on her chest.
“But Sunday's episode was graphic even for those fans used to seeing creator and star Lena Dunham's no-holds-barred approach to story-telling,” wrote Flint. “This was not a first for cable TV, or the movies. An episode of HBO's Sex and the City showed fluid but played it for laughs, as did a well-known scene featuring Cameron Diaz in the comedy There's Something About Mary.”
“However, this time it was a jarring end to a violent and hard-to-watch scene,” he continued. “Even theatrical movies with sexually explicit material and adult pay-per-view channels typically steer clear of such displays, especially if it's not for comic relief."
Flint is right in saying that this was not “a first” for cable television. But he (and an HBO spokeswoman quoted in the story) seem to have a short memory, as HBO’s short-lived drama Tell Me You Love Me featured an even more graphic scene involving “fluids” that was most definitely not played for comic relief.
While Tell Me You Love Me has been quickly relegated to the forgotten bargain bin of HBO dramas, the scene in question there has not and Adam “It was a prosthetic penis!” Scott has not lived down the scene in which his baby-crazed wife, played by Lost’s Sonya Walger, manually pleasures him to the point of climax. It’s not played for anything remotely related to laughs, and is instead a somber scene about how her hopes for a child are quite literally slipping through her fingers.
But putting that aside, Girls likewise doesn’t use the climax scene—and its physical memento—for comedy. It’s a clear reaction to now standardized porn aesthetics, a money shot that is both empty and valueless for both Adam and Natalia. His pleasure, at objectifying her and transforming her into a physical canvas on which to paint his physical release, is at odds with her horror at what unfolds, a moment between the two characters that is entirely depressing.
Was it difficult to watch? Yes. Was that the point? Absolutely.
Natalia’s debasement here fulfills two trajectories within the narrative. First, it pays off comments made to Hannah (Dunham) by her publisher (John Cameron Mitchell) who asks her, after reading a draft of her e-book, “Where's the sexual failure? Where's the pudgy face flecked with semen and sadness?” Here, it’s made real, a moment that combines the fluids and feelings that are lacking in Hannah’s novel.
Additionally, it makes the psychological disconnect between Natalia and Adam physical. Earlier in the episode, she told Adam that she wanted him to pull out during sex and he thanked her for being so “direct,” but his brusqueness works against him, as he forces Natalia into a fantasy that is clearly not her own. What worked with Hannah, what connected them—despite their dysfunction—was her willingness to go along with anything, sexually. What he realizes in his moment of climax is both that he and Hannah did connect, and that he and Natalia are over.
The semen that Adam deposits on Natalia’s chest is not meant to titillate or arouse. It’s meant to shock the viewer into opening their eyes, to see the damage that Adam perpetuates here, one based upon countless male fantasies enacted in porn. But while other cable shows might use sex and female nudity as window dressing, Girls strives for something both deeper and darker here, a revelation that there are repercussions to physical intimacy, that Natalia’s humiliation and debasement are not sexy, but painful. As I said on Twitter yesterday, “Elsewhere, it’s sanitized objectification. Here, it dares paint itself for what it is: messy.”
That messiness might be rarely seen on television—or perhaps rarely seen at all, outside of the comedic—but that doesn’t make the scene any less vital or important. If anything, it serves to remind the viewer that male expectations don’t encompass the full domain of desire. However, Adam—like many of the characters in this particular episode—can’t help himself. His self-destructive behavior is no different from Hannah inserting the Q-tip into her other ear, or Marnie (Allison Williams) tragically singing her ex-boyfriend a song at his work party and then sleeping with him.
This season, all of Girls’s characters are in a state of freefall, and each is so desperate to hold on to something, or someone, that they’re willing to mess up themselves and their lovers in the process.