The female protagonist as writer — Girls part II

— This essay originally appeared on Liticism 

“Usually when people say they want to be a writer, they really don’t want to do anything except eat and masturbate.” – Ray.

The second season of HBO’s Girls has been consistently amusing in its representation of the experience of life as a writer. Though the series has again provoked debates about sex (and, this season, issues of consent), relationships, friendship, and has probably led to a downturn in q-tip sales for the foreseeable future, it is Dunham’s depiction of her female protagonist as writer that has continued to fascinate me.

At the end of the first season I examined the way Girls had routinely – and I think unfairly – been compared to Sex and the City due to their numerous superficial similarities. The most glaring, though less examined, parallel was the creative occupation of their two central characters. As I wrote last year, “It seems to me that what makes Girls interesting, and more real than anything Carrie did in her six seasons and two films, is Hannah’s wish to live a life worthy of being written about.”

The problem for Hannah was that not much had happened to her yet in her small privileged life that would be of interest in a memoir or series of personal essays. She knew she had to “live them first” before she could write her stories and become, in that oft-quoted line, “the voice of my generation, or at least…voice, of a generation,” but this season we see Hannah going some way to living a life worth writing (an ebook) about.

In what is one of the funniest moments of the season, Hannah is shown a sign by the editor of online magazine Jazzhate:

“You get it, right?” She asks.

“So like, the magic happens outside your comfort zone.”

Though the editor is presented as vacuous and mildly creepy, Girls S02 is largely concerned with Hannah’s attempts to get to the place where the magic happens, and her misguided and often scarring experiences there.

Working always on the subject of her portrait of the artist as a young woman, Hannah does coke, as she explains to her friends, “to snort for work because I am planning on writing an article that exposes all of my vulnerabilities to the entire internet.” She continues to sleep with unsuitable men, not Adam this time, but a Republican who doesn’t ‘get’ her essays; and Laird, the junky living downstairs, who asks if it’s ok to kiss her back “Yeah but just for tonight though. For work.”

Hannah falters when, in an episode so unusual and self-contained it could almost be a dream sequence, she spends two days with a separated 42 year old in his beautiful, expensive Brooklyn home – all designer chairs and beige palettes. After a day full of sex and naked table tennis, and sometimes a combination of the two, she sits in a plush robe and cries to a man she barely knows:

“I read this article about Fiona Apple in New York magazine where she said ‘Oh everybody acts like I’m nuts, I’m not nuts I just want to feel it all’ and it’s like, that’s what I’m like. I just want to feel it all.”

As in much of the season, it’s a moment that both makes you cringe and feel terribly sad for Hannah. It might not be rendered in picture frames on a wall, but Hannah’s guiding principle is no different from the editor of Jazzhate’s or the tired writerly cliche of suffering for your art.

But “feel it all” she does, to the point of self harm. The last few episodes show Hannah’s disintegration into incapacitating OCD, culminating in the notorious q-tip scene.

In a parody of the starving author in the garret, Hannah locks herself away in her apartment to meet the month-long deadline for her ebook. Crippled with writer’s block, she has nothing to occupy her mind but her own thoughts and insecurities, Googling increasingly outlandish ailments in a spiral of fear and self-loathing.

Unable, or perhaps too arrogant to ask for help, she reassures Jessa that  “I have a lot of great ideas that are forming in my brain.” Perhaps she does, and it’s difficult not to view the q-tip scene as Hannah’s attempt to dig inside her very brain to get those ideas out.

Indeed, re-watching the series it’s remarkable how often Hannah refers to or touches her ear when anyone critiques her writing. It’s there in the second episode when Sandy tells her honestly what he thought of her essay and she replies “I have something in my ear.” If the muse won’t come to her, perhaps it can be accessed with force.

For a series in which the main character is a writer, we are rarely given the opportunity to read Hannah’s prose. Just twice this season do we see her work – a first chapter entitled “Room for Cream?” that begins: “Her name was Murjashihaway.” And the sweeping line in the final episode: “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance…”

These shots are marked more by the whiteness of the page below than anything written above, shown to underscore the failure of her writing – the oddly un-Hannah tone, and a writer’s block that appears crippling.

Yet this season has rarely been about friendships between (recently graduated) college girls. Hannah has had little in the way of friendship – Marnie moved out, she evicts the deceptive Elijah, Shoshanna is in a relationship-bubble with Ray, and by the end of the season Jessa has disappeared too.

Perhaps Hannah’s Austenesque opening about college girls is true, but Hannah doesn’t write the grand or dramatic – she writes small, personal moments of peculiarity and failure.

As the ebook deadline – and a potential law suit – looms, Hannah murmurs to herself, “I’m going to write a whole book in a day. I’m going to write a fullbook in one day.” But the only thing she manages to do is binge on Cool Whip and give herself a bad haircut.

A friendship between college girls may indeed be grand and dramatic, but it’s the moments of failure – writer’s block, junk food binges, destructive anxiety and procrastination – that make Hannah’s depiction of life as a writer so un-grand, so un-dramatic and so much more truthful.