How does Girls stack up against Sex and the City?

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Lena Dunham in Girls
  • Lena Dunham in Girls
As I am for a lot of things, I was late for Girls. And not just because I refuse to pay for HBO. I was avoiding the show—in part for the precociousness of Lena Dunham and my growing weariness with anything designated as hipster—but mainly because of the comparison Girls draws to another show lauded as a cultural touchstone: Sex and the City.

Sex and the City premiered during my formative college years and went a long way in fucking up my worldview. It helped me to convince myself that out there in the real world, jobs came without work, apartments came without roommates, and clothes came without price tags. You could argue that I have no one to blame but myself—my dull-witted, callow, college self—for thinking that a television show could portray reality to any meaningful degree. And you'd be mostly right—except for the dogged insistence of women everywhere that the show was so realistic and relatable. Everyone, it seemed, could fully recognize themselves in one of the show's four cartoonish archetypes. Quizzes surfaced to confirm which character you were (They're still out there, if you're curious. I just took one and regret to inform you that I tested positive for Miranda). But beyond perpetuating the idea among impressionable young women that identities could be summed up in two adjectives or less, Sex and the City was guilty of offering really, really inaccurate portrayals of sex.

The sex of that city is not the sex that I've known anyone, anywhere to have. I'm confident in that claim because at no point during the run of the show did a character ever experience bad sex in the way bad sex exists in the real world. Yes, most of the time bad sex was played for laughs, which, in all honesty, is a fairly sound real-world strategy for dealing with it. But Sex and the City—relatable as women claimed it to be—failed to offer even a glimpse of the alienation and confusion that a truly bad sexual experience can inspire. And beyond that, even the worst of the characters' sexual exploits still felt comparatively glamorous and aspirational. At one point, series heroine Carrie Bradshaw dates a handsome, doting politician who reveals his fatal flaw by asking her to indulge his golden shower fantasy. So far, entirely relatable—happened to me last week. When she won't consent, he dumps her. But Carrie gets the last laugh when she writes about the incident in her newspaper column, exposing the guy for the deviant he is and, we can only assume, derailing his future in politics.

Now consider Hannah Horvath, the character portrayed by Lena Dunham on Girls and, if we're to continue the comparison, either the updated analogue or fundamental antipode of Carrie Bradshaw. Whereas Carrie tended to be involved with men who were attractive, talented, or wealthy, Hannah chooses to cast her pearls before Adam, a sadistic agoraphobic who, based on the yearbook photos, looks a lot like your average school shooter. Carrie's politician asked to pee on her, though never explicitly—the show danced around the subject with puns. Hannah's Adam has child rape fantasies, he gives her bruises, he effectively ends their relationship and then begins to masturbate before she's had a chance to leave. Not only does Dunham (who also writes and directs) refuse to employ euphemism in describing these scenes, she shoots them in a wide, unflinching angle. Carrie would confront uncomfortable situations with a comically raised eyebrow and a zinger along the lines of "Not so fast, mister." Hannah flicks her eyes ever so slightly to the side as if looking for someone in on the joke. She makes odd, unfunny wisecracks in an attempt to introduce some levity into a situation being taken very seriously by the other side. And she ultimately, awkwardly, attempts to play along—constantly breaking the rules of a game she doesn't quite understand. Hannah, in other words, is having truly bad sex.

When I finally gave in to the hype and watched the first season of Girls, I recognized Hannah immediately. Watching her gave me the same queasy feeling as revisiting my journal, long ago banished to my box of shameful things. I kept the journal through the "battlefield of my twenties, littered with the corpses of possible selves"—if that quote gives you any indication of its tenor—and it's filled with accounts that hew far more closely to Hannah's experience than anything Sex and the City ever portrayed. Carrie, in an effort to assert her status as an independent woman, buys a new pair of designer shoes. Hannah, in an effort to do the same, decides to claim her diagnosis of HPV as a badge of honor by making an oblique reference to it in her Facebook status. Carrie dissects her problems over drinks with an endlessly supportive group of friends. Hannah blows her friends off to hang out with Adam—something that she knows, deep down, is wrong. Carrie writes things like: "And I couldn't help but wonder, is it better to fake it than be alone?" Hannah writes things like: "He's hoping the neighbors didn't see me leave. I'm hoping it's not possible to go any number than this."

Oh wait, I wrote that. Somewhere on the battlefield of my twenties.

I suppose you could make the argument that a comparison between the two shows is unfair because the characters in Girls are in their twenties while Sex and the City deals with characters in their thirties. But having now passed the threshold into that decade, I can empirically confirm that a Hannah does not necessarily a Carrie make. Apparently I turned into fucking Miranda.

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