Five Essay Prompts for GIRLS 3×5 : ‘Only Child’

Illustration by Alex Bedder.

Illustration by Alex Bedder.

These questions regard last night’s episodes of HBO’s GIRLS. Please answer the prompts with specific examples from LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE, though supplementary material will be accepted as a secondary source. Please write legibly. No. 2 pencils only. You have an hour to finish this test. See below for questions and sample responses.

1. GIRLS’s titular girls are all masters of avoidance, constantly deflecting any self-criticism or troubling thought with bluster, rage or indifference, and this episode was a symphony of deflections. Which of the following made you the most uncomfortable, and why?

A) Hannah reacting to the news that her book is in publishing limbo by lashing out meaninglessly at her cousin Rudy’s law practice, incidentally totally ignoring the fact that her father just told her he had surgery;

B) Marnie hearing an honest assessment of herself—including the fact that she acts like she is above everyone else—then immediately having sex with the guy who delivered the criticism, and then resuming her pose of looking down her nose at him;

C) Hannah kicking the obviously unstable Caroline out of her house rather than confronting the suggestion that if she only has one book in her she’s not really much of a writer;

D) Every single word that comes out of Jessa’s mouth.

That’s tough! It’s a toss-up between A and C, though Caroline’s amazing tirade at Hannah–“You will never write a thing that matters, because you will never understand the true struggles of humanity, because you just slipped right out of your mother’s pussy like a nice little golden egg, you spoiled little fucking brat!!”–might constitute the of the best critique of Hannah Horvath the show has made thus far. Unfortunately, Hannah had already closed the door, so I guess she couldn’t hear that scathing personal indictment/egg comparison?

I think I actually lean towards that incident, because A wasn’t a deflection, it was just pure narcissism: She couldn’t see that her dad was talking about a cancer scare because she was so busy freaking out. That played like one of those “too true to life” moments that GIRLS occasionally hits, and it’s uncomfortably close to what being in your early 20s is actually like. B is less deflection than self-loathing, and Jessa actually speaks a good game…it’s her actions that deflect, not her words.

But Hannah’s 180 on Caroline is such a textbook example of critical avoidance–”You got too close to the truth, so I’m going to delegitimize everything about you!”–that she might as well wear that on a t-shirt, instead of that fugly mess with the lizards. (Although I’m actually in love with that shirt and someone should tell me where I can go buy one just like it, stat.)

2. Imagine an alternate-universe GIRLS in which instead of Hannah, our heroine is Paige, the obese Tourette’s sufferer who is also an aspiring writer who was creating a memoir for Mill Street. What are her three quirky friends like? How did she experience David’s death? Does she have another book in her?

Well one of Paige’s friends is definitely the fictional crippled cousin of Adam and Caroline, whose story Hannah coopted in order to explain why she couldn’t properly grieve. Actually, I imagine Paige’s life is a lot like Hannah’s, and that’s sort of the subtext/joke of the scene. “Oh, you’re chubby with OCD? Here’s someone who is straight-up obese, with a more noticeable dysfunction!”

Don’t you see Paige as some very competent woman who has a full-time, successful job outside of writing? Maybe she’s a full-time nurse, who on the side writes essays for DoubleX about our culture of fat-shaming. Her Vice travel vlogging series last summer, “F*ck That Sh*t: Touring Tibet with Tourettes,” is totally going viral–and she does a love advice column for Jezebel once a week about being in a plus-sized relationship. 

Paige’s guilty pleasure is Jennifer Weiner, though she’d never admit it to her friends, who are all studious readers of Dissent and The Nation. Her bestie does PR for a pro-choice organization like NARAL, and is definitely Asian. When Paige goes out to lunch (not brunch) it looks like a Colors of Benneton ad, and she sleeps well at night, knowing that she did all she could to advance the conversation about “issues that matter” that day.(Either that, or she’s the lady who lives with Dom on Looking, and she’s friends with the most boring clan of gays you’ll ever meet.)

Paige doesn’t know if there is another book in her; it’s just not the way she thinks about these things, and she doesn’t have time for frivolous time-wasting neuroses like that.

3. Every time we get a glimpse inside the world of publishing within the show, the tone of GIRLS shifts to parody. Hannah’s meeting with her potential new publisher, for example, unfolds as a weird series of jokes that wouldn’t have been out of place on a sitcom, complete with funny asides and a wacky sidekick. But it is never particularly clear what aspects of the New York publishing arena such scenes are meant to caricature. Do they have particular publishing figures or archetypes as their target? Or are we just meant to read this as a general indictment of the often surreal and farcical nature of the publishing industry?

“All right, calm down kid, it’s a funeral,”  Adam mumbles to Hannah as she geeks out about her Zadie Smith sighting, but let’s be honest: In the publishing world as portrayed on GIRLS, it’s Adam’s reaction that seems inappropriate. That’s Zadie Smith! Where is Sloane Crosley? Did she leave for the wake because she thought there’d be cake? (TOO funny! You’re so bad!) I don’t want to come off as insensitive, but last night during the Super Bowl I was hanging out with a bunch of literary folks, and the number one topic of conversation was Philip Seymour Hoffman, followed closely by the discussion of whether it was weird/wrong/too soon to be talking so much about Philip Seymour Hoffman dying. It was like a shiny object we couldn’t stop playing with. Or a scab we couldn’t stop picking. It was very, very Hannah Horvath, this self-reflexive monitoring of our own reactions to death, as if our own feelings was the most interesting thing to come out of the whole, terrible experience.

Though that might not be a publishing world thing, but a human world thing: Certainly the way it’s parodied on GIRLS seems less like an insular issue and more of just the weird lens the show puts on the entire universe these ladies inhabit. The art world was briefly skewed the same way when Marnie was working in it, the society of UES nanny-owners equally so when Jessa flirted with the idea of childcare. Any through-the-looking-glass industry that considers Hannah Horvath the actual voice of her generation (without air quotes) is going to be populated by Mad Hatters like Annelise, who, despite her husband’s death, does manage to bitch about how hard it’s going to be to find a new editor, or Mo, whose sycophantic giggles bring to mind Knox “Just a Friend of Maudie’s” Harrington. Tombstone pizza, Mindy Kaling not choking on enough long balls (whatever that means)…it’s like Hannah is finally home in this Sliders-verse GIRLS resides in, where the publishing world is dying for another Cat Marnell train wreck.

Literally. Dying. (LOL!!!)

4. Though the idea that Hannah could give mental health and relationship advice to anyone else is laughable, she actually doesn’t do the worst job playing “Dr. Phil” and facilitating conversation between Adam and Caroline. She at least gets them talking. How might this conversation have gone differently if she had instead been a fan of a different television host? Dr. Drew? Judge Judy? Jerry Springer?

Okay, so look at those three examples you just mentioned: What is the main difference between them and Dr. Phil? Those three are all instigators first and foremost; the kind of people who make fights happen because they realize the necessity of conflict in entertainment. Dr. Phil, while overwrought and maudlin at times, actually does help a lot of people in a way that, say, Celebrity Rehab doesn’t.

I don’t think Hannah’s particular choice of circus ringleader was an accident, because as someone as self-involved and willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the “story” as Hannah might superficially appear, deep down she really does just want the best for her friends. She’s a connector, not a fighter. She doesn’t host dinner parties with terrible pad thai because she loves the ensuing drama (say what you will, but Hannah’s not trying to write Answered Prayers here), but because she really does want to hang out with her friends. Hannah is Dr. Phil because that’s what makes Hannah Hannah. She wants everyone to get along, unlike Caroline or Jessa (Jerry Springers), Ray and Marnie (Judge Judys, obviously), or Adam  (I thought his buff arms looked familiar!) Shoshana is definitely Tyra Banks, make of that what you will. FIERCE!

5. Both Marnie and Jessa are embarking on determined missions to improve themselves, and their quests have very clear parallels. Marnie asks Ray directly to tell her what is wrong with her, while Jessa rhetorically asks “Can you believe that [my friend faked her death to avoid hanging out with me]” and Shoshannah answers that she can totally believe it. Jessa decides to try to get a job at a chldren’s clothing store because “I need something that smacks of innocence,” while Marnie adopts a tiny kitten. What are we meant to learn from this association between their two self-improvement kicks? Is one more likely to succeed than the other?

Both of these characters are real bummers to me because they KEEP trying to better themselves, only to slide back down into their oily dregs of self-involvement. It’s a weird cycle with those two, and we’re only now fully seeing the pattern. Look at Jessa: First season, we meet her at the end of one of her bottoming out periods, where she’s trying to do something that “smacks of innocence” (becaming an au pair). Marnie’s also on the ups, as her original reason for dumping Charlie was that she was going on a cleansing spree in her burgeoning career as an art gallery…person? It’s never clear what Marnie thought she’d be doing in five years, but she knew that her boyfriend was dead weight.

When that didn’t work out for either of them, the second season saw the re-spawn: Jessa 2.0 (now with more domesticity + puppies!) and Marnie redux (God, what DID Marnie do last season? Got a job at the Hurricane Club, have disgusting starfish sex, desperately try to get Charlie back.) And when those best laid plans of mice and hipsters didn’t work out, the two of them just sort of moseyed back to square one. Now we see Jessa wanting to be near children again–almost as if she thinks she can absorb good vibes by osmosis and not the other way around–and Marnie totally buying into the Cult of Personality bullshit that tells you that you need to destroy your ego in order to build yourself up stronger, better, faster, meaner.

The problem with both Marnie and Jessie, and what makes their attempts to adjust to adult life truly depressing, is that they both ALMOST get it, at least way more than Hannah, who thinks the world keeps happening to her. Those two at least try, in their own solipstitic way, to take responsibility for their decisions and move forward. Yet it’s Hannah who, for all her faults in being extremely dogmatic and laser-like in her focus to accomplish this one thing, is succeeding, while Marnie and Jessa are both grasping at smoke. Neither has any idea what they want, or who they want to be, they just know that they want something, they want to be “better.” With this “one step forward, two steps back” approach to self-improvement, neither one of them is more likely to succeed than the other,  because they have no idea what that success would look like even if they found it.

And, to paraphrase Jessa scolding Hannah last season, that’s going to be an issue for them.