Girls - An SSL Review Overview

GIRLS: I Watched It
Girls. The HBO series created by Lena Dunham. I took a while to start watching this, largely because I saw a piece of it, and the girls seemed so rich and whiny, I couldn't do it. However, it is clearly a thing I should know about given that it is a popular, progressive, and highly sexual show made by and made about women. I need to be up to date with what the feel is out there with lady-gasms. Are people starting to get it anatomically right? What's popular out there for female orgasm and masturbation depictions? How're people talking about sex and orgasms these days? You know that kind of stuff.

So, Charlie and I started in last year and went through all 5 seasons (we haven't yet started on the newest and final season), and you know what? I got into it. Granted, there are plenty of things in that show that grate on me. However, there's also some elements I liked and some elements I haven't really seen done that way before, and I always appreciate that kind of thing. There were risks taken, and even if a piece of media also has a lot of tired ass shit in it (and Girls does have its share of that in my opinion), I'll give a lot of props for taking those risks - because I think media that takes those risks are what drive taste and style and subject matter forward, and I respect that.

An SSL Overview
Before I start doing SSL Reviews on Girls episodes, I want to just give an overview - because in a lot of ways, after watching 5 seasons, I think a discussion of the feel about female orgasms, masturbation, and sexuality is as important if not more important than the details.

For those not in the know, an SSL Review is a critique of specific instances of depiction or discussion of female masturbation or orgasm in media, particularly TV (list of all TV SSL Reviews) and movies (list of all movie SSL Reviews), but also other types of media from time to time. I detail out exactly what happened in the scene and then break down how physically realistic it was. For instance, were the physical things happening to the woman leading up to and during orgasm actually things that would realistically physically cause orgasm? So, I speak on the realism and also on the way the depiction/discussion fits into the larger cultural understanding of female orgasm and sexuality.

All that said, I think the way Girls, as a whole, addresses female orgasm is poignant and interesting. I think it has a particular kind of contemporary female voice; a voice that is at the same time both outspokenly sex-positive and also incredibly detached from physical sexual desire while with a partner. It's a wierd dichotomy, but I think it is a very real, very common and very woman dichotomy that doesn't get the kind of open dialogue it deserves.

The First Sex Scene Says It All
I happen to relook at the first sex scene in this show, and I feel like it embodies many of the things that are important about the depictions of female sexuality and female orgasm in this show. It has a level of raw reality to it that deserves attention. The feel of this scene is not unlike the sex scene in Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham's 2010 movie. Reading back over my SSL Review of it, though, I don't think I discussed the importance of the raw realness in that scene the way I should have.

So, let me just set the scene here. Hannah (Lena Dunham) goes over to this dude Adam's apartment (Adam Driver). They have been texting, it seems, and he's not good at texting her back, and she ends up just going over there after a bad day. They talk a bit and then she initiates stuff by kissing him on the couch. They do this for a couple seconds, and then he tells her to get on her stomach, and she does. Through all of the dialogue below, both are generally in a fun-loving space.
Adam:  You modern career woman, I know what you like. You think you can just come in here and talk all that noise.
Hannah: Umm. no.
Adam: Grab your legs.
Hannah: Uh, what'd you say? (she grabs her legs)
Adam: Okay. Okay, this is good. I'm going to go get some lube.
Hannah: Uuuuuummm...Why do we need to get lube?
Adam: When I get back, I want you in the exact same position, but take all the rest of the shit off. (He walks out)
Hannah: Will you get a condom?
Adam: I'll consider it.
She is taking off her tights awkwardly as he comes back in the room. 
Adam: Jesus fucking christ.
Hannah: This is really hard. (laughing) 
He takes off her tights, kneels behind her, opens a condom, throws the wrapper to the side, then throws the condom to the side, and then pulls her up into doggy style. 
Hannah: Is that okay? Are you putting on a a condom?
Adam: No!
Hannah: Wait. You are right?
Adam: Yes. (he isn't)
Hannah: Alright, 'cause when you said the thing about (words fall into mumbles then starts to clear up) I thought you were gonna do that...(voice gets real clear). Please don't do that. That feels awful. Thank you. Okay. Thank you. That's the right spot.
Adam: Yeah, sorry. (continuing without missing a beat).
She relaxes and just kinda impassively moves back and forth with his thrusts.
Hannah: So, I can just stay like this for a while?
Adam: Yeah.
Hannah: Do you need me to move more or like...
Adam: What?
Hannah: I just didn't know if you wanted me to be more like...that (pushed her arm out in front of her then back towards her and then back and forth that way a couple times) 
Adam: Oh. No. This is fine, You're doing great. This is all you need to do. (He's impatient and definitely concentrated on the his dick, and she's just kinda chillin' on her hands and knees).
Hannah: I'm just. I'm sorry about the wrong whole anal thing. I just don't want to do it now, I just feel like if we did, I'd just like want to talk about it and just figure out what....it's just not comfortable for me...
Adam: (cutting her off) Let's play the quiet game.
Hannah: Okay so you're not mad at me?
Adam: No, I'm great. Having a great time.
The scene cuts to another character's storyline, and when it cuts back to Hannah and Adam. They are naked sitting on the couch having a nice friendly conversion. It's kind and intimate and jokey, and then she gets up to go to a dinner party she's late for.

Let's Revisit that Scene, Shall We?
What I think this scene and this show do so well is capture the wierd, kinda fucked-up way women have found to force their sexuality into the limited existing space allowed us within the reality of our sexual expectations. It's confused and a bit nonsensical, and also it's sad and gross from an objective perspective, but doesn't often feel as sad as it probably could to the women.  Let me point out some things:

  • Hannah's clit nor orgasm had any space in this sex
  • Hannah initiated it. She also kept an open dialogue and expressed some preferences clearly. (so, in a way, she's doing all the things a modern, sex-positive woman is told to do)
  • She was pretty fun-loving and jovial most of the time. She laughed a lot, and didn't seem to have had an overall bad sex encounter - especially given the kinda intimate post-sex scene. (to me that points to an appreciation of and humor for the wierd awkwardness and intimacy of sex, and her satisfaction with that seems to me a way of making the best of the sexual situation presented her)
  • Adam didn't force her into sex, and he had a jovial - although somewhat exasperated and  Asperger-ish - feel to him (so, he's not technically, like, a rapist or anything, and there was a level of humor and play-acting that I think was clearly meant to be part of his sex persona)
  • Adam straight up ignored her clear, multiple-time ask to wear a condom (I mean that is shitty)
  • Adam tries to put his dick in her butthole without asking, but doesn't push the issue when she very clearly tells him to stop. (see, not a rapist. He tried something just in case she let him do it, but she didn't so he stopped)
  • Hannah apologizes to Adam for not being okay with Adam's unannounced entrance into her sphincter ring (because women, for some godawful reason *see: all of culture for all of time* really buy the idea that men deserve whatever they want during sex)
  • Hannah opens up dialogue about what Adam needs and wants but Adam never opens up that dialogue about what Hannah needs and wants, (Again: Hannah's doing exactly what modern sex-positive sex advice tells us to do - talk about things...but it does no good for her if it's not reciprocated)
It's all the things about sex that we progressive, feminist, sexually knowledgeable ladies would like to think we are above. We speak up about our needs and communicate effectively with our partners! We know that foreplay is important and that our needs deserve to be met as much as his! The men we pick wouldn't disrespect us! We are beyond this type of sexist tom-foolery!

Kids These Days And Their Hook-ups, Am I Right?
Okay, at this point, I want to tell you that this is not going to be a rant about how terrible hook-up culture these days is or what a problem the influence of ever-available internet porn has been on men and the way they have sex. I am going to say something much more simple.

Sex kinda sucks for all women to some degree, but the reasons it sucks are so deep in our psyche and our culture and we women are so used to how much it sucks, we don't even seem to mind, and I think this scene captures the reality of this situation beautifully. 

Seriously, do you think it's a new thing that men don't want to wear condoms and try all kinds of tactics to avoid it? ("Don't you trust me?" "My dicks too big for condoms." "It takes all the fun and feeling out of it for me - if I have to wear one, I don't even want to do it." "I'm allergic" "I'll pull out. It'll be fine." "Of course I put one on"). These are straight classic. Men have always been dicks about this.

And...is it really a recent phenomenon that men try to push the envelope about what a woman is willing to do sexually. Granted, the interest, some surveys and a quick look at porn will tell you, in anally penetrating women has gone up in the last 40 years, and so the fact that Adam's pushing of the envelope involves trying anal is kind of a contemporary twist, but that kind of pushy mentality in a sexual situation is not. And, to be clear, I'm not talking about full on rape here. I'm talking about being pushy as fuck. I'm talking about making out and the hand goes down to the panties, and when it's moved away, it tries again, and even a few more times before giving up. I'm talking about getting a blowjob and knowing that she doesn't want the jizz in the mouth, but trying to make it happen anyway. I'm talking about not wanting to have any sexual contact at all, but husband keeps rubbing up and poking the dick in her back until it's easier and faster to just let it happen than to keep trying to avoid it. It's tiring, and it turns a perfectly sexy situation into one of avoiding potentially stressful, painful, gross, or scary situations. Sometimes, like Hannah, we avoid it, but sometimes, it's easier not to make a fuss - either way it sucks, it's not sexy; and it doesn't allow a woman to focus on what she wants and needs sexually...but it happens all the time and I suspect has all through history.

Also, is it odd or new in any way AT ALL, that a man and woman had a sexual encounter that consisted of little more than intercourse (and presumably HIS, not her, orgasm)? That's the oldest story in the book. Little known fact: never has a scientific study found that stimulation inside the vagina caused an orgasm. True story. It's possible to get outer clitoral glans stimulation while fucking, but largely that doesn't happen because neither the man nor the women realize they need to do that. So, presumably like Hannah, most women do not orgasm during most sexual encounters because sexual encounters usually look much too similar to the intercourse-focused one described above.

In the end, the scene above at first glance looks a lot like a tale of caution for that crazy, porn-soaked, millennial, hook-up world we have out there these days, but actually it's just a modern take on the age-old story of how women find the best in the shitty, male-orgasm-focused, sexual culture that does not punish men for pushing more than they know their partner wants or for ignoring female sexual needs.

Girls Got That Raw Realism
Well, the thing is, and let me get back to the feel of Girls, is that I actually don't know if this scene is as self-aware about the age-old plight of women and sex as the paragraph above would indicate. I think it's more that the scene is just real as fuck. It's raw and true, and it's from a woman (maybe a generation of women) that is way more open about the gritty parts of her life than we're used to. The sex is apologetically real. It's kinda shitty and she doesn't orgasm, but she likes the awkward comedy of it and the closeness with him afterwards. That's not a thing that's new to her or this generation (read The Hite Report from 1973 - those women dealt with the same shit - or just talk to a random friend probably).

What is new is putting it all out there without smoothing the rough edges; without pretending it was actually pretty orgasmic, or pretending that the lack of lady-gasm and lack of respect the dude showed was, like, totally not something any respectable, strong women would put up with. Bull shit, I say. I mean, I get it, it feels like we women should not stand for that and that the men we love should be really thoughtful and caring and knowledgeable about our sexual wants and needs, but the truth is, women have bad sex all the time - strong women, feminist women, liberal women, married women, women with really nice partners...and honestly, we don't complain as much as you'd think.

The dirty, truly embarrassing truth is that sex sucks because we have not changed, in a deep way, the culture of lady-gasm ignorance and male privilege...but...at the same time, we ladies make the best of it. Girls, I think, captures the kinda sad, kinda nonchalant, kinda fine, kinda ridiculous rawness of this women's reality; a reality where it's not wierd at all to not even blink at the fact you just initiated sex that wasn't even close to making you orgasm; a reality where a man can do something to you that literally hurts your body and that he knows damn good and well you might not want, but yet you feel bad for not letting him do the kinda shitty thing he tried to do; a reality where you make extra effort to accommodate his needs, but he doesn't do that for you.

But Overall It's Confused...Like Real Life Girls
So there definitely is that strange sexual realism in this show that sets the feminine reality of common bad sex right in front of us and points out how little we, the world, and our partners care about women's desires and orgasm, but at the same time it's also very 'sex positive.' Masturbation is nonchalant, all variety of kinks and sexual exploration are touched upon in non-judgy ways, sexual health is advocated. It's, to me, such an on-point reflection of the status quo liberal sexual culture - still strangely in much the same place with lady-gasms as we were in the 50's but progressive in lots of other ways.

So that's the deal with Girls. It's a mixed bag. It lays bare some of the most enduring absurdities about how women navigate sex, and I love that these types of scenes are there for people to stare at face to face. I think that helps bring change, but at the same time, it's not really modelling better knowledge and behavior, so it's in some ways just reinforcing the normalcy of shit sex and shit lady-gasm knowledge. Sometimes too, Girls kinda reverts back, loses it's rawness and displays unrealistic lady-gasm scenarios. And at the same time, still, Girls had one, only one, of the most orgasm equality progressive scenes I've ever encountered - the only scene I've ever witnessed in TV or movies (porn not included) where a woman rubbed her clit to orgasm while a man was having intercourse with her.

Girls, even with it's faults, is important because it is a modern voice of women and sex - which means, unfortunately, that it speaks in dichotomies, it's confused, it's kinda sad, and in many ways it isn't saying anything much different that it did 50 years ago.

***P.S  - Of course all men aren't as asshole as Adam up there and all women aren't having as non-orgasmic, thoughtless sex as Hannah up there. BUT, just because everything isn't the worst all the time for every woman during sex, doesn't mean that there's not a HUGE problem with the expectations and norms surrounding sex and women's part in it.

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