Last night on HBO’s Girls, British expat and recovering addict, Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke), copped a squat between two parked cars and took a piss in broad daylight. I’ll bet no one watching this show was nearly as surprised by this behavior as the character was that the NYPD would frown on it. Hit with a fine — for public urination or gross self-absorption? — Jessa shreds the ticket and is equally shocked to find herself cuffed and carted off to jail. Later, after being bailed out by a reluctant Ray (Alex Karpovsky), she angrily labels the incident “stop and frisk.”
Having once come under a barrage of critical fire for her show’s treatment — or non-treatment — of race, Girls creator Lena Dunham and her writers are most certainly acutely aware of any plot point that might tick that particular hot button. This episode may have been penned prior to Eric Garner’s death or the events in Ferguson, but “stop and frisk” has been an issue since back before Dunham was the queen of this town. That Jessa is conspicuously wearing a faded Ice-T “Original Gangsta” tee-shirt when the above dust-up transpires is an obvious wink to the ironic, hipster absurdity of her brief, purposeless rebellion.
As useless and rhetorical as the phrase “white privilege” is becoming, Dunham and crew seem happy to wring the concept for every remaining knee-jerk reaction (and laugh?). Fresh out of school, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) not only turns down a job — in this economy! — she embarrasses and insults her potential employer by claiming the interview was just practice for pursuing a position that she might actually be “passionate” about. Speaking of passion, Hannah (Dunham) languishes in a posh grad school writing program where she only has class once a week because she can’t muster the inspiration to do what she claims she has always wanted to do. Frustrated, she lashes out at her classmates for a litany of literary crimes that are essentially meaningless unless you are now, or have recently been enrolled in a posh grad school writing program. (The black guy catches her ire for, apparently, being too “street.” As I remember from a previous episode, he wrote a well-received short story about his dying mother. How street is that?)
And, then, of course, there is what Esther Zuckerman at Entertainment Weekly aptly called Jessa’s “cultural cluelessness.” None of this brattiness will go unpunished, however. Dunham knows true Girls fans revel in simultaneously empathizing with and being revolted by the characters’ indulgences. She has settled into a gleeful rhythm of setting them up to act out and, then, be knocked down — kind of the opposite of the way the Entourage man-children were consistently, superficially knocked down simply to be rewarded for nothing within the half-hour. Overall appreciation of Girls heavily depends on how much one enjoys seeing these particular girls thwarted at being themselves. Indeed, by the end of last night’s episode, Jessa had revealed her raw loneliness and was desperately clamoring for her last, remaining friendships.
That’s not to say that, even within the confines of its now-predictable, microcosmic, twenty-something sense of justice, Girls can’t still reach out and flick a nerve. Before getting arrested, Jessa said something that made the muscles in my neck and shoulders clench so much more than her flighty, fuck-the-police shenanigans. After listening to Adam (Adam Driver) complain about the minutiae of his steadily eroding relationship with Hannah, Jessa rolled her eyes and tossed off, “This whole thing is why I hate relationships between white people.”
What the fuck does that mean? What do non-white people fight over? Child custody? Welfare reform? Green cards? How inconceivably distinct and unrecognizable are our love lives and break-ups?
After my initial burst of outrage, I had to stop and think: What racial hyper-sensitivity feedback loop have I allowed Lena Dunham to lure me into? Am I actually dismissive of this show because it revels in the trivial lives of a super-specific section of humanity, but, at the same time, upset that it refuses to trivialize the lives of people like myself as well? Maybe. Maybe she really is a genius. Maybe I’ll never know or be satisfied until HBO puts its considerable might and imprimatur behind a quality show that focuses on the everyday foibles of someone who looks like me. Until then, score another point to Girls for still being able to piss me off from time to time — even though I should know better by now.