The men of Girls: What HBO's show tells us about manhood

Colin Horgan on a bleak vision of manhood

There’s an unanswered question lingering throughout HBO’s Girls, and it is this: What does manhood look like?

Near the end of the latest episode, Hannah Horvath’s ex-boyfriend, Adam, carries out what has almost universally been interpreted as a derogatory sex act on his new girlfriend, Natalia. It seemed like a new low for the program, and perhaps a new low for Adam, too – though far from a wholly unexpected one, as in the past his rough sexual escapades were fully revealed. Back then, however, it was different. Hannah was a willing partner in Adam’s sexual fantasies as a kind of neutral observer, so we laughed along at what seemed harmless, if bizarre and slightly pornographic, behaviour from a comfortable distance. This was different.

If Girls purports to speak to the zeitgeist, bottling for mass consumption some truths about the young adult generation living in the now, then it must be telling us something about the boys out there, too – or, at least, how the girls see those guys. The vision we’re offered is somewhat bleak. Adam is aggressive and manic; Ray is a kind of aging depressive; Charlie is successful, but a pushover; Thomas-John (when he was around) was an egomaniac; and Booth Jonathan was a self-aggrandizing art snob with marginal talent. At the same time, it’s difficult to pity them. They’re middle-class white guys in New York City. A familiar question applies to them as equally as it does to the girls: How bad can things really be?

Kind of bad, actually, within the appropriate context.

Early in season 2, Adam won’t let Hannah leave him initially, saying that “as a man living my man life… my desire for you cannot be repressed, and to quit this pursuit would be to shirk self respect and abandon my own manhood.” He’s apparently not really joking. Is that what it is to be a man? Maybe.

In a later episode, after Shoshanna presses for Ray to be more of a man, he attempts to prove it by helping Adam (unsuccessfully) return a violent stolen dog to its owner on Staten Island. On the way there, they discuss women, blocking the “the best” ones off into two big groups – those under 18 and those over 40 – as being the best at relationships. What makes them so good? The young ones, according to Ray, “maintain enough insecurity to be vulnerable,” and the older ones “don’t have these bullshit expectations of what a relationship needs to be or doesn’t need to be.”

And though Charlie, Thomas-John and Booth Jonathan aren’t there to commiserate, one might imagine they’d feel about the same. Charlie can’t seem to figure out how to please either of the girls he’s been with (Marnie, his ex-girlfriend, explicitly comments on his lack of manliness in the first season). Thomas-John, though a bit older, eludes boyish tendencies from the moment he’s introduced – just a big kid who likes prostitutes because they’re nice to him. And Booth Jonathan doesn’t seem to care about women much at all, keeping them on constant rotation, and treating each new one an assistant or employee.

In short, the guys are happiest when the women in their lives expect little or nothing from them, and when there’s little or no expectation of mutual interaction or trust. Put more bluntly, faced with the women, they just don’t know what to do with them. So, they debase and dismiss, categorizing as if browsing videos in a porno shop.

There’s this bit in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides that I keep thinking about when I watch Girls. It’s  where the narrator describes how he and the other neighbourhood boys would read aloud from Cecelia Lisbon’s stolen diary in the months following her death (she’s the first to go, her four sisters survive her for a short time). Cecelia wrote about her sisters, and gradually, Eugenides’ narrator tells us, the boys “came to hold collective memories of times we hadn’t experienced… We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together.”

“We knew that the girls were our twins,” he says, “that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.”

This is a strikingly different vision of women than the one the men of Girls have. As someone suggested to me recently, it might be due to the fact that none of guys and girls on Girls are really friends – instead, they interact at almost all times within the confines of sexual relationships, sticking to their gendered corners. Ray is only friends with the girls because he was Charlie’s pal, who dated Marnie, and brought him in. Adam only spends time with Ray because of Shoshanna’s questioned Ray’s capabilities, and their interaction ends over a disagreement about Hannah. There are always these same dividing lines everywhere.

It’s perhaps noteworthy, too, in a larger sense, that interactions at a distance aren’t out of the ordinary for this generation, exposed more than ever before to self-curated, manufactured images of the opposite sex by way of web profiles constructed with the requisite kitsch filter. In contrast, the boys in the Virgin Suicides weren’t dealing with a projected image at all – it was the real deal. And so, there was a level of empathy achieved. This, perhaps, is a key to what the men of Girls are really searching for to unlock manhood.

But it takes two to tango, so we’re inevitably left with the question of what this image of manhood might tell us about the women here. Girls is a show written from a girl’s perspective, so the lack of meaningful engagement between the two sexes apart from when they actually have sex with one another, hints at a two-sided problem – particularly if we were to listen to the Naomi Wolfes of the world, from whom we learned that mass culture ensures that “no matter how assertive” a woman may be, “her private submission to control is what makes her desirable.” This has a ring of familiarity when it comes to the girls on Girls, and, perhaps recognizing this innately – or having been taught it – it’s small wonder that they, too, seem generally incapable of showing empathy for the men. For, why would they?

So, back to Adam and his dominant sex episode with Natalia, interpreted as one of the darkest  moments of the series so far. Dark in its explicit nature, yes, but equally dark in the kernel of general truth it, like many of the things on Girls, might have spoken at the same time. These are currently not two interacting sexes, but two operating in mutual exclusion, seeing each other as a distant Other, attempting to equally assert a notion of gender or personhood that, in this state, neither of them can ever truly fulfill.