Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Girls: Vagina Panic (1.2)

There's a really interesting theme running through a lot of this weeks episode related to how people should be, or whether or not we should buy into the expectations that society thrusts upon us, even if they're expectations that are generally considered positive. Most of this also relates heavily to gender, which is becoming a major point of contention on this show. Girls is successful enough on its own as a comedy drama about young New Yorkers, but it also has a real eagerness to comment on how we collectively exist. I'm assuming it'll be a show that sometimes falls apart in this regard, or struggles to say something outside of its somewhat myopic viewpoint, but Vagina Panic worked far better as a statement piece than last week's pilot.

The strongest idea here involves abortion, Jessa's to be more specific. As a character Jessa is headstrong and European and free-spirited, and her right to choose how she wants to exist and to what extent she can control her own body marks an important part of who she is as a person. But there's also a feeling there that seems to go against the archetypal role she holds within the world. There's almost an expectation, as a feminist and a strong pro-choice advocate, to almost 'not feel' in certain ways, and not allow baser emotions to intrude on what you consider a non-issue. To Jessa her abortion is something that just needs to happen. She's not interested in having kids at this point in her life, her pregnancy was a mistake, and she has no real relationship with its father.

But she's also undeniably affected by her decision, too. There's a wonderful scene here in which she goes off on a self-help book called Listen Ladies that Shoshanna swears by, opining that she hates having to fit into a certain type of role, both as a woman and as somebody who's single and available. And it's because the role Jessa is most comfortable with is the one that she so often inhabits: the wild 'Girl'; the one with the interesting friends and the most exhausting of adventures; the one most likely to randomly have sex with a guy in the bathroom of a bar in the middle of the day who she's only just met. And the girl who should be casual about having an abortion, because that's just something she should handle... right?

I wouldn't say the show flakes out by having Jessa miscarry, if only because Vagina Panic at least explores abortion from a less calculated standpoint than many of Girls' network contemporaries. It doesn't judge Jessa's decision, nor does it even feature an oppositional voice suggesting it may not be all that great. Instead Jessa experiences a surprising amount of pain, angst and emotional turmoil, but mostly internalized, ultimately exorcised in a characteristically Jessa manner. It's a strong, moving storyline, and also played in a way far removed from other, weaker variations on the same ideas on other shows.

Of course, Jessa's pregnancy is just one small part of this episode, even if it was the most emotionally complex of all. Hannah's story plays a lot like a comedy skit, her running gag about "the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms" coming off a lot like something Lena Dunham would have perfected in a stand-up special or whatever, but it's still crazy fun on its own, particularly how it connects deeper with her messy relationship with Adam. Having grown up and become at least sexually aware during the early '90s, it's understandable that Hannah would have this unconscious belief that bad, irresponsible sex would equal death and misery, particularly when so many button-pushing movies of that era created this moral paranoia about AIDS.

She and Adam aren't sexual equals, Hannah still finding herself having to conform to the type of woman he expects her to be in the bedroom, somebody turned on by icky role-play where she's violently dominated and primarily acts like some kind of naive schoolgirl or whoever. The subplot itself is kooky and laugh-out-loud funny (particularly the beautifully-written line that closes the episode), but still features that underlying darkness, Hannah quietly coming into her own as a person, or at least trying to figure out why she allows herself to be in that kind of relationship.

Less absorbing, and the one area in Vagina Panic that doesn't improve on the pilot, is Marnie's continued whining over Charlie. While she's actually experiencing similar feelings to Hannah, in trying to figure out how she should be as a woman and how the men in her life should treat her, it's being performed and written in a way that only really succeeds in making Marnie seem reprehensible. She's rude and suffocating, and the constant low-blows about Charlie himself (the sperm count line in particular) are obnoxious.

It's probably not helped, either, by the fact that Marnie is the one character so far without much of a discernible personality. Jessa is already complex and absorbing, Hannah is hilarious in her awkwardness (the misfiring rape joke is sort of detached from everything else here, but also a real highlight), and Shoshanna is adorably innocent. But Marnie comes off as pretty mundane and ordinary. Which is fine, if she weren't such an asshole on top of that.

Already there's a lot to dissect in Girls, strong themes and interesting characters making it a show that feels easy to analyze and pull apart, even if it's not presented as something lofty and grand like other shows of its type. I mean, this isn't Mad Men. But it's still on that same kind of trajectory, where characters do things that speak volumes about who they are and the type of people they represent. It's also ridiculously funny, Shoshanna's virginity plot twist and Zosia Mamet's skittish, nervous delivery of sex-related lines of dialogue pre-reveal being some of the finest comedy I've seen in a while. Girls was already enjoyable and absorbing, but Vagina Panic really takes it to a whole separate level entirely. A

Lena Dunham Director Lena Dunham


  1. I really liked the way the abortion storyline was handled. That decision was seriously explored in parts of the episode, but the show was also able to mine some really big laughs from me out of the whole situation, and the whole idea of Hannah and co. throwing an abortion for Jessa like a baby shower or something really amused me. Nice to see that the show could balance between comedy and drama so well so early into its run.

    I actually really like Marnie in general, but I do think it says something about her storyline in this episode that it's the only one I have no recollection of, even though I watched the show for the first time a few months ago.

    Also love the 'we're ladies!' discussion on the bench, and all of their different reactions to the book. Just plain fun.

    Great to see you posting again!

  2. Did Jessa miscarry? I guess I always assumed she just had her period and had been mistaken about ever being pregnant in the first place. I think if it were intended to be a miscarriage it would be a bigger deal - i.e. more pain, blood, probably a trip to the doctor.

    BTW, glad you're back up and running. I'm excited to read more Girls reviews and, though you have a ton on your plate already, I thought I'd throw a suggestion/request out there for you to watch "Top of the Lake". It's a recent New Zealand mystery/crime mini series of seven episodes that's currently on Netflix streaming and stars Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men. I found it pretty enthralling and thought you'd have some interesting thoughts on it.

  3. tvfan Really great comments, and agreed with every one. Marnie is taking a little longer to actually like as a character, but I'm certainly beginning to greater understand her problems.

    Anonymous I think she did miscarry. Your comment forced me to read around elsewhere and the general consensus is she did, though I get the confusion.

    And I keep meaning to watch Top of the Lake, as I love Jane Campion's work, and Elisabeth is obviously great. Doubt I'll actually review it, but I may be inspired, I don't know. Thanks for the recommendation, anyway. And thanks for reading and commenting, too.

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