Barely Here and Queer: Authenticity, Identity, and Queerness in Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

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(Author’s Note: This was originally written for my favorite class lass semester, “HBO’s Girls and the Millennial Generation.”)

Queerness is rarely the focus of Girls, and when it does appear, it does so as well-worn character trope (Elijah as gay best friend) or form of tragedy (Laura in the rehab center).] Yet, while the show focuses its efforts on examining the “authenticity” of characters, it rarely considers queerness as an element of authentic identity in a serious or earnest manner. This is troubling, given that questions of authenticity are something that dogs all of its characters. The show relegates queerness and queer identity as punch line and not as element of authentic identity as equally as gender, experience, or class.  By depicting queerness as an object with which ostensibly straight characters can utilize at their will, often to ignore reflections of themselves and their own privilege, Girls reveals that its concepts of authenticity and queerness is limited to a straight, white gaze.

The topic of what an “authentic identity” means is outlined in Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal text The Second Sex, where she writes “on woman” (de Beauvoir 3). The same kind of discourse of what exactly that may or may not mean is of concern to her inasmuch as the way the problematizing of that identity obfuscates the actual discussion and deconstruction of the identity itself. “‘Where are the women?’ asked a short-lived magazine recently. But first, what is a woman?” (5)  She notes a casual disdain for the actual matters of identity in a public front, less focused on the intricacies of “woman” and more the seemingly arbitrary criteria.

Of one of the most crucial points within The Second Sex’s introduction is the concept of the “Other”. As a reply to Uriel’s Report – one that serves as a microcosm for objectification, particularly lack of female agency – de Beauvoir writes, “She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (6). What the Other lacks is, among other things, agency and autonomy, a distinction that is particularly important with regards to the concept of identity. The Self defines the Other at its own will, filling in the blanks where it wants to, with no concern of whether the Other can define itself. The Other is defined, the Self defines.

So much of one’s place as the Other determines one’s opportunities. “The present enshrines the past – and in the past, all history has been made by men,” she writes, noting that the power dynamics between the subject and the other are inherently indicative of historical inequity (12). Though, as de Beauvoir acknowledges the gradual change in discourse, she concedes that women are not only defined by the subject, but do not even use “we” to refer to themselves, and therefore “do not posit themselves authentically as Subjects” (8). De Beauvoir’s Marxist reading of “women” thus lends an interesting perspective on the boundaries and limitations of solidarity amongst women, precisely because her deconstruction of it suggests the objectification and inequality wrought by men in service of the patriarchy. It is this very struggle to reassert oneself not as Other but as Subject against institutions and laws that are intent on making “quarrels” out of the discourse and ripping agency from the very hands of the oppressed that informs de Beauvoir’s core arguments. To finally posit oneself as a Self and as a Subject is to then be presented as an authentic identity, against the odds and institutions that want to define one as the oppressed or inferior.

De Beauvoir’s argument regarding the other is also applicable to concepts of queer identity, a form of Other that has its own oscillation between power and submission to institutions. Lena Dunham’s Girls premiered in 2012, in a cultural environment that was ostensibly post- Will & Grace, Sex and the City, and Queer as Folk as far as depictions of queer identity went. The aforementioned properties struggled with complexity and nuance, often reliant on the tropes and conventions of fictitious gay men that were not necessarily wrong, but were a limited understanding of queer identity. While Dunham’s show is commendable for its attempt to utilize de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as a foundational text to define its assertion of “women” as Subject, it still (maybe unintentionally) is prone to othering its queer characters.

Part of this Othering is rather ironic, given that the introduction to the recurring gay character Elijah is hinged upon this concept of authenticity. Reconnecting with Hannah, whom he knew in college, after several years at a bar in 1.3 “All Adventurous Women Do”, his coming out is met with disdain and the accusation of inauthenticity and dishonesty. Hannah lobs at him, “…let me tell you something, this fruity little voice that you’ve put on is a new thing.” Elijah is, rightfully, taken aback, and yet she continues to question his identity, spewing, “It’s about your tone of voice, it’s about your mannerisms, and—!” Elijah interrupts her, shouting, “I’m my authentic self! I am being my authentic self!” While this is ostensibly a comment on the very notion of authenticity and to what degree that concept is obfuscated by performativity, in this case Elijah’s “camp persona”, such sharp criticism ends up collapsing upon itself even within this conversation. Elijah’s reflexive need to target Hannah’s father as being gay through similarly queerly coded actions and tendencies has a duality to it: it both serves as a comment on the habits of marginalized people to other people within their own communities as well as ends up negating Elijah’s own claim of authenticity. There is not enough depth to either Elijah or to this particular conversation in general to suggest Dunham is critiquing the inaccurate presumption that the Queer community is monolithic and without its own hierarchical issues, and whatever critique existed within Elijah to exist as cultural comment on gay male archetypes within popular media is thrown by the wayside.

This conversation early on in the series is perhaps the most focused portrayal of Elijah one will get, and it is the show at its sharpest, asking the audience to recontextulize the framework within which we understand gendered performance. But Elijah’s role in the series very quickly devolves to archetypal nonsense, embodying the “gay best friend” trope (despite identifying a sbisexual) – present in such media texts as Glee (2009 – 2015), Sex and the City (1998 – 2004), and Clueless (1995) – rather than serving as a critique of it. The audience is introduced to his sugar daddy in 1.7 “Welcome to Bushwick, aka The Crackcident”, and its simplistic views of the power dynamic between sugar daddies and their sugar babies  is presented as comedy, rather than a nuanced examination of power exchange. Elijah and Beau’s subsequent breakup abruptly reveals the myopia of the show’s idea of what parts of identity are considered authentic and what aspects are left out. That Elijah is as flawed and arguably self-indulgent as the rest of the cast is not the issue here, it is that his queerness is not taken seriously as a formative element to his identity, in comparison to the elements of femininity, race, and class are to the main leads. Elijah is, in essence, an accessory and vaguely asexual. The actual desirous component to his character is taken into consideration when it best serves as humor, not as a gateway to understanding intimacy between people.

His character continues to be written and acted within that relatively rigid and dated framework into Season Two, and in 2.1 “It’s About Time”, Girls commits the same kind of problems about depicting queerness that plague other shows, like Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Hannah and Elijah have moved in, and the former’s role has suddenly become interior decorator, excitedly mentioning that he would love to hold salons in the apartment. Hannah is oblivious to this term, referring to the gatherings of intellectuals and artists, and carries on blissfully ignorant. The show, though, treats Elijah’s knowledge of the term as if Elijah is magical, fluent in an unknown language only known by the gays. Knowing how to organize a salon and being fluent in Polari are not the same thing, but Girls does not dichotomize the two; it conflates them.

However, there is a strange disassociation in that particular example: Elijah is characterized as waifish and air headed as an archetypical twink and yet bright enough to know what salons are. Girls struggles with what archetypes should be informing Elijah’s character, whether it’s the upper crust intellect queer or the vapid club mongering gay, and the writing lacks the nuance to bridge these two contrasting elements together.

The shallow queer archetypes that permeate Girls extend to non-white, non-male queer characters. The show’s difficulties with regards to race either come off as contempt imbued quasi-subversive lip service (Donald Glover’s black Republican Sandy in 2.1 “It’s About Time” and 2.2 “I Get Ideas”) or oblivious and short sighted. Danielle Brooks’ one episode in 3.1 “Females Only” stint as Laura taps briefly into the intersections of race, gender, class, and queer identity, as she tells the rehab group of her backstory and issues with addiction. Jessa, also in rehab and not permitted to spend time with any male patients, raises her hand, quick to call Laura out on “using being molested as an excuse”. Though earlier in the series, Jessa would presumably be the most vocal advocate for de Beauvoir’s work, particularly this quality of becoming a woman, upends this theoretical framework, as well as John Locke’s arguments about formative memories and identity.

While Jessa is certainly presented as an antagonist, especially in her outing of Laura, the latter’s character nonetheless occupies a rather tragic convention. Again, what has informed Laura’s identity ends up serving both the trope of the tragic queer – featured in films from The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, 1961) to Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013) – as well as a punchline for the end of the episode Though Laura’s brief presence only excuses the writer’s reliance on such conventions to a degree, yet there seems to be no actual interest in the complexities of queer women of color in the episode. Though Laura’s rape and addiction is not in and of itself a joke, it nonetheless exists only in relation to Jessa, to illustrate her as mean and vitriolic.

That the two sleep together later does little to ease the discomfort with Girls’ portrayal of queerness and race, the joke of which is grafted onto a queer man of color in 3.7 “Beach House”. In that episode, Gerald’s (T. Oliver Reid) sole defining character is that he was once in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. While the show presents an opportunity for a more nuanced portrayal of gay intimacy regarding Elijah’s relationship with Pal (Danny Strong), Girls continues to ignore exploring what that means and looks like.

There is, however, the character of Jessa to consider, as she is the one who performs oral sex on Laura in “Females Only”. Jessa is somewhat of an anomaly in the show’s cast, both within its leads and its minor characters, as she lives, or likes to think she lives, outside of the parameters that everyone else lives in. To some degree, this includes issues of identity, femininity, and queerness. While Jessa has been inclined to utilize her smoky voice and her Devil may care wit as a kind of weaponized femininity, she also refuses to be defined in the same ways and under the same structures as other characters. Her character is established in 1.2 “Vagina Panic” as one that wants to exist either outside of the frameworks that her friends exist in, or at least within other frameworks, her reaction to Shoshana’s “Obvi, we’re the ladies!” filled with scoff at the very idea of this condescending interpellation. She does not define herself as such, and she would be hesitant to call herself queer as well. Queerness’s duality as a political and ideological identity as well as a personal sexual/gender one bumps into the problem of what it means to define something that is meant to transcend definition, and in her way, Jessa is a physical manifestation of that paradox.

If the apex of Girls’s understanding of what queerness is, means, or can be is via Jessa, the question then becomes, why spend so much time ostensibly codifying that character as heterosexual and codifying the other queer characters vis a vis dated archetypes? This suggests that the potential of nuance and complexity in Jessa’s place within queerness, the very possibility to glean a modicum of understanding of queer identity and desire, might be more incidental or accidental than intentional, given the deathlessness of the other queer characters are not even self-aware or subversive enough to imply their role as being satirical. Tragedy and femme-ness, backstory and affectation are not accounted for any of these characters becoming queer, which simply robs them of the agency to self-actualize.

Too many shows are content with utilizing queerness as plot point, accessory, or convention, and that Girls is amongst those feels disconcerting. The show has been lauded for the way it allows characters to navigate their identities, to subvert power dynamics and affirm themselves as the subject of the show when the cultural landscape would be quick to define them as Others. But Girls’ primary flaw continues to be revealed as a form of myopia, simultaneously granting Hannah, Shoshana, Jessa, and Marnie the chance to become themselves in all its connotations of constructed identity and denying that of its queer characters, where identity construction is seen neither as authentic nor worth the audience’s or writers’ time. None of these queer characters proclaim or insist their own agency in any meaningful way, nor do they, in de Beauvoir’s words, “become” queer. One needs to look elsewhere to even have a modicum of understanding of the queer experience, form Looking (2014 – 2015) to Orange is the New Black (2013 – Present), from Transparent (2014 – Present) to Sense8 (2015 – Present). We’re queer, and we’re here, just not here in this particular show.

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