Sunday night's "Girls" finally took us to Iowa with Hannah, the now grad student (yes, it's really happening). Besides unsuccessfully riding her bike through campus, the episode marked one of the biggest parallels between Hannah and Lena Dunham that the show has seen yet. There's a lot to discuss and unpack, so HuffPost Entertainment editors Lauren Duca and Erin Whitney are here to hash it out:
Spoiler alert if you haven't seen "Girls" Season 4, Episode 2 "Triggering."
Lauren Duca: Okay, we need to discuss the Lena Dunham meta commentary that went down in Sunday night's episode. This is a *TRIGGER WARNING* for anyone currently experiencing Lena Dunham at critical mass. For me, the whole writers' workshop was a deliberate dissection of criticism and the role it plays in the way Dunham perceived as a public figure. Dunham has explicitly tried separate herself from Hannah before (despite being ambivalent about conflation when the show first started). Although, now -- perhaps more than ever -- there is a clear intersection between the semi-autobiographical character of Hannah Horvath and Lena Dunham, the happy to share author of Not That Kind of Girl and a rapidly-rising celebrity figure (who is constantly responding to controversy surrounding her work).
What do you think that writers' workshop scene in "Trigger" had to say about how Dunham sees herself through the vessel of Hannah, and how she publicly and privately deals with the onslaught of backlash (which we're somehow still seeing in response to her book)?
Erin Whitney: Well, before we even get into the criticism Hannah receives in her class workshop (which I agree is a commentary on Dunham's own experience with critics) I think we need to talk about the story itself.
Hannah's story is about a girl experiencing a form sexual assault from her boyfriend -- but she insists it's unrelated to her while the rest of Hannah's class can't get over how autobiographical the character seems. While this story is nothing close to the sexual assault events described in Dunham's book last year, it does raise questions. Is Dunham trying to express how she, as a writer and a personality, grapples with the blurry lines of fiction and reality? Hannah refuses to publicly admit her work is personal, so perhaps Dunham feels this same lack of responsibility to fess up to what's inspired by real life and what's not? But why raise eyebrows with a story of sexual assault, especially one which Hannah says her character wanted from the boyfriend, instead of coloring it as wholly unacceptable? Hannah seems to be playing with the notions of inviting sexual violence into a relationship, but not victimizing herself -- especially since she distances her story from her classmate who she assumes is a victim. What's she doing here, Lauren?
LD: Okay, side note, I didn't think the other student was necessarily a victim as much as Hannah assuming she was a victim, because "LOL, how else could Hannah be wrong?" But either way, I think the auto-biographical elements come in to play at a more complex level than what is real and what is fiction. Not That Kind of Girl is not fiction. There has been a nauseating amount of fact-checking from the Republicans (okay, fine, Republican blogs), but what's more prescient here is the handling of that criticism in terms of what its impact is and ought to be.
That's why I think the classroom setting is so crucial. A lot of interpretation can be drawn from that environment. For Hannah, there is a choice to be in the classroom, yet also a sense of sort of guilty obligation that compels her to stay and listen, even when things are difficult or unpleasant. I read the scene as being a version of the way Dunham handles criticism. In a way, it was like setting up a round-table read for her book.
The only word used less often than "privilege" in discussions of Dunham is "naked." One of the students likens Hannah to a privileged girl who just wants her boyfriend to hit her. Bringing that up is such a deliberate confrontation of the way Dunham is perceived. And you touch on that in talking about sexual violence, Erin. It's all such a wildly complex and sensitive realm of discussing the ideas of safety inherent in privilege, and that's what it seems like she's set out to contemplate here. Do you think there's a clear message about what that means in the context of her or Hannah's story or is "triggering" just a studied deliberation of it (inspired by her public persona)?
EW: You bring up something significant about the metaphor of the classroom setting -- a place where Hannah willingly subjects herself and her writing to others' opinions. It's one of the rare times Hannah has done that on the show (Donald Glover's character took her to task in Season 2, and it led to their breakup.) But while Hannah may place herself in this vulnerable position, she's unwilling to accept or even acknowledge any of the criticism. Even after the professor reminds her to stay silent, she burts out defending herself. Is this Dunham's frustration with critics and her unwavering desire/need to constantly defend her work? Maybe the real Dunham is sick of being on the defensive, maybe she and her work are just not willing to hear what anyone has to say anymore.
And I think my own muddled thoughts about all of this only goes to show that Dunham doesn't have a clear message with this episode -- and that's fine! I know it may sound like I'm sitting here saying, "Dunham wrote Hannah's story to act as a direct meta commentary on her own experience with sexual assault." But I think the lines are more open to interpretation and that this perhaps is Dunham's own hashing out of her analysis and contemplation of what criticism and personal storytelling mean to her as a writer, a woman and a public figure. I also think it's important to remember that the Hannah we're watching on TV can't be perceived as just a vessel for Dunham. Like Marnie, Jessa, Shosh, Adam and everyone else in "Girls," Hannah is just one facet of Dunham. Who know's how much or which one she is actually is, and I love that we can still discuss that four seasons in.
LD: Wow, yeah, our ability to gauge whether she is a good writer has really been totally missing!
To respond to your main point, I think that what we're seeing here is a really intentional intersection of Dunham and Hannah though. At what point did the awareness of Dunham start interfering with our reading of Hannah? Seeing this struggling woman-girl figure of a 20-something in search of success and stronger sense of self is hard to process when it is so divorced from the wildly successful Dunham with a $3.7 million book deal.
Yeah, yeah, she's "all her characters -- what are you on her PR team or something? Yet, there's a major conflation first and foremost with Hannah, and she's recognizing that (and even poking fun at it) in so blatantly being the girl who needs to eat every two hours or she passes out.
This is what I think: Hannah is not just a character that she plays. Dunham is a writer, so Hannah is really a writer reading her lines. And that's specific and important in a way it could never be with the rest of the cast.
At the end of the day, the question is almost: How many Lenas are there? How do we think about Hannah vs. book Lena vs. media-presence Lena vs. Twitter-averse Lena? Not that we necessarily have the right to access that truth. What I'm trying to hit on is way she functions as a public figure through the different mediums through which she has chosen to reveal herself. Sometimes literally. [Insert Bad Nakedness Joke]
EW: Oh crap, you caught me. (Quits PR job.) But really, I stand by the perspective everyone in "Girls" still continues to defy being full humans and more so amalgamations of all the shameful, embarrassing, screwed up, and -- at times -- decent versions of people viewers can relate to. But we're getting off topic here ...
I love this complicated idea of how many Lena's there are. If only she's let us actually hear more of Hannah's stories and writing then perhaps we could have even more facets of Lena/Hannah to dissect and compare and contrast. But what's also interesting is thinking of Dunham in context of other great comedy writers she's inspired by, from Larry David to Louis C.K., both of whom use their fictional counterparts as vessels for expression and commentary. The only major difference is Lena isn't playing a fictional Lena on TV, per se, but through Hannah she has more room to play, showing us different versions of herself. And as you pointed out, Lauren, versions at very different levels of success.
This rudimentary, still undeveloped Hannah is someone not used to getting criticism towards her writing, and I think all writers know how necessary it is to at least hear it, whether we agree or not. Hannah still has a long way to go as far as growing up (and I'm really hoping this season follows through with its optimistic tagline), and I think Dunham as a writer is aware of that. Will Hannah evolve to the status and success of Dunham the writer? Regardless, my hope is that Dunham uses her opportunity as a writer to create Hannah into more of a full character that we can perceive on her own, functioning free of her connections to real-life Lena. Because after all, if Dunham wanted a fictionalized vessel to speak through, why doesn't she just make "The Lena Dunham Show"?
LD: Oh, my Internet hurts just thinking about the plausibility of "The Lena Dunham Show." The idea of the way artist interacts with their autobiographical work is really interesting. How does it differ when it's blatantly a bizzaro version of the artist verses a character with less easily inferred similarities (Woody Allen is another example there).
It's also interesting you mention Larry David. I won't go into that too much, since you wrote that great piece comparing him and Hannah (and that's all available for posterity), except to note that the sexist double standard at play with those unlikeable protagonists is only compounded by Dunham's public standing as a celebrity. In a lot of ways, she is the ultimate reflection of all the crap double standards we impose on women in Hollywood, and Hannah is not immune to that (as a result of the way we conflate them).
And that idea brings us back to criticism (here we are again!). When I think about it through that idea of unfairness, we can get at a nugget of the message Dunham is trying to float in this scene (and later in the season, though let's not spoil it here). If there is a thesis statement for "Triggering" it may be that through Hannah, Dunham feels an obligation to listen to criticism, because she feels it can be important to her art. But she ultimately struggles to listen to it when it seems to be coming from the effect of her being "pigeon-holed" by her reputation.
EW: I agree that Dunham exhibits her need or obligation to listen to criticism through Hannah, but I don't think Hannah (because of her reaction) agrees with it -- and here is where the character and the "real" Dunham differ the most in this episode for me. Again, Hannah continues to be the much more immature, naive college version of Dunham. But this is only the start and our first episode in Iowa. The coming episodes will definitely lend more light into the direction Hannah is moving, and perhaps what that says about Dunham as well.
LD: Well, apparently, there's nowhere to grow but up.
"Girls" airs Sunday at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.