If you went to a college like New York University or have lived in New York for even a brief period of time, you have likely asked yourself this question. Not only does NYC have a higher than average gay population but even the straight men seem a little too willing to wear scarves. Girls is located within this confusing sexual landscape as it explores the eternal dichotomy between the nice, effeminate guy you should like and the sexy douche you keep sleeping with even though you know you shouldn’t. Although Dunham described this conundrum using the Brian Krakow/Jordan Catelano analogy, you know she really wanted to reference the Aidan/Big dilemma but felt it would be uncool to do so.
The show keeps inserting sly, visual references to Sex and the City (e.g., the girls sitting on a park bench eating ice cream or Hannah typing on her computer late at night), but the literal hue of the composition is darker. Where S&TC was awash with bright colors and streaming sunlight, Girls is NYC viewed through a dim brown lens. Similarly, Girls focuses on the dark underbelly of modern sexual politics, which S&TC hinted at in its first three seasons but then discarded in favor of more shoes and an emasculated Big. Girls complicates the linear nice guy/asshole dichotomy not by turning all of the men into unthreatening rom-com ken dolls but by simultaneously reiterating and troubling this formula. Masculinity, like everything else in this amber-colored Brooklyn, is decidedly in flux.We begin with the perennially shirtless Adam, who continually makes uncomfortable jokes about Hannah’s body, but in doing so, keeps revealing his own insecurities. After jiggling the flesh on Hannah’s belly, he asks her to grab his nonexistent “fat.” This harkens back to the first episode in which he mentioned that he “used to be fat,” which suggests that his comments toward Hannah are a reflection of his own fears. He then ends the scene doing a Pilates exercise on his bed. This is not a particularly masculine moment for Adam. Hipster masculinity has always been odd in that it so concerned with costume and physical appearance yet involves such consistent douchery. Adam is clearly emblematic of men who are playing the part of the traditional MAN by aping porn and treating women disposably; however, these very obvious attempts at acting like a man suggest just that. It’s an act.
This subtle act of playing at masculinity is writ large in Hannah’s encounter with her former college boyfriend Elijah. This scene is one of the funniest in the show thus far, but beneath the humor lies the unspoken female fear that sensitivity in men equals vagina allergy. When Hannah first describes Elijah being so into her that he called crying for months after their breakup, one begins to suspect why she is attracted to Adam. As her meeting with Elijah progresses, she then discovers what every viewer with working eyes can see. This dude is gay.
This unfortunate encounter not only makes Hannah contemplate the unsettling reality that her longest relationship was with a man who never truly desired her but also that her father may potentially be gay. Although her father was obviously represented as the weaker parental figure—the overly sweet, overly giving, overly understanding man beside the harridan maternal caricature of her mother, I read him more as an aging hippie than as an actual homosexual. This raises the question of whether divergence from traditional masculinity does indeed equal gayness.
The show suggests that men who are no longer fulfilling their traditional masculine rolls experience an anxiety akin to that felt by the four leading women, except the male anxiety is often expressed through the poor treatment of women. These men are not all gay (except Elijah); they just don’t know exactly what it means to be a man outside of what they’ve gleaned from pop culture. While babysitting for a wealthy family, Jessa encounters a female-headed household with a husband uncomfortable with his lack of employment. The husband hits on her even though his children are about fifteen feet away, and one suspects that this is his feeble attempt to prove his virility. Or perhaps he just saw it in Juno.
Marnie’s storyline best embodies the female reaction to the fluctuations in modern masculinity. Her increasingly sweet, increasingly pitiful boyfriend can’t even express virility with a shaved head because he is doing it for such a nice reason (i.e., solidarity with a colleague with cancer). Charlie does not express his anxiety by treating Marnie poorly but by treating himself poorly. Marnie’s callous response to Charlie’s actions only reiterates his weakness. It’s not just that he’s an apologetic fucker. It’s not even just that he acts like a woman. It’s that he acts like a needy, pathetic woman who has probably read that self-help book Shoshanna recommended.
The flip side to poor Charlie is the episode’s rare injection of dangerous masculinity. This comes in the surprising form of a contemporary artist, Booth Jonathan. After a flirting session in which we discover that Booth (yes, his name is Booth) dates models and considers himself a god among men, he approaches Marnie without warming and tells her that when he fucks her, it may hurt because he’s a man and knows how to do it. The educated, Jezebel-reading women among us know we should recoil at this obvious line, but instead we find ourselves, like Marnie, getting a little misty—down there. This is not something educated feminists like to admit, but I’ve spoken to too many women who had the same reaction. I call it the Stanley Kowalski syndrome, and Tennessee Williams had us all pegged a long time ago. One might assume that Booth is the show’s first real MAN, but the rest of the men in the episode undercut any assumptions of innate masculinity. Moreover, Dunham stated in an interview that his now famous line actually came from an article in Maxim. So even the sexually aggressive man is learning how to be male from a magazine read by virginal college students.
I don’t believe the show is offering any clear answers about what these young women want in their men or even who these young men really are beneath the porn, the gender studies classes, and the pop cultural influences. It’s odd that a show about women who have so much trouble putting their lives together is also reacting to a cultural shift in which men find themselves searching for a means to assert their masculinity in the face of women who no longer need them yet still want them. S&TC solved the problem of the sexually dangerous man by cinematically castrating him and rendering the entire question moot. I doubt that these more adventurous girls will follow this path, and I’m intrigued to see how the Girls’ men will struggle to establish their place in this decidedly shitty contemporary sexual landscape.