The first time I saw Lena Dunham naked, I was overjoyed. Hers was not a body like any I’d seen on television. Nothing like the endless parade of taut bods that ride Adrian Grenier in Entourage, not the petite, increasingly gaunt Anna Paquin and her toned supernatural bedmates on True Blood, and certainly not the effortlessly erotic Paz de la Huerta on Boardwalk Empire. This was a woman whose body I could relate to: imperfect and pear-shaped, with breasts small and unmiraculous. Hannah Horvath (the character Dunham plays on HBO’s Girls) looks like me, and like the women I know. I felt a wave of gratitude wash over me.
Better yet, Hannah owned that body. When, in an early moment, her occasional bedmate Adam paws at the folds of her stomach and asks, “Do you eat for fun?” she makes no concessions for her shape. She is what I am, and what every woman should be: self-accepting, and at ease in her own skin.
But at some point midway through the second episode, that courage slips away. Watching Hannah have sex with Adam, it's hard to be convinced that she's at ease. And it's not a lack of familiarity that plagues her. She appears deeply uncomfortable. And that’s where my mirror-gazing ended.
Hannah’s sex life is a series of sad encounters that failed to spark even a flicker of recognition in me. Sex should be, at the very least, carnally satisfying. If it’s not emotionally or physically pleasurable, why do it? Hannah wants to liken herself to “most adventurous women,” but the verve she lacks during intimacy keeps her from claiming the title.
Hannah doesn’t take ownership of her pleasure. We never see Hannah on top and in control during sex. She's either a casual observer or a cajoled participant. She is inevitably under Adam, on his sketchy sofa or sheet-less bed, knees curled up to her ears: unenthusiastic, clueless and, more often that not, orgasm-less. “Lay on your stomach…grab your legs,” he says during one of the first encounters audiences see. She's degraded. It feels dirty to watch, and not in a sexy way.
The opening scene of the second episode finds Hannah once again underneath Adam while he’s gracelessly slapping away at her. He casts her in a kinky fantasy, where she's an 11-year-old he spots on a street holding a Cabbage Patch Kid lunch box. He asks, “Yeah, you like that?” and Hannah fumbles through the exchange. “I like that, I like what you’re doing,”she says with the unenthusiastic tone of Ben Stein.
After he tells her he’s going to send her home to her parents “covered in cum” and finishes, she jumps on the orgasm bandwagon, claiming to have “almost came.” But after watching her every awkward twist and compliant turn, it seems unlikely. Most adventurous women don’t look like they hate sex while it's happening.
Even after Hannah finds she actually enjoys dirty talk (in another equally uncomfortable sex scene with a hometown friend) and Adam reveals himself to be someone who truly cares for her, the idea of what she sacrificed to get there is unsettling.
Who finds out that the man they’re sleeping with has given them HPV and sticks around, especially after he shrugs off the accusation? ”I don't know what it is about me, but girls never ask me to use condoms.”
Who answers a misfired sext, a dick pic intended for another recipient, with a reward (i.e., a racy snapshot of her own)? Hannah might be taking a risk, but it’s clear there are no rewards to reap. Does foregoing common sense scan as adventurous? Not really. It’s just reckless
Much like the Hannah who's convinced of her creative worth but unwilling to fully invest in it, Hannah as a sexual being is not fully actualized; she’s constrained by her doubts and fears.
Still, there's more of her in me that I'd like to admit. Sure, most adventurous women don’t have sex like this—but girls? Girls do.
I'm bothered because I recognize a former self in her, a girl barely old enough to drink, wading through an endless tide of self-inflicted mistakes. Part of being young is the overwhelming urge to make those mistakes, and to write them off as being adventurous or “seizing the day,” but, by doing so, you don’t hold yourself fully accountable. So, even though Hannah’s terrible sex life was never mine, the boundaries she can't maintain, the self-respect she so frequently sacrifices, are the mark of any young person trying to grow.
I was Hannah once, because I was young. And, while I like to fancy myself a full-grown woman now (I take vitamins! I go to bed at a reasonable hour! I don’t get drunk on school nights!) I am not so far from that time, that self.
I like to think I see myself more in Jessa; I both recognize and admire her healthy appetite for sex. At first glance, Jessa seems Hanna’s foil: a free-spirited, sexually confident woman who takes what she wants, and gets off whenever she wants, with whomever she wants, without remorse. I recognize the self-respect that comes from taking control over your own body and actions.
Maybe all of us have a little Hannah in us. Even Jessa isn’t as “unsmoteable" as she claims to be. Katherine, the wife of the husband she lured into temptation, tells her, “You do it to distract yourself from becoming the person you're meant to be." Jessa uses her sexuality like a key, but she's at all the wrong locks. Another woman trying to grow.
I could try matching my experiences with the experiences of the show's four protagonists, like playing a game of Memory, and continually come up short.
But their stories are still my stories. Like a remix of a song you know well, even in its most outlandish iteration, I recognize the melody.
Girls is not representative of every girl’s sexual experience, nor does it have any responsibility to be. Many people have expressed misgivings about Girls based on its inability to accurately express their personal background on one level or another. But, it’s not a television show’s job to represent my truth. It’s Lena Dunham’s job to represent her truth.
Hannah’s sex life may not resemble my sex life, neither in past nor present, but her sexual failings and vain attempts at finding pleasure scratch at a truth that must resonate with all of us.
We've all been naked and exposed out there, just trying to find our bearings. In bed and out.
Written by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)