With Friends Like These: Female Intimacies and Animosities in HBO's Girls

Curator's Note

When HBO’s Girls debuted, it depicted a privileged sisterhood. Not only were the stars elite white women, but they also shared a closeness that critics found alternately enviable and puzzling. Creator Lena Dunham calls the series a love letter to female friendship, and claims the character Marnie (Allison Williams) is based on her best friend. Characters initially shared beds, bathtubs, and the most intimate details of their sexual health; the series’ opening scene depicts roommates Hannah and Marnie sleeping intertwined. Naïve Shosanna (Zosia Mamet) adores her friends, comparing the group to her prized Sex and the City poster.

However, as these “girls” gradually became women, they moved from their homosocial world into relationships with men, and the closeness characteristic of Season One gave way to frequent fights and petty rivalries. Instead of Sex and the City, the girls began to resemble the dysfunctional, fragmented foursome in classic single-girl narratives like Valley of the Dolls.

Critics rightfully ask why these characters are still friends – and sometimes the women wonder themselves. In “Beach House” (3x7), Marnie plans an elegant retreat for the women to talk through conflicts and prove, at least on Instagram, that their friendship is solid as ever. Her idealized weekend is marred when Hannah invites gay male friends over for a raucous pool party. The women briefly achieve unity, allowing one of the men to choreograph them in a dance routine. But tensions turn them against each other, and in this scene affable Shoshanna expresses her pent-up rage.

While Shoshanna may stand in for viewers struggling to make sense of these flawed, unlikeable characters, the episode also expresses deeper concerns about female friendship. There is no clear resolution or apology, but the next morning the women silently help Marnie clean up from the party. As they wait for their bus, they begin to practice almost involuntarily the choreographed movements they had performed the night before. The women’s friendship is sustained by duty and habit. The meaning of the word "inertia" surfaces earlier in the episode; and accordingly we can read these college friendships as inert, resisting change and forward motion even as they appear to be moving in synch.


Thanks for sharing this, Katherine. It's hard to believe it's the same show as it was during its first season given the clip that you shared here. I honestly haven't watched a lot of Girls so pardon my not knowing a ton about how the plot of the show develops over episodes. Given the scene of all the friends cleaning up together at the end of the episode that you describe, do you think there's any chance that this scene illustrates the difficulty of maintaining female friendships? When Hannah talks about wanting to go see her boyfriend who, she says, "asks me for nothing so I give him everything," I can't help wondering what, if anything, else is going on that makes her want to run away from the group in that particular moment. I'm also thinking about the line "What are we in like a fucking Jane Austen novel?" that one of the characters blurts out during the clip. Behind the marriage plots of Austen's novels, there's a lot about female friendship (often between sisters) and the difficulties of maintaining those relationships in a world where the pressure in on to marry off. From what I know about Girls, the characters don't seem to completely escape this pressure, even if they are educated and living in cool Brooklyn—and supposedly with more freedom to veer away from the heteronormative path. I am also fascinated by your word choice of "inertia" at the end and would love to hear you say more about that.

Thank you! Yes, the Austen comment is telling, as Shosh is both distancing herself from the formality of an earlier era (and the artificiality of the beach weekend) but also signaling the way in which modern texts like "Girls" draw from much older cultural tropes. I briefly mention "Valley of the Dolls" here but in earlier research I've found a ton of connections between Dunham's work and 1950s-70s texts that pathologize the singles life, put women on separate paths to happiness, and prioritize heterosexual romance. (Dunham's writing team was reportedly inspired by "The Group" and "The Best of Everything," novels/films that emphasize missed connections and loose alliances among college friends.) Hannah's character here is framing heterosexual romance as easy and natural compared to female friendship -- of course her relationship with Adam is fraught with problems and half-truths -- but in some ways the episode validates the worth and difficulty of female friendships, which Hannah in Season 2 describes as "grander than any romance." The AV Club review of this episode (at http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/girls-201176) goes into greater poetics about inertia, noting that the medium of television requires that groups of friends maintain their connections despite all odds. "Girls" seems to be rebelling against this edict.

I’m torn between seeing this clip – and the show as a whole – as deconstructing the wide range of emotional experiences and attachments in friendship, including (or especially) all the messy and hard stuff. And seeing the characters as hollow, inflected with duty and habit – as you point out. In some ways it is an antidote to the glossed over friendships that are often portrayed, as it reveals ‘ugly feelings’. Then again if they are always fighting in this way it seems to feed into prevailing discourses about women being unable to form friendships because of competition etc. Also, the show is so self-reflexive about the characters’ own privilege and their attendant narcissism that there appears to be no space for affection or vulnerability between the friends. But friendships in one’s early twenties can be difficult because it can be a time of huge change, and in the context of the show there is the whole marrying off thing that Christine alludes to, as well as the issue of employment in the current neoliberal moment. Maybe this clip – and the friends’ interactions – reflects this, revealing the impossibility of connection in such individualised and precarious times.

Thanks for your comment. Yes, it's hard to know how to read "Girls." I do think we need a corrective to television's glamorized portrayals of friendship, but the portrayal of women as rivalrous seems to undermine Dunham's purported feminist stance. In her interview about the episode (see http://www.hbo.com/girls/episodes/03/27-beach-house/video/inside-the-epi...) Dunham discusses the importance of being able to air such grievances with friends -- the fact that they carry on after this fight without overt resolutions/apologies perhaps speaks to the strength of the bond?

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