Let’s Talk About Hannah Vs. Lena Dunham In That ‘Triggering’ Episode Of ‘Girls’

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Girls’ Boss Jenni Konner Talks Hannah’s Iowa Expectations: “She Has an Authority Problem”.

The question with Girls has always been just how self-aware viewers believe creator and star Lena Dunham to be. The beautiful scenery was just about as awe-inspiring as the fact that she could leave her bike unattended and unlocked on campus without a second thought.Here at HuffPost Women, one of the things we love most about Lena Dunham’s HBO show, “Girls,” is the incisive, witty and hilarious dialogue that Dunham and the rest of her writing team come up with every week.

The Girls main character starts off the episode enjoying life in the Midwest, marveling at how much space she can rent for not a lot of money and telling Marnie (Allison Williams), “We should all move [to Iowa] and start the revolution.” But things quickly take a turn. For better or worse, Girls is as much about its characters as it is about what people say about its characters and the people who make it, and sometimes, as in tonight’s episode, the show engages with that discussion. For both our protagonist and viewers at home, “Triggering” opens with a heady atmosphere of possibility and opportunity: Renting an entire house only costs $800 per month! Instead the conversation turned into a discussion about Marnie’s affair with Desi as Hannah noticed she was knitting him a scarf, something her pal hadn’t done since their college days. It makes sense that Hannah’s first week in Iowa would make for an episode filled with intense reflection and deprecation on Dunham’s part—but that certainly came at the cost of any narrative momentum. “Triggering” mostly felt like a mood-setting episode for Hannah’s fish-out-of-water experience in Iowa: she rents a gigantic house for $800 a month, finds her fellow Writer’s Workshop students are unimpressed with her “personal essay” approach to fiction writing, and has fun at a frat party with Elijah, who’s tired of New York and decides to become her new roommate.

The second episode of this season did not come with a trigger warning of its own, but the viewer might have been cautioned: “Copious amounts of Hannah.” Lydia: With its cold-open flyover of endless cornfields, the episode reminds us: We are not in Brooklyn anymore. In her first session at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Hannah reads her story out loud and is criticized by nearly all of her classmates, who say it’s a seemingly autobiographical piece about a privileged girl and that it seems to trivialize abuse.

It can be hard to look at Hannah Horvath in isolation of Lena Dunham. (So much so that Salon asked in December whether controversy over Dunham’s recent book “affect the experience of watching her show?”) But as Ashley Fetters and I discuss in the video below, while there is definitely Lena in Hannah, they also are not one in the same. Arriving in Iowa to begin a two-year program at the University of Iowa’s prestigious writing program, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) discovers the joys of life outside New York.

A bat somehow got caught in one of her closets and when she discovered what it was she panicked, screamed, and resorted to spending the first night in her new place on her bathroom floor. The landing is smooth: Hannah scores a house to live in for $250 a month and a snazzy new bike that she doesn’t have to lock because “this is Iowa.” A video chat with Marnie reveals that Hannah and Adam don’t seem to be on speaking terms, but Marnie promises to let her know if he goes into the hospital, (because Marnie would definitely be the first on he’d call?).

The title of the episode comes from the ridiculously self-inflated warning Hannah gives before reading her work aloud, inviting her classmates to quietly leave the room if they find her writing too emotionally devastating to handle. And that’s what brings us to “Triggering,” where Hannah faces a room of grad students lobbing criticisms her direction that sound like criticisms lobbed at Dunham. Hannah gets insulted by Douchey Bookstore Guy (“Four nuts for a nut”); Hannah has crappy cellphone reception; Hannah misses Adam; Hannah has to sleep in the bathroom because of a bat; Hannah gets her bike stolen.

Later, Elijah (Andrew Rannells) shows up and takes her to an undergrad party where she realizes, as she tells him the next morning, that she wants to go back to college and not stay in grad school. This is about the journey from girlhood to womanhood, and about one woman who believes over-sharing about her life will act as the best form of armor.

Just that you’re thinking about doing it.” “Honestly, New York is so f—ing grotesque,” he explained of his spontaneous decision to join Hannah in Iowa. “Last week I saw a homeless woman fist herself on my stoop. Probably the funniest, and most brutal example was Hannah insisting that one fellow student was impacted by her story because she must be a survivor of abuse.

Perhaps the first indication that things won’t remain this sunny is when it’s revealed that Hannah’s biking skills aren’t exactly up to par—she crashes, hard—but things start getting really painful when she meets someone else in her program. Hannah’s classmates roll their eyes when she provides a self-aggrandizing disclaimer before reading the story (“Hearing me read it aloud here today may bring up some of the more triggering aspects of the piece”), and then proceed to dump all over it. She’s knitting a scarf for Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), her musical and romantic partner, who is cheating on his longtime girlfriend Clementine (Natalie Morales). Because Dunham bears an uncanny resemblance to a normal person rather than a photo-shopped Glamazon, she has, since the outset of her career as writer and actress, endured brick-bats regarding her looks (among the milder insults were comparisons to a beached whale). Their criticisms echo those of Lena Dunham’s many-real life critics who say Girls is self-indulgent, and focuses on the first world problems of privileged white women. “How are we supposed to critique a work, which is very clearly based directly from the author’s personal experience?” another chimes in. “She is very much this character.” In typically self-aware fashion, Dunham responds to her critics on the show (as she’s previously done) — this time, speaking through Hannah’s classmate D.

I think the show sometimes is about watching these girls get into not-so-easy situations and this is another one of those.” Actor-writer-director Desiree Akhavan plays another grad student, who Hannah seems to get along with before she goes after her story. Plus, she’s vaguely left-wing – at least what passes for left wing in American – and, thus, has earned the enmity of American Conservatives, a tribe not renowned for taking opponents’ feelings into consideration. “I deleted Twitter because I’m trying to create a safer space for myself emotionally,” Dunham revealed. “People threaten my life and tell me what a cow I am, so I decided I was gonna … One scene that really worked for me was Hannah’s collect call to her parents, where she reels off a string of increasingly surreal fake friends she’s made (“Nagasaki, Cher…”) and asks if it’s normal for her to be contemplating suicide (her parents are too busy with their Scrabble game to really notice, which felt to me like winking commentary on Hannah’s propensity for dramatics).

Akhavan says of the dynamic between her character and Hannah, “I think there’s this competitive energy between very smart, driven women in that when you recognize someone who’s slightly similar to yourself — I don’t know if it’s just women, I’ve had this experience with men as well; I went to graduate school for filmmaking — there’s this energy where the two of you cannot co-exist and one of you must be destroyed. When Chandra explains that Hannah looks nothing like a freshman, Hannah starts babbling about how she always gets carded all the time and no one thinks she’s legal “like, in the bedroom.” It’s awkward. “I’m going to break eye contact with you now,” Hannah says. That’s what I channeled with this character, that she can’t live in a world where someone is as talented but slightly less polished as she, so I think she felt she had to destroy her a little.” So what makes Hannah react to the criticism she receives in this way and how does her experience in Iowa conflict with her expectations?

Among her lessons was this: Female writers are asked more frequently about all of the following topics than male writers: whether their work is autobiographical; whether their characters are likable; whether their unlikable characters are unlikable on purpose or the writer didn’t realize what she was doing; how they manage to write after having children. But in last night’s episode, “Triggering,” the show makes clear that Dunham is very aware of these questions and of what the show’s harshest critics think of Girls. I watched this episode a second time before sitting down to write this review, and I was all ready to talk about how great it was that we got an episode with just Hannah and Elijah and none of the other girls.

It’s the kind of directly confrontational sequence Girls is known for, and it’s the highlight, so far, of a season that’s pushing into new territory for the show. Truth be told, Girls sort of ran out of story for itself at the end of season one, when Hannah realized that she was driven by different impulses from many of the people in her life. August (Ato Essandoh), reads his story. “Gut wrenching, and not asking to wrench our guts, just wrenching them,” Chandra says. “You played with gender in a way that was really surprising and like almost offensive, but not offensive,” Chester (Jason Kim) adds.

Sure, Girls exclusively follows the struggles of four white women in New York City — but that perspective is true to her own personal experiences, and one that’s still worthy of exploration. After an ill-advised trigger warning, her story falls flat, prompting unwelcome comparisons to “50 Shades of Grey.” Hannah struggles with the format of the class, which requires her to hear critiques silently. the most satisfying notes in the Lena Dunham repertoire. Writing about diversity for diversity’s sake would ring hollow (the best way to address this issue would be to hire more writers and showrunners of color).

It played resonant, hilarious chords by pairing hubris with humiliation, political correctness with tone deafness, wrapping it all up with an awesome party scene, where Hannah is always at her best/worst. Season two took a hard-right turn into being a series of short stories that were of variable quality, while season three was more consistent but also occasionally kinda boring. When yet another student expresses how eager he is to see more pages of the story, her comment runs more on the literal side of things: “Well, I assume the mom dies.

Joe: First, let me quibble: No college party in 2015 would be playing a decade-old Ying Yang Twins song, even in Iowa, even ironically (it’s too old to be fun, too new to be a throwback). Forget Manolo Blahniks and cocktails with the girls – Hannah can barely scrape together next week’s rent while her love life is best described as ‘icky’ (everyone in the show seems crippled with sexual self-loathing). The show has always struggled with how to depict Hannah’s writing and whether we’re meant to see her aspirations as a joke or as at least somewhat realistic. (Notably, we very rarely hear excerpts from her work.) By sending her to Iowa — the toughest graduate program to get into for a young writer — the show is casting its lot with “somewhat realistic.” But we’re also not meant to see Hannah as some incipient genius waiting to be discovered. But unlike her on-screen character, her life has been a story of success piled upon success and she certainly can’t be strapped for cash, having reportedly received a $3.5m (€3m)advance for her recently published memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.

I don’t even end up playing the “Is he Good for the Gays?” game when he’s on, mostly because the behavior of any of this show’s characters obviates any kind of respectability questions. Between the undergraduate rager and awesome one-liners (“On the way here from the airport, two people asked me if I was Blake Lively’s husband”), Elijah is a welcome injection of levity (and NYC) in an episode that actually makes me feel sorry for Hannah.

Andrew Rannells is really funny, and Elijah brings out Hannah’s extroverted awfulness, which is always a nice change of pace from her introverted awfulness. The language isn’t particularly interesting, and Hannah reads it in a self-satisfied way that seems to imply she thinks it has more impact than it does. Two other notable things about this episode: Saturday Night Live cast-off Brooks Wheelan was very funny as the bookstore clerk who gave Hannah a hard time about her mangled credit card.

Dunham was the subject of a glowing New York Times profile aged 16 (about a vegan dinner party she threw for friends) and was just 23 when she shot and starred in art-house comedy Tiny Furniture. One writer, Priya (Zuzanna Szadkowski), says, “It’s about a really privileged girl deciding that she’s just going to let someone abuse her.” Chester compares it to Fifty Shades of Grey.

The pivotal scene, the actual workshop part of the Writers’ Workshop, was almost painful to watch. (No, actually: it was definitely painful.) Hannah’s extremely earnest trigger warnings about her extremely earnest writing. And yet sometimes the snark is unavoidable – especially for someone so active, until this week, on social media. “It’s hard in this day and age to avoid criticism, especially when your well-meaning friends say to you, “I can’t believe Howard Stern said those horrid things about you,” she revealed recently.

So I can’t really ignore it, but I try my best to bury my head in the sand. “The solution, she evidently believes, is to hide in plain view, by decoupling her real-world fame from its internet manifestation. Those students’ discussions of Hannah’s privilege and, according to one of them, her “lack of sympathy towards the male perspective.” Hannah’s initial refusal to go for drinks with her fellow students (the excuse: She wanted to “metabolize” their notes). Her decision to react to all the criticism—to make her presence felt, even when she wasn’t allowed to speak—by crunching loudly on potato chips. Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted.

Indeed, when the class piles on to Hannah, the black student comes to her defense, perhaps knowing what a performative sham it all is, saying, look, who cares? Dunham believes in the power of using personal experiences in one’s fiction, especially as a woman, and, of course, doing so is not an inherently bad thing. I did like that scene, though, as a nice—if, again, horribly, squirmingly awkward—crystallization of the debates we’re having right now in the culture at large: questions of identity, of who gets to speak for whom, of the definitions and limitations of privilege, of the extent to which “trigger warnings” are valid in the first place.

She’ll even have scenes where she seems to create reasons to believe Hannah is essentially Dunham — except how could anybody be that ridiculous and lack that much self-awareness? There can be a kind of nihilism to those discussions, sometimes, and the workshop’s version of it, with all its terse references to feminism and sexism and so many other -isms that are merely implied, captured that perfectly. And yet, while we the audience haven’t read Hannah’s work, the show does seem to make the case that maybe Hannah should stretch her literary muscles—or at least produce better work about herself.

Joe: While I did appreciate Elijah creeping in like a home invader to save us from an all-Hannah, all-neuroses episode, I think I may be in the minority when it comes to the gay bestie/ex-boyfriend character, and the way Mr. It’s too broad a caricature for me, all affect and no heart, verging uncomfortably close to a stereotype from an earlier era of television — “Sex and the City” had some of these problems — especially when “Girls” is followed in the Sunday night HBO lineup by a show as nuanced as “Looking.” Lydia: On this we certainly agree: That glimpse of Jessa and Shoshanna watching “Scandal” and failing to accept a collect call from Hannah was not nearly enough of the girls for me. It’s Dunham — hugely driven writer/director/showrunner/actress Dunham — reaching out to remind us that she exists, and she and Hannah are very different people, even if they share a face and several personality traits. It’s the equivalent of Dunham thrusting her fists in the air and shouting, “Sorry, haters,” a defiant flipping off of all who find her tiresome or maybe just feel ready for Girls to be over and done with (a category I have occasionally fallen into).

It’s a self-satisfied revelation that’s Hannah at her most delusional. “You don’t know what I’m talking about,” Hannah says. “You don’t know what you’re talking—” Logan tries to interrupt. Hanna continues babbling: “And my story isn’t about the time that I took a couple quaaludes and asked my boyfriend to punch me in the chest,” Hannah says, to which Logan replies “TMI.” This prompts a mini rant from Hannah about the futility of TMI. (Dunham has also spoken about hating the phrase “TMI,” but in a far more eloquent way than Hannah does in this moment. A Skype conversation with Marnie, who is knitting Desi a scarf, early in the episode yields the knowledge that Hannah hasn’t really been in contact with Adam.

When Hannah calls Shoshanna (collect because her phone broke), Shosh and Jessa are in the middle of watching Scandal and can’t be bothered to be figure out how to take her call. “You motherf–king c-nts,” Hannah says as she hangs up. Hannah tells her that they are in a long distance relationship and therefore she needs to “snap out of it.” Tall order from Hannah, who has not snapped out of her relationship with Adam.

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