Check out the first seven installments of Susan L.M. Goldberg’s ongoing series dissecting HBO’s Girls:
“A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance.” So writes Hannah Horvath at the height of her OCD, somewhere between punching a hole in her eardrum with a Q-Tip and hacking her hair off.
The contrast between seasons 1 and 2 of Girls is apparent down to the aesthetics of every episode. Season 1 was bright and colorful, season 2 was bland and rather monotone. Season 1 featured four uniquely fashion-plated females, while season 2 featured Marnie slugging out, Hannah displaying her rotating wardrobe of ill-fitting shorter-alls, Shoshana in bed and Jessa nowhere to be found. None of this comes as a surprise given the fact that season 2 saw the break-up of the fab foursome of HBO.
But what of the grand drama that is female friendship? How has goddess culture impacted the way we view female friendship? What can a Biblical feminist glean from scripture when it comes to forming lasting female friendships? And what do the friendships on Girls say about how we as a culture should and do approach female friendship today?
The ancient Greek pantheon didn’t have a god or goddess of friendship, per se. Philotes, the spirit of friendship and affection also acted as the spirit of sexual intercourse, highlighting the primary criteria used to define relationships in the ancient world. The Greek gods and goddesses were often too busy acting out sexually-fueled vengeance to bother befriending one another. Female goddesses were often defined through their sexual relationships or lack thereof. Hera was too busy being defined by her marriage to form a sisterly bond, while Athena’s warrior virginity made her an accepted member of Zeus’s own He-Man Woman Haters Club. Tragically, Athena managed to “accidentally” kill her only female friend, fatally injuring her in the midst of playing warriors as children. The story carries within it a bizarre implication, that Athena’s masculine tendencies would forever separate her from all things feminine.
Gender inequality descended from Mount Olympus into Greek society, varying from polis to polis, with the same root concept: women were limited, disabled even by their gender and needed to be carefully guarded. While not much history is recorded from the ancient world regarding the daily lives of women, the arranged marriages that resulted from the need to protect women from themselves and insure the future of society through childbirth set a trend in female socialization.
Aristotle and Plato may not have believed that women could form friendships with each other, but by the time the 18th century rolled around, women managed to construct an intricate social network through the advent of boarding schools, salons, and the eventual invention of the middle class lifestyle. Marriage, an institution still purposed in the ancient Greek terms of finance and fertility, offered little to no emotional nor intellectual fulfillment. Female friendship, however, promised to provide the satisfactions marriage lacked.
And still these friendships came under scrutiny for suspected sexual undertones:
“In “Bachelor Girl,” a history of single female life in the United States, Betsy Israel writes that around the same period, near-romantic female bonds were encouraged by parents. Two girls, meeting perhaps in school, would be “‘smashed’ – think of best friends going steady – and once smashed, they’d learn trust, loyalty, tolerance, patience.” Of course, all that social growth was supposed to be in service of marriage. “Once they’d mastered these skills,” Israel writes, “they would be able … to transfer them onto a marital relationship. Even if those who wed never felt quite the same about their husbands.” For a long time, there was no questioning the sexuality of women who held hands, slept side-by-side, confided in each other or wrote long love letters to one another.”
Philotes, it would seem, found a dwelling place in 20th century thought. As marriage evolved into a union of friendship and sexual attraction, female friendships would be psychoanalyzed in sexualized terms and discouraged as a threat to the marital bond.
Sex played a different, but nonetheless important role in Biblical illustrations of pitfalls that can ruin female friendship. Sarah, nervous and ashamed that she is unable to bear children for her husband Abraham, gives him her slave girl Hagar as a concubine to bear children in her name. Years later, when God’s prophecy to Sarah is fulfilled and she gives birth to Isaac, she evicts Hagar and her son Ishmael in a jealous fury, fearful that Ishmael will receive the firstborn blessing meant for Isaac. The same ugly jealousy rears its head between two sisters, Rachel and Leah, both married to Abraham’s grandson Jacob. Leah despises Rachel for her beauty while Rachel despises Leah for her ability to have children.
In both instances these three matriarchs illustrate every stereotype associated with female friendship (or the lack thereof): cattiness, jealousy, rage, envy. Above all else, they illustrate a gross amount of selfishness spurred on by the limitations of gender-based thinking: If I am not physically attractive, if I cannot have a child, I am worthless, therefore I hate anyone who can – even if they are my sister.
In contrast we have the gentile Ruth. Widowed by the death of her young Israelite husband, Ruth could have followed her Moabite sister-in-law Orpah into the safety of a second marriage within her own clan. Instead, Ruth gives up everything she has ever known to follow Naomi, her mother in law, back to Israel. A stranger in a strange land, she has no one for whom to be beautiful or fertile; she gives of herself, gleaning the leftovers while being harassed as a suspected outsider. Impressed by her unique strength of character, Boaz the rich Israeli goes out of his way to marry the foreigner who would become the grandmother of King David.
Ruth broke free of culturally engendered boundaries of friendship by making Naomi and Naomi’s God the focus of her love and devotion. In due time her selflessness would be rewarded with a place in the Messianic line of Israel.
“I think that, to me [Lena Dunham], the great complicated romance in the show takes place in female friendship. …I thought about it almost as like a hyper real-nature documentary exploring the phenomenon of friendship. Something about Girls— I think these girls are more tortured by their relationships with each other, specifically Marnie and Hannah, then they are with their relationships to men.”
To be sure, the most thoughtful and thought-provoking aspect of Girls isn’t the sex, but the way Dunham has scripted female friendships. Gone is the stereotypical sister-power prevalent among post-1960’s female-driven television. The Cosmo-fueled chumminess apparent in Sex & the City doesn’t exist, either. Instead, these are four girls going through their transitional 20’s trying to understand how adulthood will impact the relationships that contextualize their lives.
For all four women, that meant focusing on boyfriend and husband relationships at the expense of their friendships with one another. By the end of season 2 they are four separate women held together by the sheer fact that they once knew each other, before the boys came around and their lives became all about “me”.
Ah, but there’s the rub: The fine line between selfish and selfless that is the core argument in Girls. Hannah and Marnie’s best-friendship devolves into a screaming match in season 2 over who is the “bad” friend. By the end of the season all four ladies are locked in loneliness, physically and emotionally broken from one another. Marnie, concerned that she hasn’t heard from Hannah in days, searches their old apartment. Hannah hides under the bed, unwilling to admit her need for help. Knowing she is there, instead of bending over to look under the bed Marnie walks off, stealing a tchochke from the living room on her way out the door. So much for the friends who opened season one asleep in one another’s arms after an all-night Mary Tyler Moore Show marathon.
The “terrible emotional reality” of Girls is a modern twist on a Biblical truth: you don’t develop lasting friendships by hiding in a corner and licking your own wounds. It is also a sharp critique of the goddess culture-fueled mentality that forces women to view themselves and their relationships in sexual terms. Unable to find a healthy balance between positive boyfriend relationships and fulfilling female friendships, the foursome of Girls demand total personal fulfillment from sexual relationships with men while turning their back on the friendships that formed the core of their personal narrative. As a result, Jessa disappears completely while Shoshana, Hannah and Marnie crash-land into scenarios worthy of a goddess cult-classic. Like the goddess Hera, Marnie finds safety in the context of future nuptuals with Charlie. And true to the musings of Aristotle and Plato, Hannah is protected from her own emotional volatility by Adam’s strong male presence, while Shoshana retreats to a blonde boy in a bar for comfort after breaking up with Ray. So much for the supposed sisterhood.
In a recent interview, Lena Dunham asked her own best friend (and Marnie boilerplate) Audrey Gelman, “What’s the hardest thing about best friendship?” Gelman replied that, Loving without judgment or fear or abandonment is, like, the toughest activity known to mankind and I think with best friends that can be even more pronounced…”. Girls is one of the best illustrations of this raw truth, which leaves me wondering exactly how Dunham will guide these characters through the struggle every 20-something woman faces: How to be a wife-and-mother-in-training and still be a best friend.