How HBO's GIRLS Gets Friendship Right
Lena Dunham's "Girls" portrays friendship in a refreshingly realistic light.
Posted Jan 13, 2013
TV is enamored with friends. But it usually doesn’t portray them accurately. For female friends in particular, we have the Lifetime movie laughter-through-tears romanticization of friendship, and, on the other end of the emotional spectrum, the Housewives (friends only for the duration of fame-pursuit) who scheme and pull each other’s hair.
The gangs on Friends, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory, loveable though they may be, are too stable and exclusive to reflect real-life friendship groups, which morph and split and reconfigure over time. Perhaps that is exactly why we adore these shows—they tap into our fantasy of a permanent group never ruffled by incompatible friends-of-friends, romantic pairings, or a bad job market.
Sex and the City showcased four busy women who somehow always had endless time for each other. Then again, SATC never pretended to be anything BUT a fantasy. Which brings us to GIRLS. Though I’m at least ten years older than its target audience, I enjoyed the first season. It’s too early to judge the show on the stability and exclusivity of the four main characters, but in other respects, they already seem refreshingly realistic. As someone who has been researching and thinking about friendship for the past two years while writing Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, I am struck by how much the show gets right about a normally tried-and-false theme:
-- Calling a relative a “friend” is an emotional promotion. Shoshanna wants to befriend her cool cousin Jessa. Simply being known as Jessa’s relative would likely be a letdown for her.
-- Norms spread through friend groups. Jessa’s promiscuity/liberation makes Shoshanna feel even weirder about being a virgin and Hannah less weird for having contracted HPV.
-- We tend to choose friends who share our demographic profile. GIRS initially got a lot of flak for its lack of characters of color. While an all-white clique may not represent multi-ethnic Brooklyn in 2013, it does square with what we know about friendship selection generally. Research also shows, however, that friendships with people who are not “just like you” can be very satisfying. So let’s hope the GIRLS embrace diversity in Season 2, for their own sake, if not for the sake of realism.
-- A surefire way for two friends to bond is to talk negatively about a mutual friend. Jessa and Marnie put their personality differences aside while venting their frustrations about Hannah. Annoyance with, and envy toward, friends is very natural. But we don’t usually confront the friend in question. Instead, we tend to analyze the darker side of friendship with a third party.
-- For best friends in their 20s, especially, “identity support” is crucial. Hannah sees herself as more talented and also nobler than the successful young author whose party the gang attends. She needs her friends to uphold this view of herself. That’s why Hannah feels so attacked when she finds Marnie reading the woman’s book, and even enjoying it. The fight that follows is my favorite “real friends” moment of the season. Hannah and Marnie know each other so well that they know exactly how to hurt each other. The fact that we don’t see them make up afterwards (but do see that they are at least on speaking terms) is another nice touch: Sometimes resolution with others is elusive when you’re trying to get yourself together, especially when an ironic stance toward problems is the reflexive one.
-- A friend is as a friend does, unless she is totally charming: Hannah is self-absorbed. She mocks the notion of striving to be “a good friend” yet secretly thinks of herself as a bad friend. Those secret worries produce angst, and she thinks that suffering compensates for her sometimes thoughtless behavior. But her friends don’t see the suffering; they themselves suffer from Hannah’s self-absorption. Still, Hannah’s actions won’t make her friendless. Don’t we all have a magnetic, bright, and totally selfish friend whom we adore, even though we do all the heavy lifting in the relationship?
-- A good friend knows exactly what you need: Whether that’s money for rent, straight talk about how unhappy you are in your romantic relationship, or an impromptu dance party of two, friends usually deliver, even if friendship can be messy. Hannah and Marnie: Please stay together in Season 2 and beyond. Friends who knew you when you were young are grounding, comforting, and—if you’ll excuse the Lifetime phrasing—to be treasured.
Friendfluence will be published on Jan. 15!
Watch the trailer and find out what a great friend Nate Silver is and more...