The title of any piece, be it of a film or book, has the potential to give away everything, its entire purpose, or nothing. For Hilton Als, the phrase ‘white girls’ does both: the concept is threaded throughout his book White Girls like a clue, one which at times leads the reader closer to the salvation of understanding, but often deceives its true meaning. That is, the phrase and its associated references are both inclusive and exclusive, inviting readers to relate when they understand Als’s allusion to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and shutting them out when the citation of a certain ‘white girl’ and its relation to Als’s point evades the reader’s comprehension. White girls are, ironically, also the center of Lena Dunham’s Girls, which employs similar tactics of inclusion and exclusion through her depiction of friendships, relationships, experiences.
The devices of inclusion and exclusion are, to this end, literary weapons that serve the purpose of demarcating the extent to which readers and viewers alike experience either the privilege of understanding or the challenge of interpreting for themselves. Whether authors are successful in their intended use of inclusion or exclusion shapes the effectiveness of their respective mediums.
Shows like Mad Men or Downton Abbey operate almost wholly on exclusion, as dream worlds conjured by historians and artists to portray fantasies, what with their pleasures and horrors, of times gone by. Surely the extent to which an individual may relate to Don Draper is in the abstract, in understanding his need for control or sharing his sexual desires. The culture, careers, and relationships within Mad Men, however, cast viewers out, such that the act of watching the show is not unlike taking a vacation through time travel, to another space and time, a form of entertainment that serves as escapism.
But, like Als’s White Girls, Dunham’s Girls more carefully treads the line between inclusivity and exclusivity rather than aiming to exhibit one or the other. Dunham’s use of the devices parallels that of White Girls in obvious ways, employing the trifecta of exclusionary instruments: race, gender, and sexuality. Whereas Als is an African American, homosexual male, the characters in Girls are, in fact, ‘white girls’ who identify as heterosexual. Despite Als’s codedness in providing his demographic information forthright (compared to the visual obviousness of the latter characteristics), his experience as a black homosexual male provides the content for his first chapter “Tristes Tropiques;” and, likewise, the experiences of the Girls characters as white heterosexual females create the plot of Dunham’s show. Whether readers or viewers identify with these distinctions determines their inclusion or exclusion, but, similar to Mad Men, methods for exclusivity extend beyond the trifecta.
In White Girls, Als’s references to white girls like Diane Keaton include or exclude readers based on their cultural expertise. One’s knowledge of Prince will determine whether he or she understands what Als means by saying that white girls could “rant, weep, treat [SL] like a servant, like the girlfriend in the Prince song he loved so,” which he followed with lyrics of the unnamed song. His refusal to disclose the title is the epitome of his exclusion: even readers who know Prince may not recognize the lyrics of “If I was Your Girlfriend” in the absence of its title. Als uses references like this to further his concept of twinship - a relationship that exceeds the bounds of friendship but fails to consummate sexually.
The concept itself, alongside the white girls used to explain it, lacks definition, allowing readers to feel both included and excluded in its existence. Those having experienced any special friendship, a connection that defies language, a soulmate-ship without orientation, will identify with the relationship between SL and Als. Yet, the perennially changing boundaries of the relationship, which progress and regress abstractly throughout “Tristes Tropiques” until, inevitably it ends, leave readers in the lurch - Als feelings toward SL are difficult enough to understand (Does he love him like a lover, or not?), without the references used to explain their evolution, or devolution. As the chapter closes and the book shifts to an inexplicable essay on Truman Capote, it becomes clear that its efforts for inclusion fail specifically because those for exclusion succeed.
Unlike Mad Men, White Girls intends to both include and exclude readers at different moments by providing relatable experiences or emotions amidst symbols of culture and class that hinder understanding and impede the formation of an alliance with Als as a narrator. Exclusion, it seems, is more important than inclusion to Als, and in “Tristes Tropiques,” he tells what he surely views as an autobiographical account told through the lens of his relationship with SL, a private relationship which he succeeds in keeping private. In other words, he forcefully insists upon the exclusivity of his relationship with SL, making readers confused and to want for clarity, while allowing bits of himself - his music and movie preferences, his family history, his life in New York - to fall through the cracks. Als’s use of exclusion, in effect, results in a book written more for himself than for any reader, the privacy and lack of continuity of which challenges even those readers who identify as Prince aficionados.
Dunham similarly utilizes Girls as an autobiographical platform, admittedly drawing from events in her life in creating the script. Like White Girls, the intended audience for Girls remains questionable: the girls appear to portray recent college graduates seeking direction and stability, like an antithesis to Sex and the City. But in actuality, the characters are years departed from college (at approximate ages of 26), and remain are unemployed but living on parents’ money - a certain indication of their collective socioeconomic statuses. Besides, Dunham herself, born unto artists in Brooklyn and having spent summers in Connecticut, is, by definition, excluded from the idea of poverty. Thus, as in White Girls, the autobiographical features of Girls lack clarity, and at most are sifted through the often satirical experiences of the characters.
The romanticization of the wandering twenties decade in which the characters roam ironically aims to appeal to an elder audience, one that idealizes their hippie-chic past and one that grants the awards. Much has been said about the so-called “Throwaway Decade” of one’s twenties, enough to inspire a Ted talk on the subject by Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, who sought to explain that just because marriage, work, and kids are happening later in life, twenty-somethings shouldn’t neglect these formative years. The cast of Girls, however, glorifies the Throwaway Decade, since they certainly don’t appear to be planning for the future. Though the void of direction had by the characters possibly seeks to include those currently living in the Throwaway Decade by saying, “hey, it’s okay to not have all the answers,” like a counterpoint to previous attitudes toward what it means to be an adult (marriage, kids, career), it has the potential for misinterpretation. The generation portrayed in the show is that which stands to be impacted by its sentimentalization of misplaced potential.
It is mostly to this generation which the show seeks to be inclusive and, at times, exclusive. While Hilton Als favored exclusion, however, Girls seeks to provoke a certain kind of inclusivity, one based upon interactions between the characters and their life experiences rather than on the basis of race, gender, and sexuality. The lack of diversity on the show is surely its greatest immediate downfall, casting aside potential viewers due to its limited scope for demographic identification. And while Dunham has attributed the ‘white girls‘ problem of Girls to the limitations provided by her own experiences, one should wonder how, after three seasons, the show continues to exclude groups that other shows, including Mad Men, have begun trying to represent - though are still largely underrepresented in art.
Given these self-imposed demographic constraints, Girls makes efforts toward inclusion in other aforementioned realms, those identified in Als’s book: friendships, relationships, and experiences.
Similar to White Girls, and, perhaps, to any television show, the effectiveness of inclusion by Girls ebbs and flows throughout the seasons, reaching peak moments in each. The first season saw “Welcome to Bushwick aka the Crackcident,” in which the characters attend a warehouse party in Bushwick and Shoshanna accidentally tries crack while in line for the bathroom.
The entire episode takes place at the party, flipping from character to character in chronicling the happenings of the night. Notably, “Welcome to Bushwick” is one of few that features Hannah entirely clothed for its entirety, momentarily omitting an aspect of the show that is both inclusionary and exclusionary. Dunham’s insistence upon showing her body plays an important role in confronting women with an example of imperfect nudity, empowering them to be comfortable with their own bodies, while also turning away viewers who wish to see beyond the perennial topic of body image. Even Dunham, over the course of three seasons of nudity, has expressed the wish for the image of her naked body to wane (her recent Glamour cover featured the tagline, “Why she’s over talking about her body”), apparently having made the desired point and hoping to shift focus back to the girls and their experiences.
Like those had in Bushwick. From the outset, the girls assert their differences: Marnie, true to her elitist fashion, is reserved about going to a warehouse party; Jessa, the token wild child, endeavors to find the best party ever regardless of location; Hannah imposes her cynical humor upon the low probability of doing so; and Shoshanna is found alone, too afraid to branch out on her own. Despite their hyperbolic tendencies, the characters are representative of types of people, girls in particular, girls in their twenties to be more specific. Hannah uses self-deprecating humor to fill the space which she perceives to be left by her weight and appearance. Jessa is the troubled bohemian, free spirit and Marnie is painfully insecure, whiny, and pretentious. Shoshanna serves as a time machine for the others, with the hyperactivity and eagerness of someone slightly more youthful, like a reflection of their pasts, and a portrait of the reality for collegiate viewers true to the ages seemingly portrayed by Hannah and the others.
But they aren’t cookie cutter - they all, at times, whine, yell, betray each other, disappear, have shitty relationships, use sex for gratification, and, most of all, appear lost. Here, the show really does appear to be a twenty-something prequel to Sex and the City, unifying the characters behind their lack of togetherness and direction. The episode itself, the warehouse party, Shoshanna’s crack use, Jessa’s mistaken invitation to her boss, is for the most part a device of exclusion; but the moments within the plot sequences - Marnie seeing Charlie with another girl after only two weeks apart, Hannah seeing the boy she likes, Jessa starting a fight, Shoshanna leaving her comfort zone -- are basic, inclusive, and evocative of the essence of Sex and the City: friends, for better or for worse, making mistakes and memories.
Season two likewise has “Bad Friend,” the peak episode which spawned the summer sensation of “I Love It” by Icona Pop.
The song, in particular, demonstrates the efforts made by the show for inclusion through music. Girls petitions to its younger viewers by attempting to find a balance between songs from the Billboard Top 100 and those undiscovered or forgotten. In doing so, the soundtrack creates a mood that epitomizes scenes and feelings from the show: Fiest’s “I Feel It All,” Blair’s “Wake Up Shake Up,” and “Bang Bang Bang” by Mark Ronson and The Business Intl are a mere few of the melodies thrown amidst the popular hits of today, many of which immediately resurrect a scene or instance in the show upon play.
In “Bad Friend,” Hannah, desperate for work, as usual, goes on a job interview during which the interviewer suggests that she either participate in a threesome found on Craigslist or try cocaine for writing inspiration. The ridiculousness of the interview has hyperbolic undertones, but undoubtedly captures the desperation that surfaces as the job search dwindles. Unemployment is as common as awkward sex throughout the three seasons, beckoning recent graduates by commenting on their plight. Never mind that Hannah is not 22, but rather 26, and has been steadily unemployed for four years -- every new train wreck of an interview is funny, if not depressing, and entirely inclusionary (if you ignore Hannah’s ability to be choosey, and to quit, implying the existence of parental monetary aid).
The two major events of the episode -- Hannah and Elijah’s use of cocaine and Marnie’s escapade with artist Booth Jonathan - are themselves devices of exclusion for most viewers. But the mundane activities before the events, as Hannah paints her nails while Elijah picks out her outfit, and Marnie works a terrible job as a waitress, are reflections of actions performed by real twenty-somethings. Even under the influence of cocaine, Hannah and Elijah’s dancing and dramatic responses to various situations are representative of drunken twenties experiences. At the end, Hannah, evoking false maturity, confronts Marnie for having slept with Elijah, trying to sound adult-like while articulating her frustration that all the while Hannah has been painted the bad friend when really Marnie is far from an ideal companion. Her “bad friend” monologue ironically mimics the collegiate viewer who sees herself (or himself) in Hannah, Jessa, or Marnie, when she should instead look to Shoshanna, in all her ridiculousness and perhaps greater mockery of college students, for inclusion. Instead, viewers look to the others as idealized versions of their post-grad selves, like fans of Sex and the City aspired to the thirty/forty-something lives of Carrie & Co.
The season takes a turn toward exclusionary after the episode, as Hannah suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder and, in the infamous episode titled “On All Fours,” Marnie embarrassingly sings Kanye West’s “Stronger” and Adam inflicts his strange and often demeaning sexual tendencies upon his girlfriend Natalia. And while the most recent season picks up nearly right where the last one left off, its tone is immediately reflective upon the changes in and between the characters.
Despite its somber overtones, the season endeavors to reimplement its facets of inclusion, as though reaching out to viewers, post-”On All Fours” before alienating them for good. Right away, the newly domestic Hannah and Adam are confronted by his now-ex Natalia and her friend, both of whom berate the couple. The experience of seeing an ex, let alone an angry one, is universal, as is the maternal lecture given to Marnie by her mother, with whom she is living. Shoshanna is splitting single life between the library and strangers’ beds, but appears darker, less naive, hence evidencing the evolution of the youth that was shown earlier in the series as eager and hyperactive. The least relatable, maybe unsurprisingly, is Jessa, who, at the outset of the season is in rehab.
The friends slowly reunite amidst tension during the first few episodes before coming together in “Beach House,” which bears the greatest ratio of inclusionary to exclusionary devices of the three peak episodes. Marnie, seeking closure and new beginnings, extensively plans a weekend away the beach, admitting that she hoped to “prove to everyone via instagram that we can still have fun as a group,” but when things go awry, her resistance to flexibility resurfaces, causing a falling out among the friends.
Surprisingly, Shoshanna is responsible for saying what unleashing what everyone is thinking after Hannah, for once, says “I don’t feel like being honest.” Shoshanna begins what becomes the most poignant moment of the season by addressing Hannah: “..you’re a fucking narcissist. I wanted to fall asleep in my own vomit all day listening to you talk about how you bruise more easily than other people;” then moving on to Marnie, “Oh my god. Can you chill the fuck out about dinner? Seriously, that duck tasted like a used condom and I wanna forget about it.” Even the usually-neutral Jessa falls victim to the verbal accusations after she makes a pseudo-mature statement about finding happiness - “What is that, like some AA bullshit? Seriously, Jessa goes to rehab for like five fucking seconds and we have to listen to everything she comes up with.” Shoshanna also speaks for herself, “You guys never listen to me... Sometimes I wonder if my social anxiety is holding me back from meeting the people who would actually be right for me instead of a bunch of fucking whiny nothings as friends,” and, in doing so, finally addresses the grievances of viewers: “I’m so fucking sick of all of you.”
It needed to happen, the annoying characteristics had, by the episode, run away with the show, and, despite its attempts to reinstitute inclusivity by taming the extremity of the previous season, had again nearly alienated viewers by making them hate the girls. Yet the annoyances of the characters are the product of two effects: the characteristics that prove actually annoying, and the resistance of viewers to seeing bits of themselves within the girls.
And so, by way of Shoshanna’s unexpected verbal tirade, the dirty laundry has been aired by the end of “Beach House,” which concludes with a silent treaty amongst the friends, in the form of a silent, seated performance of the dance they learned together over the weekend. Too real is the simplicity with which they patch up the argument, and, like a true happy ending, putting viewers at ease that, regardless of the degree of damage, true friendship is always salvageable.
The ratio of inclusion to exclusion continues to fluctuate throughout the remainder of the third season, but the efforts of the show to prove inclusionary are, on the whole, successful. Compared to Als’s White girls, which also walks the tightrope between inclusion and exclusion but intends to exclude readers on the basis of experience, alongside the trifecta of race, gender, and sexuality, Dunham’s Girls walks the same line with different intentions: to make audiences, whether younger or elder, relate despite the prevalence of exclusionary devices. Als uses exclusion selfishly, as a mechanism for privacy, but Girls uses the tactic as a backdrop, providing heightened experiences - like snorting coke or smoking crack or living in NYC without income - as humorous or outrageous settings for relatable, and often mundane, instances and moments that are, in so many ways, the essence of life and friendship, regardless of age.