The Geopolitics of ‘Girls’
How Lena Dunham explains the world.
This is the Golden Age for television shows that offer commentary, directly or allegorically, on world politics. Shows like AMC's The Walking Dead and NBC's Revolution examine how humans react to a Hobbesian system in which trust is a scarce commodity. Showtime's Homeland and FX's crackerjack The Americans explore the corrosive effects of espionage and counterintelligence during the War on Terror and Cold War respectively. HBO's Game of Thrones combines a dollop of magic with the realpolitik of 17th-century Europe. I'm here to tell you: Forget all those shows. The true TV connoisseur appreciates that the most insightful television show about world politics airing right now is, obviously, Girls.
This is the Golden Age for television shows that offer commentary, directly or allegorically, on world politics. Shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead and NBC’s Revolution examine how humans react to a Hobbesian system in which trust is a scarce commodity. Showtime’s Homeland and FX’s crackerjack The Americans explore the corrosive effects of espionage and counterintelligence during the War on Terror and Cold War respectively. HBO’s Game of Thrones combines a dollop of magic with the realpolitik of 17th-century Europe. I’m here to tell you: Forget all those shows. The true TV connoisseur appreciates that the most insightful television show about world politics airing right now is, obviously, Girls.
I’ll wait until you finish your peals of laughter. Ready? OK, sure, at first glance it might seem as though Lena Dunham’s dry comedy is merely about the trials and tribulations of aimless millenials congregating in the hipper enclaves of Brooklyn. Heck, the biggest online debate in its second season was about whether someone as hot as Patrick Wilson would really go for someone as unconventional as Dunham (the correct answer, by the way, is yes). But anyone who has heard Dunham speak about the show knows that she’s quite savvy about her characters’ flaws and foibles. The central journey in Girls is how immature people fumble their way toward maturity. The parallels to world politics here are surprisingly strong — after all, sovereign states are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, so national polities also possess some immaturity.
While "national culture" is a shopworn concept in international relations, it is inescapable that most of the major characters in Girls evoke distinct national tropes. Start with the protagonist: Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, a struggling young writer who clearly represents the United States in all her fading hegemony. She borrows from others in order to afford her current lifestyle. Hannah manages to insert herself into every situation, making it all about her — a process that evokes myriad U.S. military interventions. Like many an American president abroad, Hannah often leaps before she looks, convinced that the experience will be enriching. Of all the characters on the show, she is naked the most often, revealing a transparency that parallels the American political system. Finally, despite all of her flaws, Hannah clearly possesses both talent and charm, which allows her to get away with such egregious behavior for sustained periods of time — until it finally catches up with her. Tell me I haven’t just described the United States as viewed by the rest of the world.
If Hannah is America, her female friends represent other major players in the Western alliance system. Jemima Kirke’s Jessa, who, on a whim, marries a banker she despises, is France — self-absorbed, flighty, with a taste for the grand gesture that doesn’t quite work out. As the junior member of the quartet, Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna, the youngest of the four friends, embodies Canada — seemingly polite, but bubbling over with passive-aggressive insecurities. As for Hannah’s ostensible best friend, Allison Williams’ Marnie, she exemplifies Germany. There is much to admire in Marnie — her undeniable beauty, her self-assuredness, and her unwillingness to go into debt. Unfortunately, however, Marnie expects everyone else to behave the same way she does — and is truly flummoxed when others seem to prosper using a different recipe for success. Because she’s so attractive, however, many of the characters still try to emulate or win her approval, to the point of self-flagellation. In this way Charlie, Marnie’s on-again, off-again paramour, represents the rest of the European Union and all EU aspirants — and Charlie suffers just as much as they do. The estrangement between Marnie and Hannah crystallizes the fraying transatlantic partnership better than any earnest think tank white paper on the subject.
If the female characters on Girls represent the West, the two most important male characters come from the BRICs. Ray is a coffee-shop manager, the oldest member of the group, and far and away the most cynical and angry character on the show. He scorns just about everything that every other character says or does, but seems unable to make much of himself. Ray is Russia personified. In contrast, Adam — Hannah’s former beau — is China. He’s a force to be reckoned with, but it’s not entirely clear whether he’s socialized into how the rest of Brooklyn society behaves. One could posit that Hannah’s relationship with Adam represents the promise and peril of the "responsible stakeholder" concept. On the one hand, Hannah seems to use her "soft power" to entice Adam into liking her a lot more than he originally thought — in other words, getting him to want what she wants. He begins to socialize with Hannah’s circle of friends. At the same time, Hannah is unsure just how much she wants to engage Adam, reflecting America’s ambivalence in its relationship with China. At the end of the first season, she is quite uneasy about moving in together. The result is an Adam that, much like China, is angry and frustrated at his treatment by others — which in turn leads to bellicose behavior, which in turn leads Hannah to call the cops and try to contain his behavior. The breakdown in the relationship between Hannah and Adam is yet another example of the security dilemma destroying lives.
With the finale of Season Two this Sunday, we will get some further insight into Dunham’s geopolitical worldview when a number of dramatic arcs could find resolution — or not. If Hannah and Marnie reconcile, then Dunham is clearly urging the United States and European Union to patch up their petty differences, negotiate that transatlantic trade deal, and show the rest of the world a West reunited. If Adam and Hannah reconcile, then Girls is suggesting, akin to A. Iain Johnston’s work, that China can be socialized into international norms. If, however, Hannah’s obsessive-compulsive behavior requires her to commit herself to a psychiatric facility, then Dunham will have delivered a most Spenglerian pronouncement: The United States is doomed to cycles of self-defeating behavior on the world stage.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the author of The Ideas Industry. Twitter: @dandrezner
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