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Goodbye Tour: were the girls in Girls ever really friends?

It’s tempting to declare, like Shoshanna, that these people were never friends in the first place. But is that fair?

“Lust fades, but friendship doesn’t, if you nurture it,” Hannah says wisely in the opening scene of this week’s Girls, waltzing over to a group of young people who neither asked for nor wanted her opinion. It’s a classic Hannah move – imparting advice on a group of strangers while struggling to live that same advice herself. Throughout “Goodbye Tour”, Hannah tries to get in touch with her friends to ask them for their thoughts on a big life decision – should she leave New York to take an academic job upstate? – but no one’s answering her calls.

Later, sat on a bench with Elijah, she wonders what kept her in New York in the first place. “Hannah, you’ve made so many wonderful friendships here,” Elijah says seriously. They both burst out laughing. “That’s not a thing!” Elijah cackles.

So when Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna finally reunite for the first time this season (one of only 12 scenes the foursome have had together over the course of the whole show), it perhaps feels true when they all admit that their friendships have disintegrated. They are at Shoshanna’s engagement party – something Hannah wasn’t even invited to, since Shoshanna was offended that Hannah never told her about her pregnancy. Jessa shouldn’t really be their either. Marnie has been avoiding Hannah’s calls all day. None of them wanted to see each other, but here they are.

Shoshanna is the first to say it. “I have come to realize how exhausting and narcissistic and ultimately boring this whole dynamic is, and I finally feel brave enough to create some distance for myself,” she declares.  “All of those really pretty girls out there who have, like, jobs and purses and nice personalities? Those are now my friends, not you guys. I think we should all just agree to call it.” It’s a callback to Season Three’s “Beach House”, where a drunk Shoshanna rails: “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.”

The critics were immediately behind Shoshanna. “As it turns out, Shosh has been the smart, well-adjusted one all along,” wrote the A.V. Club. “Shoshanna Has Become the True Hero of Girls”, ran an NYMag headline, while the Huffington Post went with “Shoshanna, Forever The Best ‘Girls’ Character, Has Evolved To A Higher Plane”. All agreed that the girls were never proper friends: “She is certainly not wrong, and everyone else seems to realize it,” said the Vulture recap. The Ringer ran a piece called “It’s Called ‘Girls,’ Not ‘Friends’”, saying “The show’s foursome hasn’t been close for a while — and with one episode left, Girls finally acknowledged it.” Many congratulated Dunham on the realism of letting this 20-something friendship fade out.

Girls has long had an audience locked in a frustrating battle with its characters, and it’s easy to hear Hannah’s smug words at the opening of this week’s episode and roll your eyes, and to hear Shoshanna’s brutal assessment of their friendships and applaud.

But Shoshanna did have a genuine relationship with each of these women and for her to deny it in its entirety rings hollow. And while Hannah’s relationships with Jessa, Shoshanna, Ray, and others have all broken down, this series of Girls has seen Hannah nurturing friendships. She’s supported Marnie throughout her divorce and Elijah throughout his auditions for White Men Can’t Jump: The Musical. She’s had tricky conversations with both of them about her pregnancy and the future of their friendships: conversations founded on honesty and love.

It’s never the popular argument, but I can’t help but feel that it’s Hannah, not Shosh, who has a more mature grasp on the friendship dynamics at play – and the show has been building to this point all series.

In “Hostage Situation”, Hannah accompanies Marnie and Desi on a weekend trip to Poughkeepsie, so that Marnie can tell Ray – who has no idea Marnie and Desi are sleeping together again – that she just went on a fun girl’s holiday with Hannah. It is, understandably, the last thing in the world Hannah wants to do, but she does it anyway. “Hannah, if you were gonna be such a bitch, why did you even come?” Marnie asks. “Oh, I don’t know, ‘cause I was trying to protect you and your house of lies, you fucking morons,” is Hannah’s frustrated reply.

Hannah ends up protecting Marnie in an extremely literal sense. When a high Desi has a violent outburst, he grabs Marnie, and she shouts for Hannah’s help. Hannah manages to wrestle Desi from Marnie and lock him outside to sober up. The two girls sit on the floor, having a nostalgic but difficult conversation about how they ended up here. “You are so bad at knowing when people are high,” Hannah jokes. “Do you remember that time I drank sizzurp and you thought I had senioritis?” The two women laugh.

“But seriously, Marnie, it can be pretty hard to have observations about other people when you’re only thinking about yourself. I would know. And I’m not judging you, okay? I promise. I’m done with that. I’m done judging. I’m done being superior. I’m done acting like I know anything at all. None of us know fucking anything.”

Marnie agrees.  “Do you promise that we’ll always be friends?” she asks.

“You think I’m gonna stop being your friend now?” Hannah replies. "After putting up with all this bullshit? You’ve put up with a lot of bullshit, too. And I’m gonna help you get out of this situation.”

In the same episode, while Hannah and Marnie are trying to repair Marnie’s disastrous love life, Shoshanna is at an event for women in business, looking jealously at the successful people around her, including Rachel and Zeva – two college friends who now own a very lucrative jeans business, She grows increasingly resentful of Jessa for “holding her back”.

 “I made the fatal mistake of deciding to push them aside for Jessa when she came home,” she explains. “‘Cause for some reason I thought that her friends were, like, the apex of maturity, which is ridiculous, and I recognize that now. And now Rachel and Zeva own Jamba Jeans.” The climax of the episode comes when Shoshanna screams at Jessa in the street: “You ruined my relationship with Rachel and Zeva! You ruined my life! I could have been a part of Jamba Jeans! I could have gone on fancy trips and had people who cared about me!”

Ever since she insisted, “Obvi, we’re the ladies!” at the start of Season One, Shoshanna has had a definite, elaborate image of the kind of woman she wants to be, and the kind of women she wants to be surrounded by. As she herself acknowledges, turning the real human beings she meets into symbols of sophistication or “the apex of maturity” can only end in disappointment. She’s done it before with Jessa (who can forget their immortal exchange, “I’m not on Facebook,” “You are so fucking classy”) and the other girls. Hannah, Marnie and Jessa haven’t been good friends to Shosh, and she there’s certainly nothing wrong with the fact that she’s trying to find new ones. But to me, Season Six Shoshanna, with her bitterness about the “fancy trips” she could have been on with glossier friends, and her satisfied speech about friends with “jobs and purses and nice personalities”, seems to be falling into a similar pattern.

While Shoshanna has been finding new relationships, Hannah has been working on old ones. Telling Elijah about her pregnancy causes a huge row that results in Elijah telling her, “You’re gonna be a terrible mother.” In the next episode, they make up. “I don’t think you’re going to be a terrible mother,” he admits. “I guess if I’m being honest, I just I really liked it when we both didn’t have anything going on in our lives.”

“What you said really scared me,” says Hannah. “You made me feel like this baby was gonna end our friendship. I don’t want our friendship to end. I need you in my life. I need you in my child’s life.” When she tells Marnie, they argue about her decision not to tell the father, but it’s the kind of hard-truth arguing Hannah needs, not petty, selfish arguing. “On the spectrum of human beings, you basically have your shit together,” Marnie says. “I can’t believe how supportive you’re being,” Hannah says gratefully. Hannah even had some closure on her relationship with Jessa, in the seasons most heartbreaking, triumphant moment. “We were all just doing our best,” Hannah says through tears at Shoshanna’s engagement party. “Our best was awful,” Jessa sobs back.

In a now-deleted Instagram post, Lena Dunham wrote that this week’s Girls was the final one to feature Jessa and Shosh (whether she meant together or at all is unclear). Shoshanna’s made it clear that her friendship with Hannah is over. While Hannah and Jessa obviously have an awful amount of love for each other, they can’t go back to how their friendship was before the Adam betrayal. And we know that Adam and Ray have had their final scenes, as has Elijah. While Hannah might never see Adam or Ray again, the bond that Hannah and Elijah have showcased this season leaves me in now doubt that their friendship will last long beyond Girls’s final episode.

Elijah and Marnie are Hannah’s oldest friends. The very first episode of Girls opened with which two people spooning? Hannah and Marnie. (A scene that was referenced in Season Two with Hannah and, yep, Elijah). The iconic “Dancing on My Own” scene? Hannah and Marnie. (A scene that was referenced in Season Two to “I Love it” with Hannah and, yep Elijah). They’re the only two people, aside from Hannah’s parents, who got proper scenes where Hannah explained her pregnancy to them, and the only two people who Hannah has promised to remain friends with in the future.

It’s tempting to see end of a TV show like Girls in one of two ways: to do a Friends and say, we’ll be together forever, or to pull the rug out from underneath people’s expectations and declare that these people were never friends in the first place. But in this season, Lena Dunham does neither. Instead, she finds that her characters friendships evolve and disintegrate as they do in real life. And that while some friendships don’t survive, some people are simply in it for the long haul. Or, in Hannah’s words, “You think I’m gonna stop being your friend now? After putting up with all this bullshit?”

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Now listen to a discussion of Girls on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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