#17: Girls at 10 – what Lena Dunham’s show taught us about millennial sex
In which I analyse some noteworthy sex scenes from TV show 'Girls'...
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[Image description: Text ‘Girls at 10’ on a navy blue background with a lilac paintbrush stroke highlighted segment]
Content note: Special bonus edition! This piece contains plot spoilers, descriptions of a number of simulated sex scenes and accompanying stills featuring actors in various states of nudity (the penis is prosthetic, though).
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This April marks 10 years since Lena Dunham’s smash-hit TV show Girls first aired.
[Image description: Girls Series premiere promotional image of four brunette-haired women sitting on a sofa in a shared flat in Brooklyn, New York]
At the time, Girls was one of the only TV shows depicting millennial women’s struggles as they attempted to navigate their – mostly dysfunctional – professional and romantic lives, which was in stark contrast to earlier comparable shows such as Sex and the City (HBO, 1998–2004) and The L Word (Showtime, 2004–2009). Many of us tuned in to watch Girls with an expectation that any sex in the show would be highly stylised and somewhat gratuitous as per lots of US dramas series at the time. Yep, I’m looking at you Nip/Tuck (FX, 2003–2010); Californication, (Showtime 2007–2014); Spartacus, (Starz, 2010–2013); and Game of Thrones (HBO 2011–2019).
In 2012, when Girls first aired, both its fans and critics would be quick to mention its frequent sex scenes, which very often featured the bare breasts of lead character Hannah Horvath (played by writer/creator Lena Dunham). At the time (like today), it was usually only actresses whose bodies conformed to the model-esque aesthetic would appear naked in TV shows. And Dunham very deliberately sought to buck that trend, which was (still is) both refreshing and delightful. Because the sex we see enacted on screen significantly shapes the ways in which wider culture defines ‘sex’ and also the kinds of sex we actually engage in real life.
Fans of Girls loved the show for portraying sex in all its strange, kinky, injury-inducing, run-of-the-mill, messy, bare-skinned glory. Ten years on, I rewatched all six seasons (62 episodes) of Girls in their entirety and found that across its 53 (!) sex scenes it really was instrumental in raising the bar for depicting sex on screen.
Here’s a summary of a few noteworthy scenes:
Almaz note: Nowadays subscription streaming sites won’t allow viewers to screenshot content, so please excuse the quality of the images below – I literally took pics of my screen with my phone while I was watching 😅
Season 1, Episode 1 ‘Pilot’; Hannah and Adam; Sex Scene 12:33mins–15:39mins
[Image description: Still image of Adam and Hannah sex scene]
Synopsis: In the first sex scene of the show, protagonist Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) and her fuck buddy, Adam Sackler (played by Adam Driver) are sitting on Adam’s sofa chatting about where they get their money from. Their interaction segues into a sexual encounter where Adam shows us their dynamic; he’s the dom (“You should never be anyone’s fucking slave. Except mine.”), and also isn’t very responsive to her requests (She asks,“Will you get a condom?”. He responds, “I’ll consider it.”)
As Hannah’s lying on her front, she very awkwardly tries to use both hands to slide her tights down in readiness for some sex. She’s trying hard to be ‘sexy’ for Adam, but also chatters on and on (fairly anxiously) about whether he’s wearing a condom, whether she’s in the right position and why she’s not letting him anally penetrate her. Which eventually leads Adam to snap at Hannah; “Let’s play the quiet game.”
Why it’s noteworthy: With its focus on idiosyncratic realism over commonplace titillation, this scene sets the tone for whole show.
Season 2, Episode 5 ‘One Man’s Trash’; Hannah and Joshua; Sex Scenes 07:46mins–10:26, 12:00mins–15:02mins, 16:08mins–16:48mins
[Image description: Still image of Hannah and Joshua sex scene]
Synopsis: A random customer (Joshua, played by Patrick Wilson) comes into Grumpy’s (the coffee shop where Hannah works) to complain to manager Ray about the fact that the coffee shop’s rubbish keeps ending up in his bins which are just outside his house, a number of streets away from Grumpy’s. Hannah is the one who’s been dumping the coffee shop waste into his bins, so she decides to head his house to confess and apologise.
Hannah’s struck by how gorgeous both Joshua (who’s a much older doctor) and his home (a coveted brownstone) are, and kisses him. She apologises for the kiss. But then… he kisses her back.
The inevitable happens; they have sex.
She ends up spending the whole day with him a his place, living his life of leisure, luxury and having frequent sex.
Why it’s noteworthy: By portraying spontaneous sex between strangers as simultaneously life-affirming, playful and fulfilling, this episode gave many of us a new vocabulary to describe sexual experiences that had been significant, yet fleeting/illicit.
Season 3, Episode 6 ‘Free Snacks’; Shoshanna and Parker; Sex Scene 23:57mins–24:45mins
[Image description: Still image of Shoshanna and Parker sex scene]
Synopsis: Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is earnestly trying to acknowledge that she and Parker (Evan Jonigkeit) are now in a relationship (“So now that we’re officially a couple I think that we should have no less than four hang nights a week.”) But he’s not invested in the conversation, as he’s busy taking her from behind (“Um, can we talk about it later). Bent over the back of a sofa, Shoshanna says, “Honest and open communication about mutual needs is, like, the cornerstone to any healthy relationship.”
“Do you want me to stop?” he asks.
“No. There’s no need to terminate sex just ‘cause we’re not meant for each other. God, you’re so dumb, Parker,” Shosh quips back.
Why it’s noteworthy: Arresting visual representation of the conflicting interpersonal dynamics that can manifest in early-stage relationships.
Season 5, Episode 4 ‘Old Loves’; Jessa and Adam; Sex Scene 21:03mins–22:18mins
[Image description: Still image of Jessa and Adam sex scene]
Synopsis: Jessa (Jemima Kirk) and Adam have been trying really hard not to become a couple, so as not to hurt Hannah, but they finally give in to their lust for each other.
Although we’ve seen both characters enjoy all kinds of sex with a number of partners, when they decide to have sex together for the first time it’s not good. At all.
They keep stopping, switching positions, and, eventually, Adam acknowledges the awkwardness, saying “Is this what bad sex is like?”
Why it’s noteworthy: It’s not often we see someone who’s actively engaged in a sex act with someone they’re attracted to actually acknowledge that what’s happening in the moment might not be working for them.
Season 6, Episode 3 ‘American B****’; Hannah and Chuck Palmer; Sex Scenes 20:37mins–22:23mins
[Image description: Still image of Chuck and Hannah scene]
Synopsis: Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), a rich and famous writer and alleged sexual predator invites Hannah to his apartment pad to discuss a blog post she’s written, which had criticised him for using his reputation to take sexual advantage of his younger female fans. Over the course of the episode, he makes her see his side of things, essentially re-creating the circumstances of the previously alleged assaults by using his writerly wit and charm to seduce Hannah.
“Hannah, would you lie down with me for a moment. Just a moment. And I’d encourage you to keep your clothes on to delineate any boundaries that feel right to you. But I just want to feel close to someone in a way that I haven’t in a long time. If you please.”
She agrees and lies beside Chuck. Wordlessly, he rolls over towards Hannah and gets his penis out. Unthinking, Hannah grabs it briefly before jumping up and exclaiming “Oh my fucking God, I touched your dick!”
Why it’s noteworthy: This episode masterly addresses many of the ethical complexities that come to the fore whenever a rich and famous men are accused of sexual assault in a post #MeToo world.
During my re-watch, I felt myself becoming almost nostalgic for the decade younger version of myself – because I remember how validating it was to see situations play out on screen that were not all that dissimilar to how elements of my life also looked that particular time.
In the decade since then, we’ve had a whole spate of TV shows including The Affair (Showtime, 2014) Chewing Gum (Channel 4, 2015 and 2017), Catastrophe (Channel 4, 2015–2019), Cucumber and Banana (Channel 4 and E4, 2015) Fleabag (BBC 2016 and 2019), Insecure (HBO, 2016–2021), Easy (Netflix, 2016–2019), Sex Education (Netflix, 2018– ), Shrill (Hulu, 2019–2021), Euphoria (HBO, 2019– ), Trigonometry (BBC, 2020), Normal People (BBC and Hulu, 2020), I May Destroy You (BBC and HBO, 2020), I Hate Suzie (Sky Atlantic, 2020) and Industry (BBC and HBO 2020– ), which together, I reckon can be described as constituting a ‘mature canon’ of 21st-century depictions of sex on the silver screen.
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I’m Almaz Ohene, a Creative Copywriter, Freelance Journalist and Accidental Sexpert.
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Available for commissions. Info via almazohene.com/contact-faqs.
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