“I am busy trying to become who I am”: Girls and the Bildungsroman

Allison Sharp

In the opening scene of the HBO series Girls, Hannah Horvath claims “I am busy trying to become who I am” (“Pilot”). Hannah’s claim, as well as the title itself, indicates that this is a story of the coming-of-age. But the messy, one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature of Hannah and her cohort’s narratives has critics wondering whether these girls will ever become women. The closer they come to a settled, established adulthood, the more they revert back to their girlish habits. This recursiveness and refusal of stability reorients the locus of teleology and begs for an appraisal of the genre itself. Unlike the bildungsroman of old, this contemporary take deals with a long, sordid, and continually repeated process of maturing in the modern age. As Hannah and the other girls muddle through some successes and many failures, their narratives refuse to follow the established rules of the bildungsroman. Girls defies the classic concept of the coming-of-age and envisions the bildungsroman narrative as a recursive, repeated, and rocky process.

Traditionally, a coming-of-age story must meet certain requirements to be successful. According to Jerome Buckley:

No single novel, of course, precisely follows this pattern. But none ignores more than two or three of its principle elements—childhood, the conflict of generations, provinciality, the larger society, self-education, alienation, ordeal by love, the search for a vocation and a working philosophy—answers the requirements of the Bildungsroman. (18)

Though Buckley wrote these requirements in 1974, the weight of his outline still informs the contemporary conception of the genre. Under these surface-level requirements lies a much more pervasive theory. Buckley’s pattern indicates a necessarily linear narrative: a character begins in childhood or some kind of youth and ends as adult. The process of coming-of-age here is singular, not to be returned to or repeated unless some catastrophic failure leads an adult to return to a child-like self. This one-way, decisive move draws its context from an outdated cultural climate of single, life-long vocations, shorter lifespans, and permanent settlement. Contemporary mobility, technological globalization, and a prolonged and privileged youth hardly reference the bygone age of the vocation. Finally, the most limiting aspect of this theory is in the mature self that character achieves. Jeffery Sammons explains that the bildungsroman must have “a sense of evolutionary change within the self, a teleology of individuality” (41, italics mine). The subjects end their bildungsroman having crafted a wholly autonomous self, the boundaries of which are fixed and necessarily others those on the outside.

The emphasis on autonomy has provided the fodder for a reactionary school of definition. Largely fueled by the ideas of second-wave feminism, theorists began examining the restrictions the requirements of the traditional bildungsroman placed on women. Critic Linda Wagner found that female protagonists, like Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, attempt to follow the steps of the traditional bildungsroman but are destroyed instead of invented (56). Susan Fraiman argues it is not that the protagonists of female bildungsromans have “trouble growing up,” but that the texts and authors have “trouble with the story of growing up” (Mill 138). Instead of the autonomous self, these critics argue for a relational model, a self-defined by a web of relations rather than a singular self. While the theory of the female bildungsroman opens one more possibility, both theories of self and maturity work on exclusion and fail to take into account gender as a performance and spectrum. However, there are few other theoretical options for the creation of the self, despite contemporary texts that show a very different maturing self.

Much of the criticism levied against Girls is based on these traditional theories of the bildungsroman and the self. Many initial objections focused on the lack of diversity in the characters of the show. The four girls are all the same brand of privileged, educated and white. While this criticism fairly points out the shows compliance with the under-representation of women of other backgrounds, the criticism also works on the rationale that this coming-of-age tale should be universal. As Masa Grdesic argues, “the desire to see Girls as universal comes from specific type of reading and interpretation of the series” (356). This reading links back to the concept of the traditional bildungsroman. At its German origin, the coming-of-age tale was meant as a type of myth, indoctrinating the values and pride of a nation through the narrative. According to Wilhelm Dilthey, the maturing self of the bildungsroman is a reflection of the maturing self of the nation (335). Tobias Boes uses Dilthey’s claim to make his argument that as the western world experienced the fallout of the Second World War and historic shifts in culture, the bildungsroman was now “a genre that was decried as indicative of German Sonderweg, that separate path into modernity that had led the country toward fascism” and needed to be redefined (233). The redefinition propelled the genre into a focus on the universal. The struggle of growing up is universal, all people who live past youth must reckon with the pressures of adulthood, but the process of reckoning heavily depends on the context of the character. While the problematic German Sonderweg casts a shadow over the genre, the emphasis of universality actually ends up excluding those who can’t relate to the “universal” narrative. Girls is not a universal narrative but one specific to the brand of privileged, educated, and white that these protagonists portray. As Judy Berman argues, “we still haven’t reached a point in our history at which the discrepancies between the way people of different races (or genders or religions or sexual orientations) experience life are negligible.” These differences necessitate stories of the bildungsroman being truthful to the “narrow world” they portray. However, “when few women write TV shows, of course it’s the privileged ones who get traction” (Nussbaum), and a reading of Girls must also acknowledge the influence that this narrow world has over the broader one. A viewer must acknowledge both the show’s specificity and its more universal influential ability rather than simply or vaguely expect it to be representation of the everywoman. This is also how readers should approach bildungsromans. Coming-of-age stories contain universalities and aspects specific to situation and a working theory of the bildungsroman must reflect that.

A similar criticism of the show focuses on the idea of a liberated woman. According to Lauren DeCarvalho, postfeminist entitlement prohibits the girls of the show from becoming the successfully mature women of the previous generations who fought for their right to achieve the vocationally-tied autonomy of the traditional bildungsroman: “Instead of the liberated women, we now see the post-graduation/postfeminist entitlement. Hannah, for instance, is emblematic of the unambitious female characters that have replaced the hard working women characters from the 1970s and 1990s/2000s workplace comedies” (370). DeCarvalho goes on to argue that the voices of reason and power in the show are rested solely in the hands of the male characters: “[Hannah’s] male friends stand as voices of moral authority over her work transgressions” (370). The problem with this reading is not that it fails to recognize Hannah’s ever-present ambition but that it is based on a much more insidious idea: that to be mature one must obtain a stable vocation and identity independent from others. According to the requirements of the bildungsroman, to mature, Hannah must forsake the influence of others, male and female, and must find her true calling on her own. The reality of the show and of contemporary maturity is much more complicated. For the same reasons that DeCarvalho criticizes her, Hannah is able to refuse to choose the limited options afforded her from the current theories of the bildungsroman. Hannah is both autonomously ambitious and relationally reliant, and more mature for it.

A similar criticism comes more explicitly from Serena Daalmans who focuses on the requirement of vocation and independence. Daalmans laments, “Hannah’s sense of entitlement, as well as her refusal to get a job and essentially (try to) grow up, is disturbing” (359). As for the series overall, Daalmans asserts, “Girls forgoes the glamor and replaces it with a perpetual unwillingness on the part of overeducated twenty-something upper-middle class girls to face the reality of the contemporary post-recession-tarnished workplace” (360). Judging maturity on the ability to hold a job bases maturity on an antiquated definition of youth. As previously discussed, the connection of finding a vocation and therefore a stable sense of self does not stand up in the “post-recession-tarnished workplace.” Educated people no longer only move vertically in the workforce but frequently move laterally, sometimes moving to an entirely different industry. Of course, these girls should not rely on the generosity of their parents, which is the main complaint of Daalmans and others, but they also should not be gauged solely by their ability to hold a job. The language used to talk about maturity should not be tied to such a narrow and frequently out-of-reach requirement. Hannah is not immature because she does not have a job; she is immature because she has not done the hard work of creating a stable self.

A final factor to consider when reading Girls as a bildungsroman is the unique pressures these characters wrestle with. Katherine Bell asserts that the show analyzes “how both the lens of postfeminism and the lens of institutionalized, neo-liberal privilege work to doubly monitor the coming-of-age process, and this monitoring may be internalized in ways that… are also quite harmful and troubling” (366). Hannah and her friends are not only policed by contemporary expectations of womanhood and lingering ideas about the self and maturity but also by the distinctly new pressures of postfeminism and privilege in the digital age. The current bildungsroman theory does not attempt to deal with these issues despite its influence on the selves these girls are creating. In short, the antiquated ideas about youth, maturity, and selfhood must be redefined and a vocabulary must be developed to address the new issues of contemporary bildungsroman. If we can listen to Lena Dunham’s version, we may be able to open the bildungsroman to the contemporary experience and, like digitally archiving an illuminated manuscript, bring the genre into the modern age.

Throughout season one of Girls, the four main characters, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna, deal with the struggles of growing up. Each begin and end their narrative arc in different places and with different experiences, and all of the girls deal with the intense pressures of the traditional bildungsroman. Though the show, and these characters’ narratives, continue to other seasons, season one provides the framework for a new orientation of the bildungsroman. By analyzing each character’s main story arc in the season, one can begin the reimagining of the genre.

In her opening scene, Jessa Johansson rides with all of her belongings in suitcases in the back of a cab. The dialogue begins when the cabbie breaks the silence: “Miss, you are here” to which Jessa responds, “Already?” This quick cut introduction establishes Jessa not only as a bohemian returning home but also as someone who has already completed a version of the bildungsroman. In the traditional, masculine conception of creating a self, leaving home or removing oneself from family and the known was essential to crafting an autonomous self. To find oneself one must go into the woods alone, travel the world alone, or live in a new city alone. Jessa seems to have done this and opens the series beginning the test of this autonomous identity: the return.  Jerome Buckley’s formation process ends with this return: “His initiation complete, he may then visit his old home, to demonstrate by his presence the degree of his success or the wisdom of his choice” (18). Jessa’s identity formed off-camera must be shown in context to be proven mature and stable. Unlike Millard’s and Buckley’s subjects who come home to acceptance and acknowledgement, Jessa is confronted by her own immaturity upon this return.

The first of these confrontations comes from her cousin Shoshanna Shapiro. Upon returning to New York, Jessa plans to live with Shoshanna, still a student at NYU. Shoshanna immediately begins their conversation with a reference to Sex and the City, more specifically to the poster of the four famous women of that other HBO show, which is a sort of talisman for the life Shoshanna wants to live. Jessa has never heard of the show. Shoshanna attempts to classify Jessa as a combination of the women, “You’re definitely like a Carrie but with, like, some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair. That’s like a really good combination” (“Pilot”). In a later episode, Shoshanna again attempts to classify Jessa and herself within a pop-culture phenomenon, this time in the form of the fictional book Listen Ladies. In response to Hannah’s question, “who are ‘the ladies?’” Shoshanna claims “Obvie we’re the ladies!” (“Vagina Panic”). This rubs against Jessa’s independent identity and she immediately and angrily retorts, “I’m not the ladies” (“Vagina Panic”). Shoshanna’s attempt to understand Jessa’s identity has failed, and though her concept of the self is based mostly on the fictional SATC, her misunderstanding foreshadows the many relational misunderstandings that indicate that Jessa’s autonomous identity does not answer the question of the self in a satisfactory way. As people around her attempt to understand and relate to her, Jessa refuses to be defined in their terms, and the self she created apart from her friends and family begins to crack and fall apart.

Jessa continues through the first few episodes assuming she stands in a position of authority and maturity. As Marnie is trying to convince Hannah to ask her parents for money until she finds a new job, Jessa interrupts Marnie’s argument with her own advice, “Why don’t you just tell them that you’re an artist?… Tell them that Picasso did it. Rappers who were poor and sold their tapes in the streets did it… They all stuck to their guns” (“Pilot”). This advice, of course, is not only impractical but also nonsensical. Jessa’s concept of standing by one’s artistic principals and pursuits does not answer the question of how Hannah will survive without the financial assistance of her parents. But the shortsightedness of her worldview is not apparent to her as she asserts that the high-on-opium, desperate Hannah “seems like she’s in such a good place” (“Pilot”).

The biggest affront to Jessa’s autonomous maturity rises from her lack of knowledge on social boundaries and expectations. She finds herself fumbling through the social world, not as the self-aware artist she imagines herself as but as a naive, twenty-something with much more maturing to do. The autonomous identity she has created still does not fit into the adult world and does not even afford her the benefits of a stable vocation. Viewers watch as she dresses for a babysitting job interview in a see-through dress. Despite the faux pas, she lands the job. However, as soon as she has the job, she laments about the requirements of it: “You have to be there everyday, even on the days you don’t feel like it” (“Hannah’s Diary”). Despite the creation of her autonomous self, she has still failed to become the adult that the traditional bildungsroman promises. In the contemporary bildungsroman, it is not enough to know one’s self but one must also understand the relationship this self has to the world and to others.

These previous missteps may have been overlooked had Jessa not been also confronted by the harsh reality of her lack of relational skills. She understands how to seduce men, and in that area she finds a distinctly autonomous satisfaction, but she does not understand that the autonomous self she has created is prickly and destructive. In non-sexual relationships, she crashes through as if she is swinging a medieval flail through this community to make room for her self. She fails to understand the boundaries and cannot respect the autonomy of others. Marnie sums it up: “Every time she comes home you [Hannah] go on a week-long bender and then she’s off to the next country and I’m left to pick up the pieces” (“Pilot”). This tendency, to see romantic relationships as sexual conquests and friendships as temporarily useful partnerships, eventually catches up with her. In her job as a sitter, she encounters Jeff, her charges’ father, whose mid-life crisis mirrors her own quarter-life crisis. Jeff relies on the financial and emotional stability of his wife, Katherine, and in his free time attempts to capture his youth though going to concerts, smoking pot, and denying his own unemployment. Despite his authoritative status over Jessa, she initially acts as the temptress, speaking frankly with him in an effort to lure him in. These efforts are not necessarily intentional, but she knows no other way to relate to men. Eventually the relationship comes to a head. At a decidedly young, hip party, Jeff arrives unexpectedly and Jessa at first embraces the awkward setting and characters, dancing and running around the warehouse party with her much older boss. When Jessa instigates a fight with her reckless behavior, it is Jeff who pays the price and is beaten by two other partygoers. As he waits to receive medical attention, he breaks down in Jessa’s arms looking for comfort not only for his physical pain but also his emotional pain. Jessa responds to this breakdown with a terse realization about herself, “I can’t do this kind of thing anymore” (“Welcome”). Jessa realizes that there remains much to develop within herself. In comments on the episode, Lena Dunham says of this realization, “She’s not just a victim of her own beauty. She really had a role in the whole thing” (“Inside… Episode 7”).

The realization comes even more into relief when Jeff’s wife, Katherine, visits Jessa to air out the issue. In Shoshanna and Jessa’s apartment, Katherine sits on the bed and outlines Jessa’s immaturities explicitly, to which Jessa responds revealing her understanding of her own immaturity:

KATHERINE: I bet you get into these dramas all the time… when you cause trouble and you have no idea why. In my opinion you’re doing it to distract yourself from becoming the person you’re meant to be.

JESSA: Which is who? (“Leave Me Alone”)

The question of who Jessa is meant to be is not Katherine’s to answer, but she attempts to impart some wisdom that will guide Jessa:

You tell me. She might not look like the person you imagined at age 16. Her job might not be cool. Her hair might not be flowing like a mermaid. But she might be serious about something or someone. And she might be a lot happier than you are now. (“Leave Me Alone”)

Through Katherine’s words, Jessa returns to the beginning of a bildungsroman. The self she imagined she created has not only proven inadequate for the pressures of contemporary adulthood but also incomplete and immature.

As Jessa has already attempted the bildungsroman of traditional autonomy, she ends the season bulldozing into the bildungsroman of a relational self. In the season finale, Jessa invites her friends to a mysterious party that turns out to be her own wedding. In an attempt to “be serious about something or someone,” Jessa marries Thomas-John, a wealthy adventure capitalist whom she previously rejected out of disgust. For Jessa, her choice of husband represents a choice for a new attempt at her bildungsroman. She launches into this new coming-of-age, imagining that by jumping straight to the Shakespearean end she will have crafted a self that can hold up to the relational requirements of adulthood. Unfortunately for Jessa, the seams of this new self already show through. As she throws the garter to the crowd, she yells, “Your dreams are not what you thought they’d be!” Later in the bathroom, Hannah asks, “do you feel like a real adult now?” Only after a lengthy and “um” filled pause does Jessa respond “yeah!” (“She Did”). These interactions show that despite her efforts to find a self within the established conceptions of the bildungsroman, Jessa will continue to search for her self.

Already from an analysis of one character, a new model of the self is beginning to form. Jessa is not mature when she is wholly autonomous nor is she mature when she is wholly relational. For these girls, the truth of their maturity lies somewhere in-between. Like Jessa, Marnie begins season one close to the end of a classic bildungsroman. Marnie followed the steps of maturity as put forward by the alternative, relational bildungsroman. She is fully ingrained in the life of her mini community. In an iconic scene from the first episode, a slow moving shot begins at the feet of two people entwined in bed. As the camera moves up the bed, the viewer sees that it is not one of the girls and her significant other, but Marnie and Hannah. They lie as physically entwined as they are emotionally entwined. In addition, none of her friends could function without her (she goes so far as to make abortion and STD testing appointments for Jessa and Hannah, respectively). Her boyfriend dotes on her and seems to be primed for marriage in the near future. But the relational self she’s created through her nexus of relationships makes her uncomfortable. She wants to break up with her boyfriend Charlie in the first episode, but cannot bring herself to do so. When Hannah attempts to encourage her to try a life without Charlie, Marnie quickly draws up her defenses:

HANNAH: You’re allowed to be bored…

MARNIE: That’s a really simplistic way of thinking about it. (“Vagina Panic”)

Marnie does not have the language to explain, even to herself, that this relational self she has created does not work and that she desires something else. Frustrated, Charlie sums up the shift happening in Marnie: “It wasn’t like this in college. She’s just going through some temporary adjustment into adult life” (“Hannah’s Diary”). This adjustment, however, seems to require that she cut the ties that bind her from the elusive something else she desires.

Flashes of that something appear in the form of Booth Jonathan, a successful artist who shows art in the studio where Marnie works. Booth seems to have a passing fancy in Marnie, an exciting prospect for her as she and Charlie have been together since their early college years. Booth and Marnie’s interactions show Marnie reveling in the possibility of a new relationship outside of the other restrictive ones at home. For Marnie, Booth fulfills a need to feel like a woman rather than the college girl she feels like with Charlie. Before he disappears into the night, Booth whispers a promise of exactly that: “The first time I fuck you it might scare you because I’m a man and I know how to do things” (“All Adventurous”). Marnie finds immediate sexual release from imagining the kind of dangerous, avant-garde type of person she might be if she could define herself based on her relationship to Booth rather than Charlie. In this fantasy, she attempts to jump from one relational identity to the next, but, like Jessa’s attempts to be autonomous, Marnie will find that any attempt at being wholly relational leads to a developmental dead end.

Soon after her brief encounter with Booth, Charlie breaks up with Marnie after discovering her true feelings through Hannah’s diary. Though Marnie spent the first three episodes debating over the decision to break up with Charlie, she now feels lost. Without the reference point to the self she created, she now feels undefined and incomplete. Charlie tries to console her: “Look we’re not grown ups. We don’t have any kids.” Later she resolves to “put on my party dress and sorry face and I’m going to get him back.” Her attempt is successful and culminates in make-up sex. Charlie’s biggest requirement of Marnie in their new relationship is for her to “act like [his] life is real.” His desperation points out Marnie’s immaturities even in the relational self she created. Almost immediately after Charlie asks her to not abandon him, Marnie says “I want to break up” (“Hard Being Easy”). Defeated, Charlie falls back on the bed he built. The glimpses viewers see of Charlie’s life apart from Marnie show him as a capably independent person. Thus the fallout deeply affects Marnie, who relied heavily, almost exclusively, on her relationship to Charlie to define her self. Her indecisive behavior in the break-up reveals her lack of independence and autonomy. According to Dunham, “A huge part of her self-confidence came from this idea that there’s this person out in the world who’s completely obsessed with her. So when that turns out not to be the case, she’s certainly traumatized by it” (“Inside…Episode 5”). While Jessa has these independent qualities in spades, Marnie lacks them enough to flounder in a dead relationship for the sake of feeling in control of her self.

After the break-up is finalized by Marnie, she continues to pursue the relational self. She turns to Hannah for reassurance, but it is in that moment that Hannah and Adam are the ones entwined in close relationship, as evidenced by a recurrence of the entwined legs shot of the first episode with Hannah and Adam. In a twist of coincidence, it is Jessa who comforts Marnie. During a rant on Charlie and his new, incredibly independent girlfriend, Marnie admits that “Sometimes being inside my own head is so tiring” (“Weirdos”). The self she has created following the outlined steps of maturity has left her exhausted and frustrated and feeling increasingly alone. To temporarily rectify this, Jessa and Marnie go out together and meet the bachelor Thomas-John, Jessa’s eventual husband. During the girls’ escapades with Thomas-John, Marnie is trying on a new life, opening herself up to getting hit on and seeing where the night takes her. During the night when Jessa feels uncomfortably close to unknown Thomas-John, she attempts to excuse herself and Marnie. Jessa’s autonomous sensibilities do not allow her to engage in the level of relationship Thomas-John was demanding of them. Marnie, however, convinces Jessa to stay by kissing her, effectively beginning another thread in her relational web of self.

In this tailspin of searching, Marnie loses the last relationship that constituted her self at the beginning of the season. As Marnie is trying to clear the baggage from her old self in the way of old clothes, Hannah and Marnie air their grievances about each other. Their complaints focus mostly on the unsatisfactory self the other has created. Hannah finds Marnie’s relational self-problematic and burdensome:

All we talk about is how you think you’re never going to find love. You think the main point in life is finding a guy. It’s like we have to hold a summit everyday to make a game plan. (“Leave Me Alone”)

The episode ends on the two previously entwined friends literally slamming their doors to each other, and the next episode opens on Marnie moving her things out of their apartment. This marks a new attempt at maturity for Marnie, one that is more focused on her autonomous pursuits and independence rather than claustrophobically centered on her relationships with others. In this move toward autonomy, Marnie also leaves behind some of the dead weight of her old relational self. Hannah frets, “but you don’t have a plan,” to which Marnie responds, “I think maybe that’s a good thing for me” (“She Did”). Marnie may be alone and confused but she is also resolved to find out some truths on her own. Both Marnie and Jessa show that even bildungsromans that look successful on paper by the old standards do not stand up to the tests of modern life. The self for these girls must be more flexible and fluid to stand all the bending and redefining that happens to them, and their bildungsromans look a lot more like spirals than straight lines.

While Jessa and Marnie begin the series at the end of some years of transformation, Shoshanna Shapiro begins her development with the beginning of the series. In this way, the bildungsroman of Shoshanna parallels the coming-of-age of the show itself. Shoshanna, cousin to Jessa, still lacks a college degree and is reaching the reasonable limit of parental support. Depicted in the opening scenes as the most girlish, she is far from the jaded, assumed maturity of Jessa and the anxious scrambling of Marnie. Even by traditional genre standards, Shosh has more to grow. She has not yet lost her virginity, she is still in school, and she has yet to find a job. She attempts to bring on the process of growing up through symbols and rituals of self-actualization. In episode two, Shoshanna makes a manifestation board. She explains, “I use it for inspiration. Like when I’m not feeling inspired, I just look at the board” (“Vagina Panic”). Though viewers do not see what populates the board, the implication of control is clear. Throughout the first season Shoshanna experiences a series of accidents and breakdowns that shows her she is not as much in control of this process as she thought.

When Jessa rolls into town, Shoshanna sees this as an opportunity to glean the experience from her world-traveling cousin as a way to jump start her own maturation. She asks Jessa rapid fire questions about her escapades and fixates on the ones that involve the classic rites of passage. When Jessa mentions meeting a surfer, Shoshanna nonsensically questions, “Oh my god. Did he like really like you? I bet he really liked you” (“Pilot”). This foreshadows her tendency to live vicariously through the experiences of the other girls, Jessa especially. In a later episode, Jessa brings home an ex-boyfriend and as they have sex, Shoshanna hides in the closet. Throughout the scene, the virgin Shoshanna sneaks peeks of the action that she has never engaged in. Because of her age and experience, she is stuck watching the other girls until her attempts at adult life outside of college begin.

Along with Shoshanna’s vicarious living, she also attempts to use classifications as a stand-in for a developed self. When she and Jessa discuss Sex and the City she explains exactly her SATC personality makeup: “I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes Samantha kind of comes out. And then when I’m at school I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat” (“Pilot”). Shoshanna frequently frets over wearing the right “hat” and her anxiety about growing up is calmed somewhat by her clinging to these classifications. Later in the series, Shoshanna brings up the fictional advice book Listen Ladies. As Hannah complains about her confusion with her sometimes boyfriend Adam, Shoshanna interrupts: “Pause. I have something to contribute here” (“Vagina Panic”). Viewers get the sense that these contributions are few and far between from Shoshanna’s enthusiasm to share this one. As she explains that the book “like, totally changes your perspective,” she quotes two sections that make it apparent what type of book Listen Ladies really is:

“If a man doesn’t take you on a date, he’s not interested in you. Point blank. Let’s meet up with friends is not a date. It’s a date for him to decide whether you’re truly good enough to date and that’s unacceptable, ladies…

Sex from behind is degrading. Point blank. You deserve someone who wants to look in your beautiful face, ladies.” (“Vagina Panic”)

When Hannah and Jessa question the relevance this book has to them, Shoshanna assures them, “we’re the ladies!” Her desire to be part of a defined, adult group stands in for any actual self-definition.

As the season goes on, Shoshanna makes some tentative attempts to placate her state of immaturity. The first of these attempts comes when she runs into an old friend from her junior camp counselor days. They connect and try to begin a relationship based on this juvenile connection. Shoshanna’s goal in this days-old relationship is to lose her virginity. When the moment finally comes, Shoshanna reveals, “I’m totally ready to have sex, I just never have” (“Hannah’s Diary”). This confession causes the former camp counselor to pull back, explaining that he totally would if, “you know, you had already done it” (“Hannah’s Diary”). In the moment, Shoshanna has done everything right and imagines that she will be rewarded with this rite of passage, but being the “least virgin-y virgin ever” does not exempt you from the awkward, rejection-filled process of maturing.

In a similar misstep, Shoshanna attends the same crazy Bushwick party where Jessa instigates a fight. In line for the bathroom, she accidentally smokes crack, thus the name of the episode: “Welcome to Bushwick aka The Crackcident.” This accident is an affront to the self Shoshanna imagined she had begun creating. She begs Jessa, “Oh my god don’t tell my mom. Don’t even tell me!” (“Welcome”) Throughout the rest of the episode, Shoshanna runs from her “crack spirit guide” Ray, imagining that he is a rapist. By the end of the episode, after she has practiced her self-defense training on the unsuspecting Ray, she attempts to make up for her antics by massaging his injured groin, “in a totally non-sexual way” (“Welcome”). Ironically, it is this accident that leads her to meet the man who will eventually take her virginity.

The final accident Shoshanna makes occurs at Jessa’s surprise wedding. Despite her ability to put on different hats, she chooses the wrong color to wear to a wedding and spends the night repeating, “I wore white to her wedding” (“She Did”). It is as if this causes Shoshanna to crack. She continues, “I wore white because how could I have known? Because nobody told me.” This sums up her feelings on all the maturing she has done thus far. None of the classic wisdom, Carrie voiceovers, or modern The Rules tells her how to define herself in a way that is mature and stable. However, the episode and season ends with some hope for Shoshanna’s manifestation board goals. Ray gets past what the camp counselor could not: “I am teaching you how it’s done. You know that’s a lot of power, which I don’t know if I deserve…but I probably do” (“She Did”). For Shoshanna, it is the accidents that cause her bildungsroman to advance. Shoshanna may not have control over her coming-of-age, but she can be assured that it has begun.

Through Jessa and Marnie, who follow the classic conceptions of the bildungsroman, the old theory is shown as problematic and lacking. In Shoshanna’s story, viewers see that the antiquated version of becoming a woman holds little weight for contemporary maturity. It is through Hannah that a new vision of the bildungsroman becomes increasingly clear. Hannah Horvath opens the series with the beginning of her bildungsroman as her parents cut her off financially. This begins a time of paradox. Hannah finds herself between youth and adulthood, or more accurately, both a youth and an adult at once. She, and the rest of the girls, cannot be fully categorized as either. Hannah frequently articulates this paradox. When her parents realize her late night raving is opium-fueled, they attempt to make her drink coffee. She refuses in a way that emphasizes her youth and adulthood: “Coffee is for grownups! … I’m a twenty-four-year-old. You can’t tell me what to do!” (“Pilot”). This snippet of dialogue highlights this aspect of the series. As much as the main characters are learning to be adults, they are still girls, as the title implies. For the contemporary bildungsroman, this time of paradox and anxiety defines the genre. The concept of traversing from youth to adulthood does not hold as characters like Hannah make strides toward adulthood then return to their girlish ways. To force Hannah into a classification of youth or adult would oversimplify her and the process of maturation.

Hannah also embodies the necessary anxiety of creating a self. People around her seem to have achieved the end goal of a bildungsroman, that illusive, fully-matured self that is set in a somewhat permanent way. Hannah’s tense interaction with her ex-boyfriend Elijah brings out an anxious curiosity mostly because she has no descriptors, like Elijah’s homosexuality, that define her in a meaningful way. In response to her questions about his genuineness in his sexual orientation, Elijah declares, “I am being my authentic self” (“All Adventurers Women Do”). This authenticity contrasts with Hannah’s half-hearted attempts at defining herself and she seems to be prompted to try harder at the whole struggle of growing up. Hannah’s current boyfriend also seems to know exactly what his self looks like. In their dialogue, the contrast in his maturity and her youth becomes clear. His pet name for Hannah is “kid” and she sometimes responds by calling him “grown up” (“Hard Being Easy”). Adam also makes it clear that she must sort through this anxiety herself:

HANNAH: I don’t want to outgrow each other.

ADAM: Ok, well, that’s on you because I’m done growing. (“Hard Being Easy”)

Like Elijah, Adam has a “main defining” trait: he is in Alcoholics Anonymous. Both Elijah’s homosexuality and Adam’s alcoholism frustrate Hannah and cause her to reflect on what would define her. When Hannah finds out that she has HPV, she eventually sees the sexually transmitted disease as a sort of blessing. She now has something irrevocable and undeniable that defines her. Dunham explains: “I think Hannah finds that very comforting, the idea that having HPV isn’t like a blight on her record but it’s actually proving that she’s lived life to the fullest even though she’s only had sex with two-and-a-half men” (“Inside…Episode 3”). For Hannah, the anxiety of self-definition compels her to move forward with the scary, infuriating, complicated process of the coming-of-age.

What viewers also do not see from Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna in this season is a tentative balance of the relational and autonomous aspects of self. Hannah struggles with this balance throughout. She wants to follow her vocational path as a writer but also desires the comforts of relationships. Hannah begins the series doing everything she can to continue living, what her mother calls, the “groovy lifestyle” of a writer in New York City. Hannah has written four essays that will make up her memoir but, as for the others, she has “to live them first” (“Pilot”). Now, without the safety net of supported finances, she must find a way to continue on this vocational track and survive on the little-to-no money she has made from it. This differs starkly from the vocational paths of the past. Through apprenticeships and training, the coming-of-age used to constitute a way to make a living. In the contemporary, post-recession marketplace, many previously fruitful and respects jobs do not make enough to pay for basic needs. Thus, for the current bildungsroman, it is not enough to find one’s vocation, one must also find a way to survive while doing it. This concern consumes Hannah for the first few episodes. She forays into multiple work situations, failing miserably at balancing her selfish desire for more memoir material and the need for her to remain professional. Hannah also asserts herself as an autonomous writer when she makes a return to her hometown, reminiscent of the returns of the traditional bildungsroman. In a conversation with her hometown love interest, Hannah defends her vocation choice despite the obvious struggles:

ERIC: What’s your real job in New York?

HANNAH: I’m a writer.

ERIC: And that’s how you make money?

HANNAH: No, I don’t have any money. (“The Return”)

Hannah desires the life of a successful writer, but in the contemporary landscape, that may look different than she imagined. She must navigate crafting her autonomy without the reliable map of vocation.

While Hannah struggles to define her self independently, she also crafts a self within her relationships. Within her relationship to Marnie, she feels adventurous, free-spirited, and artistic. With Adam, she feels slightly dangerous, mysterious, and exciting. These aspects of herself only come into view in the nexus of relationships to these people. When Hannah returns home, she somewhat regresses and must verbally remind herself of these aspects: “You are from New York, therefore you are just naturally interesting. Okay? … The worst stuff you say sounds better than the best stuff some other people say.” By the end of her trip home, Hannah calls Adam to connect to the city, that larger relationship all of the characters participate in:

HANNAH: What do you see out you window in New York right now?


ADAM: There’s this lady crackhead. I talked to her like twice. She’s pretty fucking tweaked…  (“The Return”)

The conversation fades into the background and the viewer gets the sense that Hannah needs the city, needs Adam, and needs these relationships to understand the self she is creating.

This balance between autonomy and relationality becomes threatened in the season finale in an episode that defines the core struggle of the contemporary bildungsroman. For episodes seven, eight, and nine, Hannah and Adam have been entwined, so much so that the opening scene of Marnie and Hannah’s legs wrapped around each other is repeated with the two lovers. Though Hannah desires, and in some ways needs, Adam’s companionship and relational identity, the threat of Adam moving in forces her to question the boundaries she has set. Hannah has been chasing Adam like he’s “the fucking Beatles for six months,” using their relationship as a way to orient the new self-blossoming, but the unfettered closeness of living with Adam brings Hannah back to her autonomous aims and reveals the place her relational identity currently plays in her life. When Adam confesses that his motivation for offering to move in with Hannah was out of love, Hannah, uncomfortable with the implications of Adam’s full commitment, reasserts her autonomous identity:

HANNAH: I associate that with, like, Marnie and Charlie and people who talk a lot about their relationships. … You know it’s like your relationship is an achievement. It is not an achievement. I have, like, actual things I want to achieve before I achieve, like, that.

ADAM: And you can’t achieve those things with me?

HANNAH: It’s not that it’s just, don’t you think we distract each other from the other stuff we have going on? (“She Did”)

Instead of choosing either autonomy or relationality, as the traditional conceptions of the bildungsroman imply, Hannah wants to remain in the middle or, more accurately, defined by both aspects. She wants to maintain the relational identity she has formed with Adam, but she also wants to maintain the autonomous self she is creating through her writing prospects. For Hannah, maturity is not a choice between, or even truly a balance of, two mutually exclusive aspects. Instead, maturity is a process of integrating these two conceptions of self. Through the tension and struggle of this integration, true maturity comes. In the final scene of the season, Hannah finds herself stranded at the end of the subway line with the piece of cake she saved for Adam. Instead of panicking about her acute aloneness, Hannah walks onto the beach and eats the cake. Though literally alone, Hannah eats and revels in the relational symbol of the wedding cake. Though she has not yet found a stable integration, this last scene indicates that Hannah and the rest of the girls will continue striving for a maturity that transcends the binaries of autonomy and relationality. For Girls, the bildungsroman is not about creating one, particular, mature self but about the messy process of stabilizing the influences of autonomy, relationality, youth, and adulthood.




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