- - Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Call it bad sex and the city.

With its unflinching (and often explicit) depiction of some of the most unerotic couplings you’ll ever see onscreen, HBO’s critically-acclaimed new comedy “Girls” captures the sexual wasteland of the millenials’ hook up culture — the grim reality of “no strings attached” sex between post-college guys, who have learned what they know about sex from online porn, and post-college girls, who have learned what they know about sex from Cosmopolitan magazine.

Created by and starring Lena Dunham and executive produced by Judd Apatow, “Girls” tells the story of four educated and adrift young women in their mid-twenties trying to manage their romantic lives amid the joyless sex and jobless recovery of an unforgiving New York City.

Like other Apatow creations (the feature film hits “Bridesmaids,” “Knocked-Up”), “Girls” is about how sex and immaturity collide in the early years of our adult lives. “I like to show people struggle and try to figure out who they are,” Mr. Apatow recently told The Hollywood Reporter.

There’s plenty of struggle in “Girls.” Hannah (Miss Dunham) is an aspiring writer. The only problem is, she hasn’t been published; she’s been fired from her non-paying internship; and she’s out of money because her parents, who are academics, won’t support her any longer. Adam, the actor-hipster she’s been hooking up with, won’t text her, let alone call her, and she just found out that her ex-boyfriend, whom she dated for two years in college, is gay.

“You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again,” Hannah’s gynecologist tells her.

“Well, they’re not paying me at all,” Hannah responds.

A few days later, the gyno calls to tell Hannah that she has a sexually transmitted disease, HPV. Don’t worry, a friend assures her, “all adventurous women have HPV.”

Hannah’s three close friends have problems of their own. Marnie (Allison Williams), Hannah’s best friend and roommate, has fallen out of love with her boyfriend of four years, Charlie. Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a sexual and emotional free-spirit, misses her own appointment at the abortion clinic, conveniently miscarrying the day-of while she’s hooking up with another guy. And Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), a twenty-two-year-old virgin, may be naive, but she’s wise enough to know that “if a man doesn’t take you on a date, he’s not interested” and “sex from behind is degrading — point blank.”

“Girls” will inevitably be compared to another HBO show about young women, “Sex and the City” (1998-2004). But “Girls” is less an extension of “Sex and the City” than it is a response to it — a tacit and even subversive acknowledgement that the sex lives of young post-feminist women are bleak.

Casual sex is not as fun and empowering as Carrie Bradshaw and her entourage of well-dressed friends made it out to be. These glamorous women taught a whole generation of girls that a woman can divorce sex from emotions “and just go out and have sex like a man” (in the words of Samantha Jones).

They taught women a lie.

“I felt like I was cruelly duped by much of the television I saw,” Miss Dunham told the New York Times last month.

In Hannah’s relationship, we see how the hook-up culture degrades girls. In Marnie’s, we see how it degrades guys.

Cut to a candle-lit bedroom. Before we even realize that a couple is having sex — it’s that still — we hear the sounds of Charlie kissing the arms of an unimpressed, uninvolved Marnie. Her eyes are tightly closed. She’s trying to escape what’s clearly an unpleasant experience.

Charlie is left to plead for some sign of intimacy — or at least an acknowledgement — during the act, reduced to whispering, “Hey, look at me. Look at me. Let’s look at each other …”

“I’m going to turn around,” she says, disgusted.

“It’s like I don’t even know how to make love to you anymore,” he laments.

The fawning devotion, cloying sensitivity, prissy euphemizing about sex (“making love”) — Charles is the perfect guy. As neuters go. Marnie later tells Hannah, “He’s so busy respecting me, you know, that he looks right past me and everything I need from him.”

Hannah, meanwhile, who imagines herself the voice — or at least a voice — of her generation, is seeking the very respect and love that Marnie takes for granted. Though Hannah passively submits to Adam, it’s clear that she’s not into his kinky sex fantasies. When they make out, Hannah tries to have a conversation, but he interrupts her: “Is this some of your poetry?” When they have sex, he suggests they “play the quiet game.” When she asks him in bed, “You want me to call you?” he pushes her head down against the pillow to shut her up, and continues having sex with her.

At one point, Hannah asks Marnie, “What does it feel like to be loved that much?”

Hannah wouldn’t know. She was tutored by a popular culture that doesn’t much care.

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