One reason we are so fascinated by Lena Dunham is that her creative process is relatively transparent; the four women of Girls each mirror an aspect, past or present (or fantastical) of Dunham. This week’s episode, “It’s Back,” finds its corollary in Dunham’s life. As she told Rolling Stone in this week’s featured interview, she struggled with OCD throughout her childhood and teenage years:
“I was obsessed with the number eight. … I’d count eight times. … I’d look on both sides of me eight times, I’d make sure nobody was following me down the street. … I remember saying to my mom when I was little, ‘I just had to imagine having sex with you eight times.’”
The return of the repressed (or the not so repressed) works well for creative types like Dunham. In the beginning of “It’s Back,” Adam’s unsolicited phone call seems to trigger Hannah’s OCD; she ignores the call and almost immediately begins to grapple with the mystical compulsion of the number eight: from turning her head back-and-forth eight times to counting out eight potato chips from a bag, shoving them all into her mouth at once, and chewing them eight times before swallowing the salty goodness. The recovering OCD sufferer experiences symptoms of the disease that are undoubtedly, too, caused by the looming book deadline, which increased her level of anxiety the moment she agreed to the deal.
There was so much about this episode to enjoy: the return of Adam*; the return of Hannah’s parents (including Hannah’s father’s earring); the return of Shoshanna and her Shoshisms (“I just can’t stop thinking about Jessa. … What is she wearing? Is it linen?”); Carol Kane playing a loony alcoholic who calls Adam “cuter than a dimple on a bug’s ass” in a successful attempt to set him up with her daughter; Charlie becoming the man—the rich man—who Marnie’s ego always desired; Ray chastising Shosh for using air quotes to express real emotion (“pantomime to express your emotions is a crutch.” …the list is endless.
But I want to focus on anxiety, and not just Hannah’s OCD, in this recap. Why? Because I think there’s a certain strain of anxiety that affects many Millennials (and those on the cusp, such as my 1980-born-self) that largely defines them and yet goes equally unnoticed, except when clinically diagnosed (because self-diagnosis, in our medicalized culture, doesn’t elicit the same response).
Let me rephrase.
Recently I have encountered a certain type of NYC woman, the Gen Xer, mid-to-late forties woman, who in my estimation figures as the precursor to the Gen Millen Hipster…well, kind of. And this encounter on not one but two consecutive days with two different women piqued my interest.
The primary difference between the two—the free-spirited Gen X artist and the hipster Millennial—is that of anxiety. Let me explain:
This type of Gen Xer—the “free-spirit,” the floater, the “artist”—I think is best embodied by the character of Jessa on GIRLS, minus the generational difference. Her laissez faire attitude is comprised of a combination of legit indifference, feigned indifference, and a touch of condescending disdain. She acts without (care of) consequence; she rarely has financial obligations (rent or a mortgage, for instance); and she certainly does not have occupational obligations (“self-employed” or “freelance” or “couch-crasher” is her middle name). This type of hedonism does not allow for dedication (to others). As Ray says of Jessa, “She’s a fucking hustler, and not in the positive sense of the word.”
Like Jessa, this kind of pretentious free-spirited precursor to today’s hipster exhibits, from my experience, one major difference—whereas the hipster feels “helpless” (has poverty mentality) and harbors a constant anxiety about “becoming somebody” or “doing something” or being a “voice of a generation,” the precursor shirks with disdain. There is no anxiety about life that is harbored by the Gen X free-spirited artist. The counterpart to the hipster’s anxiety about becoming successful (in whatever avenue of life—yes, women, you can “have it all!”) is the Gen Xer’s cool confidence. Arguably, the difference reduces to that of the ego.
Or to think of it slightly differently, to pull the words exactly from Jessa’s mouth (to Hannah’s ears in episode 2 of this season): “You tend to overthink things, and that’s an issue for you.”
Except, I think, for Jessa, “think” and “overthink” are roughly equivalent.
From the first episode of Season 1 Marnie, not Hannah, expresses the most frustration about Jessa’s personality. Jessa’s carefree attitude is the ultimate trigger for Marnie’s uber-uptightness: “this is what she does: she fucks shit up, leaves, and blames it on like, her marriage, or her relationships with her dad… This is classic Jessa,” she fumes in this weeks’ episode. Oddly enough, it is Jessa’s sense of obliviousness that Marnie shares, although Marnie’s obliviousness is portrayed through her narcissism. (Her desire to become a singer this episode was classic — as in classically stupid, inane. Norah Jones? And how great was it that Charlie finally called her on it? Re: her comment that she just randomly showed up to his office “for support,” and his retort “[support] from me or for me?”) I mean, Jessa marrying Thomas-John for his money and Marnie chasing after Charlie after he sells his “Forbid” app for a ton of money is nearly the same thing, although, for Marnie, there’s a level of ego elevation involved in partnering up with a rich person that’s unaccounted for in Jessa, because her ego cup overfloweth already. For Jessa, Thomas-John provided the means to her doing whatever she wanted (traveling, painting, playing with a basket of puppies).
The episode’s title “It’s Back” directly references Hannah’s OCD, but it is also suggestive of the gap created by Jessa’s departure—what precisely returns after she leaves? Anxiety… perhaps, in fact, the anxiety that can now manifest once she, the capper or queller of it, has gone. It’s the anxiety of Marnie feeling like she’s “flailing behind” even though she has her “shit together,” of Shoshanna who cheats on Ray because she feels trapped by the relationship, and of Hannah who is doubly anxious about her career (finishing the manuscript) and her love life (she’s still undecided whether Adam “is the greatest person in the world or the worst”).
….And we only have two more episodes this season to witness how this anxiety bubbles over.
*“The return of Adam” was made glorious by his rant at the AA meeting in which he ever so finely deconstructs his relationship with Hannah, which I swoonfully quote in full:
“I had this girlfriend who at first I didn’t like very much or I guess I didn’t take her serious very much. She just seemed like, uhhmm, a piece of ass. But she was persistent man and she just hung around and hung around and showed up at my place and gradually it started to feel better when she was there. It wasn’t love the way I imagined it. I just felt weird — I didn’t know what she was up to or whatever. I liked knowing that she was just going to be there and warm and staying the night. And she acted like I was teaching her everything! About — fucking history. About sex. She didn’t know what street Central Park started on, or how to use soap. And showed her! And I wanted that chance to show someone everything. But she changed her mind and it was [he snaps] that fast.”