(Not) Drinking with GIRLS’s Hannah Horvath

Jennifer Cacicio on the surprising treatment of alcohol on GIRLS and why it says far more about adulthood than it does about the sangria-soaked abandon of youth.

Hannah Horvath and I have a lot in common. We both went to small liberal arts colleges and studied writing and literature. We both moved to New York post-graduation to live life, pen books, meet boys. We rented apartments in Brooklyn. We landed random, pseudo-literary jobs. We poured coffee for people. We grew apart from some girlfriends, closer with others. We slept with the wrong guys.

But there’s one thing that separates myself from Hannah Horvath, one thing that I did religiously, but that she hardly does at all: drink.

Much of my twenties was spent playing inebriated Scrabble on fire escapes over 1st Avenue as the sun came up, drunk-texting some guy from a bar bathroom while I was on a date with another, counting out change on my warped Fort Greene floor to make sure I had enough to buy a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and as many bottles of whatever wine I could afford. Don’t think I was some delinquent. Pretty much all of my girlfriends were doing the same.

If being an adman in the ’60s means you keep a bar-on-wheels in your office and being a sex columnist in the ’90s means you drink a shit-ton of Cosmos at weird bars in the West Village, shouldn’t a show about being a screwed-up 22-year-old girl in present-day Brooklyn mean that you spend at least a small amount of time drinking muddled cocktails and blacking out?

But while watching HBO’s GIRLS, a show centered on struggling female 20-somethings in New York—a very good show I might add, with many moments of absolute greatness—I couldn’t help but notice that Hannah and her friends don’t really drink. I mean, sure, there’s a glass of wine here and there, a few half-empty beers used as dinner party props, but drinking is certainly not a thing, not the way sex or their careers or eating Cool Whip straight out of the container is. But why not? If being an adman in the ’60s means you keep a bar-on-wheels in your office and being a sex columnist in the ’90s means you drink a shit-ton of Cosmos at weird bars in the West Village, shouldn’t a show about being a screwed-up 22-year-old girl in present-day Brooklyn mean that you spend at least a small amount of time drinking muddled cocktails and blacking out?

Lena Dunham, the show’s creator and star, has stated in several interviews that she doesn’t drink much herself, so perhaps it’s no surprise that she cut her character from the same bar nap. In the episode titled, “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident,” Hannah declines a beer offered to her at a warehouse party: “Oh, thanks, but no thanks. I probably shouldn’t. I don’t drink well…Last time I got drunk I ate all this brie and I threw up on my cell phone.” Hannah doesn’t drink because Dunham doesn’t drink—sure, that’s part of it—but I think it goes deeper than that. After re-watching both seasons from beginning to end, taking note of each time a character sips wine, chugs beer or stares into a Martini, I realized that many of the characters actually do drink and make those cringe-worthy decisions I associate with the blind stupidity of youth. Only it’s not the girls who are doing it. It’s the adults—and the men in particular.

Pretty much every single adult male character on the show is depicted as drunk and pathetic at one time or another. For example, while celebrating their anniversary, Hannah’s parents drink too much and have sloppy sex in the shower, a move that results in Hannah having to face her father flaccidly passed out on the bathroom floor. In a scene wherein Jessa—the most free-spirited of the four girls—meets her new husband’s rich, judgmental parents for the first time, her father-in-law gets a little too buzzed and ends up not only creepily toasting to Jessa’s body, but also creepily admitting to a soft spot for movies about schoolgirls who fall in love.

The males devoted to wine seem to fare even worse. When Marnie—Hannah’s uptight BFF—works as a host at a gentlemen’s club, an old, rich, white guy orders “your finest bottle of sauvignon blanc” with one hand on her ass. A moment later, she runs into Booth Jonathan—the egomaniacal artist she ends up dating—who has a rather unbecoming temper tantrum a few episodes down the line, smashing several bottles of what I can only assume is overpriced Napa Cab in his cellar, screaming, “I hate all of my friends! I hate everyone here!” And on the night that Marnie and Jessa meet the latter’s future husband—the completely unbearable but entertaining Thomas-John—he invites the girls back to his Williamsburg loft for a “beautiful red,” then has a straight-up conniption when some spills on his ten-thousand-dollar rug.

But my favorite drunken adult moment of all has to go to George—the sugar daddy of Elijah, Hannah’s ex-boyfriend/roommate/it’s a long story—who gets wasted at their housewarming party and slurs my very own sentiments into a karaoke machine: “You guys are all so fucking boring. You know when I was your age, I was snortin’ coke on twinks and dancing with my tits out.” Here, here, George! Except George is an embarrassment, and when Elijah asks Hannah to help toss him out, Hannah sighs heavily and mumbles a very important sentiment: “I fucking hate grown-ups.”

Now don’t get me wrong. These moments are funny, and certainly emblematic of that unique and painful humor that GIRLS does so well, but all together they paint a rather dark picture of those with a tendency to drink. During a talk at the MFA in Boston earlier this year Dunham told the story of getting stand-up comedy lessons for a Christmas gift when she was kid: “Her opening line? ‘Hi, I’m 14, and I’m an alcoholic. Just kidding, my father is,’” a joke that—whether or not it’s true—demonstrates that Dunham’s been toying with the connection between drinking and humor for a long while. I was looking for GIRLS to use alcohol to say something profound about youth, but the fact is that it actually speaks more to the notion of what it means to be an adult.

Hannah and her friends might struggle as they attempt to grow up and figure out who they are, but the possibilities are endless, and there’s a natural optimism in that. The adults, on the other hand—and the men especially—have already arrived at a certain age and success, yet they seem to be the most messed up and deeply sad of all. Maybe Dunham is trying to say something existential about the complex nature of adulthood: when we’re young, we want so much to grow up and to be taken seriously, but when we’re old, we can’t help but long for the simple freedoms of youth.

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