When Girls premiered in 2012, everyone had an opinion about the show. Some hated it, some loved it, and others hated that they loved it. Questions arose like: Who is Lena Dunham? Who is this Hannah Horvath character? Why do I hate her so much? And why can’t I wait for next week’s episode?
Everyone in the U.S. started talking about Girls and Lena Dunham, who, at the ripe-old-age of 25, had managed to write, direct, and start in a hit HBO series. Girls brought questions of sexuality, millennial ambition, friendship, white privilege, and self-actualization into the minds of viewers across the country.
I remember watching the Girls pilot and feeling disgusted by Hannah’s whiny attempts to guilt-trip her parents into supporting her by telling them about her friend Sophie who didn’t get any money from her parents and who’d had two abortions. Her friend Shoshanna’s non-stop “Like, I don’t know, you know what I mean?!” was painfully annoying. Hannah’s control-freak roommate Marnie stressed everyone out. Shoshanna’s mysterious cousin Jessa was way too bohemian, European, and free-spirited. But I couldn’t get these girls out of my head.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, a 20th century German philosopher most well-known for his work in hermeneutics, was fascinated by how we know and what happens in the knowing process. His ideas about knowing and understanding help bridge the gap between Girls as a guilty pleasure and Girls as an insightful text. In discussing how we know, he writes about humanity’s finitude and reminds readers that our specific place in time and space influences everything we know and study and analyze. We are “situated” at a certain point in history, and our place in time is necessarily part of how and what we know.
Gadamer describes this “situatedness” in Truth & Method:
“The very idea of a situation means that we are not standing outside it and hence are unable to have any objective knowledge of it. We always find ourselves within a situation, and throwing light on it is a task that is never entirely finished.”
This description alone is a start at describing the world of Girls—it’s a bunch of young kids working hard at understanding themselves, but never really pin-pointing what the heck they’re going through.
Gadamer points to conversation as a way to shed light on our hidden situations. In his foreword to the second edition of Truth & Method, he writes that “the experience of the Thou throws light on the concept of historically effected experience.” We don’t learn and grow in a vacuum, and dialog with other people (Gadamer’s “Thou”) can help shed light on things we’re too blind to see. His first step toward solving the difficulties caused by our “situatedness” is to enter conversation with other people, where we can earnestly work together toward understanding.
Gadamer’s ideas of situatedness help explain why I can’t wait for the next episode of Girls. Sure, I’d rather Shoshanna never open her mouth, and I judge Hannah every time she steps out of her door in another outfit that doesn’t fit. But something keeps me watching. I want to watch the conversations unfold. I want to watch the characters stumble toward self-understanding. I want to watch them work at understanding each other. As much as these girls annoy me, I don’t hate them. They’re just people situated in a place they can’t see clearly—but they’re trying. They’re working at it. And that makes me want to root for Hannah to finish her book, for Jessa to find a passion, for Marnie to chill out, and for Shoshanna to become “the Carrie” she’s always wanted to be.
Every character is relatable—not because I relate to their experiences, but because I relate to their struggle to become who they are. In selfish, sometimes caricatured ways, the girls of Girls are living pictures of what it’s like to be a person. It’s not simple. It’s dirty and strange and sometimes full of weird sex and random friendships and loneliness.
There’s no formula Hannah and her friends can follow to become who they are supposed to be. In the absence of a step-by-step guide to life as a 20-something in New York (unless articles from Thought Catalog and BuzzFeed count), Hannah and her girls (and boys) are left to work at finding meaning in bumbling, fumbling, human ways. Their work often results in half-formed truths and feeble attempts at some grasp on reality. Along the way, they start scratching the surface of the kind of knowledge that counts.
In an earlier essay, “Truth in the Human Sciences,” Gadamer writes,
“Knowledge in the human sciences always has something of self-knowledge about it. Nowhere is deception so easy and so near as in self-knowledge, but nowhere does it also mean as much, where it succeeds, for human existence.”
Unlike “hard,” formulaic science, the knowledge that makes our lives rich and meaningful isn’t something we can pin down. Yes, deception is always possible when we’re talking about knowing ourselves. But we have to try.
The real possibility of self-deception is pretty clear in Girls. Hannah’s OCD and Marnie’s relationship woes are near-perfect examples of radical self-deceptions. But there are places, every so often, where these girls succeed—where they get a glimpse of who they really are and what it really means to be a friend and a person. Jessa crying in a bathtub with Hannah after she breaks it off with her husband. Adam giving strangely solid life advice to Marnie in the premier of Season three. Ray realizing that his cynicism might not be worth it. These moments make sense of all the fumbling and bumbling.
Gadamer’s work on hermeneutics and how we apprehend meaning doesn’t shy away from the fumbling and bumbling we see in Girls. His whole project aims to demonstrate how the clear-cut formulas of science, while neat and clean, don’t offer much to people trying to get at meaning. We don’t follow a step-by-step guide. We don’t make calculated experiments. We live. We have conversations. We encounter tradition and religion. We, along with the girls of Girls, make sense of ourselves and the world through an ongoing dialogue that never really stops. It’s not a pretty way to find truth, but it might be the most human way.