I don’t remotely agree with my sometimes-Slate colleagues David Haglund and Daniel Engber that this week’s episode of Girls, in which Hannah hooks up with a handsome doctor whose trash cans she’s been misusing, was “the worst episode of Girls ever.” But something that the two of them said that struck me as particularly truthful in a revealing way:
Engber: I felt trapped by my unwillingness to buy into the central premise. Narcissistic, childish men sleep with beautiful women all the time in movies and on TV, so why should this coupling be so difficult to fathom? I think it’s because Hannah is especially and assertively ugly in this episode. She’s rude (“what did you do?” she asks Joshua, referring to his broken marriage), self-centered (“I’m too smart and too sensitive”), sexually ungenerous (“no, make me come”), and defiantly ungraceful (naked ping-pong). In sum, the episode felt like a finger poked in my guys-on-Girls eyeball, or a double-dog dare for me to ask, How can a girl like that get a guy like this? Am I small-minded if I’m stuck on how this fantasy is too much of a fantasy and remembering what Patrick Wilson’s real-life partner looks like?…
Haglund: resumably there are things that Hannah would not, in any world that resembled our own, get. Such as Patrick Wilson, for instance. I want to suspend my disbelief—just as viewers have, for generations, imagined that Al could get Peggy and Homer could get Marge and Jim Belushi could snag Courtney Thorne-Smith. But the show needs to work harder to make that seem feasible. And not pile implausibility upon implausibility.
Why is it that we believe that Jim Belushi could plausibly be married to Courtney Thorne-Smith? Or that Katherine Heigl’s character in Knocked Up, a beautiful, upwardly mobile entertainment reporter would end up with pre-weight-loss, unemployed Seth Rogen, simply because his character stepped up by performing the basic adult human task of obtaining a job? And why is it that we don’t believe a sexually available weirdo like Hannah Horvath could have a several-day fling with a depressive, divorcing, lonely doctor because he happens to be played by Patrick Wilson? Is it that in men, being funny is considered the equivalent of being beautiful for women? Are male characters are required to have one positive characteristic, whether it’s a sense of charm, or the expressed desire to not be a a deadbeat, where women need to be both a certain level of hot, as well as be desirable in other ways? Are movies and TV that feature pairing between schlubby guys and attractive women really doing the equivalent amount of work it would take to make long-term relationships between those characters credible that it would apparently require folks to believe that someone might want to keep Hannah around for a couple of days?
I can see how Hannah’s hookup with Joshua might not have been plausible for everyone in the audience. After all, who invites random strangers into their living room for lemonade, as Joshua did when Hannah showed up at his door after spotting him at Grumpy’s? How many of us kiss random strangers simply because we’re on a quest to have dramatic experiences that will be fodder for later fiction writing? But I think there’s a strong case that we’re simply more used to seeing men date and marry above themselves, at least when it comes to looks, in popular culture. That doesn’t mean that those pairings are, themselves, more credible, or that more work’s gone into making them credible, just that we’ve had more training in suspending disbelief when it comes to them.