Girls and Sarah Coakley, Through a Theological Lens of Desire
Girls, Home Box Office
By Peter Boumgarden
Lena Dunham’s Girls is a powerful, humorous, and sometimes painful exploration of modern-day relationships and their role in identity formation. In this award-winning HBO series, the audience walks alongside four twenty-something women in New York City—Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa—as they grow up, however slowly, in a world anxiously constructing new norms of gender and sexuality. Dunham portrays Hannah Horvath, the “girl” at the show’s center, as an aspiring essayist who is furiously accumulating the experiences she thinks are needed to make her authorial mark on this world. In partnership with noted director and producer Judd Apatow, Dunham has created a dark comedy. In interviews, Dunham denies that she intended the show to contain an ideological statement—feminist or otherwise—and that her goal is merely to chart the way these girls grow up, sexually and otherwise.
Sarah Coakley’s 2013 book, God, Sexuality and the Self, the opening volume of her four-part systematic theology, was much anticipated by those who follow her work. In this text, Coakley carefully outlines her method of “théologie totale,” a tool she then rigorously applies to the question of what we might learn about God through a focused attention on desire. Across four volumes, Coakley aims at developing “a complete, and inviting, vision of Christian doctrine in its various parts” (36), while acknowledging up front that this is a contentious task in the postmodern age. After all, in our time, attempts to systematize God can be seen as theologically false and idolatrous (the ontotheological critique), inherently suppressive of the minority voice (moral or political critique), or, by their very method, submissive to a male-oriented way of thinking (post-Freudian critique).
By all accounts, the world of Girls stands far from the theologizing of Sarah Coakley. After all, Lena Dunham’s project has very little to do with anything religious, and especially not anything specific to the Trinity and contemplative prayer in particular—the areas of Coakley’s focus. Transformation of desire in Girls, if it is to come at all, will be a decidedly secular project. As for Coakley, when it comes to outlining specific implications for sexuality that might be relevant to Lena Dunham and company, God, Sexuality and the Self remains decidedly silent. So why relate the two at all?
I want to suggest that we might let these two texts read each other, and perhaps, in their pairing, each project may come away enlivened. This is especially true, given the centrality of the relationship between desire and transformation in both works. Coakley’s innovative method moves theology toward rather than away from experience and the social sciences, and she therefore positions herself in a unique space to begin filling the gaping void between talk about sex and talk about God. As a result, I think we can see in the lives of the fictional characters Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa a needed field study to build on Coakley’s insights about learning from the divine through attention to the sexual. Drawing on the work of Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Coakley suggests we must let “the medium speak here in all its creative messiness and multivalence” (192). The goal is not merely to find the original meaning of the text, because “all interpretation involves a ‘fusion of horizons’ ” (193). Instead, we might seek the insights that come from creative fusions. If Coakley’s book shows what can result from a faithful application of her method to more traditional theological contexts, might it have a similar effect when applied to a television show about a set of twenty-somethings in New York City? What will exploring this “creative fusion” yield?
The season two episode “One Man’s Trash,” directed by Emmy Award–winning Richard Shepard and starring Patrick Wilson, stands stylistically apart from the rest of the show. This “bottle episode” focuses on two characters alone: Hannah (Dunham) and Joshua (Wilson). The plot flows with a dreamlike feel that is enacted visually in the bright, airy Brooklyn brownstone and thematically in its depiction of a romantic encounter between strangers that seems to make the rest of the world stand still. Despite the episode’s stylistic differences, in other ways it parallels Girls as a whole. For central to this story is the potential for individual transformation and the concomitant pitfalls that come by way of desire, or what theologian Sarah Coakley calls the “physical, emotional, or intellectual longing that is directed towards something or someone that is wanted” (346).
The episode begins with Wilson’s character, Joshua, approaching the local coffee shop, Grumpies, to complain about their trash being left in his bin. Hannah works at the shop for her friend Ray, the shop’s manager. Throughout the first scene, Hannah squirms in discomfort as Ray berates Joshua for what he sees as ridiculous accusations against his staff.
In the next scene, Hannah walks up to Joshua’s Greenpoint residence. He opens the door. After reintroductions—Joshua fails to remember her—Hannah says she has something to confess. Joshua asks her inside to share a drink. Inside the beautiful home, Hannah admits to the crime: it was she who dropped off the trash bags filled with coffee grounds. Surprised at first, Joshua is then intrigued as Hannah describes the rush of the act—the breaking of a law, the secret from her manager, running from the scene. Then, just as Hannah prepares to leave, she kisses him, he kisses back, and they have sex on the kitchen counter.
In the rest of the episode, Dunham and Shepard paint a compelling portrayal of the intimacy that develops over a few days between two tucked-away strangers. In Hannah and Joshua, we see intimacy that extends beyond the physical. Their communication includes an easy laughter, the early sharing of insecurities, and a comfort beyond language. Even their sexual encounter displays easy gender role reversals, fluid shifts between who is to lead and who is to follow, and what it means to listen. By the middle of the episode, we have almost forgotten the awkwardness of their first encounter.
When Hannah wakes up the first morning in Joshua’s place, she walks downstairs to enter a bright, airy foyer. Shepard scores the moment with the lilt of Father John Misty’s song “Nancy from Now On”—”Oh . . . pour . . . me another drink,” J. Tillman croons as Hannah joins Joshua for coffee—giving the encounter a sense of light, comfort, and ease.
But their comfort doesn’t last long. As New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum writes, it is a “crash course in intimacy—which begins with her dream-like impulse to pursue a handsome stranger, ends with a vulnerable fiasco of a speech, and is punctuated by her refusal to call the guy ‘Joshua’ instead of ‘Josh,’ no matter how many times he asks.”1 Insomuch as Hannah is changed by the weekend at all, she still ends it by emotionally over-sharing with Joshua, not in the service of intimacy, but rather as a way to elicit being comforted, being affirmed. “Oh . . . pour . . . me another drink. . . . And punch me in the face”—the song continues, just as Joshua and Hannah’s connection abruptly dissolves.
Nussbaum believes there is a transformation in Hannah in this moment, that something “changes her in ways that won’t necessarily be visible to anyone she knows.” But where is this invisible transformation? Is Hannah any more woman than girl following this encounter? “I can fend for myself, with what I have left,” the Father John Misty song continues, paralleling the next morning, as Hannah wakes in the apartment alone, reads the paper, makes herself a piece of toast, and then takes out the trash before leaving to head home, seemingly never to speak of the event again. Where is the transformative power of desire? What might we learn from such crash courses in intimacy?
While Coakley focuses her attention on desire, she is also interested in systems, theories, doctrines, and iconography that have been developed and critiqued for hundreds of years. The art form in which she works is a refined theological method she calls théologie totale. This method, Coakley writes, “attempts to incorporate insights from every level of society and to integrate intellectual, affective, and imaginative approaches to doctrine and practice” (352). Building from the Annales School of French historians, and its histoire totale, Coakley works to identify rich layers in historical understanding, in part through explicit utilization of the social sciences, namely, the sociology of religion and feminist theory. By learning from these methods while resisting their reductionist tendencies, Coakley suggests that theology might expose the ills and abuses of the church while seeing doctrine worked afresh. Coakley’s additional insistence on contemplative and ascetic practices comes from theology’s fundamental interest in seeking God’s face and being transformed through submission to this mystery.
Coakley goes on to apply this method to multiple, distinct but interrelated spaces. In chapter three, she explains the development of trinitarian doctrine by focusing on its theorist’s conflicting understandings of desire and gender. In chapter four, she examines the life of prayer in a charismatic Anglican community in northern England, looking to tease out the implications of this community’s vibrant engagement with the Spirit and how it relates to their attitude toward women in the church and their approach to desire. In chapter five, Coakley explores different iconographic representations of the Trinity, highlighting the recurring tendency toward reducing the Trinity to father-son relationships, or clouding it over with implicit understandings of gender and desire. She moves in chapter six to a sustained reflection on the points of intersection of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, especially in regard to their understandings of desire. In chapter seven she ends by looking toward Dionysius the Areopagite to help enliven the potential links between desire for God and desire for others. Coakley’s project takes her readers on a magisterial journey, one difficult to distill into a singular argument.
Given its relationship to the HBO show, one piece of Coakley’s argument worthy of sustained attention is her recasting of sexual desire in terms of what it might say about the divine. While sexual desire is a fruitful metaphor for the divine, as in its use in the Song of Songs and in the work of various saints of the Christian church, Coakley suggests its power extends beyond metaphor alone. Consider Bernard of Clairvaux, whose work highlights the power of the erotic metaphor in helping us connect with God. Coakley reminds us that even he said: “To be always with a woman and not to have sexual relations with her is more difficult than to raise the dead” (341).
How might we, then, best understand desire in relationship to this goal of divine connection? Coakley writes that Dionysius’s work in Divine Names provides one revealing direction. Using eros rather than agape to discuss the nature of yearning for God, Dionysius suggests that a distinction between the two would not make sense to the ancient writers. In other words, while not escaping the Platonic tendencies in his thinking, Dionysius concludes that “the protoerotic dimension for him is divine” (313). Coakley continues:
Dionysius’ more ancient vision means that, in contemporary terms, Freud is turned on his head. Instead of “God” language “really” being about sex, sex is really about God— the potent reminder woven into our earthy existence of the divine “unity,” “alliance,” and “commingling” that we seek. This in turn has profound ascetical implications, of course; for no one can move simply from earthly, physical love (tainted as it so often is by sin and misdirection of desire) to divine love—unless it is via a Christo-logical transformation. (316)
Coakley’s insight is profound. But in this first volume, her work to tease out its implications remains significantly less developed. What her work needs is an extension of the method of théologie totale to the potential transformation and theological insight that might come from a starting point of desire, whether Christologically transformed or not.
When she originally met with HBO executives, Dunham pitched: “Here’s the kind of show I would want to see. Here’s what my friends are like. They don’t totally have jobs but they’re really smart. They take Ritalin for fun, but they’re not that fucked up. They’re having these kind [of] degrading sexual relationships yet they’re feminists.”2 Coakley, too, sees within us tension and mixed motives or desires, even in spaces as “religious” as the formation of the church’s doctrine and iconography. Specific to sexuality, our desires for one another are often conflated with desires for other things.
Given this starting point of fracture, where is the hope for transformation? For Coakley, transformation is Christological, forged on one’s knees in prayer through encounter with the living God. In a posture of contemplation, Coakley says, we might be made aware of our “psychic bag and baggage . . . its hauntings by parents, lovers, and friends, good and bad, saintly and sinful,” in the hope of something being “retrieved, sorted, and held up for healing” (323).
Dunham similarly identifies the “psychic bag and baggage” we bring to the table. “There are people, obviously, making ridiculous, fumbling sexual moves,” Dunham acknowledges, “but the badness is sort of coming more from just a place of being unformed people trying to connect.”3 Importantly, where Dunham reads innocent motives, Coakley shows a desire for control, power, or self-experience at the expense of others—decidedly less innocent means. For this reason and others, these two conceive of the agency of transformation differently. Recasting Dunham’s mechanism in Coakley’s words, we hold ourselves up for healing, we are the healer.
In Girls, one central narrative for transformation is the empowerment that comes from accumulated sexual experiences. Dunham speaks of maturity over reordered loves, and does so without access or reference to Coakley’s resources—whether theological language or intentional contemplative practices. In the world of the show, characters are transformed by these experiences, which expand their understanding of themselves and the world. For Hannah in particular, this comes with the added benefit of stories for her writing, something that is especially important to her, given her desire to become “the voice of a generation.”
But can experience alone be transformative, when desires are conflicted and conflated (as Coakley suggests)? For example, Hannah’s desire to capture her generation’s voice means she approaches sexual experience through the lens of its potential transcription, a posture that changes the experience itself. As Susan Sontag writes, “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”4 Dunham, too, seems aware of the problems that result from coming to the table with mixed motives. She suggests that these characters lose some of their ability to experience transformation in the sexual encounter. Take her interpretation of Hannah and her boyfriend, Adam:
Hannah thinks about sex as a way to learn more about herself and she kind of feels like she needs to accept whatever opportunity to learn is offered to her. And Adam is continually testing the boundaries and also using sex as a way to experience to be close and also not to be close. And so he’s not going to have the kind of sex where you, you know, move slowly and look into each other’s eyes. He wants to be near another person but in the least intimate way possible. . . . [I]t’s a complicated dance.5
In stark contrast to Hannah and Adam, the uptight Marnie (marvelously played by Allison Williams) seeks transformation through an alignment with more traditional notions of sexuality and romance. Early in the show, this desire plays out in her monogamous relationship with Charlie, and, later, through her tendency to get easily caught up in romantic narratives.
But transformation does not come easily here, either. For when Marnie enters these moments—for example, Charlie’s expression of desire woven together with a painful-to-watch vulnerability—she remains unmoved, even disgusted. And in the third season, when Marnie finds in Ray the potential for a relationship that might actually bring transformation (there is a depth of connection and the ability to be seen and spoken to with honest but painful truths), she runs away. Marnie seems open to potential transformation only when a relationship fits her calculation of optimal looks and talent for cocktail-party performance and child-producing fitness. Whether these characters seek transformation in experience or alignment with traditional expectations, the “psychic bag and baggage” that Coakley describes still prevents transformation.
Near the end of God, Sexuality and the Self, Coakley writes of the ways in which the experience of unmediated sexual intimacy may at times offer potential for transformation. Looking to the insights of the French feminist Luce Irigaray, Coakley agrees that there is, in the dissolving boundaries between lovers, “a shared space, a shared breath” that in itself is the third party6—creating a trinitarian moment of sorts. As Coakley explains:
. . . we may perhaps glimpse how human ecstatic loves (at their best) might ultimately relate to divine ecstatic love . . . by the “interruption” by the Spirit of any merely “egological” duality inherent in their relationship, such that the human lovers are themselves aware of a necessary “third” between them—both uniting them and protecting their integrity in their new ecstasy of exchange. What then is happening may even be a degree of participation in the divine life; but it comes with both the cost and the joy of truly “ecstatic” attention to the other. (318)
Perhaps this is the power of the encounter between Hannah and Joshua in “One Man’s Trash.” Finally, Hannah is free from her need to add another chapter to the memoir. She opens up to another for an encounter that just might overcome the conflicting goals that each brings to the exchange—Joshua’s desire for a sexual escape, and the acquisition of a transcribable sexual fantasy for Hannah. While not guaranteed in any moment, or any formula, there is nonetheless potential for transformation in these “human ecstatic loves.”
Two other spaces for transformation emerge across the show and in the book: transformation by community, and transformation by contemplation. For Coakley, community happens through the church or at its boundaries, through the role of the “sect” and “mystic.” Hannah’s community is in the relationship with her three close friends. And for Hannah, contemplation and reflection come in writing, whereas Coakley thinks of reflection in terms of the dialogue of prayer.
To explore the power of community, Coakley recapitulates Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch’s distinction of “church,” “sect,” and “mystic,” arguing that the former needs the latter two to push against the boundaries of orthodoxy. Transformation of desire happens when orthodoxy is seen as a process, more dynamic than static. In her fieldwork with a charismatic Anglican community, Coakley shows the potential value that comes when a “church” listens to the Spirit through the voices of the “sect” and “mystic” within a discerning community.
In contrast, the organic community in Girls tends to be forged in the absence of formal institutions. One of the more poignant explorations into this kind of community comes in season three’s episode “Beach House.” In this episode, Marnie seeks to create a healing space for her three friends by inviting them to a friend’s place near the Hamptons. While not embracing the formal liturgy and institutional structures of Troeltsch’s understanding of the church, Marnie works to ritualize a transformative moment across the weekend. She controls the social time at the beach and plans a shared dinner where there might be space for healing. But rather than participate in this liturgy, the other girls, Hannah in particular, push against the forced structure. When Hannah runs into her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah and his friends, she invites them over to crash the intervention, much to Marnie’s dismay.
Late in a night of drinking, the girls decide to learn a choreographed dance from one of Elijah’s friends. As the music plays, the girls flow and move in concert with one another, and the tension of the weekend begins to bleed away. But as they finish the dance, Marnie again asserts her desire for control, asking the group to do it again because of Hannah’s disjointed rhythm. Marnie’s critique plunges the group into one of the more honest and hurtful conversations among these four friends that viewers have seen. After this blowout, it seems that all opportunity for any kind of positive, transformative experience is lost. But something restorative manages to break in. The episode ends with the four girls waiting silently on a curb for a bus back to the city. In this silence, they again mirror the dance moves on the curb, and we see a glimpse of hope in the embodied liturgy of dance.
While transformation may happen in community, Coakley’s insistence on the contemplative posture reminds us of the need for a quiet listening space amid the communal liturgy of dance. The church needs the mystic, Coakley reminds us. In Girls, Hannah’s contemplation involves not the posture of prayer in search of a more authentic, vertical dialogue, but rather the monologue of writing and the channeling of experience. She sees this creative vocation as a way to pursue an authentic self. But the author’s eye is rarely only attentive to what is authentic and can easily veer toward what people want. For Hannah, this imagined “other” continually pushes her to consider what is legitimate to write about and what is necessary to convey. Again, there is an intrusion of conflicted desires. However, it must be said that prayer is not without these same pitfalls and that prayer receives legitimate criticism at times for merely channeling the voice of the ego or what the institutional “church” finds viable. Nonetheless, both women hold out hope for the transformative potential of their respective contemplative spaces.
Throughout God, Sexuality and the Self, Sarah Coakley illuminates the complicated interplay among desire, contemplative spirituality, and the historic and modern church. Given the immense task she has set for herself in this systematic theology, Coakley focuses primarily on the ways our understandings of God reflect gendered assumptions, and only briefly on one of her more provocative conclusions: that all talk about sex is really talk about God. As a result, while there are a number of important theological insights in Coakley’s work—an illuminating history of the Trinity, a helpful understanding of the church’s need for and suspicion of the voice of the mystic, and some provocative comments on the unity between agape and eros—she leaves her readers with questions about the personal and experiential implications of the project.
Perhaps this is why I think we can learn something from Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa about the theological parallels and interpretive challenges that come in personal encounters fraught with desire. Dunham’s characters live in a post-Christian culture where, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor suggests, our relationship with the divine is buffered rather than porous: the theological is quickly replaced by internal explanations. When Hannah experiences moments of “encounter,” she speaks of them, not with theological language or within the institution of a church (or other religious institutions or practices), but rather with psychological mechanisms. She describes journeys toward maturity undertaken in communities of friends. But is this enough? Will we see Hannah and company transformed in this space without access to the practices or language that Coakley highlights as crucial?
When read together, Coakley and Dunham raise crucial questions on the role of religious practices in a modern, “buffered” world. For example, does individual and communal transformation require a numinous or spiritual experience? And how do the language and practices we inhabit prevent or enable these encounters? For Coakley, transformation means an alteration of spiritual senses—the ability to see and engage with the Risen Christ. For Hannah and friends, transformation involves the easing of anxiety, an authenticity of experience, individual empowerment, and learning to express sexuality in more healthy relationships. In this way, Coakley might see Girls as failing to explicate a deeper grounding for transformation, and with good reason. While empowerment and authenticity may be appropriate ends in and of themselves, I believe Charles Taylor is convincing in his argument that the power of these projects comes from their alignment with deeper frameworks of meaning, grounding in “agapē, or one of the secular claimants to its succession.”7
Maybe this is why, at a certain point, dialogue between these works breaks down. Coakley assumes from the start that God exists; as a result, it is through engagement with this reality that we are transformed. Dunham, on the other hand, does not feel a need to walk through the spirituality of human experience, either because it does not exist or because she sees it as irrelevant. But if Coakley is right that God exists and is a reality beyond our conceptions (or lack thereof), wouldn’t access to Coakley’s theological language and religious practices make an encounter more possible? With such grounding, would Dunham’s character’s sexual experiences, journeys in community, or moments of silence at the writer’s desk become enlivened with transformative potential?
Coakley’s insight comes in part from showing how language and practices cultivate attention, and how this impacts the nature and ends of transformation. In contrast, the crux of transformation for Dunham is experience, lived through individual empowerment (at its best) and unaware narcissism (at its worst). While these might have religious corollaries, Hannah and company’s focus, practices, and experience are far from those of Coakley. “I can fend for myself, with what I have left,” Father John Misty sings on in the background, as apt an anthem for the show as any. While I want to believe that transformation can happen in spite of ourselves, our language, and our practices, I also have a hard time believing that merely by experience alone are we transformed. Attention to practices and language is needed, because experiences can be mediated more or less effectively. While Coakley’s may not be the only system (hence Taylor’s reference to agape, or its various secular varieties), it is hard to have much faith that the systems these girls bring to their experience are enough.
At the end of season three, Hannah still seeks transformation. This time it is through a potential escape from New York City to attend the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop and focus on her craft. Will Hannah find in this place a kind of secular asceticism with transformative power? If so, what will transformation entail? The answers to these questions may say more about the nonreligious potential for spiritual transformation than Hannah’s life trajectory alone. Maybe Dunham can be “the voice of a generation,” as Hannah nervously foreshadows to her parents in the pilot episode of the first season—just not in the way she originally expected.
- Emily Nussbaum, “That Sex Scene on Last Night’s ‘Girls‘,” Culture Desk (blog), The New Yorker, February 11, 2013.
- James Poniewozik, “Lena Dunham Interview, Part One: What Girls Is Made Of,” Tuned In (blog), Time, posted April 12, 2012.
- Susan Sontag, “Shooting America,” New York Review of Books, April 18, 1974.
- Terry Gross, “Lena Dunham Addresses Criticism Aimed at Girls,” Fresh Air, NPR, May 7, 2012 (transcript online: www.npr.org).
- Luce Irigaray, “Questions to Emmanuel Lévinas: On the Divinity of Love,” in Re-Reading Lévinas, ed. Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley (Athlone, 1991), 109–118.
- Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989), 516.
Peter Boumgarden is Assistant Professor of Management at Hope College and a faculty associate for the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan. His work on theology and culture has appeared in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, and in the 2013 book Corners in the City of God: Theology, Philosophy and “The Wire.”