Culture: Lessons from Binchy's Circle of Friends and Dunham's Girls

Culture: Lessons from Circle of Friends and Girls
By Jessica Holburn

'I don't know why you let me go to University. It's like taking me to the top of the mountain and showing me the world, and then marching me back down, and saying, "That's what you can't have Benny, you silly great fat article. Here's what you can have: Knockglen for the rest of your life and married to Sean bloody Walsh!" I'd rather be married to a bloody lizard!' 
- Bernadette, "Benny" Hogan.

Circle of Friends (or rather COF as we shall henceforth endeavour to call it here, as we feel it warrants its own acronym), was one of those movies that came out in 1995* that taught you some little wisdoms of life. 

It made the world of academia seem like a fun adventure worth trying. It made we less conventionally beautiful women feel more beautiful and capable of pursuing our dreams, whether we had the cheekbones of Safron Burrows or not. We came out of it with an understanding that beauty is deeper than soft, freckle-less skin and a perfect figure, that we could be beautiful and flawed at the same time, and that cute men like Chris O'Donnell could be entranced by our minds and not our bodies.

The "ugly duckling syndrome" is nothing new – myths are continually perpetuated about what a woman should look like as a teenager, in their 20s, 30s, 40s and so on, which is why a pivotal film such as this is a good one to return to, serving as a reminder that every time we finish flicking through a glossy or walk out of a shopping mall vexed because we looked rubbish in whatever it was we tried on, it is not entirely our fault.

Based on the book written by the recently departed and dearly loved Irish author Maeve Binchy in 1990, COF is a journey of self-discovery about creating a new path for oneself rather than following what is predestined or predetermined by looks and wealth. Adapted by Andrew Davies for the screen, the film is set in 1950s Ireland, a time when conservatism was being rebelled against.

The plot revolves around Benny Hogan (Minnie Driver) and her best friend Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) as they set off to attend a college in Dublin. It is here that Benny expands her mind and is instantly smitten by Jack Foley (Chris O'Donnell). It is a relationship fraught with angst, perhaps the first film to deal in a frank way about the complex nature of attraction.

As film critic Roger Ebert says: "Too many recent American movies about young people, lovers and otherwise, celebrate their self-congratulatory stupidity. It's as if Hollywood is terrified of putting people on the screen who might be smarter than anyone in the audience. Benny, as played by Minnie Driver, is a role-model: She knows her mind and her heart, and she knows what she requires from a man before she will offer him either one. "I know I may look like a rhinoceros," she tells Jack, after he delays asking her to dance at a party, "but I'm quite thin-skinned, really. Don't mess me about. I'll flatten you."

COF is a real treasure. It reminds us never to settle for second-best (especially if the man in question acts anything like the sleazy Alan Cumming – a double standard that we judge men as much as we are judged? Hmm... set this aside for another article thought), the film begs the question as to how many of us can and will follow the path of Benny, forever striving until we find our soul mate, should one of those exist for each of us.

Binchy grew up with the feeling that she was not attractive. She anticipated a life of spinsterhood: "I expected I would live at home, as I always did." She continued, "I felt very lonely, the others all had a love waiting for them and I didn't." It was, until she met children's author Gordon Snell, who was at the time working as a producer for the BBC, when their friendship bloomed into a romance and they were married in 1977.

They lived together in Ireland and he was at her deathbed when she died this past July. Binchy was quoted in The Irish Times saying that Gordon as the love of her life: "(A) writer, a man I loved and he loved me and we got married and it was great and is still great. He believed I could do anything, just as my parents had believed all those years ago, and I started to write fiction and that took off fine. And he loved Ireland, and the fax was invented so we writers could live anywhere we liked, instead of living in London near publishers."

The borders between fact and  fiction are increasingly tenuous in women's literature and COF was the first of this kind of borderline breed. Binchy said that COF is autobiographical, "in the sense that Benny is a big girl, and I'm a big girl... Also, there's the guilt at resenting my parents' loving protectiveness, the living outside of Dublin and the marvelous fun of it all – all the giggling and laughing. I was at the center of a circle of friends myself, although I didn't have Benny's drama. In fiction, you have to put in the drama."

And she does deliver on drama, heightened by a strictly chaste institutional atmosphere. The friendship between Benny and Jack evolves over time to become romantic, as it did for Maeve and Gordon. One could even ascertain this story a something of a fictive nonfiction of Binchy's life and love.

It's been a while since we've seen something of the intellectual caliber of COF, but we find narrative remnants in Tiny Furniture, a film written, directed and starring Lena Dunham (and bankrolled by her onscreen/offscreen mother Laurie Simmons). TF (yes, another acronym-warranting film) caught the eye of Judd Apatow (big-time producer of films such as Bridesmaids and The Five Year Engagement), who was drawn to this film for its strikingly realistic portrayal of women.

As the story goes, Apatow took the kernel of Dunham's characters and co-created the HBO series, Girls. In the film, the tattooed and chubby-faced Aura (played by Dunham) is an awkward and witty postmodern reimagining of Benny. After having just graduated from college with a Film Studies major, and after having had her relationship come to an end, Aura returns home to the safe-haven of her mother's New York apartment.

As each day living back at home passes, we can see that she is lazy, demotivated and not as glamourous as her girlfriends, nor is she as academically successful as her poetry prize winning younger sister, Nadine (played by Dunham's real life sister, Grace Dunham). Taking a day job as a hostess earning ten dollars an hour, she struggles to find a reliable guy and subjects herself to some degrading situations. She also puts videotape of herself in a bikini on YouTube and the comments (of which she wrote herself) ridicule her body.

Perhaps she does this just to feel artistic, or a little bit loved, even, but when she confesses to her mother while sharing her bed, we realise there is something acutely self-destructive about her nature, as though making mistakes are at the very core of her being. Aura becomes Hannah Horvath in Girls, and so we have the continuum of "creative nonfiction" (note that phrase is another one of Dunham's movie titles) and the motto of the film itself is to do with "Living the dream. One mistake at a time."

An allusion to the show's major point of reference, Sex and the City, about four glamourous ladies living in New York, Dunham's Girls are struggling financially and are constantly in and out of jobs and states of instability in terms of their families, friendships and relationships. Her characters, including her own, reflect her life and the lives of her co-writers.

It seems everybody has an awkward moment to offload. In COF Nan Mahon (played by Saffron Burrows) was the college beauty also chases an older man Simon Westward (Colin Firth) and falls pregnant to him. In Girls we find city belle Jessa (played by Burrows lookalike Jemima Kirke) having flings with older men and finding herself pregnant also.

But, in spite of stark similarities, Girls is far more gratuitous than COF. Throughout the first series we have Hannah subjecting herself to degrading situations, and we begin to realise that both Aura and Hannah do these degrading things not merely for want of self-esteem, but to experiment. These girls are far from virtuous. Indeed, Hannah seems to relish those moments where she is utterly lost and alone on the sand with a clump of wedding cake in her mouth.

Girls is not for the easily offended and some scenes are really quite confronting, particularly the scenes between Hannah and Adam (played by Adam Driver). Neurotic and forever walking around shirtless, Adam exploits Hannah's willingness to be submissive and to what he tells her (she draws the line at being peed on... yes, this is the world she lives in).

Where S&TC was escapist, Girls is realistic, and in this sense it is most confronting. In spite of its wit, Girls is frighteningly narcissistic. Hannah spends most of her time writing, getting sacked from menial jobs and pondering men. She's not exactly a role model, but she strikes some pretty sharp chords about our generation of women.

Human resilience is a wonderful thing, and the careless optimism of youth allows us to explore new territory more freely as new friendships are quickly struck up and experiences encountered for the titillating thrill of it all, but in taking stock of the detritus of ruined relationships, dignity and dreams, one might ask, "Yes, we can make mistakes and recover, but perhaps we should think about what we are doing and the possibly ramifications before we act?".

In the final episodes of series one, we can see how friendships in Girls are destroyed by jealousy and resentment, threatening the idea that friends stick by one another no matter what; showing instead that sometimes they grow apart, that they are not necessarily together forever. And, just the same, we encounter the tensions of friendship in COF (as the name might suggest). But, rightly or wrongly, we can't discount what is learnt along the way as these relationships interplay. Dunham recently told Slate:

"The thing that I love, and I had this experience on a lesser scale when I was putting out Tiny Furniture, was that I spent so much of my time when I was younger feeling like such a weirdo that it was hard for me to imagine that anybody was sharing my experiences. And the fact I put out this thing so personal and specific, where the character is going through emotions that feel so mine, and so many girls have gone, 'That’s what it’s like to be me', or, 'You and I are the same,' it’s really been heartening. It has made the world so much smaller, and I think that has been the most wonderful, educational part of the show actually being released. It’s been amazing to feel that connected when I maybe had a habit of feeling, like, disenfranchised, and like I was a 98-year-old woman trapped in a chubby 17-year-old body."

Binchy would likely relate. Girls (Dunham) and COF (Binchy) meet at the intersection between girlhood and womanhood; youthful rebellion and maturing wisdom. Bold, brazen and big (depending on your subjective opinion!), Benny and Hannah represent two women courageous in the sense of wanting to know their own minds, taking the humbling blows seemingly in their stride. "You really know who you are, don't you?" says Jack to Benny. "Well, yes, of course I do," she responds. If Benny achieves this assurance of self before Hannah, it doesn't make Hannah's journey and the overcoming of obstacles less worthwhile, just unnecessarily painful.

We can choose whether or not to journey with these fictional femmes, after all.

Every time we laugh at ourselves, every time we're hurt by somebody we want to trust, every time we do something without fear, every time we embrace the way we look and harness our femininity, every time we loathe ourselves or do something selfish, feel guilty or complain or get jealous, every time we get lost and indecisive, about what we wear and what we wouldn't, we share in their endeavour, because it's all a part of being a woman in this haphazard modern world.

*In 1995 Clueless, Mall Rats and Empire Records, Sabrina, French Kiss, Dangerous Minds, Father of the Bride II, How to Make an American Quilt and Tank Girl were also screened.