Screenshots from HBO's "Girls"
I just binge-watched all 5 seasons so far of HBO’s “Girls,” so spoiler alert, just in general to everyone in my proximity at any time. It’s permeated the fabric of my thinking almost to the level of “The Simpsons” or “Seinfeld,” in that every situation that arises in real life (or every idea I have for a TV show, as “South Park” bemoaned) reminds me of something I already saw Hannah Horvath or Shoshanna Shapiro do.
Some of the funniest parts of “Girls” are scenes about deeply personal or embarrassing health issues like STDs, self-bludgeoned eardrums, and job-jeopardizingly crippling OCD. And these are serious and legitimate health issues that deserve attention (even the eardrum -- "nothing smaller than an elbow!"). But none of the major characters really have known non-psychological chronic health issues. I think that makes sense, because of its small sample size, and the fact that the four leading characters are really young. Outside of my CCFA support group, I hardly knew any people my age with major, non-OCD medical issues till I was in my 30s – or, probably more accurately, I didn’t know I knew any.
But in real life, “Girls” creator Lena Dunham has endometriosis and adenomyosis (as do I), but stated in her book, “Not That Kind of Girl,” that “early on, I made a promise to myself never to use menstruation as a comic crutch or a narrative device in my work. Never to commiserate in a group about which pills actually take care of cramps. Never to say anything but ‘I have a stomachache.’ And I do.”
I understand Dunham’s stance on this without her spelling it out, and I struggle to explain it beyond giving examples like she did. I groan at just the thought of “Menopause: The Musical” and all the tired clichés it must invoke, jokes involving hot flashes or vanished libido. I squirm when a woman tries to force emotional intimacy by sassing over how we gals have it so tough, and the men should be required to serve us strawberry daiquiris and fan us with banana leaves while we watch Lifetime movies with our feet propped up (even though cocktails and TV melodramas sounds amazing). And I also recognize that, although it’s unfair how our moods crash and our bodies gush and our pain levels spike once a month, promoting special treatment for these differences is the kind of thing that fuels comments about how it’s irresponsible to elect a woman president because what if that special red phone starts flashing and she has to decide whether to drop nukes while she’s on the rag?
But is this a comedic rule of illness in general, or just of “female” illness? I think it’s a rule of embarrassing illnesses in general. Lady-troubles humor and butt-chaos jokes have in common that some people think any mention of them is outrageously funny because it’s taboo or gross or naughty. While I happen to feel that these topics – most topics – can be funny, being icky or NSFW is not sufficient in and of itself for humor to take place. Diarrhea noises and exclamations of “it must’ve been the Mexican food!” aren’t funny, they're just lazy and well-worn and boring.
So, what if Shoshanna had Crohn’s? Dunham goes on in her book to explain her gynecologic issues in a way that is funny because it’s matter-of-fact, detailed, candid and relatable. Crohn’s can be “funny,” too, in this gallows-humor kind of way. Like how actual medical professionals have asked so many of us whether Crohn’s is contagious. Or how one friendly young nurse confided in me that her heart wasn’t really in her current occupation and she really shouldn’t have dropped out of her grad program in English – right before she administered me anesthesia. Or a private-school-educated doctor who teased me (after having just met me, blood still crusted on my abdomen after a major surgery, and withdrawing from sweet, sweet IV morphine) for going to a “party school” for college (while not inaccurate, I prefer the term “happiness school”).
How many people have told us in an offhand way that “oh, I knew someone with Crohn’s,” but followed with an awkward “she, uh, ended up dying”? Not as many as have tried to force-feed me info on IBD “cures” including ionized water, organ meat, special toothpaste and grapes. How many people have called me scared that they have Crohn’s (aka “scared that they might have to live my life”), then call me breathlessly relieved the next week that thank God they just had food poisoning, ok bye!
In my twenties, having Crohn’s meant pretending not to. The night before my first small-bowel follow-through (which starts with drinking a liter of strawberry-scented pulverized rock that seems just like radioactive chilled Elmer’s Glue, while your throat rightly tries to vurp up every gulp), my roommate somewhat inconveniently threw a rowdy rugby-team party at our apartment. And all I did to adapt for the test was make sure I finished my last tequila shot before midnight. If I was ever awake at 11 am in college, it was either to go back home to nap after an 8 am class, or to down a few beers before kickoff (go Dawgs). And the 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins was a near-daily appointment, unless I responsibly planned ahead and bought extra croissants and Munchkins for the next morning. Hence the college happiness.
But in your thirties, things fall apart, and someone like me who has been falling apart since my twenties finally has some company and camaraderie. It’s like Nick the recovering heroin addict in AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead” – Nick has felt adrift and disenchanted with the structured adult world for years now, and already had to scrap his way through each day to survive. So now the big change for him is not that there’s zombies (walkers/roamers/biters/floaters), but that the rest of the world is now lost and struggling along with him. In fact, he’s got the advantage of a head start.
So since I got a jump on this illness thing, I’ll be a voice of a generation of sick ladies, and start my own HBO show, called “Ladies,” or “Thirties,” or “More Like Hurties” or “Hurty Thirties.” Or “All the Sick-le Ladies” (that could actually work for a reality show on just women with sickle cell anemia -- called it, that’s mine; dibs on T-Boz, too).
Until then, HBO’s “The Sopranos” character Adriana La Cerva will have to be TV’s reigning face of IBD. Adriana’s gastroenterologist told her she’d soon look like Jerry Lewis from all the steroids, and her fiancée Christopher Moltisanti’s best joke he could muster was “my smelly Valentine.” Which is pathetically unfunny, and so then kind of makes its way back around to being funny again, just like the things we’re used to dealing with.