Why Adam From HBO’s Girls Is A Borderline Abusive Love Interest

Photo: HBO

Photo: HBO

I watched Lena Dunham’s brainchild Girls from the very first episode, and, honestly, I love it. I am aware that many people consider Girls to be a problematic show. Since it began in 2012, Girls has faced plenty of criticism, whether it be over Lena Dunham’s openness with exposing her naked self as her character, Hannah (ridiculous and offensive, considering it seems to stem from our society’s discomfort with a less-than-Hollywood-standard body type) or the lack of diversity within the cast (a far more valid criticism). However, one thing that I find alarmingly under-discussed in the grand discussion of Girls is not the “girls” at all, but the boys. Or one “boy”: Adam, Hannah’s on-again-off-again boyfriend.

For those who do not watch, Adam (Adam Driver) is a recovering alcoholic with a variety of other, unspecified issues. When we first met Adam, he was the aloof booty-call that Hannah desperately, albeit secretly, wanted as a boyfriend. Later in the season, the two connect at a party and begin dating. There are red flags about Adam’s behavior during Season 1 — his random bursts of anger, his erratic decision making, his lack of empathy, and his boundary-pushing sexual conduct all come into play — but it’s nothing compared to the person we see in the second season.

After Hannah and Adam breakup in the Season 1 finale, Adam goes into full-on stalker mode. It’s mostly played for laughs, but I can only imagine the fear that I would feel if an ex of mine showed up outside of my not-very-secure Brooklyn apartment building. Hannah may not behave as though she is afraid for her life (even as she flippantly throws around the word “murdery”) but there is absolutely nothing appropriate about Adam’s behavior. If Hannah was my friend, the first thing I would do would be to call the cops on Adam and get a solid restraining order in place.

But it’s the things that we see as viewers — the things that Hannah doesn’t — that bother me the most about Adam. In the Season 3 premiere, Adam is confronted by an ex-girlfriend (played by Shiri Appleby) who is angry that he blew her off for seemingly no reason. His ex is noticeably distraught and uncomfortable around Adam. She begins rattling off the sexual acts that Adam wanted her to participate in. In Season 2, we see Adam and this girlfriend returning home from a party to have sex, only to have Adam “dominate” his girlfriend and order her to perform sexually. The girlfriend attempts to “go with it,” but her discomfort is clear. Her protests to regain some of the control are met with more domination from Adam. When it’s over, it’s clear that something has been violated — at the very least, trust, or mutual control within the relationship. In this scene, the line of consent — what we, as viewers, were supposed to believe was consensual — was extremely murky.

After that episode, I couldn’t reconcile Adam as the weird, slightly off-putting romantic hero anymore. I saw him as a dangerous person, or, at the very least, a person so, so messed up that they were unaware of the implications of their actions on others. Yet the writers insisted on writing Adam as the show’s main romantic “hero,” so to speak.  When Season 3 started up again this past weekend, I was floored by how we saw Adam take care of Hannah’s well-being while simultaneously behaving in ways that I can only identify as abusive and controlling.  Adam lovingly hands Hannah her OCD medication, then berates her for wanting to spend time with her “boring” friends. He treats sex like something he is owed as a boyfriend — even encouraging Hannah to kick her friend out of their shared hotel room for some pre-sleep sex. None of these behaviors are challenged by Hannah — instead, the two episodes that aired on Sunday featured Hannah applauding Adam for being a “great boyfriend.”

I know that many people contribute Adam’s strange behavior to the fact that Adam is, well, a strange guy. I have no problem with Adam’s strangeness — but I do have a problem with his aggressive, controlling behavior that seems to be glossed over by the show because Adam doesn’t fit the typical abuser profile. Adam doesn’t have to be a cookie-cutter abusive boyfriend in order for him to be a terribly unhealthy individual to enter into a relationship with. (Though, again, the lines of abuse are hard to define, I, personally see many of Adam’s actions as borderline abusive — particularly his controversial sex act with his ex-girlfriend.)

I think it’s pretty problematic to have a show portray a guy like Adam as the protagonist of the show like Girls romantic hero. We see a ton of borderline abusive relationships on television, but often these relationships aren’t glamorized or idealized in the way that Hannah and Adam’s is. (Yes, I am aware there are exceptions to this rule.) Girls tends to skew towards realism, and whether or not you relate to Hannah and her friends isn’t really as important as whether the show wants you to — and the show definitely wants you to if you’re a struggling 20-something.

The message that Girls is sending with the Adam-Hannah relationship is, essentially, you take what you can get. If a guy cares about you and is willing to take care of you, better ignore all of the other alarming behaviors that he displays. If he treats you well, you shouldn’t care about how he treats others — even the other women who once filled your role.

I love Girls — I think it’s funny and refreshingly different, and, yes, sometimes I even find it relatable — but I don’t need to see another woman go through this type of relationship.

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    • http://seafortsseaforts.blogspot.com/ Inness

      I agree with you that Adam is a terrible person and partner! But I would counter that the show DOES want you to see Adam as creepy and dangerous. Because we mostly see “Girls” through Hannah’s lens and we know that she is a messed up and unreliable narrator, we are meant to immediately question her statement that Adam is a “great boyfriend.”

      I am a 20-something and I am drawn to “Girls” because it represents the worst bits of my 20-something experience. Train wrecks are fascinating, especially train wrecks that speak to your life. Even as I empathize with the characters in “Girls” and see myself in each of them to some degree, I am repulsed. I don’t know if it’s the intention of “Girls” and Lena Dunham to wean me off my bad behaviors/bad decisions with aversion therapy, but maybe it is. It’s definitely meant to be a dark and pointed commentary on the way we 20-somethings live our lives.

      I don’t think that we are actually supposed to like or trust any of the characters on “Girls,” even if we feel some tenderness toward them. Like you said, the show strives for realism. Real life is not always cute or safe and it doesn’t always make good choices. I think “Girls” tries, in some sense, to clue us in to that.

      • Kaitlin Reilly

        Really interesting! I agree with you that we aren’t supposed to like or trust the characters. I think that Adam would have been fine as a character (I think Adam Driver is an amazing actor) had Adam not “rescued Hannah” at the end of Season 2.
        I also find that a lot of people (mostly women) REALLY like Adam and are totally missing the point — they see him as quirky, rather than dangerous.

      • http://seafortsseaforts.blogspot.com/ Inness

        Yeah, the rescue. They would have that redeem him completely, wouldn’t they?

        So true! Even I find him charming sometimes, in spite of myself and even though he reminds me strongly of a pretty terrible ex. I think it’s okay to have complicated feelings about complicated characters, even if they mostly behave terribly, especially if you check in with yourself from time to time to remind yourself that HE ESSENTIALLY JUST RAPED HIS (NOW EX-)GIRLFRIEND.

        In a world where pouty and manipulative men who are “persistent” (ie ignore “no”) are lauded and romanticized, your article definitely makes important and eye-opening points. I hope those women read it!

      • Kaitlin Reilly

        Thank you!

    • Lindsey Conklin

      I’ve never watched “Girls” –so I’m waiting to read this until I get caught up haha

    • Hayley Hoover

      Spot on. Adam constantly reminds me of my abusive ex-boyfriend. I have a hard time watching him on screen at all.

      • Samantha Escobar

        Aside from the issue of the fact that I think most the characters are boring and unrealistic and shallow women-children, this has also been an issue for me. I can’t watch Adam flirting, kissing and laughing without feeling sick and being reminded of my awful, shitty, abusive ex. It’s one of the larger reasons I stopped watching the show.

      • kag86esq

        Yep. Same here, and some of his scenes have been real triggers for me. I hope the show addresses it in some way — that his being nice sometimes and Hannah’s thinking he’s the best she can get/deserves don’t negate the fact that so many things he says and does are quite commonly recognized as not only abusive in and of themselves, but also warning signs of bigger troubles down the road.
        To Hayley and all others who’ve shared their personal history/experience here, I say thank you, you are not alone, and keep on keepin’ on!

      • Foxy Brown

        Do you guys remember that early episode, I believe s1/ep2, that opens with Hannah and Adam having sex, and he abruptly begins this incredibly problematic role play situation in which he images Hannah is an “11 year-old runaway he cums all over before sending back to her parents?” Maybe I misheard the 11 year-old part, but all it appears that every part of Adam’s sexuality is problematic. How’d that relationship conclude with the girl he may or may not have raped?

        Anyway, I wholly agree with everything said. Maybe his questionable traits are meant to be viewed through the same lens as the blind, white-girl privilege of the show’s female leads? With understanding of their imperfections as endearing? And does that make it okay? idk.

    • itsgabba

      Why are you presuming he’s a “romantic hero”? He’s the guy Hannah’s seeing. Assuming that every fictional narrative requires a “romantic hero” falls into seriously problematic fairy tale thinking. Maybe you should readjust and see him as he is clearly portrayed — an imperfect, somewhat broken person in a cast of imperfect, somewhat broken people. His relationship with Hannah clearly isn’t perfect, and that’s sorta the point of the show. Life isn’t perfect and, when we’re trying to do things right as Hannah does, we often make mistakes as Hannah seems to be making.

      Trying to imprint your dreams of Prince Charming on Girls is stunningly regressive.

      • Kaitlin Reilly

        I think it’s fair to call him the romantic hero. Just look at Season 2′s finale — it’s VERY reminiscent of the ending of a romcom. Romantic heroes are hardly excluded to just fairy tales — we have so many modern day romance myths permeating our culture.

      • Julia Sonenshein

        “Stunningly regressive?” Lena, is that you?

    • Annabelle24

      I completely agree with Hayley Hoover. Adam reminds me of my abusive ex-boyfriend. I was very upset by the sex scene with his ex girlfriend, to me that reminds me of some of the first times I ever had sex, at a very young age (15). I got trapped in a relationship of similar sorts, and I have a lot of issues with his character being written as a hero, especially in the end of season 2. I think he is abusive and way too aggressive. Part of me wants not to watch the show just due to his character. Even when I see him on billboards, I cringe, because I can only think of that scene.

      • Kaitlin Reilly

        I’m so sorry you both had to go through that. That scene was upsetting to watch in general, I can only imagine how much more so if you had a very similar experience.
        I don’t have a problem with his character existing on the show — had he been an actual person, obviously I would have an issue — but the fact that he has been slotted into this hero role while still displaying such disturbing behavior (most of it towards women) is upsetting and totally cringeworthy.

    • Julia Sonenshein

      Really excellent points, Kaitlin. The show really does make him out to be a hero and elevate his abusive behavior by calling it quirky.

    • BDC0213

      I’ve only finished the first season (marathon viewed over just a few days last week), but his character has stayed on my mind. He downright disgusted me for the first few episodes, but the storyline shifted to redeem and humanize him once they started dating. Rather than uncomfortable sex scenes in which he displays no regard for Hanna, they’re now sharing ice cream, watching childhood videos and he is even “moved” emotionally at the wedding ceremony. Rather than seeing him be a perv in bed, they are depicted as playfully sexual. He still has anger issues though, but they’re forgivable.

      We all know people are complicated and have lots of contradictions, so yes, Adam can be all these things.

      I’m going to stick with my assumption that the point here is to show (over the course of the series) the girls coming to a place where they know they deserve better. Maybe we’ll get to follow Adam on a course of self-improvement, too, but I kinda doubt it. If it’s the case that some (young female) viewers like Adam and take him as an example of a good partner, I’m sure the show’s creators would say their intentions backfired.

      Time will tell.