"Girls", The Bystander Effect, and Appearance Versus Reality

One can say many things about the HBO series Girls; after all, its cast, writers, and story lines have all been the subject of heated debate, immense accolades, and typical Monday morning banter. Aside from one of its more obviously bold moments executed within last night’s first five minutes, the latest episode titled “Hello Kitty” provocatively explored the inner workings of human psychology, social parables, and the essential questioning of appearance versus reality. Even if you’re not a fan of the show, this was truly an episode worthy of mass attention.

The main premise consisted around a theatrical interpretation of the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, oft studied by budding students in the field of sociology and psychology. Genovese, a young (and according to Girls, homosexual) woman was brutally assaulted and murdered while on her way back home to her Queens apartment. The crime was apparently witnessed by 38 people, who according to social-psychological lore, did nothing to save her. This incident is commonly referenced when studying the “bystander effect”–a social phenomena in which individuals shy away from offering help and assistance while in the presence of other parties. Witnesses undergo an almost state of shock, in which the social collective consciousness fails to recognize present danger and thus act upon it.

While this theatrical production unfolded (cleverly executed in several apartments of the same building), main character Hannah Horvath comes to her own realization that a former love is now romantically involved with a former friend. What struck me most as this particular plot point unfolded, is the absolute brilliance in “Hello Kitty”‘s capturing of the human condition and its willingness to believe and perceive precisely what it wishes to. In other words, if it’s real in one’s mind, it’s real in according to that person’s reality.

Although Hannah is never presented with concrete evidence that Adam and Jessa are involved, she experiences that intuition infused moment (like many of us do) that something isn’t quite right. No words are exchanged, nor suspicions definitely confirmed, but Hannah just knows. Meanwhile, shifting our gaze back to the play–and the historical fate of Kitty Genovese–we’re confronted with a reality in which there was an actual murder, without a shadow of doubt, and people failed to act because their minds shut down. Perhaps in an act of self-preservation, their brains collectively refused to register the absolute horror they were confronted with; and so in their worlds, the murder wasn’t happening.

It still amazes me that the human mind is capable of such trickery, yet in other instances such in depth perception. Kudos to Girls on this one. You most definitely gave me quite a bit to think about in but a half hour’s worth of storytelling.

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