Finding Solace in ‘Girls’: My Love Letter to Lena Dunham’s Controversial Magnum Opus

HBO

It’s hard to imagine a time in contemporary pop culture when narratives of young twenty-somethings in the big city didn’t reign supreme. From essential 90s sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld to the at-the-time daring sexual promiscuity of Sex and the City, the lives of young adults trying to navigate life, love and relationships has always been of interest to prime time viewers. But the discrepancy between TV depictions of young adult life and its real-life counterpart has become too great to be plausible over the years. So much so that it has become a parody of itself; requiring a significant suspension of disbelief to seem even remotely realistic. Take for example Rachel Greene being able to afford the rent for Monica’s spacious West Village apartment in Friends, despite making minimum wage as a waitress. Or, the significant lack of diversity in any of the aforementioned shows despite all of them being set in New York City.

Enter HBO’s Girls which premiered in April of 2012, four years after the Great Recession of 2008 that permanently altered the landscape of the American economy for the years to come, especially for young people. Girls follows four girlfriends in their late twenties as they struggle to pay off rent, deal with emotionally unavailable men and ultimately try to find their feet as well-adjusted young adults in New York. This seemingly run-off-the-mill premise is offset by the self-obsessed, entitled and downright unlikable nature of the four main characters. Unlike the lore surrounding Sex and the City, wherein the fans of the show try to pinpoint which one of the four female archetypes they resemble the most, Girls is emblematic of a long overdue shift in the depictions of women on TV. Before Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sex-obsessed, dry-witted Fleabag there was Dunham’s selfish and neurotic Hannah Horvath, who is self-entitled enough to declare haughtily in the pilot episode: “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation”. In retrospect she wasn’t too off the mark.

Lena Dunham, who’s had her share of controversies both during and after her work on Girls, is the daughter of New York based painter Carroll Dunham and feminist artist/photographer Laurie Simmons. Having grown up surrounded by the contemporary art scene of New York City, she majored in creative writing at Oberlin College and started making short films. Her early work is deeply rooted in mumblecore, a subgenre of American independent film emphasising dialogue over plot and focusing exclusively on the interpersonal lives of young adults. Following these initial attempts at self-produced short films, Dunham had a breakthrough into the mainstream with her debut feature Tiny Furniture, which won several awards, including the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, and eventually gained her a blind script deal with HBO. She developed “Girls with writing partner Jenni Konner and comedian/writer/producer Judd Apatow, modeling the four main “girls” after her own experiences living as a twenty-something millennial in New York in the early 2010s. By the very nature of it’s premise Girls is bound to draw comparisons to other female-driven shows like Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, but wherein those shows set unrealistic standards for the day-to-day struggles of the average New Yorker and glamorised being young in the city, Girls takes a raw and unflinching look at the emotional reality of having to take responsibility for your own life post-grad.

As such one of the hallmarks of the show is the chronic unlike-ability of its protagonists: Hannah (Dunham) is a neurotic narcissist trying to make it as a writer, her best friend/ roommate Marnie (Allison Williams), the “mom-friend” of the group, is a judgemental and domineering control-freak,  Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is a Brooklyn-boho  alcoholic with commitment issues and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is a cartoonishly immature twenty something virgin in desperate need of a reality check. Needless to say the main foursome is a far cry from the pastel-pink-city-chic life of Carrie Bradshaw and friends: you would be hard pressed to find a Girls viewer romanticise Hannah or Jessa with aesthetically pleasing Pinterest boards and moody playlists a la the audience of Sex and the City. Likewise, the men in Girls, who more often than not function as potential love interests, are given leeway to be as multi-dimensional as the women. The writing doesn’t dichotomize the men into subcategories of idealistic boyfriend and abusive jerk. This is most prevalent in Adam’s character-arc, Hannah’s on-again-off-again boyfriend portrayed by Adam Driver, as he goes from emotionally-unavailable-man-child to broody-adult-with-anger-issues. This kind of sensibility for morally ambiguous male characters on TV isn’t unheard of — Walter White and Tony Soprano come to mind — however, the same cannot be said for their female counterparts. Hence why Girls struck such a strong chord with critics and viewers alike when it premiered: it didn’t provide an enviable backdrop to people you wanted to emulate; on the contrary if you saw yourself reflected in one of the “girls” your first instinct was to promptly look away or justify your behaviour. In short, none of the characters were the kind of person you aspired to be but rather the kind of person you feared you were. 

Apatow Productions

Despite the initial praise and numerous accolades it received, Girls faced heavy backlash for its lack of racial diversity and white-women-centric narrative. As  mentioned before, one of the most prominent issues of young adult TV shows set in New York remained unaddressed: why weren’t there any recurring POC characters in a show set in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world? In response, Dunham had musician/actor Donald Glover AKA Childish Gambino guest star as one of Hannah’s love interests in the beginning of the second season. Glover played Sandy, a Black Republican Hannah has a brief fling with until they ultimately decide to go their separate ways because of political differences. But beyond Glover’s hasty casting the issue remained unresolved throughout the series. In Dunham’s defense, since Girls is based on her personal experiences living in New York as a twenty-something white millennial with a fairly privileged upbringing, the fact that its subject matter revolves solely on self-entitled white people isn’t too astounding. In fact, it’s specificity to a certain type of young adult experience is, in my opinion, what makes it stand out from the crowd. Dunham has also said that she wanted to avoid tokenism in casting and felt uncomfortable writing characters to whose experiences she felt unqualified to speak to. As Dunham’s work is deeply personal, it makes sense for her to hesitate before projecting her own experiences on people from different racial and socio-cultural backgrounds. If anything, it showcases how self-aware she is to the profound specificity of her work. Since the cultural landscape has moved away from white narratives in favor of more inclusivity for historically marginalized stories, it is somewhat unfathomable to think of making a show like Girls today. It would need to fill a certain quota of inclusivity to gain traction and a more diverse set of writers would have to be brought in to make that feasible. Nevertheless, I would argue that Girls, as it is, was and remains unique in its depiction of flawed, unlikeable female characters and turbulent dynamics of female friendship. 

Admittedly, I am partial to Girls as it’s the one show I keep coming back to whenever I feel in need of guidance for how to survive my twenties. I like the quippy dialogue, interspersed with literary references and sardonic humor. I like how with every watch I feel differently about each character’s emotional arc. I like how raw and uncomfortable the sex scenes feel, but not in a way that alienates the viewer. I like seeing my hypochondriac tendencies reflected in Hannah’s neuroticism. I feel reassured by Shoshanna’s lack of sexual experience at twenty four. I cringe and gasp at Marnie’s lack of self-awareness when she forces her friends to sing karaoke with her on stage to show off her voice, because I recognise myself in her. I root for Jessa to get better and feel for her when she risks losing her best friend over Adam. With each re-watch I get the sense that I’ve changed somehow, depending who I identify with or who I despise the most. I first watched Girls in high school, by that time the show was well into its 6th and last season. And I was taken back by how intimate the episodes felt and how much ground they covered when it came to being a woman in the big city, albeit in a roundabout way. From modern art and contemporary literature to anal sex and abortions, Girls delved into both intellectual and physical facets of grown-womanhood: I was hooked. For whatever reason I couldn’t stop watching these self-obsessed, borderline narcissistic young women whine about emotionally inept partners, the cost of three bedroom apartments and unemployment to each other. Its depiction of female friendship felt genuine in a way that I had never seen on TV before. Marnie and Hannah are the closest out of the four, but even their relationship is far from perfect. They fight passive aggressively about who’s the more selfish friend and constantly complain about each other to their boyfriends. But it’s this very dynamic that makes their relationship so realistic. At one point in the fifth season, Jessa and Adam are having a huge fight and Adam lashes out at her about how Hannah hates her because she used to complain about Jessa to him when they were together, to which Jessa retorts “welcome to having a friend” and that moment sums up the inherent dynamics of female friendships in Girls in a nutshell. Female relationships are far from what they seem on the surface; they’re just as multi-faceted and subject to change as women themselves. They cannot be solely reduced to their positive or negative attributes: it’s not so black & white but rather somewhere in between.

As a show renowned for being about and for young women, Girls was initially put on a pedestal for deviating from conventional TV norms and subsequently criticised for the shortcomings of its feminism (eg. lacking in class and race consciousness). To that end, I would argue that expecting a show based on personal experiences of an affluent young white woman, to be representative of all women is misguided. That is not to say that Girls is devoid of criticism, but rather to make a case for its right to exist as a unique specimen of its genre. As a last note I would like to point out that for all its flaws there is a universal appeal in the keen specificity of Girls; it’s an ode to the second coming of age of a whole generation of women, hence why it’s so easy to find pieces of yourself in it. Because growing into the adult you’re eventually supposed to become is painful without friends to help you along, no matter how insufferable they might be. 

by Elif T. Erisik

Elif (she/her) is in the process of completing her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology at the Technical University of Berlina and is doing an internship at Alphapanda, a digital film marketing company. Originally from Istanbul, she misses her two cats dearly when she is away at college. She dreams of moving to New York one day and pursuing writing as a career. She has a soft spot for movie musicals and her favorite films include La La Land, Synecdoche, New York and Frances Ha. Find her on Twitter (_elif308) and Instagram (elif308)

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