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‘Girls’: Examining Lena Dunham’s Great, Misunderstood Project

A retrospective look at the controversial show.

Still from HBO's "Girls"
Lena Dunham's show has arguably received unfair hate. Credit: HBO

Lena Dunham‘s semi-autobiographical show about four young women navigating their twenties in New York City debuted on HBO on April 15, 2012. What followed was five years of relentless public disdain for the show and for Dunham herself. With a Girls resurgence upon us, it’s worth questioning whether or not such hatred was ever earned. Additionally, it’s worth wondering what such hatred says about real viewers and their likeness to Dunham’s characters which they don’t wish to see.

I was going to start this article by saying that I’ve just rewatched Girls, but that would be a lie. I’m never not watching Girls. It’s stayed in my television rotation (and in my heart) since I was 16 years old and really had no business watching that show at all. There’s little that’s calming or comfortable about viewing this series, but that in and of itself has become a great support to me as I move through my own disheveled twenties. Before exploring the criticism this show received because of the discomfort it caused, let me briefly introduce the main characters.

Characters

Lena Dunham sold Girls to HBO when she was only 23 years old. Her main characters are all of a similar age and have all the struggles that come along with it. There’s Hannah, a maladjusted, aspiring writer played by Dunham herself. Then there’s Marnie (Allison Williams), Hannah’s best friend who is uptight yet continually lost. Next is Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Hannah and Marnie’s sensitive college friend who feigns being a free spirit. Lastly is Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), Jessa’s optimistic cousin who has her hopes and dreams beaten down by life time and time again.

Still from HBO's "Girls"
Girls, Season 1, Episode 4. Credit: HBO

Critiques

There were two camps of people watching Girls: television critics and the general public. Many critics actually regarded Dunham’s show positively, but the same could not be said of at-home viewers. People hated this show and they hated Dunham in turn.

One particularly loud critique of the series was that the characters were awful people and even worse friends, and that’s true. I agreed when I was 16, I agreed when I was 20, and I agree at 24. The difference now, however, is that I find myself identifying with these unlikable people all the more. Their selfishness and neuroses and anger are no longer so distant from my own. I have to wonder, now being their age, is that not the whole point? It seems obvious that this was always Dunham’s intention, to nod at and make sense of the ugliness of our twenties.

Still from HBO's "Girls"
Girls, Season 1, Episode 7. Credit: HBO

But such intention was unfortunately either ignored or entirely misinterpreted by audiences while the show was airing. Some viewers didn’t understand Dunham’s message because she delivered it satirically (and God forbid women be clever, I guess). Others understood the message but still disliked the series because of it. Needless to say, Girls was not typically revered by the public.

Now I’d like to be clear that there are many valid critiques you can give to the show and to Dunham alike, particularly where discussions of race and class are concerned. However, hating it because the characters are what they were meant to be (AKA, us) comes across as ignorant. This show is not a glamorous New York fantasy. It wasn’t supposed to be. For viewers to act like Dunham wasn’t in on the very joke she crafted is quite frankly insane.

Still from HBO's "Girls"
Girls, Season 3, Episode 7. Credit: HBO

Writing

Love her or hate her, Lena Dunham can write. When you look at Girls in the absence of online hate, it is so good. It particularly shines in those precious moments when Dunham’s sardonic voice quiets down, and that little piano motif plays (if you know, you know), and things suddenly get very raw and very serious.

Its greatness is in instances such as Hannah and Adam crying into bowls of soup at a diner, silently agreeing that their relationship is over. It’s in Marnie discovering that her first love has become a heroin addict and in Jessa breaking down over her dynamic with her father. It’s in Shoshanna admitting that she’s wasted years on friends who never cared about her.

Still from HBO's "Girls"
Girls, Season 5, Episode 4. Credit: HBO

And in truth, Dunham’s writing dictates that these girls don’t stay insufferable forever. Two examples of this are seen in the final two episodes of the series. In a poignant penultimate episode, her characters show significant self-awareness, acknowledging how they’ve hurt each other and themselves. And after peacefully conceding that they probably shouldn’t be friends anymore, the girls set aside their bad blood to dance around Shoshanna’s apartment, enjoying Brooklyn together for the last time.

The finale shows Hannah as an upstate mother who struggles to bond with her infant son. After frustratedly fleeing her home, she runs into a teen pulling a very similar Hannah-like move by dramatically running away. Instead of commiserating with the girl, Hannah berates her like a mother. It’s in this very moment that Hannah finally grows from girl to woman. Once her reprimanding is done, she returns home and her baby finally latches onto her. And it’s spectacular. It’s really spectacular.

Conclusion

I get it. For many, Lena Dunham is not a palatable person. In the case of this show, however, I think the inability to separate the art from the artist since 2012 has been a real shame. Girls is funny and it’s sad and it’s beautiful, and it’s truthful beyond what people would ever care to admit. There’s a lot to get out of this series, especially once you understand just how intentional Dunham’s choices with it were.

Still from HBO's "Girls"
Girls, Season 1, Episode 5. Credit: HBO

Did this show ever deserve the hostility it got? No. It deserved honest conversations about Dunham’s portrayal of New York City and those within it. It also deserved acknowledgment for its (albeit uneasy) openness. It’s been said that Girls can only be enjoyed by one kind of person. I don’t think that’s true. I think there were universal nerves struck by Dunham in this show, and for that Girls also deserved to get its flowers. Perhaps now, in its online renaissance, it finally will.

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