The HBO show and its showrunner do not match the ones in your head.
It’s so funny-slash-tragic that the overwhelming majority of people who hate Girls most adamantly are actually hating on a completely different show. One that must air in their minds whenever they get really angry at Lena Dunham or at Starbucks, but not on HBO at ten on Sundays.
The latter is a half-satirized, half-empathy-demanding study on a very particular group of young women, with no intention or desire to represent the whole of either the millennial or female experiences—an impossible venture. Only that of these ultra-specific, oftentimes obnoxious four characters. Yet after six seasons of endless debate, many still don’t seem to get this.
In preparation for the finale, I recently spent an afternoon scouring YouTube for old clips from the series, and in that dream-like coma made the always perilous and ill-advised decision to scroll down and scan the comments—if anyone cares to know, the post in question was a hilarious car-ride scene involving a Maroon 5 sing-along and Shoshanna’s thoughts on female presidential candidates. After some obligatory praise for Adam Driver’s character—the only dude involved—one observation with exactly forty defiant, icy blue upvotes read: Does Lena Dunham even listen to what comes out of her mouth?!
Now, when I stumble upon things like these, me being the big boy that I am, my soul sinks a little—and unbidden red fury rises in its stead. Well, very confused person, A) Yes, she does, because this was actually put on paper many months in advance, perhaps even by herself, unless it was an improvised bit, and at any rate B) It’s really coming out of Hannah’s mouth, her character, the part she’s playing, and not hers. This is a scripted television series, not The Hills. Does not one of these people know the difference?
In a wonderful piece by Jia Tolentino for The New Yorker two weeks ago, she attributes this tendency to conflate the two to the show’s ability to craft such raw, fully-fledged characters and stories. She argues that the writing and directing are so excellent, audiences can’t tell the difference between these scenes and real life. That’s high praise for a series with the naturalistic instincts and sensibilities of this one—for any scripted show, one would say, save for maybe Game of Thrones—, and a much more optimistic theory than the next most plausible one: sexism, and generational side-eye. These guys simply could not believe that a twenty-four-year-old woman could create a thoughtful, poignant fictional world, instead of the real-life version of UnReal’s very fake The Bachelor. Could she be capable of some actual, what’s the word? Self-awareness? Could she and her co-stars portray such narcissistic characters without they themselves being just as shallow? No, impossible. She doesn’t even look like a model! She must be a mess.
Yes, it was mighty surprising to these folks when HBO—Deadwood-, The Sopranos-, Game of Thrones-, all-these-shows-these-macho-men-revere-HBO—succumbed to Dunham’s tricks, letting themselves be fooled by this chick’s—what, wanton sex-appeal? No, we’ve already discarded that. Um, art-world connections? Yes, HBO was tripping over itself to greenlight her pilot after that one.
It’s so exhausting when everybody alive in this planet insists on having strong opinions about a TV show of which not even half of them have watched a single minute. Maybe a quarter of those have seen an episode, or two—if we’re being charitable. And then maybe ten percent, or five, actually understood what they were watching.
And then they liked it—or they didn’t. Maybe it tickled their fancy, or they respectfully concluded that this wasn’t for them. But that makes Girls a perfect metaphor for the West’s current political climate—brace yourselves for we are reaching peak Girls think-piece here—: how can we have meaningful conversations about any one issue if we can’t even agree on what’s true and what isn’t? How can we talk about Girls, ultimately a piece of art, a work of fiction on premium cable, if we’re never even looking at the same show?
A good illustrative example of this disconnect lies in the line that will likely go down as the show’s most memorable (and no, sadly it’s not “It was nice to see you. Your dad is gay”.) Near the end of the very first episode, an intoxicated Hannah rushes to her parents’ hotel room to hand them her manuscript, and announces that, while she doesn’t want to freak them out, she thinks that she may be the voice of her generation. “Or at least a voice”, she continues, “of a generation”.
This comically self-aggrandizing statement is meant to be a joke on Hannah—who, it bears repeating, is on drugs in this scene—, on the complete lack of self-awareness that would come to characterize all the major players in the series, and most of the humor. But that didn’t stop smug bloggers and hot-takers from reading it as a mission statement by Dunham herself, all lines between reality and fiction be damned. In related news, Bryan Cranston cooks meth in his backyard.
It is telling that these misunderstandings extend to Ms. Dunham as a creator and public figure. She first faced backlash for building a show that was ostensibly white—lambasted to an extent, it’s worth noting, that probably no other series in the history of television ever has or ever will be—, and supposedly trying (and of course failing) to act as a spokesperson for every woman in her twenties—an extremely lazy and outright inaccurate take, as we’ve established. Never mind her much-repeated explanations that she, like so many of her peers, was only writing about her own experience—by definition limited—; and her willingness to engage with these conversations in a significant way, using them as a chance to learn; never acting dismissive or over-protective of her creative property. A willingness translated into attempts to bring on more non-white actors in guest-starring roles, her constant vouching for creators and storytellers of color (and of different genders, religions and sexualities) to be given the same chances that she got—a sentiment turned into tangible action with her feminist newsletter Lenny Letter, and her production company A Casual Romance, which provide a platform for those who lack one (both projects a result of her collaboration with Girls executive producer Jenni Konner)—and her own admission that, looking back, she “never want[s] to see another poster that’s four white girls”.
And yet, has any of this been successful in appeasing the naysayers? Not a bit. Both Girls- and Lena Dunham-fueled loathing seems to exist in a stagnant pond near a fast-flowing river: unable to grow or morph into anything else, and unable to ever be challenged or debunked by the goings-on of the actual waters. Not unlike those liberal and conservative bubbles we keep hearing so much about.
So, aside from the admittedly misguided remarks she sometimes makes in public (for which she tends to apologize), and a healthy little dose of envy towards her privileged status as a well-to-do white woman (which she seems aware of), the Lena Dunham you so vehemently hate probably does not exist either.
This whole piece is not an attempt to shut down any criticism you might want to level at Girls if you haven’t consumed the sixty plus half-hours of content available—there’s a very important discussion about diversity that you’d still be rightfully invited to, for one (though I would still beg you to listen to what the people behind the scenes have to say on the matter, so that it is in fact a debate and not a monologue). But when we talk about the quality of the show, its value, again, as a work of art (and it is sad that so few of the conversations around it have actually been about this), if you haven’t even seen it—or you have, but refuse to engage with what it’s trying to tell you—, how to put this gently? Just shut up.
You do not need to have opinions about every other thing under the sun (this is a hard concept for a lot of people to grasp, I know. I blame capitalism). And if you do, we certainly don’t need to hear them all. Girls is famously not a show for the faint of heart. Nor is it one for the lazy hot-take pitchers or the confirmation-bias-hungry. I mean, sure, you can still watch it—but it’ll be an entirely different piece.
Having informed opinions to contribute to the conversation takes work. Work no one is forcing you to do—not every piece of culture needs to appeal to you, and not every Summer best seller or successful movie franchise requires your input. So, stop being lazy and make an effort to listen, to understand why a group of people have assembled all these different pieces to put together the product in front of you, what their goal is and whether they achieve it—and where, and how—, and how you might be expected to react to all this; or shut up, quit clogging the Internet, and put on Bones or whatever.