'girls': right on or problematic?

As Lena Dunham’s Brooklyn-based comedy enters its final season, we examine the good and the bad of the HBO series.

by Nick Levine
13 February 2017, 6:55pm

As Girls begins its sixth and final season, it feels like the right time to consider its legacy. Unlike Sex and the City — another female-led HBO show with which it's often compared, sometimes short-sightedly — Girls has never quite crossed over into the mainstream. We all know people who've never watched an episode of Lena Dunham's Brooklyn-based comedy, and probably don't feel as though they're missing out. And it's highly unlikely that Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, and Shoshanna will pop up again in some dodgy spin-off movies (don't worry, Liza, there's no need to learn another Beyoncé song). Because of this, Girls's legacy probably boils down to what we — the people who've stuck with the show through highs, lows and Chris O'Dowd's American accent — think of it now.

Girls's appeal can be traced back to a single pivotal moment in its first episode. After a difficult dinner in which Lena Dunham's Hannah fails to persuade her parents to carry on funding her unrealistic NYC lifestyle, she passes out in their hotel room. The next morning, she wakes up after they've gone to find two $20 bills on the nightstand: one meant for her, one for the housekeeper. She takes both. Now, as reprehensible as Hannah's behavior here is, it's also horribly relatable. I know — or at least I think I know — I wouldn't have taken that money. But at the same time, I'm pretty sure the thought would have crossed my mind, and maybe for more than a second. Dunham has captured millennial privilege in one simple "should I, or shouldn't I?" dilemma.

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This scene is also important because it highlights one of Girls's most exciting qualities: this show doesn't really care if its characters aren't likeable. Girls has been widely (and rightly) praised for showing different types of female bodies, the ones traditionally ignored on film and TV, and showing them as sexual, desirable, worthy of attention. But I think Girls also deserves credit for showing that female leads don't have to be "nice." Though none of the main characters is a soap opera "bitch" like Joan Collins on Dynasty, all of them can be selfish, sly, and superficial. "Guys, we're so disconnected," says Allison Williams's Marnie in season three when she's planning a beach house getaway. "I thought this would just be a nice opportunity for us to have fun together and prove to everyone via Instagram that we could still have fun as a group." Even the most well-meaning character, Zosia Mamet's Shoshanna, sometimes feel like an old friend you're not that keen on anymore. "My medium baggage," she says in one episode. "Is that I don't truly love my grandmother." What other show would go there?

Freeing female characters from the shackles of reductive niceness is just one way Girls has flexed its feminism. Over the last five years, Dunham and her co-writers have tackled issues like abortion, everyday sexism, and the pressure on women to marry in ways that have felt fresh and non-judgmental. A season four episode in which Gillian Jacobs's character Mimi-Rose reveals she has terminated a pregnancy is brave for a US TV series — even one that airs on envelope-pushing HBO. "I can't go for a run because I had an abortion yesterday," she tells Adam Driver's character coolly. When he flips out and asks about the baby's gender, she remains unfazed: "It was a ball of cells. It was smaller than a seed pearl. It didn't have a penis or a vagina."

But of course, it's impossible to praise Girls's feminism without calling out the narrowness of Girls' feminism. Right from the start, Dunham's show has been criticized for focusing almost exclusively on the lives of four white, privileged, middle-class women. For a series about young people living in New York City, its lack of racial diversity was at best disappointing, and at worst irresponsible. Girls seemingly tried to right this wrong by casting Donald Glover as Hannah's season two love interest, but their two-episode storyline — during which Hannah accused Glover's character Sandy of "fetishizing" her as a white-woman — ultimately felt reactive and a little rushed. Since then, Dunham has apologized repeatedly for the show's overwhelming whiteness. "I had been thinking so much about sort of representing weirdo girls and chubby girls and strange half-Jews that I had forgotten that there was an entire world of women who were being underserved," she admitted in a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

Despite Dunham's humility on the issue, Girls has never really overcome its racial blind spot. Just last week, supermodel and businesswoman Iman made this point when she filled in for Dunham, who had fallen ill, at the amfAR New York Fashion Week Gala. "I'm not actually Lena Dunham. I know it's hard to tell us apart," she told the crowd jokingly. "I have been on Girls, except that you guys have not seen me, because I was playing a white girl."

Still, it shouldn't be forgotten that Girls's final season has tremendous potential to shape its legacy. Before it undid some of its good work with those ropey spin-off films, Sex and the City revealed hidden depths in its final season as Samantha battled breast cancer and Miranda selflessly cared for her partner's senile mother. But whatever happens to Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, and Shoshanna over the next 10 episodes — good or bad — Girls will surely feel like a significant show for our generation. And actually, this is partly because it's managed to be right-on and problematic at the same time. We're all beginning to appreciate the differing levels of privilege we may or may not have, and acknowledge that however woke we think we are, we could probably be woke-r. And at times, Lena Dunham's Girls has held up a mirror to all of us, whether it always intended to do so or not.

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Text Nick Levine

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