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What Girls Has to Say About Women

If you’ve been online recently, you might have noticed that Girls is having a bit of a renaissance. Between people calling out how insane it is that Allison Williams never got an Emmy nod for her performance (hard agree) or ranking Adam Driver’s character alongside dreamy TV love interests like Gregory Eddie and Hot Priest (HARD disagree), it’s safe to say that the series, which ran from 2012-2017, has re-entered the cultural conversation in a big way.

It makes sense that even 11 years after its premiere, Girls would feel more relevant than ever. Maybe it’s just by virtue of only hanging out with other people in their mid-twenties, but I don’t know a single person whose life is going the way they expected it to. After a couple years of a pandemic, political upheaval, and the looming threat of an economic crash, nobody wants to watch shiny happy people living aspirational lives anymore. It’s much more fun (and cathartic) to see our protagonists struggle, and literally no one struggles more than the cast of Girls.

For the uninitiated, Girls is like Sex and the City for people who were prescribed SSRIs in middle school. Alternatively, it’s Broad City for people who regularly get into screaming matches with their mom. Either way, it’s about the worst women you’ve ever met trying to live their dream in New York City and failing miserably at every turn, which is where the fun comes in. The show follows four aimless twenty-somethings and features a stacked cast of nepo babies, for those still keeping track of that kind of thing.

There’s neurotic aspiring writer Hannah (Girls creator Lena Dunham), her type-A roommate Marnie (Allison Williams), their wild college friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Jessa’s naive cousin Shoshana (Zosia Mamet) - who is truly the only sane one in the group. Unlike the aforementioned series, the girls of Girls are not best friends forever. Most of the time they barely even tolerate each other, but they keep hanging out because it’s easier than making new friends - and honestly, who else would put up with them? As Shoshana points out in an iconic season three rant, they’re all “mentally ill and miserable.”

Art by Lyvie Scott

It can’t be overstated how deeply unpleasant these characters are. I lost track of how many times I paused the show to text friends who had already watched it that “I would NEVER snoop through your diary/hook up with your boyfriend while you were at a writing retreat/abandon you at a party after you accidentally smoked crack!!!” At a certain point, it started feeling like I was trying to reassure myself that I was above the behavior of the girls, even as I found myself relating to them more and more. Because as unsympathetic as the characters can be, they always remain deeply compelling. Even when they’re at their worst - which happens about once an episode, sometimes more - you never doubt why they are the way that they are.

It’s a tightrope act that, for the most part, Girls manages to pull off masterfully. It never asks you to forgive the characters for the fucked up things they do, but instead provides you with revealing character details that give context to their actions. Glimpses at Jessa’s relationship with her estranged dad, or Hannah’s past experiences with untreated OCD elevate the show to a thoughtful and nuanced character study that blends serious topics with notes of high comedy. Seriously, Marnie’s wedding makeup reveal made me laugh so hard that I missed several lines of important dialogue and had to rewind the episode.

That being said…I have some major problems with the series. I know I’m far from the first person to voice that, though. Girls faced criticism pretty much from the moment it appeared on TV, from legitimate concerns about the show’s narrow point of view to complaints that Lena Dunham was showing too much bush. But the thing that bothers me the most is that Girls doesn’t really seem to like women.

On the Lena Dunham episode of the excellent podcast Celebrity Memoir Book Club, host Ashley Hamilton recounts hearing a group of male co-workers discuss Girls right after its premiere and praising it as “a realistic take on what twenty-something women are doing and thinking.” And honestly, imagining anyone looking at the show with that perspective makes Kill Bill sirens go off in my head immediately.

Art by Lyvie Scott

For as groundbreakingly feminist as the show could be at times - from its unflinching look at postpartum depression to its unapologetically casual portrayal of female nudity - Girls can also be incredibly reductive. Dunham claims that her writing comes from a “delusional girl persona,” which is part of what makes the show’s satire so engaging, but it also muddles the show’s message. We all know that when Hannah throws a temper tantrum over her parents suggesting that she get a paying job in the show’s pilot episode, we’re meant to laugh at how over-the-top and entitled her character is. But what about the postpartum depression storyline? What about Hannah’s mental health episodes, or Jessa’s drug addiction, or the brilliant season six “Me Too” episode, which plays out more like a short horror film than an episode of a comedy? When Lena Dunham writes lines about her own character (and her own body) being overweight and unattractive, are we supposed to laugh because it’s so obviously untrue, or take it at face value?

Girls wants to have it both ways, and in doing so, it makes it very easy for people to take an entirely literal reading of the show and walk away from it thinking that all girls are aimless narcissists who are obsessed with sex. And like, more power to the girls who are, but it feels like a dangerous blanket statement.

I think part of the problem comes from the title. Girls is not about girls as a universal concept. It’s not even really about womanhood. It’s about the lives of four extremely privileged, deeply self-obsessed cis white women. The characters are girls in the sense that they refuse to grow or mature into adult women, but the series is largely uninterested in the different forms that womanhood can take. It doesn’t even bother trying to touch on intersectionality (which might be for the best, considering Lena Dunham’s track record). Girls is the reflection of one auteur’s incredibly specific experiences, and more often than not, those experiences are measured through male desire.

Most series that follow this same setup, like the aforementioned Broad City and Sex and the City track the ups and downs of their core characters’ lives through the central lens of their friendship. On Girls, the main characters feel weirdly tangential to each other. In fact, the four leads only appear together in twelve scenes over the entire course of the series. Their successes (and failures) come almost entirely from their romantic lives. To be fair, the characters acknowledge this. Towards the end of the first season, Hannah even insists that she “doesn’t really give a shit about being a good friend” because she has other priorities, specifically her boyfriend.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with valuing romantic relationships or depicting that on television, but the way it was done on Girls left me feeling a little queasy. Mostly because there’s very little actual romance involved. The longest-running relationship on the show between Hannah and Adam (a pre-Star Wars Adam Driver) starts off as a sexually violent situationship and honestly does not get much better from there. Even during their big, passionate moments - like when Adam runs across the city (shirtless, of course) just so he can comfort Hannah in person - there’s a The Graduate-style sense of dread attached. It’s always painfully clear that they’re just enabling one another’s worst impulses.

Art by Lyvie Scott

There’s this recurring idea on the show that Hannah intentionally seeks out weird and unpleasant sex because she thinks that having those experiences will make her seem more interesting. That would be a really revealing character detail if the other three girls weren’t doing the exact same thing. There’s something to be said about women finding empowerment through sexuality, but it never felt like that was what was really being shown on Girls. There’s no pleasure involved, or even really a discovery of self. Instead, the characters find validation through male attention and then crumble as soon as that attention is gone.

Marnie even says as much. During an argument with her mom, she points out that “the only thing that ever mattered in [their] fucking household was male approval” but this self-awareness isn’t totally backed up by the show. Because while the girls are spinning out about their latest romantic failure, their love interests are the ones actually growing from the experience. By the end of the series, Adam is a focused, committed (if still slightly volatile) filmmaker. Marnie and Shoshana’s on-again/off-again love interest Ray gets to go through like three different self-discovery arcs. Even Hannah’s gay ex-boyfriend Elijah gets more screen time than Jessa and Shoshana by the end of the show. Going into the series, I expected that Girls would be about the girls. But when you pull back to look at the arc of the series, it’s ultimately about the men. I don’t think that necessarily says anything about the quality of the series, but it is telling about where the show’s priorities lay. Even the fact that Adam Driver ended up being the breakout star says a lot.

To be fair, the leads get their moments of self-discovery too, even if it’s left a little more ambiguous than their male counterparts. I found Hannah’s final arc, where she finally lets go of her self-imposed infantilization to take care of her actual infant, to be really effective and perfectly in character. But even then, she’s changing her entire sense of self to revolve around another man - although this time it’s not another love interest, it’s her son.

Girls feels like a complicated thing to critique because there are women who go through life without any real sense of agency, who depend on male validation, who are selfish and messy and treat their friends badly. It’s not wrong to acknowledge those traits or to remind audiences that even the worst people we’ve ever met still have nuanced and complicated inner lives. This isn’t an argument of good representation vs. bad representation. The problem arises when stories like these are looked at as a universal representation of women.

When men write stories about messy characters - even stories that are explicitly autobiographical - it never feels like a commentary on men. No one has ever claimed that Larry David is giving you an unflinchingly honest look at what real men are doing and thinking. But for some reason (sexism) stories written by women have to bear that burden. Those stories don’t get the benefit of the doubt. They don’t get to be exaggerated, or allegorical. They’re not art, they’re gossip.

Hopefully, it won’t be that way forever. As more women have the chance to tell their stories on screen, and more female critics have the opportunity to meaningfully engage with that art, shows like Girls won’t have to bear the burden of Saying Something About Women. They can just be a story about one of the million different forms womanhood can take.

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