23-year-old Halima Jibril was too young to watch Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series when it first aired, but as its popularity surged once more, they decided to watch the whole thing – in a very short space of time. They have some thoughts...
When I tell my fellow twenty-somethings that I started watching the infamous HBO dramedy Girls, I’m often met with one of two reactions. “That Lena Dunham show?” (many of them are only vaguely familiar with the show). Or, a more accusatory “you’re a Lena Dunham stan? I would have never expected that from you.” The latter is one of the reasons I was never too keen on watching the show in the first place. I didn’t know much about it or who was in the cast, but what I did know was that the show was stained, and that stain was Lena Dunham.
Nowadays, it’s difficult to say Dunham’s name without thinking of the phrase ‘white feminism’. Even if you’re not thinking of it, someone (especially an online someone) will quickly remind you that that is the feminism Dunham adheres to. Since Dunham came into the spotlight in 2012, she has consistently been in and out of controversy, with Vanity Fair, Insider, and The Cut all compiling listicle-style articles about her problematic behaviour and the Notes app apologies that subsequently followed. From remarking that her attraction to Drake proved that she isn’t racist, to defending Girls writer Murray Miller when he was accused of raping actress Aurora Perrineau when she was 17, the list of her horrible behaviour is long and unfortunate.
Dunham’s behaviour – which closely mirrors the actions of her widely hated character in Girls, Hannah Horvath – along with the show’s numerous controversies, has led to it becoming an almost disregarded piece of media. Don’t get me wrong, Girls was a successful show; there’s no denying it. It received critical praise and awards, including Golden Globes and BAFTAs, with numerous cast members nominated for Emmys and Critics’ Choice Awards. But it quickly became a show many believed, and still believe, you should be ashamed to watch.
I didn’t feel shame or any inner conflict when I started watching Girls a few weeks ago. When the show ended in 2017, so did the discourse surrounding it. But I did find the show slightly off-putting, to the point where I would tell the one friend I knew who had watched the show before (and loved it) that I didn’t think I’d be able to get through all six seasons. From Hannah’s glaring entitlement, Marine’s self-centeredness, Jessa’s erratic behaviour and the intensely long sex scenes between Adam and Hannah that felt unbearable to watch on several occasions – Girls consistently took me out of my comfort zone. At first, I thought this was a bad thing, but the more I watched the show, the more I appreciated its absurdity.
I think one of the worst things in history is Lena Dunham being a horrible human being cause that woman is talented af pic.twitter.com/SvfaWyPXpI— Patty LaCerva 💌𓆦 (@minasdemon) March 4, 2023
However, the one thing I didn’t appreciate was the show’s general erasure of people of colour and its ignorance around race Like Sex and the City and Friends before it, Girls’ New York was incredibly undiverse. That was until the show was met with heavy criticism after season one. After that, characters of colour popped up out of nowhere for shock factor (see: Sandy’s character in season two played by Donald Glover), to play comedic background characters (see: Karen’s character in season three played by Jessica Williams), or to progress the narrative arc of the main characters (see: Paul-Louis’ character in season six played by Riz Ahmed). Only then did characters of colour materialise in the world of Girls, never in leading roles with significant storylines and only for a limited amount of time.
Writer and academic Roxane Gay famously wrote about the show’s race problem in her book Bad Feminist. Though the glaring whiteness of Girls deeply disturbed and disappointed Gay, she importantly noted that “the absence of race in Girls is an uncomfortable reminder of how many people (especially those in artistic circles) lead lives segregated by race and class”. In Girls, Dunham wrote about the only world she knew: a world filled with art, privilege, whiteness and, ultimately, racism. The show does attempt to critique a specific type of liberal white artistic behaviour, however. Hannah’s infamous Black boyfriend, Sandy, entered the Girls universe at the start of season two. His presence was complicated by the fact he was a Republican, but surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), that didn’t seem to be a problem for Hannah until he criticised her writing.
“We are told we must struggle and sacrifice in order to live a ‘good life,’ but Girls inadvertently ask the question: what if our constant chasing of the so-called ‘good life’ is actually an obstacle to our betterment? ... [It] lets you know you are not alone in that crazy feeling”
“It wasn’t for me exactly,” Sandy explains to Hannah. “Ultimately, it just felt like waiting in line and all the nonsense that goes through your brain when you’re trying to kill time. But it was really well written.” Hannah was stunned. She couldn’t believe that her work, which she crafts her whole identity around, wasn’t loved and adored by the person she wanted to be loved and adored by. In response to his critiques, she started to attack his political beliefs, to which Sandy responds: “Hannah, this is because I didn’t like your essay.” The scene perfectly encapsulates Hannah’s self-centeredness and how certain white women will claim to be feminists and still date men with fundamentally evil politics until they are personally affected. Even though Girls is self-aware about white ignorance, it ultimately didn’t make its flippant use, or more accurately, misuse of characters of colour, any less uncomfortable to watch.
Additionally, Girls was also accused of misrepresenting a generation of millennial women. In her article“I’m busy trying to become who I am”: Self-entitlement and the city in HBO’s Girls, Serena Daalamans asserts that Girls lacked resonance because the “millennial women on Girls are nothing like the millennial women I know”. Ultimately, the show “fails to actually step up to the plate as the televisual voice of my generation”. While Daalaman’s critique was a popular one, especially in the mid-2010s when conversations around the importance of true and accurate representations of marginalised people were intensifying, those rewatching Girls now or watching it for the first time argue that this reading of the show is a fundamental misunderstanding of its true intent.
In their article, 2023 is the year of the Girls renaissance, Charlie Squire argues that “one of the show’s greatest successes is that it never tried to speak for any sort of universal experience, instead focusing on the personal. There is no need to relate to the jobs or the apartments of the characters because they are not written as representations but as individuals, allowing audiences to connect foremost with what they are saying and what they are feeling – their anxieties, their ambitions, their feelings of isolation and failure.” The deeply personal nature of Girls is precisely why it has aged (relatively) well and is experiencing a resurgence in 2023. On TikTok, #girlshbo has 37.9 million views, with millennials and Gen Z alike marvelling at how honestly Girls depicts the transition from being a child to becoming an adult and how painful it all is.
Despite its faults, I really enjoyed watching Girls. As a 23-year-old who has just moved to a big city with an almost childlike belief that my life is finally starting, I resonated with the characters’ disappointment at the fact that their lives, post-college, weren’t turning out exactly as they’d hoped. The main characters, Hannah, Marine (Alison Williams) and Shoshana (Zosia Mamet), all went to the ‘right’ schools, they live in the ‘right’ city, and they try to get the ‘right’ jobs. By doing all this, they expect, like so many of us, to live what cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls ‘the good life’. By adhering to conventional forms of living through education, marriage and heterosexuality, there’s this belief that happiness will follow us in abundance. But in reality, continuously chasing ‘the good life’ makes these characters miserable, but that is just too painful for any of them to admit.
@allynotalix Say what you will about Lena but this show slaps even harder after you’ve been through it. #girls #hbo #lenadunham #fyp ♬ original sound - Alix Seracki
We are told we must struggle and sacrifice in order to live a ‘good life,’ but Girls inadvertently asks the question: what if our constant chasing of the so-called ‘good life’ is actually an obstacle to our betterment? Feeling sad and unsatisfied in a life meant to make you so happy (or lead you to a place of happiness) is a feeling we all know too well. Nonetheless, it can make us feel crazy and stupid. But Girls lets you know you are not alone in that crazy feeling. Not even a little bit, not even at all. That is the true beauty of Girls. Dunham takes these moments of intense shame and secrecy that so many of us feel and puts them into the light, making the viewer acknowledge the universality of all of those feelings.
Last year there was a meme that went around the internet of a guy eating pizza in his car saying, “Little Caesar’s tastes so good when you ain’t got a bitch in ya ear telling you it’s nasty.” That’s exactly what it’s like to watch Lena Dunham’s Girls in 2023. Girls is a truly great show when you ain’t got a bitch in ya ear telling you that Lena Dunham is trash all the time.