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Girls Always Knew What It Was Doing, Even if Its Characters Didn't

A reappraisal of one of the most divisive shows ever to air on HBO.
  • Jemima Kirke, Allison Williams, Lena Dunham, and Zosia Mamet in Girls (Photo: Danielle Levitt/HBO/Primetimer graphic)
    Jemima Kirke, Allison Williams, Lena Dunham, and Zosia Mamet in Girls (Photo: Danielle Levitt/HBO/Primetimer graphic)

    This month marks the 50th anniversary of HBO, which launched on November 8, 1972. In our "HBO at 50" retrospective, Primetimer tracks the evolution of the cabler, from fledgling network to prestigious programmer and awards magnet.

    Now a full decade after Girls' debut, it's difficult to name a contemporary television show that's drawn as wide a spectrum of reactions as Lena Dunham's catapult to fame. It broke boundaries, won Emmys, and was "cruelly insightful and bleakly funny," per The New York Times. Simultaneously, to watch it was "shameful," its severe lack of racial diversity "a huge disappointment," and the buzz around the show "awful and overrated." 

    Nonetheless, the show offered viewers something undeniably singular, something that, ten years later, has only gotten better with age: the most biting, and honest, portrayal of urban female friendship yet to hit TV, premium cable network or otherwise. This begins with a cold fact — no one is asking you to like these women.

    As a refresher, the show's characters exhibited (1) racism: "I want to have your little brown babies," Marnie tells her on-again-off-again boyfriend Charlie, played by white actor Christopher Abbott; (2) transphobia: "For all of those asking on Facebook if the group is open to trans women, we don't know," says the female networking company founder Shoshanna is obsessed with; and (3) privilege: "You know what the weirdest part about having a job is? You have to be there every day," Jessa muses.

    While shocking in their glibness, these quotes are indeed played for laughs; Girls was part satire, after all. It's tricky to imagine how such quips would be received today — Girls ended its run pre-#MeToo and before 2020's racial reckonings. Social media, widening ideological schisms, and greater isolation have deteriorated nuance, so it’s important to remember that Girls wielded these (and many other) one-liners as garish exposures, ones that reveal the depths of these characters' pointed solipsism and fantastic idiocy. Sometimes white people talk, sound, and dress a lot like Hannah, Marie, Jessa, and Shoshanna.

    More cutting, people also act like them, which may have fueled the show's moralistic responses — Surely, I'm not like those girls — as it held a mirror up to young, progressive city slickers. The show's leads infuriated their friends and sometimes went for long stretches without seeing them, despite the expectations of a television comedy where audiences are fed continual group banter week after week. Whose life is actually like that? Who has enjoyed such neat, perfect friendships?

    Which brings up another cold fact — the girls barely cared for each other. It was rare for the show's core foursome to share the same space, and when they did (in standout episodes such as "Beach House," "Wedding Day," and "The Goodbye Tour"), they didn't get along. And that's accurate. Friendships can be seasonal.

    Part of the brilliance of Girls lies in how it turned our expectations of a New York friend group on its head. Friends had Central Perk, Seinfeld had Monk's Café, and Sex and the City had that uptown cafe, implying that New Yorkers just get together in a common space habitually. The girls of Girls never shared a nucleus, and they were often quite isolated, which feels more New York-y. The Big Apple is, after all, a home as lonely as it is kinetic, and as Girls' seasons wore on, characters' casual stops at one another's apartments got rarer and rarer.

    Perhaps this explains the enduring appeal of the aforementioned New York City-set hits, Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City, all of which have been off the air years and decades longer than Girls. It's comforting, and fantastical, to imagine a New York in which friends are as accessible as a bodega. 

    But Girls stood out from these shows not only because of its depiction of realistic relationships. Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City all have complicated legacies when it comes to the racism, transphobia, and privilege also inherent in Girls. However, while those older shows brushed up against such themes without much care or thought — Kathleen Turner's casting as Chandler's trans mother, Jerry telling Pakistani restaurant owner Babu to try out a new cuisine, the whole episode where Samantha dates a Black man — Girls wielded those malices as a barbed commentary on the people who populated its world. Dunham, Jenni Konner, and Deborah Schoeneman's writing of Hannah's short-lived Republican lover Sandy, played by Donald Glover, remains a stain. Girls gave in to criticism of its lack of people of color when it may have been better off sticking to its guns — let’s be honest, its white-bread leads probably have never had any as friends.

    Of course, it feels fair to note that New York shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City are all sitcoms. In comedies, audiences can expect consistency in character quirks and flaws. In dramas, there’s hubris or growth. So then what was Girls? What should we expect from it? Why expect anything?

    Lena Dunham has said that Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna having a perennial financial safety net was key to the show and made the characters' "maturation go much more slowly." These girls (not "women") can't grow when, if they fail, they fall not into a canyon but a trampoline. They all stunted each other's growth. Say what you will about Dunham's own privilege, but she showed viewers a stinging truth in how people of a certain socioeconomic status behave, giddily squeezing lemon in her characters' wounds, episode after episode, to show the thorny and winding ways in which people grow.

    To that point, the show knew what it was doing even when its characters did not: As the creator on the outside, Dunham intentionally molded Hannah as someone who moves through the world unintentionally. The girls' purposeful combination of privilege and aimlessness could yield hilarious, and infuriating, results. Why on earth else would Marnie, in a wordless scene that in no way forwards the plot, make a smoothie at her apartment by cutting the tip off a banana, placing it in the blender, and throwing out the rest of the fruit? 

    These characters could be monsters, but ones, like us, capable of unexpected growth — even when it comes to handling food. Throughout Girls' assured six seasons, there were inspired shifts, tiny and seismic. Look no further than the series' framing. In the pilot's first frame, Hannah stuffs her face with pasta, not thanking her parents for dinner. In the finale's last scene, she breastfeeds her son. Hannah got some grace, which, when we're messy, can be all the more beautiful to reveal.

    Billy McEntee is a freelance arts journalist with bylines in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Vanity Fair, and others. Follow him @wjmcentee.

    TOPICS: Girls, HBO, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Jenni Konner, Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet