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Girls turns 10: Lena Dunham's polarizing HBO comedy deserves better appreciation

  • Girls arrived on HBO on April 15, 2012 with a lot of raves and a lot of criticism. "Many of the critiques performed the same rhetorical sleight of hand, conflating Dunham not just with her Girls character—the clueless, impulsive, underemployed Hannah Horvath—but an entire production with hundreds of collaborators, including executive producer Judd Apatow and co-showrunner Jenni Konner," says Alison Herman, adding: "The equation of Dunham with her show was understandable; a 25-year-old with a premium cable show is already media catnip, let alone one who writes, directs, and stars in it. But the blurred line also made it hard to separate analysis of Girls from Dunham’s own status as a cultural lightning rod, prone to making the kind of ignorant comments that necessitate citing 'a "delusional girl" persona I often inhabit' in her subsequent apology." Herman says that after 10 years, it's easier to appreciate what Girls accomplished. "As its creator has evolved, Girls has stayed in place," says Herman. "The further we get from its award-winning, controversial run, the easier the show is to appreciate on its own terms. At the time, thanks to the breathless praise and a title that suggested ambitions to be more universal than the series ever truly was, Girls was asked to stand for a lot more than just itself. (To be fair, White Millennial Upper-Middle-Class Girls in Brooklyn doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.) In 2022, Girls can be both more and less than what it was held up to be in 2012. To paraphrase Hannah’s most memorable line from the pilot, if she isn’t the voice of a generation, she can at least be a voice of a generation. And when Girls no longer bears the burden of being the show of the moment, it can be admired as a show that contributed to a turning point in its medium—starting with that first episode."


    • Girls was Adam Driver's best role -- Lena Dunham doesn't get enough credit for discovering him: "In the 10 years since Girls premiered on HBO, Adam Driver has become a movie star," says Olivia Craighead. "He’s played Kylo Ren in Star Wars movies, he’s been nominated for two Oscars, and he’s worked with directors like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Noah Baumbach, the Coen brothers, and Steven Soderbergh. Driver is undeniably the breakout star of the polarizing series — and yet he’s never been able to top the work he did on the show in the decade since it premiered. Adam Driver’s best role has always been, and perhaps always will be, Adam Sackler on Lena Dunham’s Girls." Craighead adds: "Over the course of Girls’s six seasons, Driver proved again and again that he was a fount of raw talent, fully committing to every choice he made and elevating every line he was given, even and especially when it surely looked insane on the page."
    • Ten years later, it's clear Girls was imperfect and revolutionary: All the criticism of Girls doesn't change "the fact that Dunham is a creative genius," says Louis Staples, adding that the show "revolutionized the way sex and women’s bodies were depicted on TV. At the time, television was not reflecting the type of sex people were actually having—clumsy, fun-in-a-weird-way, humiliating (for all participants), dark and awkward—particularly from the perspective of women. Watching Che Diaz finger-bang Miranda Hobbes in And Just Like That… (while an immobile Carrie Bradshaw peed into a peach Snapple bottle), or the sex scenes in a show like Fleabag, the influence of Girls is clear. Dunham’s body was also brutally picked apart, shamed and mocked from the get-go. Looking back at her nude scenes with Adam Driver in Season 1 of the show, it’s astonishing that she was considered controversially or radically large. But that in itself demonstrates how much TV’s norms have changed since then—a shift Girls isn’t solely responsible for, but undoubtedly contributed to."
    • Girls was a period snapshot of the unthinking clumsiness of white privilege and its pervasive nature: "One of the things that worked against Girls was its timing, given that it came at a precarious time for race relations," says Michelle Kambasha. "It aired two months after the murder of Trayvon Martin in February of that year – a tragedy that brought racial tensions in the US into sharper focus, leading to an increase in people exploring how whiteness presented in all aspects of life. In that context, Girls felt to some like an unabashed display of white privilege that was too much to stomach. As a result, it became one of the first intellectual playgrounds of cultural criticism of its kind...To look back on the show is to be confronted by an important time capsule. In many ways, its central characters of Hannah, Jessa, Marnie and Shoshanna are young 'Karens' in the making – before we had a catch-all name for that kind of white woman. They might consider themselves to be upstanding socially liberal young women, changing the fabric of society simply by their existence, but they are utterly entitled people who utilise their privilege for personal gain. The self-awareness that Dunham’s script shows in terms of other facets of these characters’ awfulness suggests there is knowingness at work here. But it nonetheless serves as a period snapshot of the unthinking clumsiness of white privilege and its pervasive nature." Kambasha adds: "Looking back 10 years later, it’s hard not to wonder whether the conversation that erupted around the lack of diversity in Girls has also had an important long-term consequence: putting diversity at the forefront of discussion on TV."
    • Girls paved the way for Insecure, I May Destroy You, PEN15, Fleabag, Broad City and other groundbreaking female-centered shows: "Girls arrived in a peculiar neoliberal feminist revival, when, after Bridesmaids, it was decided that women were for the first time funny," says David Odyssey. "Under Dunham’s cunning Taurean curation, Girls featured a class of character actors relegated to VHS history, honoring women who didn’t fit the broad tastes of a capricious mainstream. Among the standouts were Louise Lasser, Lisa Bonet, Rosanna Arquette, Rita Wilson, Shiri Appleby, Debra Monk, Deirdre Lovejoy, Deborah Rush, and, of course, Becky Ann Baker, delivering acrid wisdom as Hannah’s mother, Loreen. For many of us, Girls provided our first exposure to Kathryn Hahn, Amy Schumer, Gaby Hoffmann, Greta Lee, Marin Ireland, Sarah Steele, Jenny Slate, and Julia Garner. As Hannah had carried the torch for foremothers like Clarissa Darling, Felicity Porter, Betty Suarez, and Georgia Nicolson, so she would pass it on, parting the sea for the f*cked-up heroines of Orange is the New Black, Broad City, Jessica Jones, GLOW, Fleabag, Pen15, I May Destroy You, and, certainly, Insecure, HBO’s direct and necessary answer to Girls’ overwhelming whiteness. Hannah limped so that Julie could run through The Worst Person in the World."
    • Here are Girls' eight most memorable moments
    • Where is the Girls cast 10 years later?

    TOPICS: Girls, HBO, Adam Driver, Lena Dunham, Retro TV