I Admit It, I'm Going To Miss Girls

It’s happened. After five years of rolling my eyes at the infinite essays about Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls cluttering up my internet, I am writing an essay about Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls.

As the show enters its sixth and final season, my friends and I are preparing to say our weepy goodbyes to four of the least likeable characters on television. Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna are self-indulgent, self-destructive and totally lacking in self-awareness – and yet, I love them. I find myself drawn to their flaws. I actually care what happens to them.

You have to understand – I’ve experienced weddings, birthdays and breakups with these girls; enjoyed their dance parties and first loves; endured their abortions and shitty jobs. I’ve witnessed their bad sex and family traumas. I’ve laughed, cried and squirmed as they picked petty fights with one another, slept with each other’s exes and sabotaged their own careers. I’ve seen them naked. Through the prism of these many-sided fictional women, I’ve seen the ugliest and most obnoxious parts of myself and my friends refracted.

When I asked my mum what she is going to miss about the show she seemed to take a similar position, telling me she liked that the Girls “don’t always have to be nice”. When asked the same question, my best friend praised the fact that the show sees through other people’s bullshit. “That never happens in real life,” she told me.
Photo: Apatow Productions/REX/Shutterstock
Dunham recently described Girls’ outlook as “hard on the characters, but gentle on the world.” The harshness of the light the show shines on its characters is its secret strength. It has not always endorsed the behaviour of its central foursome, but it still wants its viewers to root for them, or at least to take them seriously. Allison Williams, aka Marnie, says she feels the show has thrived because “the aspirational as a mode is becoming less and less interesting to people, or even perhaps less useful.” She’s right; there’s comfort to be found in their inconsistencies, catharsis in their failures and revelation in the gap between their expectations and their realities.

When I first watched Girls I remember being struck by how jarring it felt to see a whitewashed version of my world, and how it spoke to me in a voice I recognised intimately. The show arguably launched think-piece culture when it debuted back in 2012, with critics both high- and lowbrow offering takes of varying heat on what the show said about millennial culture; about privilege, whiteness, cellulite and sex. A lot of the cultural criticism surrounding the show was smart – and necessary – like Jenna Wortham’s essay for The Hairpin on the lack of women of colour in the show. However, some of it found itself more concerned with Dunham herself, riled by the audacity of this woman at once proclaiming herself the “voice of a generation” through her character Hannah, and subjecting viewers to her naked, ‘non-Hollywood’ body.
Photo: Apatow Productions/REX/Shutterstock
But by focusing on Dunham the persona – and worse, by blurring the distinction between Dunham and Hannah – much of the chatter surrounding Girls has obscured Lena Dunham the auteur. Her first feature film Tiny Furniture (2010) shares a lot of its DNA with its small-screen successor, but it is the show that is her masterpiece. With its short episodes and long story arcs, there’s a rich, novelistic denseness to the slow-burning character development. But as Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa put it, because the show “became so enmeshed with this cultural movement that it paralleled, it got lost as a piece of artwork.”

I hope the singularity of Dunham’s vision as a storyteller is the show’s lasting legacy. Influenced by the pre-mumblecore tendencies of Claudia Weill’s 1978 offbeat comedy Girlfriends (in fact, Weill directed an episode in the show’s first series), the classical rom-coms of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, and – of course – television’s most enduring New York City quartet, Sex & the City, Girls has always worn its references on its sleeve. What was and is interesting about it is the way the show deviated from its predecessors, creating something that was somehow pop and indie, a six-season-long love story filled with tension, longing, heartbreak, betrayal and growth that unfolded between friends, not just lovers.

Rebecca Traister, in her essay on the show’s first season, wrote about how it revealed the “emotional, intimate, irritating, satisfying, pleasurable, lasting” connections girls make with each other. Dunham pitched the series to HBO when she was just 23 years old, describing it as a group of girls “navigating the transition out of college-level codependence on their girlfriends”. This attention to the minutiae of women’s relationships with each other is the thing I loved and love most about the show. That’s where the most comedic – and most romantic – moments really took place.

My friends and I have watched these characters grow up. Now that their stories are ending, so comes the heart-sinking feeling that the time when my friends are the centre of my life is ending – and the realisation that we might be growing up, too.
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