When Lena Dunham’s Girls first came out on HBO, it received a lot of attention for depicting “realistic sex with real bodies.” (What this was actually shorthand for was “unappealing sex with unappealing-looking bodies.” More on that later.) A lot of people tuned in for a season or two until their curiosity was satisfied, and then tuned back out. This was a mistake, because—now in Season 6, its final—Girls is at its best.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the show, Girls is about four women living in Brooklyn, trying to navigate their lives post college. I’ll admit, this premise didn’t immediately pique my curiosity; I was one of those people who started watching just to see what all the talk of disconcerting nudity was about. On this front, Girls didn’t disappoint—the sex IS awkward, the nudity fairly frequent, and both start up immediately. After the shock and mild discomfort of that wore off, my next thought was, “All of these characters are really selfish and annoying and they never shut up.” And that’s true too. Not one of the four leads could be described as “likable.” But once I got over that, I noticed something else, something that’s kept me watching for six seasons, which is—this show is actually really, really good.
Girls certainly isn’t for everyone, but here’s are a few reasons why it’s for me.
Every good story needs good characters, and Girls offers not just four compelling leads, but a supporting cast full of memorable and hilarious people. The show does such a thorough job of presenting complex, nuanced characters, that I’ve had trouble describing them to people. SO many shows resort to stereotypes, making it easy for capsule summaries like “It’s about a nerd trying to break into the fashion industry” or “It’s about this really cosmopolitan, narcissistic guy who has to work on a farm.” If pressed, I guess I would say that Jessa is bohemian and free-spirited, Marnie is pretty and narcissistic, Hannah is precocious and immature, and Shoshanna is innocent and energetic. The thing is, these descriptions are so inadequate that they border on inaccurate, and that’s because these women are much more than a string of adjectives.
Too often, and especially with female characters, we get “The Popular One,” “The Smart One,” “The Nerd,” “The Tomboy,” The Artsy Girl,” etc. They’re stand-ins for real people rather than just being real people. (Which is fine; sometimes over-the-top stereotypes are fun, just like how sometimes I prefer gas station pizza to Pizza Luce.) But as someone whose interests and friends and behaviors have been all over the place, it can be hard to find yourself in those characters. I’m smart but an underachiever. I like to sleep a lot. My parents are solidly middle class, but I’m broke and will be for the foreseeable future. I have a masters and thousands of dollars in educational debt, but work as a barista and bartender. I go to Mass on Sundays. I am usually in a relationship, and pick my partners with same careful consideration I employ during all major decision-making, e.g. none. I like to read and write and watch movies. I drink and smoke too much. I own 87 scarves but wear the same three over and over again. I can’t really imagine being a wife and mother someday, but I also can’t imagine not being one. This is all to say that, despite the fact that my life has been relatively easy since college, it’s never been neat and tidy. I’m still figuring myself and my life out—probably will be for years—and Girls honors this reality.
Each of the characters is presented as a work in progress, and not just temporarily. Their struggles aren’t portrayed as part of an exploratory phase, or excused by the fact that they’re “in transition,” or “getting their shit together.” They’re learning how to be human, which, last time I checked, is something we’re blessed with the chance to spend from birth till death doing. If I’d limited my “figuring it out” window to the year right after college, I’d be unhappily working in an office and married to my (probably) gay college boyfriend. Hannah and Marnie and Jessa and Shosh (and Adam and Ray and Elijah) aren’t that much closer to peace and happiness than they were six years ago, but they know a hell of a lot more about themselves and each other (and must have exhausted at least half of the list of things that don’t work for them.) Would it be unwise to use them as models of virtue and tempered decision-making? Yes. But their character arcs have been realistic, believable, and surprising, which is a rare feat for an ongoing series.
Another feat that Girls has pulled off remarkably well is that it manages to be correctively self-aware without ceasing to take itself seriously. Each of the aspects it’s been criticized for—being too white, too hipster, too PC, too Brooklyn, too millennial, too self-involved—have been acknowledged and poked fun at within the show itself. Personally, I’ve been mostly dismissive of the criticism of Girls, either because it seems untrue, or because it unfairly targets Lena Dunham. Of all the shows that suffer from a lack of racial diversity, or feature characters who only a limited sphere of viewers can relate to, why are we picking on the young woman who was a self-made writer, actress, and director by the age of 23?
I have a lot of theoretical speculations about the answer to that question, but one of them is this: too many people still can’t bear to see a traditionally “unattractive” woman succeed in show-business, where the unwritten rule that you have to be fit and beautiful to be relevant still pervades. It’s astounding how often people respond with “Yeah, but I hate Lena Dunham” anytime I bring up liking or even watching Girls. I wish I could say that this response has been limited to an older generation shocked by vulgarity, or neanderthal bros I knew in high school. But unfortunately I’ve heard this from men and women, old and young, conservatives and liberals, you name it. Not once have I heard any well-argued criticism of her work that isn’t just about disliking her as a person. And even the dislike is only as articulate as “She’s really annoying” or “She talks too much.” (A sense of which they gather from what? Twitter? Instagram?). I can’t put words in anyone’s mouth, but to me it feels like there’s a subconscious but deeply held belief that women must earn the right to be heard and pay for the right to be taken seriously artistically by being both likable and good-looking. That being attractive and palatable are not only a currency we owe the world, but the best we have to offer. This is (obviously) a level of bullshit so egregious that my gut-level response is to bend over and simulate fart noises.
As for Ms. Dunham having the gall to repeatedly and wantonly display her own naked body (and the naked bodies of other men and women who aren’t supermodels), it’s helped me in two marked ways: one, it’s made me feel better about my own imperfect body, and two, it’s encouraged me to notice and admire things about people physically other than striking perfection. Growing up, I not only struggled with an eating disorder, but also studied ballet seriously, which was an obvious recipe for bodily scrutiny. But even without that background, I don’t think it’d be easy to avoid feelings of insecurity. It’s not that I don’t see naked women onscreen, it’s that when I do, their bodies are the products of professional nutritionists, plastic surgeons, and fitness trainers.
There’s a reason why Lena Dunham’s lumpy, pale, small-breasted, and untoned body elicited such shock and confusion when it appeared naked and unabashed on our televisions. It’s not that we didn’t know such bodies existed, but that we usually keep them hidden away—under Spanx, under a tan, under strategically flattering clothing, behind the bodies of fitter women, and certainly a safe distance from our TV screens. The fact that she dared to be nude and normal-looking felt at the very least radical, if not outright offensive to some. What made it even “worse” is that neither Lena nor her character Hannah seemed at all ashamed by her cellulite or chubbiness. And why should she be? She’s not the failed rep of a nutritional shake, nor an Olympian who let herself go. She’s a writer and actress who’s assumedly (and understandably) invested more time in her creative endeavors than maintaining the ludicrous fitness standard of the Western world. She’s been successful in the fields she professes to care about.
When I first started watching Girls, I’ll admit that I critically (and unkindly) assessed the bodies I was seeing onscreen. But while watching recently, I found myself gazing at Hannah, who was sprawled naked and pregnant on the couch, and thinking “Wow, she really has really nice skin,” or at Adam, dopy-eared and big-nosed as ever, thinking “His smile is just the cutest.” Neither of them look drastically different from Season One; the difference is that now I know and care about them as characters, and they’re beautiful to me because I love them. (Cheesy, I know). By relentlessly exposing us to “average-looking” people (the horror!), Ms. Dunham has actually helped re-wire my brain. Her characters repeatedly affirm that what makes a person interesting is not how they look but how they behave, a truth that was previously more head knowledge than actual practice.
And finally, I love Girls because it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious. In each thirty minute episode, at least one-third of the lines are quotable. From start to finish, the dialogue serves as a brilliant satire of millennials and the things they care about—relationships, social media, technology, pop culture, social activism. So if I haven’t yet convinced you that Girls is worth a watch, tune in for the one-liners. As I write this, there’s one episode left, but by the time this column is published, the show will have wrapped. It’s with sadness and thankfulness that I say farewell to these twenty-something Girls who made this girl’s twenties a little less lonely.
Rachel Woldum is a former television snob who has embraced the medium as it has entered its Golden Age. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org