RIP ‘Girls’, a Show We Mostly Misunderstood

The characters in Lena Dunham's HBO series might have lacked self-awareness, but the show never did.

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Apr 17 2017, 11:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia. 

Girls, the Lena Dunham show you loved to hate or more likely just never watched, aired its last ever episode yesterday. So it seems as good a time as any to acknowledge that the show's greatest flaw was its name. Oh man, the name. Such a bad and misleading name. A series called Girls starring four white girls. Why?

The name meant we all made the same incorrect assumption. That Girls was an attempt to accurately render the varied experiences of every single millennial woman. Its failure was therefore inevitable—as many people far more qualified than me have pointed out, there is little realism to a show set in New York starring four of the whitest people alive.

What's annoying about the name thing in retrospect is that factual accuracy was never Girls' intention. The show faltered as a realistic drama about womanhood in the big city because it wasn't one. It actually saw itself as a comedy—a satirical take on the life and times of the privileged middle class American girl. In this respect, it was high art. It's strange and sad that we never acknowledged it as such.

To be clear, I am the Girls target audience—a young, white, college-educated girl with friends who are also girls. Lena Dunham probably has a picture of someone who looks very much like me pinned to a moodboard in her office, next to some Taylor Swift lyrics and a bunch of healing crystals. So yeah, I am a fan of the show. Not because I think its existence was a groundbreaking feminist victory, because it wasn't. Or because I find it frustrating that Dunham faced more intense scrutiny than any male showrunner in history, although she did. While I suppose I was initially attracted to Girls because it seemed to represent my experience of the world, what I grew to love about the show was its deep understanding of just how narrow that experience was.

Girls was a ruthless and very funny takedown of the white girl. The tongue-in-cheek tone was set up in its very first episode—an iconoclastic piece of television that still stands up to a re-watch after all this time. There is not a line out of place; as with countless episodes throughout its six seasons, the dialogue really is a snort-laugh per minute. We are introduced to Hannah "voice of her generation" Horvath and her three similarly immature friends, as well as sort-of boyfriend Adam—a flawlessly exaggerated caricature of the Art Bro who is so fucking creepy and awful that, well, you can't help but want to self-destruct and sleep with him too.

If you were in any way similar to the women portrayed on screen, then you were laughing because the characters represented your own very worst traits. But even if you couldn't relate to Hannah and co at all, the chaos still made for gleeful viewing. The show treated its young protagonists brutally, and they nearly always deserved what they got. Which was basically nothing, even after six years of traipsing around Brooklyn talking about their insecurities and UTIs.

Defending problematic art as satire is risky territory. And it's true that Girls aspired to be something more than a comedy. It veered into dramatic territory with varying success—there were those painfully self-indulgent bottle episodes, which at their worst seemed to come straight out of an undergraduate creative writing class. Did we really need to see Hannah fuck that doctor? No.

Then again, few TV shows are as willing to take risks and experiment as Girls was. In the show's penultimate season, this willingness paid off in the form of movie-like episodes which focused on the experiences of individual characters—a little bit like an American version of Skins about twenty somethings instead of teenagers. By this point, the show had realised that there was a limit to the millennial Sex and the City parody schtick. Instead of giving up, it pushed forward and sought something new and interesting.

The downside is that Girls never really knew how to sustain its own plot, and had trouble coming to grips with New York, too—most of the best episodes took place in other locations. None of this should matter too much, because its scenes were rendered with such attention to detail that they worked anyway. It was always, always about the dialogue—the narrative chopped and changed, but those one liners were forever.

It was dazzling and weird to watch the Girls writers, perhaps tired of reading relentless online articles about Lena Dunham's body fat and Twitter feed, slowly cease to give any fucks. As criticism became more intense and more personal, Dunham held her nerve and continued to push the envelope further and further. In its best and final season, a cleverly twisted mirror reflection of its first, the show's characters are more terrible than they've ever been.

In fact, by the end, Girls was reduced to its two most objectively awful characters. It's the Marnie and Hannah show—the other girls don't even make an appearance in the (quietly stunning) series finale. Marnie, who hasn't managed to iron out a single personality flaw in six years, is living with Hannah, who is realising her impulsive decision to raise a baby on her own is not without consequences. Williams and Dunham go to town, sparring with each other with impeccable timing. With her selfies and Tracey Chapman car singalongs, Williams actually upstages the series star, elevating the concept of unlikeable female protagonist to new heights.

People who criticise Girls for its lack of realism are missing the point. Who cares if Hannah wouldn't be able to afford her nice Bushwick apartment on a freelance writer salary? Who cares if she got tenure without an MFA? She wasn't Carrie Bradshaw—we weren't really meant to take her seriously, or be jealous of her life. Her character's ability to survive on dubious charm alone was what made her so fun to watch.

For the past six years, it has been an acceptable pastime to hate on Girls, to dismiss it as an HBO experiment, a pointless Sex and the City reboot, a failure of intersectional feminist representation. It's amusing to contemplate how even the girls in Girls would be fiercely critical of their own show for all the same reasons its audience has been—they're liberal arts grads, after all. All of them are so self-consciously woke that they've come full circle and ended up back at racist—it's a trope that's since been perfected by Abbi and Ilana on Broad City, a more pure comedy than Girls and perhaps a funnier one, although it's hard to see how the former could have succeeded if it weren't for the latter.

It does feel strange to say this about the show that launched a million online articles, but I'm not convinced any of us ever truly understood Girls. Now, six years later, it seems almost too late to acknowledge the truth: that Lena Dunham was in on her own joke. Sure, the Girls girls lacked self awareness. But the writers who brought them to life never did.

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