We saw our clumsy, imperfect selves in Girls


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Today, perhaps even as you’re reading this, the last episode of Girls will air on television. It’s the show, as some have wryly pointed out, that launched a thousand think pieces, but for good reason. Lena Dunham created something radical in 2012: the demonstration of ordinary, clumsy women having ordinary, clumsy sex.

That this seemed radical five years ago is both heartbreaking and maddening, but no less true. Although the main reason behind the initial high praise for Girls – apart from Dunham’s purposefully vulnerable brand of genius – is paradoxically the same reason for the vehement backlash: over-identification.

Trailer: Girls season 6

The final season of the HBO series Girls is due to air in 2017.

In March 2012, NYMag breathlessly declared that the dreams of every young, writerly feminist were about to come true – we were about to see our real selves represented on screen.

“The show,” wrote TV critic Emily Nussbaum, was FUBU: “For us, by us.”

“For us, by us” meant that, because Girls depicted a group of naive, entitled hipsters, wholly lacking in self-awareness, it wasn’t long before all the hipsters writing about the show, (and there was a glut of us) managed to mistake Girls for either a dirtied-up biography of Lena Dunham, or a documentary about what it is to be young and idiotic in Brooklyn.

The resulting opinion pieces were either searing with defensiveness, “We are soooo not like that!” or incredulity at Dunham’s brazen self-belief, and lack of shame about her body. Dunham never got the memo that troubled young women can be drug-addicted, soulless psychopaths, just as long as they’re sexually attractive to men. So when Dunham acted out the less-than-wise choices of her character, critics bristled.

(Jessa was a different and highly subversive story).

First, there was the fact that she claimed to be “a voice of a generation”. It didn’t matter that Dunham’s feckless character, Hannah Horvath, had said it, Dunham, who was 25 at the time, copped it.

Then, because the show did not develop into every male TV critic’s understanding that sex on HBO should be served up Game of Thrones style, they eviscerated it. Ah yes, the sex scenes, each one brimming with edge-of-your-seat awkwardness, and depictions of lust gone weird.

There were no discreetly-placed bedsheets, no unfathomable bra-wearing, and most feminist of all, there was no depiction of perfectly spherical breasts atop rock hard abs. After decades of unrealistic bodies engaging in male-fantasy sex on screen, here was a truthful representation of female flesh.

Alas, however, Girls did not align itself with every feminist’s particular vision, so it was deemed over-rated. Dunham was too young, too normal-looking, too audacious.

Rare was the critic who said these exact things, instead they pointed to the fact that because she was the child of two artists; you know, a couple of wealthy, bohemian types with all the connections such a birthright affords, she was riding the gravy train of cloistered privilege.

There is a quote by an artist and writer, Craig Damrauer, which says that “modern art is essentially one person saying ‘I could do that’ while another replies, ‘Yeah but you didn’t’.” And the same might be said of the cacophony of deafening, (jealous) voices who ripped into the show.

And while nobody save for Howard Stern, (and a million trolls) called her fat, Dunham did get called “brave” an awful lot, which is, as every woman who is not a size zero knows, 10 times worse.

But, again, this brought outcry. Because we saw our ordinary selves and our cringe-worthy choices, we then demanded that Dunham widen her representation of exactly what it meant to be “us”.

It’s true that Dunham’s universe was too white to be considered realistic, and she was called out for it. But as Roxane Gay, who criticised Dunham for her lack of diversity, later said: “This problem is a Hollywood problem, it’s a representation problem — and to expect Lena Dunham to solve it is just not fair.”

It wasn’t fair, but Dunham did something few auteurs dare to do, she looked at the criticism, absorbed what she needed, and learnt from it. As she once told an interviewer: “You never know where your next note is going to come from.”

This is in contrast to other talents such as Dave Chappelle, who came out with ignorant jokes about domestic violence and transgender people in his recent stand-up special. Or John Mayer, who is trying – and failing – to not sound like a preening ass.

Dunham brought into her world more diversity, including the expansion of a stereotypical gay side-kick role into a proper character, (thanks in large part to the talent of Andrew Ranells).

At the time of writing, Dunham has steadfastly refused to redeem her friends or their relationships, which appear to be marked by a complete lack of integrity. Indeed Vanity Fair said the show was not about the growth of friendships so much as their disintegration.

But, those who still doubt Dunham’s talent should note that before Amy Schumer achieved unrivalled fame, before Allison Williams starred in the critically-lauded, highest grossing debut film ever made, Get Out, and before Adam Driver was cast in the biggest film franchise in history, Star Wars they were plucked by Dunham to appear on her quietly revolutionary little show about nudity and other things, Girls.

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