Did “Girls” ever become the voice of its generation?
It’s one of the first things we hear from Hannah Horvath (creator Lena Dunham), the quintessential millennial at the story’s heart — as well as serving as the mission statement of the show. While high on opium tea in the show’s pilot episode, she proclaims to her parents that she needs their financial support because she thinks she might be the voice of her generation… Or at least the voice of a generation.
This statement, and the related conversations about privileged white feminism that the show’s opened up, lampooned, and been indicted for variously over the years, has colored perceptions of the show throughout its six-year run — and of creator Lena Dunham along with it. Even people who’ve never watched a frame of the show have consumed enough “Girls” through gossip articles and periodic Twitter outrage to be aware of that statement.
Such naked arrogance it displays — that must be the show’s ambition, right? Even concealed beneath hipster modesty, continual self-referencing self-indictment, lashing out at critics for taking the show at its word, the clear intent remains. You don’t call your show “Girls” without intended to say something overarching about a culture, a time and place. Whether the show achieves it or not, the end is in sight.
The all-encompassing perception of the millennials “Girls” celebrates and skewers is one of narcissism, a misunderstanding of “real world” struggles. To anyone outside that narrowly defined subject, it’s a host of cliches: Young people who feel entitled to the exact life they always dreamed of living, responsibility merely an obstacle to that goal which must be conquered.
When we meet the titular girls of the show, the only one not completely adrift is Marnie (Allison Williams). While the rest of her friends are freelancing, studying or flitting from profession to profession, Marnie has a sensible job at an art gallery. As the show wraps up, she is the most bohemian of any of them working as a musician with her ex-husband — and Hannah finds herself on the cusp of professional security at last.
Just as her life is beginning to come together in the way she always imagined, she discovers she’s pregnant: According to Dunham this has been a plan for Hannah since the show’s early days, and it’s one of television’s most tried and tested coming-of-age catalysts.
Before this, the show always got right to those millennial anxieties, Hannah’s obsession with her own perceived lack of experience: We’re told again and again in the first season that Hannah needs to do things “for the story,” and that a writer’s output is only as exciting and perceptive as their real life becomes. Instead of forcing herself to mature, she forces herself to experience, which in some ways only reifies her stance of blameless victimhood as things refuse to improve on their own.
That yearning to shed a (in her opinion) vanilla upbringing characterizes everything in those early episodes, from her toxic relationship with Adam (Driver) to her reaction to a HPV diagnosis — “all adventurous women have it” — and her jealousy of another writer… Who got published after her boyfriend had killed himself.
It’s no accident that Hannah is a nonfiction writer, such is her obsession with what constitutes an interesting or worthwhile life. To Hannah, her generation’s purpose is to document every moment, sanding off the edges just enough to be relatable, but still perceived as wise. It’s in everything from the explosion of social media to blogging culture and online journalism. Personal essays are the pinnacle of this type of millennial journalism, and Hannah is its ultimate avatar. Over the years she’s experimented with writing for blogs of varying credibility, took a job as a copywriter (a stop most writers make at some point) and, after her confidence took a blow in grad school, became a teacher.
Now, after a particularly brutal chain of events that led to her best friend (Jemima Kirke) and her ex-boyfriend finding each other romantically — and, now, documenting same in a seemingly doomed film project — Hannah’s career is exactly what she wanted it to be at the start of the show. By her own measurement, she has finally lived.
By the show’s mandate, Hannah has against all odds risen above herself, and seems poised now, by the quirks of plot, to be dragged even further past her friends. (Except of course Shosh, who barely needed to go to Japan — much less get knocked up — to leave everybody in her dust.)
The show also took aim at the misconceptions of female friendship with one seminal episode — “Beach House” in Season 3 — which managed to pack nearly all of the messy contradictions of ‘girl squad’ culture into a single half-hour. While Marnie, the member of the group most preoccupied with social convention, wanted a quiet, contemplative and ‘healing’ weekend in the Hamptons, the wounds were too deep to be suppressed.
What happens when your squad becomes nothing more than a group of individuals that interact out of habit more than mutual respect and affection? While it seems likely Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) will end the series in more-or-less intact relationships, it was a fascinating question for “Girls” to pose when it did, illustrating an intimately recognizable moment of differentiation that changes everything after — and for a generation, that can be the kindling moment.
Realizing that individuality is itself a trend, that all the mason-jar terrariums and artisanal mustards in the world are just lifestyle drag, is the step before (although we can get stuck here) you realize that you’ve been judging other people’s individuality by their identical iPhones, and not the vast and beautiful specificity, the sheer and infinite range, of the music each one contains. The “Girls” of girls, like all hipsters — there’s that word again — must ask whether they’ve confused their superficial similarities, their exteriors and environment, for internal intimacy.
“Are we friends because we used to be friends?” is a question every person must ask regularly, and on the television level that question becomes “Do I like or hate this show because it tells — or does not tell, or once told and no longer tells, or has come uncomfortably closer to telling — my story accurately?” Because once that question is asked, whether it’s chicks and gay dudes in a beach house or we’re talking about the universality of a TV show that both claims and refuses the claim that it’s anything epochal, the next question is: How do we build from here?
“Girls” lies at the absolute nexus of every word known to cause instant backlash among exactly those it describes, of course: “Hipster” and “millennial” and “white feminist” — or as white feminists pronounce it, “feminist” — and thus provides a lightning rod of such attractive power that its energy, its role in the larger conversation is perpetual. As “Sex & the City” (which “Girls” likes to pretend is a wildly different phenomenon) gave voice to certain anxieties unique to its era, “Girls” does the same and more.
Growing up as it did alongside the social web, “Girls” did something else, something entirely new: Encouraged network executives to experiment with the female-driven auteur dramedy, an effect that may present as niche until you consider the long history and canon of the auteur dramedy itself: As in the recent “American B*tch” (Feb. 24), we’re reminded of how much of the literary canon is merely male roman à clef, granted relevance and significance by its mere existence; we’re reminded as ever of the pillorying of women like Emily Gould, Lena Dunham herself, and any woman who has the gall to tell her own story as though it is significant.
Would series like “Fleabag,” “Insecure,” “Kimmy Schmidt” or “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” exist — much less straight-ahead comedies like “New Girl,” “Difficult People,” or “Broad City” — without “Girls”? Possibly, even probably — but follow the money. As ever, follow the money, and think about how just how easy that very short list was to produce.
Lena Dunham is not Hannah Horvath, as has been the assumption from too many people over the years, and the intention of “Girls” the show is almost definitely not the same as its titular girls. Where the common equation of Hannah and Dunham falls short is questioning how much more experience Hannah would have to have, in order to create anything close to as accomplished as “Girls.” She couldn’t, at least for a few years.
(And maddeningly, just as Hannah has grown over the years into a sharply introspective version of years-ago Dunham, Dunham herself seems increasingly determined to embody hapless Hannah publicly, ramping up in classic burnt-fingers fashion.)
“Girls” will be remembered, mostly likely, as the show that frequently features a non-traditional body type, that launched the careers of Dunham and Driver and possibly Mamet and Williams, and acted as guide for the newest most-maligned generation into becoming the heroes and antiheroes of their own stories.
Hannah is no longer the spoiled 24-year-old who asked her parents to fund her ill-defined artistic ambitions, but a woman in her late twenties, who may have finally been through the kinds of experiences she so craved a few years previously. She’s a professional writer, she may become a mother. She’s gone through true heartbreak.
But she was never special.
And in the end, that’s the best and highest aspiration of the show “Girls,” to show the journey from masturbatory self-care and self-regard to an awareness of the greater world, and our very tiny part of it. And when speaking about generations — the narcissist pomp and exceptionalism of the self-indulgent Baby Boomer; the slacker victimhood of Gen X, forever watching itself cry in the mirror — it seems not just clear but crucial that the “Girls” of girls needed to teach themselves this lesson, and break away entirely.
Only by admitting she’s the voice of nobody but herself could Hannah, or Dunham, ever become more than another casualty.
“Girls” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO. The second half of Season 6 begins tonight, Mar. 19; the series finale airs Apr. 16.