Few comedies have been received with the same adulation and vitriol as Lena Dunham’s Girls.
For some, it’s been a feminist awakening: an unflinching, sometimes ugly excoriation of the relationships of a young woman and her friends; an intelligent, funny snapshot of contemporary twenty-something life. Others have considered it tone-deaf, unrealistic, reprehensible for its lack of racial diversity, and a self-indulgent vanity project for its creator.
Over the course of Girls’ six seasons, my stance has wavered. At the beginning, it felt refreshing to see real female bodies portrayed honestly, sex depicted brutally, both high and low-functioning people dealing with common – but still taboo – mental health problems, and to observe the interactions between a group of friends so intimate yet ill-matched that they only seemed capable of baring each other’s worst sides and traits.
Over time, I started to be put off.
Perhaps it was the hype, the heralding of Lena Dunham as our feminist saviour, the sudden backlash pointing out how problematic (a word lazily used when one cannot be bothered pointing out why exactly an opinion or cultural artefact doesn’t hold up perfectly to scrutiny – but still the only word that fits) Girls can be.
I was sick of seeing such unpleasant women in ludicrous scenarios be foul to each other, week after week. But still I watched. The writing is acerbic, delicately detailed, cruel, shrill, sometimes absurd but mostly like listening back to the banal, desperate conversations I might have with my own friends.
Too much was put on Dunham’s shoulders – she didn’t need to be the voice of a generation, Girls didn’t need to document the experience of every woman in her twenties, and it certainly didn’t need to be perfect. A great strength of Girls is that it is knowing: few programmes can create such jarring and disagreeable characters that remain compelling to watch and yet never veer into the cartoonish.
It captured the popular consciousness, it paved the way for other very distinct female-scripted and female-driven comedies like Broad City, Fleabag, Insecure and Chewing Gum, and subtly altered our expectations of women on screen. Female protagonists were once perfect, polished, and pallid; Girls showed that television is richer when we embrace the broad spectrum of women, distinct in character as much as appearance. For all this, it was groundbreaking.
Its final two seasons have been its best. The fifth observed lead Hannah Horvath slowly respond to the union of her ex-boyfriend Adam and best friend Jessa, so deftly, faithfully written that it felt voyeuristic and tragic to watch. The sixth has seen Hannah begin to accept distance from her friends, struggle with the decision to keep an unexpected child, and prepare for parenthood.
Its final episode, ‘Latching’, on Monday night, glimpsed at life, five months into motherhood for Hannah, now lecturing at a university upstate of New York City (the place itself as intense and beguiling a character as any of the friends or boyfriends in the group).
Using pregnancy as a vehicle to force maturity onto a group of perpetually infantile women might be a lazy plot device, but Girls has never been about the plot itself – more that the narrative has shaped the interactions between the women. Here, there were no trite philosophical epiphanies to signpost the characters’ ‘journeys’. Instead, best friend Marnie has poured herself into co-parenting Hannah’s child Grover with her trademark imposing, know-it-all ferocity. Hannah’s mother joins them, the arguments between the pair as vicious and adolescent as ever, Hannah wry and despondent as baby Grover struggles to feed.
The episode ends with a whimper as she nurses him, calmly humming Tracey Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’, easing into ‘real adulthood’, that next phase we all suppose will eventually dawn upon us, with resolve and peace instead of stark transition.
Girls fans are divided over whether its standalone or serial episodes are better: Dunham offered us two finales, one of each. The first was a biting, heart-in-the-mouth pseudo-reunion of its four central women Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna in last week’s penultimate episode. Not a smug fin but a cyclical one, each woman dancing, alone but still joined, not quite yet forced to accept change in their lives.
Then came the final episode, a quiet, contemplative denouement which underscored the central premises of all six seasons, without pomp and circumstance: fractious, squabbling best friends, a multi-faceted display of femininity, a woman railing against her own immaturity, and an unabating, neurotic need to find a higher purpose.
For women who’ve followed Girls until the end, those remain its universal, most acutely resonant virtues – and are why we’ll sorely miss it.
Girls is available to watch in full on Sky Box Sets