Most of the problems with HBO’s Girls come from the name. By titling her show so simply, Lena Dunham implied that she was speaking for an entire gender. Having her character announce in the pilot, “I think I might be the voice of my generation,” also didn’t help her.
Of course, this says far more about the current state of television (and society) than anything else. Shows created by, produced by, and starring women are so rare that when one appears, it is expected to make a statement about the entire gender. A show that was allegedly supposed to speak for so many couldn’t help but get criticized for being so narrowly targeted: There were no minorities, or people from poor backgrounds, or sympathetically portrayed men, etc.
But this is not a fair standard: Nobody expects Louie to speak on behalf of all men. Even someone like Tyler Perry, who is in a similar situation as one of the few African-Americans with complete creative control over his work, isn’t expected to speak on behalf of all black people. In fact, it would be seem phony and unrealistic if someone like Louis C.K. tried to tailor his vision to fit social conventions; it would ruin the show.
By the same token, it would feel phony and unrealistic for Dunham’s character on Girls, Hannah, to have a black best friend. How many 23-year-old, white, Oberlin graduates from East Lansing have black best friends? Such a contrivance would feel like notes from a network executive. Nevertheless, it’s reasonable for a girl who might not be from this background to tune into a show called Girls and expect to be represented. Even aside from the narrow demographics, the show’s name implies a universality that belies how specifically drawn these characters were. If the show had just been called Hannah, much of the criticism that engulfed it after its premiere could have been avoided.
Having said all that, it’s impossible to talk about Girls without talking about gender. The fact that all the male the characters were, in the words of James Franco, “the biggest bunch of losers,” wasn’t due to the fact that Dunham and Co. couldn’t write compelling male characters. It was because the show so completely embodied the perspective of Hannah and her friends that the men on the show couldn’t help but come off as different and even antagonistic. As the show evolved, its characters were forced to confront the fact that the men they dealt with were more complicated than they realized.
This was most obvious in the case of Adam, Hannah’s boyfriend, who was probably the most divisive character in the initial episodes. Introduced as her quasi-hipster fuck-buddy who dabbled in carpentry because it’s “more honest,” Adam was viewed by many as a parody of bad boyfriends. As the show progressed, though, it was revealed that he came off that way largely because of how Hannah treated him. The scene in “Welcome to Bushwick” when Adam points this out to her was one of the most interesting of the season; by the finale, Adam had become one of the best characters on the show (thanks in no small part to the performance of Adam Driver).
But this theme was mirrored in other stories, like Hannah’s best friend Marnie’s relationship with her boyfriend, or Jessa’s involvement with her boss’ husband: In each case, the unflattering portrait of the man was revealed to be largely a result of the woman seeing what she wanted to see. My favorite instance, however, came in “Hard Being Easy,” when Hannah propositioned her boss. After his constant unwelcome massages, Hannah offered to have sex with him “for the story”—only to be laughed at and rebuked. The revelation that the boss was not actually interested in sleeping with her, but was sincerely a well-meaning but creepy boss led to one of the funniest scenes of the season.
This scene was also an instance of something I’m almost embarrassed to admit: Even when the men on the show were portrayed as “losers” and antagonists, I still ended up sympathizing with them more than the female protagonists. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the four main characters—I came around to all of them (except Marnie) by the end—or even that I wasn’t rooting for them, but I almost always identified with the men more. This was particularly disconcerting in a scene where the man was obviously guilty of sexual harassment.
There is simply a barrier that divides the sexes that is greater than the barrier that divides class, race, or religion. I fit the Girls demographic in virtually every way but gender, and yet it still felt like an anthropological study at times. In the third episode, for example, an artist aggressively hit on Marnie at a party. She turned him down, but then went to the bathroom to masturbate. This was as shocking to me as half the things that happened on Lost. Further, I had no real way to gauge its realism.
One way to interpret this is as a depressing sign that all those “men and women are different” clichés are true and unavoidable. But I think it’s more of a reflection of Girls’s ability to draw realistic, complete characters while still creating its own heightened reality and maintaining a distinct perspective. What was so impressive was how neither the women nor the men portrayed on the show were clichés, so unfamiliarity was the inevitable result of originality. Some scenes or storylines felt a little worn—like Marnie and Hannah dancing at the end of episode three, or Jessa’s “romance” with her employer—but the characters in them always seemed real. As a result, the show stayed funny even in its more predictable episodes.
And Girls was very funny throughout its first season even if it occasionally suffered from not knowing how it was going to be funny. The funniest moments generally came when the show was willing to make its characters unlikable: Marnie telling her boyfriend that she hates his shaved head… only to hear that he did it for a co-worker undergoing chemo; Hannah interrupting her friends’ fight to ask them if they liked her essay; etc. But occasionally the writers forced one-liners or quips into the episode, almost as if they were worried that they couldn’t have jokes without punchlines. This led to some unrealistic dialogue, like a shoehorned-in line about Hannah having friends from pre-school that interrupted an otherwise very natural (and still funny) scene.
That scene, in the penultimate episode “Leave Me Alone,” was the real climax of he first season, in which Hannah and Marnie have their long-overdue falling out. It was probably the best scene of the season: It was funny and compelling and well-acted. There have been thousands of “friends breaking up” scenes on television, but this one felt earned. Even better, the gender issue hardly played a role at all. There was nothing especially “feminine” about the fight; this was just two friends who had grown sick of each other. At the same time, part of what made it so fresh was that it’s so rare to see two young women on TV fighting over something besides a guy.
In some ways, this made the finale, which paired each of the four main characters off with a different guy, so disconcerting. It suggests a future for the series that is all about whatever relationship each of them happens to be in at the moment. This isn’t bad because of what it says about the current state of feminism, or diversity on television, or any other of the charges people made against the show initially. There are simply plenty of other shows that already do that, and Girls proved in its first season that, for all its flaws, it was at least original. Except for the name.