Goodbye to “Girls”: The show that wasn’t really about millennials, after all

Worthy of applause.
Worthy of applause.
Image: HBO
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Here’s the thing about Girls: Every wave of criticism about millennials—that we’re lazy, entitled, whiney, aimless—has crashed down upon Lena Dunham’s HBO show, which became the symbol of our generation’s contemptible failings. And six years of media ranting against the show’s undeniable flaws—predominantly its lack of diversity and its astoundingly self-absorbed characters—made it easy to dismiss.

Yet Girls, at its core, is not just about millennials. It’s an exploration of the universal pratfalls of youth, and an acknowledgement of the reality that human beings are inherently flawed. Dunham’s little show was brilliant satire because it found humor in these flaws: narcissism, envy, indulgence, laziness, unrequited love.

It’s about people figuring out who they are going to be—hilarious in its one liners (from episode one’s “When I look at both of you, a Coldplay song plays in my heart,” to the finale’s “Every time you say ‘nipple,’ a fairy dies”)—and cringe-worthy in its shameless exposure of humans’ ability to hurt and mend one another, without ever truly fixing themselves.

For me, the show has been a begrudging, joyful addiction since it premiered. I’ve laughed at and identified with Hannah Horvath and her crew of deeply annoying friends, knowing that I’m similarly flawed. I too can be self-involved, narcissistic, selfish, and depressed. I find endless joy in my friends, imperfect as we all are. 

But as the girls and boys of Girls had their final hurrah this past week, I am left with questions that an avalanche of recaps and think pieces haven’t answered: When will we “grow up”? Are adults really so free of narcissism and self-involvement? I’m tempted to think the answers to these questions are “never” and “no.”

As several critics have said in the past week, the beauty of the show is that Dunham was in on her own joke. Those who conflated Dunham with Hannah—an error easily made, given Dunham’s tendency to drop awkward and insensitive comments in interviews—missed the point of the show: Dunham’s masterful puppetry of herself. Hannah—as well as Marnie, Shoshanna, Jessa, Adam, Elijah, and Ray—are hilariously self-absorbed and, sometimes, awful to the point of being caricatures.

But they’re also real. We see ourselves—our youth, yes, but also our present reality, whoever we are—in these characters’ imperfections. This uncomfortable self-recognition is why we laugh at Girls, and most good comedy.

That’s what makes the arguments about Girls’ characters being “unlikeable” so anemic. Are you perfect? Do you not occasionally scream self-indulgent absurdities at the people you love, then regret it and hug them? Do you never project your own insecurities on your friends? Or get involved with people that are total fuck ups?

These are honest questions. Maybe the answer, for some people, is “I am nothing like any of the Girls characters.” I do know for sure that many, many people lack the privilege to bathe in their self-involved fantasies as the characters in Girls do. But many who have slammed Dunham and Girls for these flaws (myself included) should perhaps take a moment to consider glass houses and stones.

What would the show look like, freed from the baggage that its identification with privileged millennials carries? In a recent interview, Dunham’s co-creator, Jenni Konner, imagined watching Girls long after its cultural moment has passed. “It’ll be really interesting to see what people think of the show once we’ve all gotten some distance from it,” she told Vulture. “I’m excited to see what people think about the show in two years when they’re just watching it, or in ten years when they’re just watching it. I want to know what Girls looks like without all the noise around it.”

It’s an interesting thought experiment. Will we look back at Hannah as we do at Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall, as a timeless representation of youth’s flinty idealism? Will we see echoes of Holden Caulfield’s angst, or Hamlet’s solipsistic philosophizing, in Hannah’s recriminations of everyone around her, and herself?

And will elements of Girls‘ DNA live on in the art and storytelling that follows it? The inevitable current comparison is to Issa Rae’s fantastic show, Insecure, also on HBO, which tells a very different story, but also features friends who treat each other badly, sleep with the wrong people, scream at and hug each other. And Dunham’s experimentation with the form of the half-hour sitcom has surely contributed to the rise of excellent TV that defies genre—including Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Louis C.K.’s Louie.

Unlike Sex and the City, a cheap but frequent Girls comparison, Dunham’s was a cautionary tale grounded in realism. Hannah isn’t a character to aspire to, as Carrie Bradshaw was (to many), and the world of dingy apartments and dead-end jobs that the show’s characters inhabit isn’t particularly enviable. 

Perhaps the most common critique of Dunham’s characters (amplified after what many deemed a disappointing finale) is that they didn’t mature or change at all. To me, this is one of the joys of the show.

It’s true, they all end up almost exactly where they started: Marnie competitively declaring her best friend status to boost her own self-worth; Hannah screeching absurdities and blaming everyone but herself for her life’s ills; Shoshanna obsessing over a new group of pretty, cool friends. But Marnie still shows deep love for her best friend; Hannah keeps trying, despite her failures, to care for someone else; and all the women (because they are women, and have been all along) keep loving each other, flaws and all.

Dunham’s characters didn’t mature because, probably, none of us really mature. The funny thing about real life is that, like it or not, most of us don’t really change that much.

At the end of the first episode of “Girls,” Hannah, high in her parents’ hotel room, urges them to read her manuscript—a memoir she hasn’t finished because she hasn’t yet “lived it all.” It’s a grand gesture designed to convince them to keep supporting her with $1,100 a month. She justifies this absurd ask by telling them: “I think that I may be the voice of my generation… or the voice of a generation.”

This statement parodies Hannah’s delusional state (and what young writer doesn’t wonder occasionally whether they might, just maybe, be the voice of their generation?), but it also foreshadows the brilliance of the whole series: The girls and boys of Girls aren’t the voice of the millennial generation, and their disconnection from that reality is at the heart of the show’s humor.

But Dunham is most certainly a voice of a generation—and we’ll be thinking about what she said in Girls for many years to come.