Friday 22 November 2019

'Girls': voice of a generation

As the series draws to a close, our reporter looks back on how it offered a refreshingly complex portrait of millennial femininity and female friendships

Closing act: Jemima Kirke as Jessa, Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna, Allison Williams as Marnie, and Lena Dunham as Hannah
Closing act: Jemima Kirke as Jessa, Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna, Allison Williams as Marnie, and Lena Dunham as Hannah
Red carpet glam: The cast at the premiere of the final season
Adam and Lena in Girls

Tanya Sweeney

In 2012, it was revealed that HBO was creating a show that, on the face of it, was destined to linger in the shadow of another seismic female comedy. Four different girls, each a type (the Sexual Libertine, the Uptight One, the Straight Girl Who Runs A Gallery, the Writer) trying to find their way in New York. Before the show went to air, Girls had been largely dismissed as a 'Sex and the City for the Facebook generation'.

How wrong they were.

This weekend, after five years, six seasons and 62 episodes, the show reaches its finale. And really, what a journey it's been from there to here (if you haven't caught up with this week's episode on Sky Atlantic, expect spoilers ahead).

In the first season we see Hannah Horvath (played by creator Lena Dunham), aspiring to be "the voice of my generation, or a voice of a generation" financially cut off by her Midwestern parents. With dreams of literary grandeur looming large, she lurches from thankless internship to McJob to sexual scenarios where she is gamely trying to acclimatise to the kinky role-play encouraged by her boyfriend Adam (played, in his pre-Kylo Ren days, by Adam Driver, below).

Adam and Lena in Girls

Throughout the series, the toe-curling sex scenes for all four characters came at a rate of knots, making Girls one of the most authentic, uncomfortably familiar accounts of millennial femininity. The gloss and the glamour of youthful life had been swiftly dispensed with; in its place were characters privileged enough to have first-world problems, young enough to be bereft of self-awareness, but old enough to no longer get away with it.

In the course of six series, each of our four anti-heroines became downright solipsistic and hateful to varying degrees: aspiring singer Marnie (Allison Williams), the most grounded of them all in the first episode, became unbearably self-absorbed to the point of pathology. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), initially a quirky figure of fun, has emerged with the most solid Happy Ever After. Jessa (Jemima Kirke) has, after a rare moment of self-reflection, rightly concluded that she is a "f***ing bitch".

No one ever said that exploration - sexual, emotional, financial - was fun. There are false dawns, missteps and more regrets than you could shake a copy of the New Yorker at, and Dunham was, to her credit, one of the few TV creators to call it.

And where other TV shows have been a simpering paean to female friendship, Dunham's four characters have made a refreshing counterpoint. Friendships among women are complex, imperfect, messy and occasionally cruel. The bonds made in college, or in a moment of young folly, are often not built to last. These are the friendships of plain circumstance. There were moments of intimacy, whether it was dancing like no one was watching to Robyn, or eating cupcakes together in the bath. Still, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna have largely been locked into a co-dependency with each other, each one taking turns to be the toxic, pain-in-the-arse narcissist.

Far from being a touchy-feely ode to female friendship, Girls has become an account of four women defriending, and forging a life away from, each other. Whether the coupling is conscious or not, even they can't say.

Like its questioning, curious characters, Girls has taken a couple of wrong turns in its five-year history. In fact, there are times that Girls has officially wandered off the plantation.

Even this final series has a weird tang of Dunham having a deus ex machina moment as she plays fast and loose with the destinies of the four characters. If you rolled your eyes as a pregnant Hannah reunited briefly with Adam, or Jessa had anonymous, tearful sex with a barfly out of nowhere, you were certainly not alone. But as the final episode rounds the corner, it's obvious that Dunham, unlike Hannah, is far more self-aware and astute than we ever gave her credit for.

Even 'American Bitch' - the recent episode where Hannah meets (and ends up touching the penis of) acclaimed novelist Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) - seems pedestrian and random on the surface. But it is in fact a meditation on consent and male privilege, not to mention the responsibilities and limitations of having a huge public platform. Much, one supposes, like Dunham has.

It may not seem like it to the viewer, but Dunham has known since Season 2 exactly where Hannah Horvath would end up (pregnant thanks to a surf instructor, published to acclaim, working as a professor and living, health insurance and all, in upstate New York).

Ironically, Hannah has had her real moments of growth outside of the city, whether it's at the Iowa writers' workshop or upstate while visiting Jessa's family. And now that she has achieved a modicum of career success, Dunham has done away with one of Hannah's most displeasing qualities: seeing herself, and those around her, as fodder for a brilliant personal essay collection. With Dunham's eye firmly on the long game, it will be a huge surprise if there isn't at least a payoff or two in the finale.

It's probably a testament to Dunham's creative sleight of hand that she has been held to a much higher (read: tougher) standard than many of her writing peers. Dunham, and Girls, was made to stand for everything. She has been criticised for under-representing non-white characters, while thinkpiece after thinkpiece was delivered about Hannah Horvath's naked body, which appeared on-screen frequently, and without fanfare.

Still, many made note of her body, a different and softer sort to the usual televisual female form we are used to seeing. It was at once shocking and eye-poppingly exotic, occasionally lauded as an act of bravery. Make no mistake, Hannah's breasts were the most political and feminist on the small screen.

The great trouble with this is that Dunham's genuinely ground-breaking television making has often been eclipsed in the discussion. This weekend's final episode is likely to ignite a burst of media hagiography, a final stoke of the embers. Let's hope Girls' legacy is treated with less scrutiny and more care than it was during its lifetime.

Irish Independent

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