Girls, Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy-drama, aired the finale of its sixth and final season this Sunday, and with its conclusion comes the end of a years-long debate spanning the topics of gender, race, privilege, Hollywood, sex, and creative autonomy. From its inception, it seemed that everyone and their grandmother had an opinion on the show, even before it aired. Controversies arose over the overwhelming whiteness of the cast (the plot, centred on four friends of varying backgrounds and ambitions, was set in Brooklyn, a borough with a majority non-white population), Dunham’s frequent social media gaffes, and every issue surrounding the series became the ultimate hot take lightning rod. While the much maligned “voice of a generation” quote from the pilot was dissected to death regarding the show’s real life status as such (remember, when Dunham’s character Hannah said that, she was literally high), the show itself never escaped that shadow of expectation and presumption. Eventually, at some point it became just as fascinating to watch other people watch Girls as it was to just consume the show itself.
Fittingly for a show that aggravated as often as it enticed, Girls ended with a divisive episode, and in its aftermath, the painful question of its legacy can begin to be answered. It’s tough to immediately judge a show’s impact following its finale, but it’s a question that Girls has been asked pretty much from its pilot. Dunham, who got her start as an indie filmmaker with a critically acclaimed debut, Tiny Furniture (it’s already in the Criterion Collection), emerged onto the scene as a descendent of the oft-maligned mumblecore subgenre.
Mumblecore, so named because of its directors’ penchant for bad sound mixing, is defined as a naturalistic form of low-budget filmmaking with a focus on the lives and relationships of 20- and 30-somethings, most often Americans. Improvisation is often key, and many of these films use non-professional actors. The Duplass Brothers, Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, and Lynn Shelton are a handful of directors who established themselves through films using these tropes, although none of them actually adopted the “mumblecore” label. While critics’ opinions differed on the merits of these films, they formed another step in a long narrative of filmmaking that can be traced back through indie favorites like Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, all the way to the French New Wave of the 60s. Its influence is also undeniable: As Vadim Rizov noted in Indiewire, “without “Funny Ha Ha” [Andrew Bujalski’s debut], Lena Dunham might not exist.”
Around the time Dunham started making waves with Tiny Furniture in 2010, many had already declared the mumblecore genre to be over, as its directors moved on to bigger budgets and slicker production values. Dunham’s film straddles those liminal borders – it’s a semi-autobiographical dramedy with non-professional actors (including Dunham’s own mother and sister), but it’s a much sharper directorial effort with less of the slapdash pseudo-improvisational stylings of its forefathers. It’s easy to see it as the origins of Girls, and had that show remained a film, it probably wouldn’t have garnered anywhere near the hot-button conversations it did.
Even during the heights of Peak TV, being on HBO still means something. The network that essentially launched the concept pf prestige television and gave birth to pioneers like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and Sex and the City will forever remain the carrier of immense expectations. It means something to be on HBO, so when Dunham made it to the network off the back of one indie movie and the efforts of producer Judd Apatow, it was bound to raise eyebrows. Comparisons to Sex and the City were immediate – four female friends in New York with an interest in sex – which highlighted the sheer dearth of women-led and created shows on television. In a landscape where the Difficult Men of television are praised and women are denied the opportunities to advance to the writers’ room and beyond, Dunham stood out, both as a leader and a pariah. It became easy to write about her and Girls as a shining example of the future and, yes, as The Voice of a Generation. That perch is a tough one to fall from, and with the power of exceptionalism and being the only woman in the room comes the responsibility of having that amplified voice.
Privilege defines Girls. Dunham’s background combined with the show’s story of an aimless woman who can’t break beyond the safety net of her own circumstances placed the show in a very specific mindset for audiences, and the show’s glaring lack of diversity brought it under a harsher spotlight. Girls is hardly the only show to suffer from such a problem – indeed, it seems to define the landscape of the medium – but seldom before had that issue been defined along the intersections of race and gender. How does a show lauded by critics as a fresh feminist voice still meet that criteria when its definition of womanhood is exclusively white? Television has made great progress over the past couple of years in terms of representation: Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Atlanta, Insecure, Master of None, and Chewing Gum, to name a few. There is still a long way to go, but with far more options and fresher voices on the table, the legacy of Girls quickly becomes one that’s lesser in its urgency.
Dunham tried to ease concerns and did add more actors of color to the show in later seasons, but for all of her talents on the screen, Dunham is a clumsy presence in the public sphere, and many questioned how self-aware she really was about her own privilege. She’s talented and painfully earnest, but also a dishearteningly easy target from every side. With every element of legitimate criticism regarding her portrayals of sex came a barrage of misogyny over her frequent use of nudity and her own body; women and people of color offered succinct and eloquent analyses of questionable elements of the show, while too many male critics seemed to delight in casual misogyny. Every article on the supposed evils of the millennial experience seemed to be accompanied by a screenshot from Girls. As Maureen Ryan wrote in Variety, “Girls became what I call ‘an X-Ray show’: What a person wrote or said about the show told me a lot about where their head was at.”
Ultimately, the path Dunham has tread is one that few women had done before her, but one that many women may still not get the chance to try due to their own limitations and the biases of the industry. Issa Rae, creator of the hit YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, spent years toiling in pre-production before her own TV show, Insecure, made it to HBO: Dunham got Girls on the air much quicker in comparison. It’s a stark difference that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Steven Hyden of Uproxx argued that Girls‘ true long-term impact has nothing to do with the show itself, and that its legacy is negligible in the aftermath of more successful shows in the genre: He believes that “media-constructed prestige (which has zero intrinsic worth) has become the most valuable currency, even more than viewers,” and Girls was the epitome of that in the eyes of the media. It’s the show that launched a thousand thinkpieces, and generated way more headlines than a show averaging less than a million viewers an episode ever would under typical circumstances. That may very well be true. Many of the strongest opinions on the show, often eloquently written and justified in their stance, came from those who didn’t watch it, and that elevated media presence didn’t lead to the show becoming a runaway ratings smash. A show that delved into topics of abortion, mental illness, the 20-something struggle, and toxic relationships on-screen was one that sparked debates of intersectional feminism, the limitations of the entertainment industry, and who has the right to tell stories.
Whatever you think of Girls itself, there is worth in its place in the narrative of TV history. People didn’t talk about Girls; they talked about how Girls made them feel and what it said about the world. For better or worse, that’s not a bad legacy to have.
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