Trying to Get 'Girls': Breaking down Lena Dunham's award-winning HBO show

In the pilot episode of “Girls,” the much-discussed HBO series now in its second season, Hannah, the show’s main character, gets high, gets angsty and gets worried looks from her parents when she describes the importance of her partly-completed memoir. Groggy, she announces: “I am the voice of my generation.” She pauses, then: “Well, maybe a voice.” Hannah is played by Lena Dunham, the show’s 26-year-old creator, writer and director, and in many ways these words sum up much of the debate surrounding the actress’s work: Who, exactly, does the show represent?

“Girls,” which recently won a Golden Globe for best comedy or musical, centers around four women in their early twenties trying to make it in New York. The characters struggle to find meaningful work, yet have difficulty finding meaningful relationships. They try hard to be liked by others, yet frequently feel only disdain for themselves. Their world is complicated and fascinating, often involving more nudity than subtlety. Dunham’s depiction of these internal and external crises has been both lauded as realistic and artistic and criticized as vulgar and lacking in diversity. But in the end, is it worth watching? We asked Olga Segura, an assistant editor and 20-something native New Yorker; Kerry Weber, an associate editor and 30-something New York transplant; and Jim McDermott, a film student and 40-something Jesuit, to weigh in.


Kerry: Why did each of you start watching "Girls"?

Jim: A bunch of my friends get together to watch tons of different shows. Last year, “Girls” was one of them, and I loathed it. I entered in the middle of the season, and I just found it so dark and grainy and depressing. This Christmas I thought, okay, let's go back and see what's really there. And I've had a better impression.

Olga: I had been hearing a lot about the show from my female friends who said, "Oh, this is so us in New York!” I resisted until one day I had nothing to do and fell into the marathon trap.

Kerry: At first I really disliked the show and found it depressing. In real life, I see relationships that share some of the characteristics of those on the show, but I always assume there’s more to the relationship than I can know as an outsider, that it’s deeper and more meaningful. Watching “Girls” seemed to confirm the worst in people—the vacuous nature of some relationships, the way that people used each other, the relationships based on convenience.

Jim: It's funny, some of my friends here who watch the show didn't like it at first because they found it was too close to their own lives. They didn't think it had much of a point of view, really.

Olga: I agree, Kerry. It has shocked me how, oftentimes, I've found myself in female friendships where we truly can't get beyond a sort of superficiality.

Jim: Olga, can you say more about that?

Olga: After college there are times when friendships go off in different directions because you're so unsure of what you want in life, and it leads to the sort of superficial bond that you see between, say, Marnie and Hannah.

Kerry: So many of the girls in the show seem to be in relationships of convenience, and it's very easy to judge that, on the show and in real life. But I also think it makes clear that the emotion underlying so much of the show is fear. Hannah talks about that a bit in the final episode of season one, where she screams in the street that she's more scared than anyone. (Although it just ends up sounding like she's more selfish than anyone.)

Olga: Yes! They're all so dependent on people that they don’t like, because they are completely fearful of being alone.

Jim: There are times I think the show is a really insightful commentary on the dangers of 20-something life today. But other times it seems so incredibly black. As much as people have lauded Lena Dunham's writing and acting as brave, sometimes it feels like she absolutely hates these characters, her own most of all. Maybe the characters will learn and grow over time. I'd just like to see their narcissism and fear portrayed at times with a little more compassion. I really think people find the characters so loathsome in part because Dunham herself seems to.

Kerry:  I think that much of the appeal of the show comes from the fact that, even if viewers can’t relate to 90 percent of the situations depicted, they can relate to some of the confusion or anxiety behind them, especially surrounding relationships and that fear of being alone. In watching the show you get the benefit of both a communal experience (Ah, I feel that way sometimes, too) and a kind of schadenfreude (Well, at least my life isn’t that pathetic).

Jim:  Don't get me wrong, I love the show precisely for its willingness to show that fear in such a raw form. It's not commercial at all. I just don't know how long I'll stick around if I'm being invited to just hate these characters. Then again,I might just be frustrated because Hannah’s now-ex-boyfriend, Adam, is no longer in the picture. For me, as bizarre as he can be, he's the voice of something different and better. I love his line: "When you love someone, you don't always have to be nice." Genius.

Olga: I think that Dunham is trying to capture that egoism and selfishness that a lot of people encounter at that age and which they outgrow once they evolve and mature (hopefully).

Jim: But Olga, do you think it's as awful as she portrays? (I say this as a clueless no-longer-in-his-20s-but-tell-no-one Jesuit.)

Olga: I don't think it's as awful as she portrays it, but the beauty in the show is that she's capturing these women before they realize, "Hey, it's really not as serious or as dramatic as I made it seem."

Kerry: I think we see those same emotions in real life, just in smaller, less quirky or hilarious ways, little ways that eat away at people instead of big fights at warehouse parties or strange relationships with egotistical artists.

Jim: At times I'm uncomfortable with how much flesh Dunham is showing. I see it as her saying, I'm exposing vulnerabilities, it's all going to be out there, all the stuff we're uncomfortable with. But other times I just think, okay, enough already. This is less about the show and more about you.

Kerry:  Yes, I’m uncomfortable with it too, sometimes, but not because Dunham doesn't look the way Hollywood says an actress should look, or because I’m offended. Rather, I think the way that she portrays her vulnerabilities through her body would be more effective if used sparingly. Instead it’s almost like a running gag.

Jim: Maybe it's meant to show just how clueless she is, just how exposed and at risk. She's like a baby—way more vulnerable than she realizes.

Olga: The girls have no idea what is really happening around them, and yet they seem to also relish in their circumstances. I think the mentality of the characters has been this sort of "I'm young and unstoppable; let me do anything I want.”

Kerry: Dunham said in an interview that the girls are living what they imagine to be the quintessential New York experience. They believe that whatever they experience in New York takes on value and becomes interesting. But in the end New York itself doesn’t have salvific powers. It can’t, ultimately, save the girls from having to confront their fears, only distract the girls from them for a while.

Jim: I certainly think a lot of people (myself included at times) have shared that enchanting/enchanted vision of New York. But it's so true—New York ain't gonna save you, baby. (As I typed that sentence I heard myself talking like Jimmy Durante. Ha cha cha cha.)

Kerry: I think Hannah’s comment that she’s “a voice of her generation” is the key to my being able to watch “Girls” in a way that allows me to appreciate it as a show and not become overly critical of the ways in which it differs from my lived experience. I get frustrated when critics start claiming that the show represents the experience of everyone and that Dunham gets to tell us what that experience is.

Olga: It would be very unfair to have Hannah represent a generation, because it's not realistic enough, and I'm speaking as both a native New Yorker and a female in my 20s. First of all, the girls’ apartment is way too nice.

Jim: I'm going to say that Dunham is more playing the fool in having Hannah consider herself that way. "Yes, she is the voice of a generation, and God would you look at it."

Kerry: There are instances in the show based on Dunham’s real life, but for the most part it seems like Dunham is able to use these examples to look back on mistakes she or friends made in the not-too-distant past and to see them as funny or to see lessons in them. The show is obviously not a how-to.

Jim: But then I think of the fool in King Lear. He's constantly undermining the King, but he loves the King, too. He'd never admit it, but he'd never destroy the man. He’s trying to build him up. And that's the part I'm not sure about yet with “Girls.” It all feels a little cruel. By being not only the creator but the lead on the show, Dunham is sort of winking at us, revealing herself to be one of us and encouraging us to judge her creations harshly. She makes herself the man behind the curtain, so to speak.

Kerry: I think it would be easy to see the show as a way of validating one's own similar mistakes, but what I think Dunham is trying to do is to say we're not alone in them.

Jim: I hope you're right. That's a lot kinder than I read it.

Olga: I think that by being the man behind the curtain, Dunham exposes herself before someone else does and, in turn, takes control of her own artwork. 

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Michael Casey
5 years 12 months ago
Some the frustration of people around this show comes from the fact that it's another show about well-off white, narcissistic 20-somethings in New York with nice apartments and annoying, sometimes creepy sex lives. This concept has been beaten to death (Friends, SITC, Seinfeld, most movies, etc). Especially since the '08 recession, most American young or old have no connection to such characters. Yet they (HBO, in this case) keep making shows about these people and keep telling us they speak for a generation and that (I'm not kidding) they are original. Funny, as America gets poorer and more diverse and less convinced that NY is the center of the world, we focus on a show about wealthy white kids spinning their romantic, frequently-naked wheels around a seriously gentrified Brooklyn, waiting for the real world (and trust funds) to sweep them away to power, prestige and Connecticut. Wish fulfillment? Hard to say... How about a show following 20-somethings in Podunk USA, portly folks, high school dropouts and immigrants who drink lots of soda and struggle to keep a job at Walmart? people who spend bitter pennies keeping a beater car on the road, buy crappy food and struggle to keep their children in school. That would be the voice of a generation.


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