‘WWhy is everyone struggling in New York? asks Hannah Hovarth in the first season of HBO Girls’ coming-of-age comedy-drama. Back in 2012, it was a question that — for fans and the many journalists who gave the show rave reviews — was very fresh. Lena Dunham’s look at the trials and tribulations that come with coming of age in the Big Apple – which launched 10 years ago today – was not the first of its kind. But while shows such as Sex and the City – and its all-black counterpart Girlfriends – had explored similar ground 10 years earlier, there was something about Girls that felt different.
“If Sex in the City is a celebration of a post-90s feminism that celebrates money, consumerism, sex and exaggerated femininity, Girls is its rejection,” says Jorie Lagerwey, English, Drama teacher and film at University College Dublin and author of Horrible White People; Gender, gender and the precarious whiteness of television. It was an unflinching depiction of millennial life seeking to uncover what lay beneath the veneer of the American Dream. The 2008 recession betrayed a generation of people and so where Carrie Bradshaw masked her romantic troubles with hearty cocktails and $500 Manolo Blahniks, Dunham took a more drastic approach by forgoing masks all together. He embraced the warts and all the truths of a specific generation of women.
In the opening episode, we saw Hannah’s Dunham character – an aspiring writer in between unpaid internships – about to be cut off from her parents, despite believing herself to be the “voice of ‘one generation’. It’s one of many pieces of grating comedy, delusions of grandeur and intensity that litter the show. You’re not supposed to like these ladies, but you’re supposed to see your worst in them. After years of only men being allowed to be flawed, the crass protagonists – Tony Soprano and Walter White come to mind – having four daughters in this realm felt groundbreaking. “It was a watershed moment,” Lagerwey says. “Women should be rude, unsympathetic and miserable and mean to each other.”
Or at least a very specific demographic of women did. One of the main objections that have been leveled against Girls is that Dunham’s New York was essentially mono-ethnic – except for a few black and brown people who played minor roles as industrial workers. services. Where white women felt seen, other women found the spectacle uncomfortable. As people explored Dunham’s career, they discovered that she was the child of well-connected members of New York’s liberal elite – artists Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham – and came to see history. of the show as a story of privilege, wealth and nepotism.
“I remember being very angry,” says Zeba Blay, author of Carefree Black Girls – so angry, she even started a podcast to respond to it. She was not alone. There was a growing chorus of women of color who took to Twitter to air their grievances of being ignored and overlooked.
This provoked strong reactions from those who championed the show as a revolutionary force for alternative white feminism today. Liz Arfin, a writer on the show’s first season, sarcastically tweeted (but has since deleted the post): “What really bothered me the most about [the movie] Precious was that there was no representation of ME. An infamous Twitter spat involved Caitlin Moran. “Did you address the complete and utter lack of people of color in Girls in your interview? I hope so,” a tweeter told Moran, who had interviewed Dunham. “No and I don’t care!” she replied in a tweet that was also deleted.
One of the things that worked against Girls was its timing, given that it came at a precarious time for race relations. It aired two months after the murder of Trayvon Martin in February of the same year – a tragedy that heightened racial tensions in the United States, leading to an increase in the number of people exploring how whiteness presented itself in all aspects of life. In this context, the girls felt to some like an unabashed display of white privilege that was too much to digest. As a result, it became one of the first intellectual playgrounds for cultural criticism of its kind. As Lagerwey points out, “2012 was the start of serious discussions about visibility and intersectionality.”
Returning to the show means being confronted with an important time capsule. In many ways, its central characters, Hannah, Jessa, Marnie and Shoshanna, are young up-and-coming “Karens” – before we have a catch-all name for that kind of white woman. They may think of themselves as socially liberal and upstanding young women, changing the fabric of society simply by their existence, but they are eminently authorized people who use their privilege for personal gain. The self-awareness that Dunham’s script shows in terms of these characters’ other horror sides suggests there’s a knowingness at work here. But it nonetheless serves as an epochal snapshot of the unthinking awkwardness of white privilege and its pervasive nature. “Girls – like Sex and the City – is a truly compelling portrait of a moment in time that will never exist again,” says Blay.
Looking back, there’s also another question worth asking: Would it even have been a good idea for Dunham to write from a black or ethnic minority perspective? Some commentators think not.
“In retrospect, there’s nothing worse than a white writer trying to write black characters and not having the scope to really understand them,” Blay says. “It’s always like they’re projecting their interpretations of race onto them.” Dunham penning Donald Glover in season two as her black Republican boyfriend — and the accusations of being a clumsy attempt at diversity that it caused — is a case in point.
Looking back 10 years, it’s hard not to wonder if the conversation that erupted around the lack of diversity in Girls also had an important long-term consequence: bringing diversity to the forefront of discussions on television. Criticism of the show’s whiteness started a public conversation that continues to this day, a conversation that helped create space for diverse storytelling, given the rise of shows that gave voice to creators. non-whites who followed. While the girls shouldn’t be credited for their success, the debate it sparked may have helped people like Issa Rae Precarious and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You are on television.
Had the show been called White Girls, Dunham might have been able to control the narrative surrounding the show much earlier and it’s been hinted that these characters live wildly undiverse lives in one of the most diverse cities in the world. world were a deliberate way of making them ugly. But, as show creator Jenny Konner said, she was taken aback by the harshness of the reviews. “I knew [the lack of diversity] would be a problem, but I didn’t think the criticism would be at the level it was at,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. “Or that the conversation about race would turn into a conversation about racism,” added Dunham.
To Dunham’s credit, her outlook on race has grown off-screen over the years — though it’s taken several controversies and cycles of apologies to get there — and it has seemed to reflect her changing outlook on screen, too. . As the show reached its final season, there was a tone of self-awareness that was missing in the show’s previous seasons. As Shoshanna says in season six, when she abruptly separates from her friends, “We can’t be in the same room without one of us doing it completely and entirely around us.”
It’s just one of the many shining moments that Girls has been littered with. Take the polarizing but defining One Man’s Trash episode from Season 2, where Hannah embarks on a weekend affair with a recently estranged older doctor played by Patrick Wilson. Or the season six episode American Bitch, which tackled sexual harassment. Time rightly called the episode “groundbreaking” adding “For better or worse, Girls is unlike anything else on television.”
And, it’s worth noting a sad consequence of the debate around the show’s portrayal of ethnicity: it will have robbed many potential viewers of the joy of Girls’ finest moments. It hasn’t escaped Blay that many of those who have criticized the show have never watched it – having been put off by the negativity surrounding it. “It’s a shame,” she said. “Because there are seasons and episodes of this show that are really brilliant.” Ironically, in the end, the girls was overshadowed, off-screen, by the exact thing he was smartly exploring: self-centeredness.