Most of you probably think of Lena Dunham as the living embodiment of third wave feminism, the median Hillary Clinton voter, the type of person who calls you a racist and tries to get you fired for complaining about the homeless man who defecated on your porch. In season one of The White Lotus, Connie Britton's character makes this sort of joke at her expense (though I suspect it's tongue-in-cheek, since Mike White is also a liberal who often runs afoul of liberal orthodoxy)
And look, I get it. Circa 2014-2017 she was saying some incredibly libtarded things.
The odds are that she is in fact mostly libtarded on most things. As much as I am reading into her art, her public statements clearly mean something, and some of them are quite bad.
And to be fair there is an episode of her show that takes advantage of the Me Too hysteria and takes the mainstream line, though perhaps if you squint you can see some criticisms of the movement, and the episode almost doesn't feel like a part of the same show, since Lena Dunham's character suddenly becomes ten times more clever and nothing that happens is referenced again. And you've probably seen several unflattering images of her from the show. She gets naked an awful lot, though she doesn't really portray it as erotic or as a political statement about body positivity like most people think.
It almost feels like an in-joke, some type of bizarre performance art, specifically designed to illicit laughs, but not in a Chris Farley kind of way. It's exhibitionist, but she isn't delusional about how she looks. All this is to say you'll survive the nude scenes.
However, I do believe Lena Dunham was a victim of the Trump-era. She was an independent up until 2016 and a punching bag for the left rather than the right, who probably didn't even know who she was. Whether she went full libtard for self-serving ends to placate her critics, or if she is one of the centrists whose brain was broken by Trump, it's not entirely clear. One the one hand, many of her worst statements apparently occurred after the hiring of a PR manager. On the other, it's hard for me to wrap my head around saying so many outlandish things and going so over-the-top for Democrats if your heart isn't in it. Plenty of celebrities just throw money at liberal causes to throw people off their track and say nothing.
I held standard anti-Lena Dunham opinions myself for a while. Yet, my mom watched Girls and so when I would visit her, the show would be on and I would watch with her. I can't remember the exact scene that was on, but something felt . . . off.
While I mostly found the characters insufferable in the short clips I had caught previously, something deeper was going on in the show. I went and watched the first episode back and it finally clicked: Lena Dunham is self-aware.
She knows exactly how insufferable urban Millennials can be.
I hated these characters because Lena Dunham wrote them to be bad people on purpose. There was complexity, sure, but she was far less interested in the sympathetic parts of their personality than she was the unsympathetic parts. I pointed this out to my mom and she completely agreed. She was watching it for that exact reason.
But had anyone else realized this?*
When it first came out, Girls was the talk of the early 2010s left-leaning internet. Jezebel and the AV Club wrote endlessly about it. While Lena was subject to accusations of "hipster racism" the general attitude towards her was that she was the next big thing for that subset of people. Naturally a show centered on women that wasn't focused on superficial fashion like Sex and the City was going to attract praise from these people. What's more, the show courted the tastemakers of the day by focusing on Brooklyn millennials.
Sitcoms like Friends are still successful today because they attempted to make their characters feel "out-of-time" in a sense. Everyone wears plain clothes and mostly avoids the slang of their day. In Girls, the show very much ties itself to 2010s Brooklyn hipsterdom, and clearly this also drove a lot of the discussion as well.
They probably felt like this show was made *for them*, but failed to realize it was a show *about them*, and not a very flattering one.
While they heaped praise on Lena Dunham, they also put tons of pressure on her early to "be better" on things like diversity. As the show progressed the feminist Brooklyn hipsters clearly did not like this look in the mirror at their culture, and started to complain about the characters being unsympathetic as well. None of these people ever stopped watching, but they never stopped complaining either.
Ok so the Brooklyn hipsters turned on her. How does this make the show anti-liberal?
The first piece of evidence can be seen in how Lena Dunham addresses the lack of diversity in the show, a complaint immediately leveled at her after season one. At the start of season two, Lena Dunham's character Hannah Horvath has a black boyfriend played by Donald Glover. Literally the first time he is on screen, Hannah (who has a thing for being degraded by men throughout the show) is yelling out "Is this what you wanted?" while they have sex. So far so good, right? Except that he's a Republican and Ayn Rand fan while Lena Dunham is a comically uneducated liberal (the show makes clear she barely pays attention to politics and just says what's popular in Brooklyn)
Hannah's friends think it's messed up that she's dating a Republican and so she decides to confront him. In a scene straight out of a Candace Owens fever dream, Hannah says her boyfriend shouldn't be a Republican because he's black, and her boyfriend explodes at her condescending attitude, says he can't connect with her writing, and leaves.
And with that the cast goes back to having no diversity whatsoever.
You wanted more POC? Sure thing, but he's a Republican and your Brooklyn hipster libtardism is what drives him away. In addition to the trolling nature of this subplot, Lena Dunham is asserting that the sort of person portrayed on her show has a predominantly white friend group for a reason, no matter how much they might bleat about diversity and BLM, and to write in a disabled trans Muslim would make the show feel less authentic.
Lena pulls this trick again when Hannah goes off to get her graduate degree in writing. Her writing group is filled to the brim with diversity casting. In fact there might be a disabled trans Muslim, I can't quite remember. The criticisms the writing group gives her pretty obviously mirror what critics had been saying about her show, and they're also completely insufferable.
It's hard to ignore what she's doing here.
After a short stint, Hannah has a blow-up where she tells them all off. This puts an end to the graduate degree subplot. While a liberal might pay attention to Hannah's white woman entitlement, and this is clearly intended to show her in an unsympathetic light, a closer reading reveals that Hannah is exactly right about her critics just as they are right about her, saying things about how they mostly just weaponize their identity. And with that the diversity on the show is gone yet again.
Lena pulls this trick one final time, and to me it's the most hilarious one. Hannah has a brief tryst with an Indian-American surf instructor. She gets pregnant and opts to have the baby. He opts out of raising it. The series ends with a POC finally entering the main cast.
Lest you think these are one-offs, or are confined to Hannah's intentionally unlikeable character to show that she is uniquely bad, an early conversation between Ray and Marnie proves otherwise. Ray goes off on how foreign aid to Africa is detrimental and keeps their people down. Marnie, who he wants to sleep with, does not refute this proposition at all but simply says that this is racist. Ray repents, like so many male leftists who hide their real opinions and merely adopt what gets them laid. Marnie has no argument, just a feeling that this is somehow racist to say.
Ray again commits a liberal faux-pas when a rival coffee shop opens up. The shop itself is a perfect parody of 2010s hipster businesses, with the coffee shop (named Helvetica, another perfect encapsulation of this sort of business) having the pointless gimmick of not providing lids, resulting in people stealing them from Ray's shop. When he confronts them, he misgenders the nonbinary gender goblin employee, played by Lena Dunham's gender goblin sister**, and is scolded.
The scene makes it clear that the hipster coffee shop and its gender goblin employees are the butt of this joke, especially given the fact that the scene was written just as trans ideology was first taking shape and wasn't yet the cause célèbre of the left. Yes, Lena Dunham's sister is nonbinary now, but I cannot find another reading for this scene. It's not a teaching moment for Ray, or a moment that shows his generation's values are out of style. They are making fun of a very specific sort of business and the very specific sort of people who might work there, while poking fun of pronoun policing.
A similar incident later in the series shows to me that Lena was likely getting bombarded with trans propaganda at this time and was trying to reconcile it with her prior beliefs. Clearly Lena wasn't at the woke position yet. A women's business group in the show admits they have no idea what the fashionable position on admitting trans people is supposed to be, whether it's feminist to embrace the issue, or more feminist to gatekeep. While Lena now poses with her sister regularly and says all the right things, the show reflects that she likely had improper opinions at the time.
But it's not the jokes at the expense of liberal orthodoxy that make Girls such a transcendent, intelligent show. After all, many liberals poke fun at some of the more absurd parts of the very ideology they ruthlessly enforce. Girls takes aim at the promises of liberalism for a generation of men and women, and doesn't boil it down to sexism or racism but instead points the finger at Millenials themselves for being slow to realize the false promises they were given.
In that first episode of the show, the one that changed my entire opinion of Lena, she spells out exactly what the show is really about. A poster of Sex and the City appears fairly early in the show. Hannah wants to be a writer but is currently working an unpaid internship. She's done almost nothing to realize her dream. Her parents have been footing the bill, but decide to cut her off and force her to look for a paying job.
Hannah sincerely believes she will catch her big break any day and takes it rather poorly. Declaring of her writing "I think I could be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice, of a generation." Additionally later in the episode she sleeps with Adam Driver's character in a relationship that immediately reveals itself as degrading for Hannah. The lack of self-esteem in her personal life contrasted with the delusional confidence in her professional life is perhaps the defining characteristic of the millennial and Zoomer generations, and again Lena Dunham is over a decade early to something many people are just coming around to now.
Within this one episode Lena Dunham diagnoses her generation's pathologies better than 99% of conservatives ever could.
We'll start with the Sex and the City poster.
When it came out, Sex and the City was a cultural force. Women dissected every fashion choice. Apparently some women even got toes removed to fit into a pair of shoes worn on the show. The idea of girl bosses making it in New York City, with wildly successful jobs and millionaire men courting them, intoxicated generations. The city itself was freshly cleaned up under Giuliani, and still maintained as livable under Bloomberg. It's not hard to understand why this caused a renewed push into the City That Never Sleeps.
Girls superficially resembles Sex and the City in obvious ways. The poster is there for a reason. Like Carrie Bradshaw, Hannah is a writer. There is a group of highly educated female friends in NYC. Both shows make sure that New York is center stage. But Girls shows the dream promised by Sex and the City to be a nightmare.
Gone are the grand apartments in expensive buildings. In their place are small, ugly rooms that the characters nonetheless struggle to pay rent for. The lights of the city aren't center stage. Filled to the brim with the aesthetics of the "twee" subculture, it's merely a coat of paint on a decaying city. every character waits for their big break. For most, it never arrives. At best, you can get a small break that pays the rent long enough for you to wait for your next small break. Homeless people jerk off in public, and instead of taking the delusional "That's life in the big city, not our problem if you can't hack it!" take that we often see from urban liberals, the incident inspires Hannah to leave the city.
In the end, the mystique of New York City is unwarranted, the insular Brooklyn hipster scene is insufferable, and what the city brings may not outweigh the considerable downsides. While Lena Dunham may have affection for the city, it doesn't seem to be an accident that the character of Hannah finds that she can't stay there any longer.
The Millennial dating scene is similarly presented as bleak. The scene between Hannah and Adam gives us a preview for the relationships to come on the show.
Our characters each embrace sexual liberation over time. Starting with Jessa, an addict who has always used her sexuality, we see the most liberated character's encounters and relationships never end up in happiness and ruin the lives of those around her, including married men. While she eventually finds herself with Adam, connecting on their histories with addiction, she is his second choice and it irreparably changes her relationship with Hannah.
Shoshanna in contrast is the most innocent at the start of the show. She may even be on the autism spectrum. After losing her virginity to Ray, she becomes adrift for several seasons as she attempts to navigate this new world, cheating on two boyfriends before eventually seeming to settle down. The life her friends live is not for her.
Marnie's liberation occurs after her long-time boyfriend reads Hannah's diary and discovers that she is more-or-less bored of him, resulting in a breakup.
While Marnie's feelings on whether to try to mend the relationship fluctuate by the day, she revels in her ability to manipulate him with sex, causing him to cheat on his new girlfriend several times. Later in the show she steals a taken man, Desi, again reveling in her ability to make men do what she wants through sex (Ray also suffers this fate).
Hannah's forays into the world of millennial dating begin more-or-less with Adam. Adam blatantly uses her for degrading sex and despite how much she clearly likes him, they are not boyfriend-girlfriend. Adam is still sleeping around, and while Hannah is shocked to learn this firsthand, she frames this mostly as a concern over STDs, knowing she can't be mad at a man who isn't her boyfriend.
After breaking up with Adam (the first time), she begins to covet more casual sexual encounters, including one such conquest of a teenage boy. It isn't quite the liberating experience for him that it is for her. She bristles at the idea of a healthy relationship with a teacher named Fran she meets at a job she briefly has, first using him as a weapon against Adam, then fighting with him over her behavior at the school, where she has wildly inappropriate conversations with the students and flashes her vagina at the principal in an attempt to not be fired over this behavior.
Getting in a fight with Fran on a trip leaving the city, she ends things and refuses to go back with him, forcing Ray to take his company truck to pick her up. As they are driving back, Hannah attempts to give Ray road head as a thank you, revealing her transactional view of friendship as well as causing him to crash the car.
Another minor character named Mimi-Rose accounts for one of the most reactionary subplots in the entire show. Entering a relationship with Adam while Hannah is away at grad school, she also reveals to him at one point that he got her pregnant and she got an abortion. She is completely flippant about it, knowing it's her choice and assuming that this good Brooklyn liberal will respect it. This revelation absolutely devastates Adam. This brief glimpse of a life in which he has a real sense of purpose changes him for the remainder of the show. He ends up helping to raise his troubled sister's baby as a way to live out what was taken from him, and in case anyone doubts this reading of the character, he does it again when he offers to help Hannah raise a child who isn't his (this fails, as their shared history is too much to overcome, but the episode is a series highlight.) Abortion has appeared in left-liberal shows more often recently, but Girls is unique in that it focuses on how the decision impacts the man, and it pretty clearly stacks the deck against Mimi-Rose, portraying her as callous and selfish for not taking her partner's feelings into account.
And lest we feel like this show is too focused on Millennial wh*te wom*n, the men are pretty bad as well. There is not a single strong male character in the main cast of this show. They are all indecisive, weak, and lack motivation. It's clear that most of them don't even seem to have male friends. Their lives instead revolve exclusively around the girls they are dating or attempting to pursue. They tolerate terrible behavior from the girls and as discussed previously with Ray will literally change what they believe and who they are to get laid.
They engage in plenty of awful behavior themselves as well, leading women on and cheating because they are too weak to have a confrontation with their girlfriends to end things. Their weakness combined with the selfishness of the girls all but assures that there cannot be a healthy relationship on this show unless both parties are able to change. In the few times when our female characters encounter someone normal, such as Hannah does when she works at a school and meets a fellow teacher, she torches the relationship for almost no reason at all, preferring the constant drama and excitement she had with someone like Adam.
These men are the product of modernity: fearing confrontation, hiding themselves in the proper ideologies, drifting aimlessly in their careers, and centering their entire existence around women, either in pursuit of hookups or because there is no one else in their life to spend time with.
The results for both the men and women are tragic.
As for the men who raised these women? Hannah's father is a pushover revealed to be gay, and the loveless marriage he forced himself into gives a horrendous example to his daughter.
We never see Marnie's father. Jessa's dad is a wreck.
The gay character Elijah finds himself in a relationship with an older man, an obvious father figure who has a strong façade but like the others is weak and manipulative beneath the surface. We can see quite plainly that there are no strong, traditionally masculine men in these characters' lives.
The show's general refusal to make overt sexism a plot point, aside from its brief foray into Me Too, is revealing. The patriarchy is not what brought us here. We can't even see its presence.
Additionally the show addresses something that many shows never really get around to: why would such unlikeable people remain friends for life? In addition to selling the mystique of the city, countless sitcoms give this unrealistic portrayal of the eternal friend group that carries from college through adulthood. While it would be nice to have such a thing, we all know it rarely happens.
People change over time, and for the people who don't, often that's the bigger problem. People also move away, and new friend groups form out of necessity through things like work. Going out becomes harder. And for the lucky few who are able to stay close to their friends for so long, their relationships are usually completely drama-free. TV shows never portray this reality, however, instead selling generation after generation on the lie that you can go with the same group to the same bar for 15 years and date within your friend group without consequence.
In Seinfeld the cast's awful behavior is played for laughs, and outside of their group everyone rightfully hates them. But why does the rest of the cast of Friends tolerate the constant Ross drama? Isn't it weird when they all sleep with each other? Who on Earth would be friends with Carrie or Samantha? Wouldn't Barney's antics in How I Met Your Mother get old? Isn't the Ted and Robin stuff weird?
Girls covers this unlike any show in memory. The terrible and selfish behavior of our main characters, much of which is uniquely Millenial, results in the slow disintegration of the friend group. Everyone is caught up in their own story, and this solipsism makes them awful for each other. No one else's concerns and happiness matter as much as their own.
After all, you pretty much have to believe that if you are willing to date someone who one of your friends used to be in love with, which happens throughout the series. When their friends are in need, they're typically of no help, concerned more with their own drama. While we can discuss the toxicity of Hannah and Adam's relationship ad nauseum, the healthiest thing that does take place is when Adam cares for her during a depressive episode.
However, Adam is a recovering alcoholic, and Hannah doesn't ever seem to have the desire to understand this part of him in kind. Additionally Jessa sees Hannah's obvious depression at one point but is basically no help. A fight between Hannah and Marnie keeps her away for much of Hannah's episode.
A stint at rehab for Jessa offers a chance for our characters to be better, and Shoshanna is somewhat able to do so with an addict who attaches to Jessa after she gets out, but none of the changes are lasting for any of the characters, even after Jessa gets clean. A later attempt by all of the girls to rent out a beach house ends in nothing but arguments, in one of the best episodes of the series.
These people are bad for each other specifically due to their self-centeredness. Just about the only thing they can do together at this point is a coordinated dance as they leave the house. While not occurring near the end of the show's run, this episode is the beginning of the end for the group.
Today the Millennials and Zoomers on TikTok literally call themselves "main characters" and here is Lena Dunham pointing out how damaging this was a decade ago. And while we do see that these characters inherit some of their pathologies from their parents, the show makes clear that it doesn't have to be this way. Ray finds motivation to work hard over the course of the show and while he takes a while, distances himself from the toxic women he's pursued.
Shoshanna is an annoying character to be sure, but she is the first in the group of girls to realize how bad the way they are living truly is, and consequently despite being the youngest character, is the first to grow up. She leaves the group behind by the end of the show for a new set of friends, and when they learn she has consciously abandoned them, it results in the formal end of the rest of the group.
The finale finds Hannah, with her newborn brown baby, attempting to raise him alongside Marnie in a new city where she has accepted a job at a university. Marnie is the last person willing to put up with Hannah, after her big break fizzles out. Hannah sees a teenage girl out in the street alone at night and offers her support. However, she quickly sees the girl is selfish and ungrateful towards her parents and needs to simply grow up. And with that, Hannah finally has a moment of self-awareness about how selfish she has always been.
And it's this theme of selfishness that resonates most in Girls. Maybe it's not intentional and Lena Dunham is simply gifted at showing reality instead of twisting it for leftist ends, but the result is still the same. What the Millennials were promised by sexual liberation, feminism, and television shows was the ability to be selfish, to free themselves from the confines of traditional sexual values and gender roles, both of which are designed to shackle you with obligations to others, and finally live as independent women or male allies.
You're a guy/gal in the big city, put yourself first and live your best life, and you can be whatever you want to be. Your big break is just around the corner. The people around you exist primarily to support you in your personal journey, and if they won't support that journey unquestioningly, or ask too much of you on their journey, the problem is them and not you.
Think of all the therapy language on Twitter that goes viral, telling young people how to tell a friend politely that they need to "conserve their emotional energy" and cannot be there for their friends, since whatever you have going on is more important than what they have going on. But over a decade after the show debuted, the idea that this freedom to be selfish would feel empty seems as prescient as ever.
Voice of her generation indeed.
*Both Ross Douthat and Jack from The Perfume Nationalist have discussed Girls in a similar capacity. While I arrived at many of these conclusions independently, I also take influence from their discussions
**While I think the whole thing with Lena Dunham and her sister was a result of her Trump-era break from reality making her say ridiculous things, if she did do something that might explain why her sister is nonbinary. Just saying