Growing up with Girls

Hannah writhes on the floor of a hotel room, high on opium and upset her parents have financially cut her off. “I don't want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” she whines. “Or at least, a voice of a generation.”  

This scene is during the first episode of the HBO show Girls, starring and created by the controversial Lena Dunham. It premiered April 2012.

The Hannah we first meet is fired from her internship, half-heartedly listening to her best friend Marnie’s relationship problems, and totally under the spell of Adam, who has no interest in a relationship with her. In the pilot episode, Hannah is a relatable mess, barely in control of herself or the world around her.

“I don’t give a shit about anything, but I simultaneously have opinions about everything,” Hannah says over lunch with her editor in the first episode of the final season, which aired Feb. 2017 — five years after the series’ first episode. Now, Hannah is not high on opium, she’s not begging, she’s not floundering. In this moment, she truly is the voice of a generation.

In the pilot of the show’s final season, the girls in Girls are different people making the same old mistakes. Marnie unhappy in an ideal relationship. Shoshanna wondering what is next for her. Jessa callously taking what she wants. However this time, Marnie realizes and embraces her own selfishness. Shoshanna is wiser from her experiences in Japan and her ill-fated relationships. Jessa is plagued by guilt for hurting Hannah, proving she is human, despite what may some think.

Hannah has the best transition of all. She is finally succeeding as a writer. Riding off the popularity of her monologue on the Moth podcast, she publishes a story in the Modern Love column of the New York Times. A far cry from begging for a paid position at a publishing office, she is offered a freelance position with a popular magazine. She listens to Marnie’s doubts about her relationship with Ray and gives her solid, stable advice. When Hannah hooks up with an attractive surfer (played charmingly by Riz Ahmed), she isn’t his slave as she was to Adam.

Lena Dunham — for all her faults and problematic tendencies — is very good at communicating the loneliness and confusion of being a woman of a certain age. Her characters struggle in such a heartbreakingly relatable way. Although they’ve graduated college, they aren’t securely employed. Although they are in relationships, they aren’t in love. Although they seem to have everything they could want, they are unhappy.

I was 18 when I first started watching Girls. I was in my high school sweetheart’s oppressively white dorm room while snow was piling up outside the concrete walls. A cool girl I knew from high school posted a photo of herself watching Girls with a glass of wine, so I decided to give it a shot (an embarrassing amount of my opinions have been formed by following cool girls on Instagram).

I wasn’t initially set up to enjoy Girls. And at first, I didn’t. I was in a comfortable relationship, was still in college and was just too young. I hadn’t lived enough to understand the heartbreaks, the anxiety and the self sabotage of the characters.

I couldn’t understand why Marnie couldn’t just settle with Charlie, or why Shoshanna couldn’t just pass her classes, or why Jessa couldn’t stop hurting people when she was bored. But most of all, I couldn’t understand why Hannah kept putting herself in terrible situations. Why would you drop out of a prestigious graduate school, or quit a well paying job, or break up with a perfectly nice boyfriend? Why, when you seem to have everything, would you be unhappy?

Three years later, I was on the cusp of graduating. On the day I began to rewatch the show, I was in a powerful depressive funk, shutting the door to my room and hiding under the covers. Two months month earlier, I had gone through a painful break up with the same high school sweetheart. A week earlier, I started a confusing, unrequited Snapchat-based relationship with a guy I didn’t even particularly like. A day earlier, when a well-meaning coworker asked about my post-grad plans, I decided not to apply to graduate school. It was then I could understand.

Dunham’s characters have a nudity to them in their body and soul. These women are unlikable, vulnerable and, many times, not pretty. They are entitled, they are unhappy and they are real. None more so than Hannah.

In many ways, I fit Hannah’s demographic, many of us do. However, she represents suppressed desires in many of the middle class, of many white woman, in many artists. Many of the decisions she makes are something some of us would consider, yet many of us wouldn’t. Hannah is simultaneously everyone’s favorite and least favorite character. She is selfish, entitled and annoying. But she is also charming, talented and wholly brave.

“I wanna write stories that make people feel less alone than I did. I wanna make people laugh about the things in life that are painful,” Hannah says. Many of the episodes reflect this desire — much of it is painful, awkward or embarrassing, but we find ourselves laughing because we know all too well what it’s like.

Hannah’s nakedness, physical and emotional, is best described by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times: “There’s a sort of privilege at work here; Ms. Dunham’s whiteness has allowed her the kind of access and indulgence rarely accorded women of color. At the same time, Hannah is finally a rebuke to universal ideas about women. Hannah is a woman, not all women. Hers is a female body, not the female body.”

As the characters finally grow up in the final season, we reflect on the show as a beginning of a conversation. Girls is the first step in television showing women as women. In the future, shows will become more inclusive, centralizing people of color, queer people, disabled people — more than just four white women in Brooklyn. So as it’s an end for these Girls, it’s the beginning for many others.