‘Girls’ and its impermeable sphere of privilege: An essay

Posted on Feb 10 2017 - 8:01am by Zoe McDonald
Photo courtesy: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Lena Dunham, creator and director of “Girls,” sits on a stoop as her character, Hannah Horvath. Photo courtesy: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

This isn’t going to be the first essay about Lena Dunham’s millennial HBO series, “Girls,” which will premiere its sixth and final season Sunday, and I doubt it’ll be the last.

In fact, feel free to drag me for writing this.

It might be a testament to the show’s utter reach, one compared to “Sex and the City” or “Gilmore Girls,” or a testament to how quickly “Girls,” a show created by a very young Lena Dunham, attracted a devout audience.

People turned to the show for its depiction of real-life women with real bodies having liberated sex. It forged new ideas in television. In just its first three episodes, the show dove into nudity, sex, abortions and STDs. “Girls” forced open people’s eyes.

But in many ways, whether she meant to or not, Lena Dunham opened people’s eyes to a large crop of our generation in need of a self-reckoning.

The series has specialized in taking privileged and narcissistic white people and putting them in real-world situations where they either flounder or succeed, usually with no façade of grace.

Photo courtesy: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Adam (Adam Driver) and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) argue during an episode of “Girls.” Photo courtesy: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

The most sickening, and the most brilliant, aspect of Dunham’s “Girls” is the smallness of each character’s world. Blinded by their own narcissism, these characters are on a quest for their true selves — their art — sometimes sacrificing their relationships to forge their messy paths. During the process, most viewers and millennials sit, cringing on their couches — both for Dunham’s characters and for the realization of how they would have acted in such circumstances. A regular viewer might feel disdain for almost every character at the end of some episodes. “Beach House” (Season 4, episode 7) is an excellent example.

The series begins with the protagonist, Hannah, in disillusionment as her parents try to cut her off financially after losing her post-grad internship. She begs to keep her funding, citing that she thinks she “may be the voice of (her) generation.” She goes on to clarify, “Or a generation,” before entering opium-induced sleep. She continues to pursue writing, contributing to and at one point joining a publication. She gets fired, but she also is accepted into Iowa’s writing workshop. She moves to Iowa but struggles to allow criticism. She moves back and becomes a teacher in New York by the end of season five. We’re told in the trailer for season six that she’ll begin writing for a magazine. Now, we’re left wondering whether she’ll look outside of herself long enough to finally become the voice of some generation.

As all the “Girls” characters are in the process of maturing, Hannah seems to struggle with it on a fundamental level — a manifestation of her inherent narcissism. This is why we saw Hannah begin to befriend her middle school students, and this is a reason why we will continue to see Hannah struggle throughout the next season.

Regardless, all the characters in “Girls,” even the males, serve as great examples of how narcissism and general disillusionment when it comes to careers and love permeates the millennial experience. 

All these characters are white. They come from seemingly privileged upbringings. They’ve attended college and are making rent in New York City even when they’re unemployed. In all that’s relatable in the show, in all the semi-accurately depicted millennial relationships, in all the shots of Dunham’s cellulite, in all the gritty dialogue, something still feels hard to attain.

Dunham has said that, going back, she’d make a point to include more black characters. But would that have broken the sphere of white privilege Dunham has (I think both intentionally and unintentionally) crafted on the show?


Shoshanna, played by Zosia Mamet, in an episode of “Girls.” Photo courtesy: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

It doesn’t seem so. In fact, when she did have Donald Glover join the cast for an episode as Hannah’s well-dressed, college-educated boyfriend, he represented a small intersection of the black experience. That became even smaller when viewers found out his character was a staunch Republican. 

“Girls” is a window into what it is to graduate college and still not quite have “it,”  but still have a cushy fallback in one’s parents or rich family. It’s another show that depicts a bourgeoisie lifestyle, sometimes with a satirical lens. But the show doesn’t just look at that lifestyle — it is that lifestyle. That is perhaps the root of the show’s addictive quality.

“Girls,” like its characters, almost met its demise in the black hole of its own narcissism, yet it continues on its flawed path into its last season.

Throughout the last five seasons, the characters have all had embarrassing lows and frustratingly long bouts of naiveté. But when they start to mature and change, as Shoshanna (the youngest character, played by Zosia Mamet) has, they become more palatable. It’s as if, finally, they’ve opened their eyes to the real world. And perhaps that is the transition we’re meant to see and have taken part in. People going through change aren’t going to be perfect versions of themselves. The girls are the show, and the show isn’t perfect.