How Girls, Despite All Its Protests, Turned Out to Be “A Voice of a Generation”

A reconsideration of Lena Dunham’s groundbreaking, polarizing show as Girls enters its sixth and final season on HBO this Sunday.

Photos courtesy of HBO, GIF by Biel Parklee.

When Hannah Horvath said to her parents, in the pilot of HBO’s Girls, “I think that I may be The Voice of My Generation… or at least a voice of a generation,” it became the flag atop the lightning rod that was the show when it premiered in 2012. Though clearly self-aware and self-deprecating, the phrase was also designed to provoke cries of protest among the millennials the show aimed to represent onscreen. Since then, Lena Dunham and her collaborators have steadfastly rejected any such grand self-delusions, but as the show has matured over five seasons from provocation into pathos, a catchy promise that once sounded hollow now sounds—dare we say it—prophetic. As Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa enter their sixth and final season on air this Sunday, five writers who have been right there with them reflect on how far they’ve come.

Growing Up Girls

Brooke Marine: When Girls premiered, I was a freshman in college in New York. Like most, I had seen and enjoyed Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham’s breakthrough film, and I knew that it was a huge deal for her to be running her own show at such a young age. What I had not seen was a depiction of the types of friendships (frenemy-ships?) and relationships between women close enough to my age on a major platform like HBO. The show did not include people of color, but I still felt like I was watching people I knew, and there was plenty to be learned from Girls. The characters were kind of horrible, but so were Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte, and at least Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa were a little bit more relatable to me and my friends. They held unpaid internships and nannying jobs, or were still in school. They had support from family and elsewhere, but they also probably weren’t buying a hundred different pairs of $400 shoes. As a new iPhone user, Girls taught me how to send a drop pin (the episode where Hannah and Marnie get separated from one another at a warehouse party, after Hannah accidentally smokes crack). Fitting, really, that I learned this supremely useful feature on my phone from a television series about a generation so latched to their devices that they have trouble connecting IRL.

After five seasons of a journey that was at once vapid and colorful, the girls of Girls have grown up, and so has the show. Multiple episodes of the fifth season are emblematic of that growth in terms of the cinematography, storytelling and overall production of the series (the underwater close up of Allison Williams in the Marnie-centric “The Panic in Central Park,” and the Hitchcockian, fictionalized interactive theater piece about voyeurism and the historic Kitty Genovese murder in “Hello Kitty” come to mind). These episodes could have stood alone as short films. We should expect such greatness from this show now, just as we do from our older, wiser, better selves.

Just (Girl) Friends

Lauren McCarthy: Girls was always going to be compared to Sex and the City. Really, there was no avoiding it. Another HBO show about four women in New York City, all extremely different yet, somehow, still best friends. How perfect! But Girls was never my Sex and the City.

SATC was the show I secretly watched highly edited, syndicated reruns of in my high school bedroom in lieu of physics homework. I was 15, and these women had no bearing on my life. They were successful and glamorous, adults an entire world away from me. This was pure, effervescent entertainment, nothing more.

When Girls premiered in April 2012, I was in flux. It was just a month before I’d graduate from college with a degree in journalism, and I was interning full time at a fashion publication in New York. Enter Hannah Horvath, just two fictitious years older than me and floundering. And though I was no Hannah (by my personal estimations, I land somewhere between a Marnie and a Shoshanna), Girls still struck a nerve. A million think pieces likened these girls to “millenials”—my least favorite word—like me, and protest as I may, it was true, somewhat.

Six seasons later, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shosh have at once changed profoundly and stayed exactly the same. So have I. Elements of the show don’t ring quite as true as it did to me as a 21-year-old, and that’s probably for the best. But, you know what, I’ve watched every episode unironically. I still look forward to Sunday nights. I laugh, I roll my eyes, I admire Zosia Mamet’s dedication to Shosh’s cadence. These four girls may soon be the old friends you know it’s time to phase out, but you will still check in on their social media all the time (there must be a fake Marnie account out there somewhere full of latte art). And, it’s true, I’ll miss them.

Except Jessa. She’s kind of the worst.

A Girl in Japan

Katherine Cusumano: In the third episode of season five, aptly titled “Japan,” Shoshanna tumbles down the rabbit hole, minus much of the disorientation that should attend such a fall. After accepting a marketing position at the Tokyo office of a company called Abigail, she relocates from Brooklyn to Japan. There, our transplant is thriving. The episode opens with a montage of Shosh: With streaks of pink raked through her newly blonde hair, she visits the local dumpling shop; “Girl,” by the Japanese girl band Flip, soundtracks her morning commute in Hello Kitty headphones and her trademark bow.

On the metro, Shosh is surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar faces moving in their own precise choreography. She has a boyfriend back home, the instant soup mogul played by Jason Ritter, whose way of discouraging her move across the world is to tell her, “I’m going to be in love with you soon.” But there’s a new boy at work, Yoshi, with whom she banters in charmingly stilted English-Japanese. In lieu of the girls, there’s new coworkers who like to gossip with her at the hot bath. Everything is the same, but also opposite.

“I don’t really care about people in America anymore,” Shosh tells her new friends, in her torrential way. She speaks too fast, they tell her, they can’t keep pace. Here is the seed of her culture shock; and when, towards the end of the episode, she’s laid off and called back home, she is devastated—but then, later, she admits that in fact she’s miserably homesick.

I remember that when I watched this episode, I had just returned from a period of extensive travel. I, too, experienced the quiet thrill of getting into a routine in a new city, a transient regular. So I understood Shosh’s disappointment, but also her realization that the pull of home can be even stronger. When she returns to Brooklyn, it’s with perspective; and when Girls moved to Japan, its navel-gazing satire also got outside of itself. “That’s just how Americans act,” she says to her coworkers, explaining away her brattiness. “We’re kind of assholes.” Girls found its footing last season because it got some perspective. It just had to travel 14 hours and 7,000 miles—and back again—to get there.

Girls in the World

Emilia Petrarca: Have you met Hannah, the narcissist? Or Marni, the type A perfectionist? Or Shoshanna, the neurotic basic? Or Jessa, arch bohemian? Of course you have, in fact you have been made aware of these things explicitly, because the defining trait of this show is its self-awareness. Sorry, one of the defining traits. Also, nudity and sex.

But, millennials as they are, the girls in Girls also exert themselves in defying expectations. Just as often as they live up to the type, they are defined by the aspiration to be everything they’re not supposed to be. Remember in the show’s pilot when Shoshanna, like many women, identifies which Sex and the City characters she thinks she and her friends are? But, also like most women, she can’t pick just one. “I think I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but, like, sometimes… sometimes Samantha kinda comes out. And then definitely when I’m at school, I try to put on a Miranda hat.”

But in working so hard not to be typecast, these four stretch their own boundaries to the point where they lose their shape entirely. Thanks to the internet, millennial women are made aware of how the world see them, which means they’re constantly having to reconcile ideas of who they are, who they think they are, who others think they are, and who they want to be.

“Do you know I Google myself everyday?” Hannah’s collegiate nemesis and ideal foil, Tally, played by Jenny Slate, admits one afternoon at the end of season five. Up until their chance encounter, Hannah saw Tally as a symbol of all the success she desired, but in fact Tally is as deeply unsatisfied and confused as she is. “I wake up every morning and think: ‘Okay what would Tally Schifrin do?’,” Hannah explains. “But Tally Schifrin isn’t even me now; she’s this thing that I’ve created.” At last, Hannah realizes that none of us are who we claim or think we are—and that’s okay.

At the time, Hannah’s scene with Tally infuriated me. As a self-aware millennial, my first thought was: Set a Google alert, don’t check every day. Duh!

My second thought was: That’s me.

Gone Girls

Stephanie Eckardt: I started watching Girls because it felt like something of an obligation. My freshman year roommate told me even her dad was excited about it; then my own mom said she had plans to watch it, too. So I watched what was billed as this brutally honest portrayal of millennials passively and mostly begrudgingly, resenting the characters who either felt like caricatures or simply annoying replicas of people around New York, where I was in school.

But then, in season five, something clicked. The character traits I had found so irritating before suddenly became endearing in their times of strife. As they faced problems that felt more than superficial, I found that I cared for Hannah and her friends. There was Hannah’s once-perfect parents’ divorce, and her father’s tentative coming out; Elijah’s rejection by Dill, a man who opened him up and seemed to be the one; Hannah’s heartbreak over Jessa and Adam getting together—there’s no real way of classifying that as anything other than betrayal.

It’s in this broken and dejected state of loneliness that Hannah encounters Jenny Slate’s Tally Schifrin, on an expensive-looking bike in a cute dress and, under her helmet, a perfect head of curls. Tally gloats that she’s just come from a writers’ retreat to work on another novel. Reluctantly, Hannah agrees to stop to catch up with her old friend.

But when Hannah chokes on a joint and literally coughs out her simmering jealousy, Tally hits back that she feels utterly divorced from her outward/online identity, a degree of imposter syndrome so severe she now has nothing to write about for a book she has due, because all she does everyday is google herself. This, after Hannah had confessed earlier that post-Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she’s been going through what Tally calls an “identity switcheroo”; she no longer has a desire to write. And, as it turns out, it’s when they have nothing to say that these characters seem the most alive. Girls has always felt, and was designed to feel, intentionally inflammatory. It was a tactic that got older not just with each gruesome sex scene, but as TV grew more daring with each adventurous new show. Girls is no longer edgy, but now that it’s stopped putting on that front it’s become special, again.

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