It Still Stings: The Uncomfortable Legacy of Girls

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It Still Stings: The Uncomfortable Legacy of <i>Girls</i>

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

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The summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I met up with my dad for dinner. We’d always had a strained relationship, but found some common ground in talking about the great unifier that is pop culture. We discussed the second season of Game of Thrones (each one a little disgusted to know what the other saw), and I savored every second in which I could proudly boast to him that I—an adult—had my very own HBO subscription that I paid for—like an adult. At this revelation, his face lit up and he told me there was another show on HBO which just started that I needed to watch because, he continued, I was the main character. Yes, my semi-estranged father was the one who told me, a 19 year old girl, I had to watch Girls because I was Hannah Horvath. It was a claim that would later both disturb, humor, and deeply offend me, but compelled me enough to dramatically fix my short brown hair, collect my chubby body, and go home and start watching (probably naked and with a bagel or something too since, you know, I’m Hannah Horvath apparently, but I digress).

I suppose it’s impossible to talk about Girls without the context of Lena Dunham, the show’s creator and lead actor. Perhaps because of her history of poor behavior, it is at times difficult to view her character, Hannah, as a complex and intentionally aggravating product of fiction when several things Dunham has said or done make Hannah seem more like a mirror. Dunham has stated she wishes she had an abortion for the experience, projected her bodily insecurities to accuse NFL Player Odell Beckham Jr of sexism and body shaming her and pushed back against a sexual assault survivor, even going so far as to provide false testimony for the man accused because we was a colleague and friend. Ultimately, this information raises the question of how much of Girls is an intentional comedic commentary, and how much of the privileged and ignorant stances written come from a place of misguided sincerity.

It doesn’t help that by all accounts, Girls was allotted the space to be closed off from other perspectives. The show was picked up by HBO without a character, script or plot laid out—just a concept on half a page. Dunham herself refers to it as the worst pitch ever, but was told by the studio they simply wanted her. This nepotism was then extended to other daughters of powerful people (Allison Williams and Zosia Mamet) as well as friend Jemima Kirke, who has stated she had no interest in acting but was given the role by Dunham.

Beyond that, the show was criticized for marketing itself as an unflinching and a deeper look at millennial life, but doing so through a very privileged lens. The vast majority of the show’s characters are white, cisgender, able-bodied, thin and straight, with race and transgender issues as a whole barely even acknowledged. Of course, I do understand the value of “writing what you know,” and would rather this be the case than have someone who doesn’t understand these issues try to tackle them, but when you consider the nepotism previously mentioned, it makes it all the more frustrating. While not every story needs to be all stories, how can all stories be heard when the same folks dominate the stage over and over again?

Furthermore, much like in any network sitcom, money and work never seem to hang over our characters the same way they do in real life—for each and every one of our girls, there’s always safety. Issues relating to sex, sexual assualt, domestic abuse, health, addiction, and mental illness are treated as small beats rather than parts of our character’s stories. Outside of their designated zone to exist, we don’t see Hannah meaningfully engage with her HPV and OCD diagnoses or even her weight that is constantly referenced. While both of Marnie’s exes suffered from addiction, they’re merely used as examples of Marnie’s mistakes rather than treated in any careful way. While the show addresses a lot of issues, it does so in a way that doesn’t always feel all that intersectional or insightful. However, for all the back and forth—for every hard lesson learned and seemingly forgotten—a lot of hope rested upon Girls’ final season to firmly establish what kinds of people these characters would grow to be. Unfortunately, what we got was a lot more of the same.

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Whereas many final seasons attempt to tie up loose ends and establish clear trajectories for the show’s characters, the final season of Girls plays out like any that has come before it, keeping in line with the show’s thematic aimlessness—for the most part. The only character who does undergo a sort of transformation is Hannah, who trades in both New York City and girlhood for a son and cushy job upstate, seemingly undermining the many of the show’s most interesting and valuable concepts by creating a strange dissonance between her closing message and the show’s. This isn’t at all to say Hannah having a child was a poor plot point, because I think there’s a world where it’s real and brilliant. But the execution of the idea falls flat.

As the show fades to black and we see Hannah’s son latch on to her breast and nurse, we’re hit with this resounding feeling that Girls has ended because Hannah is no longer a girl—she is a mother—and it lacks all the power of what this show could have been if it had boldly implied she was both. It feeds into the idea that motherhood is the ultimate transformative experience, a remedy for immaturity and a milestone marker that clearly separates us from our past selves. However, in a show that prides itself on being vulnerable, real, selfish and raw, the separation feels disingenuous and sterile. Despite her years of struggling and underlying issues, Hannah enters motherhood with plenty of resources and a new mindset, because that’s motherhood and what “should” happen—but when did this show ever care about “should”? Sure, there’s nothing indicating she’ll be a perfect parent of course, she’s still good ol’ Hannah, but her story feels entirely disconnected from the show, especially when you compare it where we leave nearly everyone else.

Both Marnie and Hannah’s mother Loreen are still held captive by their codependent personalities, both of Marnie’s exes, Charlie and Desi, are addicts now hidden off screen, Jessa and Adam’s toxic and profound relationship seems both more tender and doomed than ever before, and Soshana is suddenly engaged (something which ended poorly for both Marnie and Jessa in the past) and fueled entirely by ambition and resentment. Furthermore, as a core unit, the four, titular girls are almost entirely disconnected. The only characters whose endings feel as similarly decisive as Hannah’s are Ray and Hannah’s father, both of which see the men entering a healthy relationship for the first time in a long time. But even those lack the same sense of finality.

It’s important to note here, I don’t expect or want happy, clean endings tied-up neatly with a bow, especially from a show that set out to laugh at just how sad and messy life can be. I can embrace the intentions laid out and messiness, admit the struggle is compelling and life doesn’t end once the camera cuts. What’s harder to process, however, is just what we should take away from the show, and how much of it we can justify in our head as a sort of meta-narrative versus how much we should critique. Ultimately, as the series comes to its close, there’s really only one question we can ask ourselves: was the dissatisfaction, in and of itself, satisfying?

It’s a query that is entirely subjective, and whose answer may change with each milestone marked and love lost. When I first finished the series back in 2017, I found the ending to be lacking and unbalanced. There were stories that felt starved and others that felt utterly self-indulgent—resolutions that felt fair, insignificant, cruel, and undeserved all pressed against each other, like strangers on a train. At the end of this rewatch, I found myself coming to the same bitter conclusions, but asked myself once more, with feeling, if I was satisfied with them—if this was all some meticulous metacommentary or merely careless debris disguised as art. As I did, however, the burden of the judgement I was passing shifted from the show directly to my chest.

I realized this is the same question we ask ourselves time after time. When we look back at our life—the people we’ve been and the messes we’ve made—can we find romance in the ruins and make peace with the imperfect? Girls is a show filled with highs and lows, beautiful and ugly people, and a callousness that feels both intentional and oblivious. But I believe there’s too much nuance to boldly proclaim it’s either good or bad. Regardless of whatever conclusion we come to, though, it stings. It stings in the same way so many parts of life do—from routine heartbreak to being told you remind your father of Lena Dunham. But maybe, just maybe, the point of this show is to emulate that, and merely exist as one of those things that’s supposed to feel uncomfortable.


Jessica Howard is an editorial intern at Paste and the managing editor at gaming site Uppercut. She enjoys loud music, hot coffee, and games with romanceable NPCs.

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