“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation—or at least a voice of a generation.” —Hannah Horvath
Lena Dunham, the creator, writer, director, and star of HBO’s Girls is pretty much my hero. Her show concluded its sixth and final season this month with a finale that was typical of series finales, in that it wasn’t the send-off of our dreams but more of a contemplative and metaphorical last glimpse of characters we have grown to—well, to tolerate. And love. But forget the series finale, which is earrings to the outfit, I want to talk about the show, and to talk about Girls in any meaningful way is to celebrate Lena Dunham.
For starters, Lena Dunham is young. (She was born the year after I graduated high school.) When she first pitched the show to HBO producers, she was 23 years old and had already mustered enough clout in the entertainment industry to be granted a blind screen deal. She is talented, both in front of and behind the camera. She is an amiable and inspiring collaborator, assembling a weave of talented actors who have flourished in her vision. She is ambitious, obviously, and she is brave.
What Lena Dunham set out to do in Girls was not just tell her own story, but make the brazen claim that the stories of millennial females—girls who make poor decisions and are ruthlessly self-absorbed, who have grown-up bodies and enjoy sex, who have neuroses and untidy apartments, who have poor eating habits yet expensive tastes, who want it all but don’t know exactly what all entails—that their stories matter. She wanted to spotlight their juxtapositions, how they mask self-hatred in aggressive self-acceptance, how they take themselves more seriously than the rest of the world, how they struggle to be both desirable and dominant, and how they balance their latest existential crises with paying rent. And she wanted to make us laugh.
The premise of the show—a gal-pal foursome, living a life of high adventure in NYC, with a writer at the helm—is not original (think SITC), but Lena Dunham’s signature wit made it a revelatory experience. The staple characters, the four girls, are exaggerated caricatures of people we know, or knew in high school, or want to know, played by a relatively unknown cast. They are flawed, in varying degrees, and throughout the course of the series, unlike most TV shows but like real life, they remain flawed.
Hannah Horvath, the semi-autobiographical main character played by Lena Dunham, is arguably the most unlikely protagonist ever to grace the small screen. She is overweight, tattooed, has a lousy fashion sense, is prone to urinary-tract infections, boasts of numerous mental health issues, and appears naked in every single episode. She has messy, awkward, clumsy sex, and is ambivalent about monogamy. She has a dichotomous personality—judgmental and tolerant, loyal and traitorous, needy and strong—and she’s brilliant. She is the best and the worst of so many of us, and that is why we love her.
To say Girls singlehandedly changed the culture of television for young female viewers undercuts the influence of predecessors like Friends, The Facts of Life, Designing Women, My So-Called Life, and the aforementioned Sex and the City, but Girls certainly changed the parameters. Girls presented complicated, raw, and often unhealthy relationships between women and their friends, lovers, parents, coworkers, neighbors, and the occasional enemy. Girls broke boundaries that previously confined characters, theme, and storylines to subjects involving men.
The success of Girls proved something we knew already: the lives of females are intrinsically and boundlessly interesting. And though we didn’t need the validation, the fact that America tuned in by the millions, week after week, for six years feels like a victory. The show ended its run with an impressive list of awards, accolades, and immeasurable advancement for body acceptance and female sexuality. Girls is over, and I already miss being a part of its au courant, NYC, millennial vibe—albeit vicariously. But its absence will not leave a void; instead it leaves a path for other shows, other writers, other dimensions, and other girls.