I started watching Girls (2012) when I was a sophomore in college the summer after the show first aired. I knew nothing of the show. I only had basic cable in my dorm room and apparently I’m old enough where watching Netflix or whatever other streaming services at the time took hours to load a single episode on my school’s lousy internet connection.
I was flipping through the channels (wow, that’s a thing we don’t do anymore) and came across it randomly and I guess it immediately clicked that it would be a thing I’d enjoy where I was clearly the target audience.
Almost immediately, I felt very mixed on the show, but something about it felt like a car accident that I’d have to keep watching. The pilot of Girls kicks off with Lena Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath getting dinner with her parents after working at her unpaid internship, where they tell her they will no longer be financially supporting her. Probably less than halfway through the first episode, my gut was telling me that something was very off and that the level of privilege being portrayed was rather cringy. At the time, I was a full-time college student who worked more than full-time hours between retail, work-study, and writing jobs, on top of an unpaid internship, and while I am grateful for the support my family did give me during that time, I found myself angry at the fact that this character who otherwise seemed relatable was being fully supported by her parents in one of the most expensive cities in the country (New York) a year after she had graduated. Again, no knocks on my family here, but I (and I would think many other adults) wouldn’t have that kind of financial support to begin with, never mind while choosing to work for free in one of the most expensive places to live.
Despite feeling immediately turned off by the character’s privilege, I somehow still felt for her and related to the situation. Not in the sense that I had been cut off by my parents, but in the sense that she was working this unpaid internship trying to ultimately better herself and find a career based in her passion, and do that she’d have to make sacrifices, namely money. Then out of nowhere, her parents cut her off. I guess somehow I found the writing so compelling that I could both be frustrated by the privilege but still find some way to relate and hold my interest.
That summer, I continued watching the show, but got out of it once I went back to school. Between being busy with work and I guess life, and the “old days” where it wasn’t so easy to track down a show with limited options on demand, I never finished the show until this year thanks to an HBO Max subscription.
All of this is a long way of getting to the point that I started this show in college and ended it now, in my 30s, and all of the controversies and issues with the show (and Lena Dunham as its creator) aside, it has given me a lot to reflect on in terms of its relatibility.
I think, like many of the show’s critics, I wanted to dislike Girls. It comes with a lot of the same flaws as other big NYC-focused TV shows in that there is almost no diversity at all (in the sense that the characters are very white. I know Dunham was a major part of the body positivity movement at the time for her role on this show, which is mindblowing with hindsight). Even if the characters may not have had a diverse group of friends, the setting is obviously not entirely white, and that just adds to the show’s other big issue that I’ve already touched on which is the level of privilege the characters have.
It’s one thing if a character outwardly shares that their parents are supporting them or they’re just independently wealthy or something, but Girls falls into the same issue as shows like How I Met Your Mother or Friends where whether you intend to or not, you’re going to spend at least half of the episodes wondering how these people can afford to live in these apartments while working part-time and sometimes no jobs. At one point, Hannah mentions making less than $24,000/year and not having health insurance. I know it’s a reality for recent grads during a recession, but stating that and then never actually really struggling on the show did ultimately take me out of the story in those moments.
The relationship between the group of friends though, and even Hannah’s relationship with Adam and the other male characters on the show for that matter, kept drawing me back in. Most of the characters on Girls are very Uunlikable, but their flaws are something that I’m sure lots of viewers can relate to. And the fact that I am so different from all of the characters but can still so relate to them just tells me that the show is brilliantly written.
Finishing Girls in my 30s really made me reflect back to my 20s, and how the writing on the show really captured so much of what that time in one’s life is like, especially in terms of friendships. I don’t really have the core group of friends anymore that I guess would have made up my own version of Girls, and while I’m sure the season finale got mixed reviews at the time, it gave me some weird sort of closure where I think I’ve been mourning the loss of some of those friendships.
The time in one’s life captured in the show really is hard to explain, but Girls portrays it really well despite some incredibly cringy moments. From navigating relationships when you didn’t have healthy ones to learn from as a kid, to feeling that one friend is putting themselves before the rest of the group, and so many more instances, the show really does capture a specific time I think most people have experienced without requiring the characters to be likable, and I don’t know, all of that just held my interest the entire time and just gave me so much fodder from my own life to reflect on.
All of this being said, the show remains extremely controversial for so many reasons ranging from the blur between Lena Dunham’s character and herself (who on her own is extremely controversial) to certain episodes that handle or rather mishandle subjects like assault and basically when lines are being crossed. I would defend some of this by saying that the show’s surface-level actions are problematic, but the message you’re supposed to receive lies deeper; though that doesn’t apply to every controversial scene and I don’t mean that to belittle anyone’s feelings if certain elements of the show were uncomfortable to watch.
It’s not a show I’ll ever watch again, and I did cringe through 85% of it, but I think I’ll always find something to relate to in Girls, and it was interesting to have this albeit strange reminder of what being in your 20s was like years later.