WHAT HBO GIRL R U?
Lena Dunham’s show Girls is excruciating and ingenious because it forces viewers to identify with the parts of themselves they most dislike.
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“All my friends in New York define themselves by what they hate,” complains Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), the protagonist of HBO’s 2012 TV show Girls. “I don’t even know what they like. I just know what they don’t like.” Director and actor Lena Dunham’s show is excruciating and ingenious: a game of self-identification defined by what one hates.
In the last few weeks, a growing group of young people has watched and rewatched Girls, spewing opinions on Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok. The Times published a piece crediting this rewatch surge to some nostalgic re-evaluation of the indie-sleaze culture of the 2010s, but that is not the full explanation. So why has this TV show, an anthropological study on conceited white millennials in post-sexual revolution New York, been excavated by Gen Z teenagers? The short answer is because it is raw, uncomfortable, and totally hilarious.
In retrospect, it is clear that Girls was the brain-child of idle millennial cringe-culture. It follows four recently graduated, liberal arts, quasi-hipster girlfriends around New York City as they navigate their weird (non-)sex-lives, stagnant non-careers, and crippling self-obsession. Hannah, the main character, is an aspiring writer who is the mimetic image of Dunham herself—the writer, producer and star of Girls. Marnie (Allison Williams), her friend, is an anal-retentive ditz from Montclair New Jersey; Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is the sexually liberated Brit; and Shoshana is a Jewish NYU student a few years younger than the rest, who gabs nonstop and sports unkempt Tumblr hairdos.
When the pilot of Girls first aired in 2012, it was immediately compared to its predecessor, Sex and the City, a much more conventionally glam show which similarly follows a writer and her three girlfriends as they navigate the professional and romantic world of New York. But in Sex and the City, the women are about 10 years older, and each is (almost ridiculously) beautiful, successful, and charming. SATC fans watch Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) sashay through the city so they can drool over her wardrobe and dream of inhabiting her opulent world. The show reads as a catalog of advertisements for what women should aspire to: Carrie’s shoe collection, Miranda’s job, Samantha’s confidence, and Charlotte’s hair. Girls pays homage to its predecessor in the pilot episode when Shoshana says, “I think I’m definitely a Carrie at heart but, like, sometimes, sometimes Samantha kind of comes out, and then when I'm at school I try and put on my Miranda-hat.” Here, viewers see Shoshanna relatably try to identify with fictional characters, intoxicated by an idea of what a woman should be.
If Sex and the City is feminist TV (arguably the first hit TV show centering around smart, single women), Girls inhabits a less attractive postfeminist realm. Each character is profoundly complex and rarely ethical, but female friendship remains the (often shredded but always sacred) centerpiece. The women on screen are certainly not role models, and their self-hatred makes it clear that they have no moral authority or a pedagogical function. They are just funny, well-written, and realistic characters who complicate this game of identification. Instead of needing to aspire to a walk-in shoe closet to relate to women on screen, viewers can point to Jessa’s daddy issues or Hannah’s compulsions to stick a Q-tip through her ear canal and cut all her hair off. Girls’s resurgence makes it clear that young women enjoy unglamourous representations of their bodies, sexualities, and complex emotional lives, turning "What type of woman are you?” into a much more creative and substantive question. “WHAT HBO GIRL R U?” (2023) has since been consistently reimagined into podcasts, subreddits, and popular TikTok accounts. People online seem to love these games of identification (Which annoying character is annoying like I am?/ Which on-screen situationship is problematic the way mine is?). That is, people love to hate on Girls so that they can pinpoint exactly how and why they hate their own (girl) selves.
When Girls first hit the internet, it was met with think-piece after think-piece criticizing Lena Dunham. One called her out for the show’s painfully white cast, and another for her pathetic attempts to diversify. Many more took offense at Dunham’s nudity, criticizing her body type. But this obsessive style of criticism misses the mark; Girls is intended to be myopic in perspective, politically irresponsible, and indulgent—that is the bit. The screenplay is so carefully written that the characters articulate (and sometimes embody) extra-textual criticism and tactically run it through the current of the show. By writing so narrowly about what she knows, Lena Dunahm creates a kind of synecdoche through which she can write about her privileged condition; she, too, is a witty, well-educated, (presumably self-obsessed) white female writer in New York (the line between author and character is clearly very fine). Girls cannot be redeemed from criticism simply because it is intensely self-aware, but it should not be dismissed as the immoral brainchild of the (comically problematic) Lena Dunham either. It is more accurate and rewarding to interrogate the show as a rich and multilayered work.
As a Girls side character complains, “We’ve been outpaced… by those neo-hippie gender-neutral monsters.” He’s right. Gen Z viewers are the monsters who have “outpaced” millennials. In this way, watching Girls serves as a tracker of how far popular culture has come. Critics can flame Lena Dunham and her insular on-screen world because people are simply more worldly now. But our generation seems to resent that “Everyone is so busy [now] -like- chasing success and -like- defining themselves that they can’t experience pleasure” (Hannah). This is why media like Girls resurfaces: it is a piece of pleasure, hidden in the sinews.