The cast of Girls (Photo: Getty Images) 

TV

How Girls shaped the way we see women on TV 

Now in its sixth and final season, Lena Dunham's show challenged society’s expectation of femininity and revelled in the awkwardness and messiness of womanhood, says Arwa Mahdawi

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By Arwa Mahdawi on

Girls is the Marmite of small screen entertainment. Ever since the show first aired, back in 2012, it has had a polarising effect; people either love it or love to hate it. It has inspired a dizzying spectrum of hot takes and antithetical opinions: It’s revolutionary in its rawness! It’s the epitome of entitlement! It’s a tour de force of feminism! It’s White Feminism at its worst!

Much has been written about Girls over the last five years. And as the show goes into its sixth and final season, it continues to catalyse conversation and divide opinion. This enduring ability to provoke a reaction and incite a response is what has made Girls a bona fide cultural phenomenon. The show is often uncomfortable to watch and its characters are almost entirely unlikeable but Girls never set out to win hearts, it set out to engage minds. Girls doesn’t necessarily want you to like it; it wants you to pay attention.

So what is it about Girls that has held our attention so long?

First, there’s the fact that Girls showcases the various insecurities of womanhood in a way that wasn’t really seen on television before. From the very beginning it stripped sex of its polished Hollywood veneer and showed it in all its gory #nofilter, no-female-orgasm messiness. It steadfastly trained the camera on Lena Dunham’s naked body and, in doing so, forced the viewer to think about the way the media has trained us to think about what a naked woman’s body should look.

You’re supposed to see your best, most aspirational self in a Carrie or Miranda. You see your worst—or, at least, more authentic self—in a Hannah or a Marni

More specifically, Girls showcases the insecurities and disappointments of millennial womanhood. It never romanticises youth; it is frank about failure. Sex and the City fed you an impossible dream of grown-up success in the city – you yearned for Carrie’s wardrobe, Samantha’s sex life, and Miranda’s career. What’s more Sex and the City inspired a generation of young women to move to the city to live that dream – indeed the very first episode of Girls has Shoshana showing off a SATC poster to Jessa. Girls was written for all those young women who realised the hard way that Sex and the City was world’s apart from reality in the city. Your first apartment would probably be a hovel, your first job would probably suck, and your friends might not turn out to be as great as you had previously imagined. Adulting would be hard. The girls are all screw-ups in their own individual ways and that’s what makes them relatable. You’re supposed to see your best, most aspirational self in a Carrie or Miranda. You see your worst—or, at least, more authentic self—in a Hannah or a Marni. 

While Girls has, rightly, been praised for pushing a lot of boundaries it has also (equally rightly) been criticised for ignoring others—particularly when it comes to diversity. Despite being set in Brooklyn, an enormously multicultural borough of New York, its characters are highly privileged and problematically pale. A more accurate name for the show might have been Rich White Girls Rapidly Gentrifying the Boroughs.

Girls has had a lot of flak for its lack of diversity and Lena Dunham told me (in a well-rehearsed soundbite she has rolled out many times before) that she has learned from this criticism and won’t do “another show with four white girls on the poster.” But, snark aside, much of the opprobrium heaped on Girls in this regard was probably misplaced. Diversity doesn’t mean every show on TV has to have a Muslim, a black person, and an ethnically ambiguous queer person in the cast. It means that TV networks need to be ensuring that they’re not just commissioning the usual sort of stories written by the usual straight-white-suspects; that there’s a diversity of experiences being showcased and stories being told.

The lack of diversity in Girls has also sparked debate about its feminist credentials. Girls is generally considered a feminist show and feminism is a large part of Lena Dunham’s personal brand. For some people, however, Girls (along with Lena Dunham and her many Twitter controversies) has also come to epitomise a problematic White Feminism. A sanitised, corporatised feminism that centres on the struggles of privileged women and ignores intersectional issues and the oppression of more marginalised women.

Ever self-aware, season six of Girls touches on the problems of corporatised feminism in an amusing subplot in episode two. Shoshana, with Jessa and Elijah in tow, attends a WEMUN (Women Entrepreneurs Meet Up Now) networking event. This is a highly vapid and chichi affair that is clearly less about feminism and more about leaning in to elitism. Addressing the room the founders say: “Some of you have asked why our membership is so expensive [$2000 a year]… it’s really hard to find a chic space for cheap.” Speaking about that episode, Dunham told me: “It was fun to write that WEMUN subplot because I love the idea that we’ve somehow made feminism corporate. We’ve taken…a very specific political movement and made it about issues like networking and money...[we’ve taken] feminism and girl power and made them into merchandise. I think the Spice Girls did it better the first time.” WEMUN was a brilliant parody of corporate feminism and Dunham’s commentary is astute; however I couldn't help but notice that the episode seems to attempt to extricate itself from any associations with White Feminism by making the irritating co-founders of WEMUN a black woman and an Asian. Of course, that could just be happenstance, but in a show that contains very few people of colour, it was a detail that stood out.

Girls has helped prove the business case for a new genre of feminist-friendly TV: shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City, Insecure, and Fleabag

WEMUN aside, what else is there to look forward to in season six? Do the Girls grow into women? Does everything wrap up neatly with happy endings all round? Of course not, this is Girls we’re talking about. Discussing the denouement, executive producer Jenni Konner told me: “We wrap up their stories but not necessarily in a way that is always positive. It’s like life, some people are doing great, some people are not.”

Girls has been, without a doubt, a cultural phenomenon but season six was clearly the time to bring it to an end. Cultural phenomena tend to contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction: their success spawns imitators and pushes the gatekeepers of culture to open those gates a little wider. And through those gates come a new generation of provocateurs who become more relevant than their progenitors. In the mid 1980s The Golden Girls (1985-1992), a “four women” sitcom focused on female friendship in later age, made waves by addressing subjects that hadn’t been so candidly and intelligently spoken about on a sitcom before—issues like AIDS, abortion, and ageing. The Golden Girls paved the way for Sex and the City (1998-2004), which took on formerly taboo subjects like female masturbation. SATC paved the way for Girls. In turn, Girls has helped prove the business case for a new genre of feminist-friendly TV: shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City, Insecure, and Fleabag. Shows that challenge society’s expectation of femininity and, instead, revel in the awkwardness and messiness of womanhood and life.

As season six of Girls goes to air it is no longer an outlier on television. It no longer feels new or edgy; it is in good company. And this, perhaps, is Girls greatest achievement. It has done what it set out to do; it has helped normalise the neuroses of womanhood and helped put a new sort of female protagonist on our screens. Love it or hate it, it has made a difference.

@ArwaM

Girls series 6 will premiere on February 13th at 10pm exclusively on Sky Atlantic & NOW TV

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The cast of Girls (Photo: Getty Images) 
Tagged in:
Arts & Culture
Lena Dunham
Diversity

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