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On Lena Dunham Apologia, Girls Revivalism, and Liberatory Loserdom

by Catherine Gilligan



When HBO’s Girls first came out, it was deemed a revelation. Hailed as a “brilliant gem”, the show was received as the crown jewel of chick TV, mumblecore SATC for a new crop of NYC transplants navigating sex, love and friendship. Dunham’s writing was praised for its honesty, wit and astounding ability to tap into the 24 year old female psyche. Over time, however, the tide shifted. Many people began criticizing Girls, deeming it whiny, vulgar, grating, even anti-feminist. While plenty of the critiques were warranted, namely addressing the show’s glaring issues with race, just as many were bad faith readings of what is, all things considered, an astonishingly self-aware piece of television.

Lena Dunham’s career followed a similar trajectory to that of her show. Initially lauded as the voice of a generation upon Girls’ initial success, people quickly soured on Lena. The daughter of influential and affluent NYC art world types (like so many of her fellow Oberlin alumni) Dunham has been characterized, not entirely unfairly, as obnoxious and out of touch. This is of course exacerbated by the fact that she has been extremely vocal about politics, namely feminism. A fervent and very public supporter of fellow #nastywoman, Hillary Clinton, Dunham has come to embody the archetypal “white feminist”: a coddled liberal white woman who’s “politique” begins and ends with her personal encounters with “mansplaining”, “manspreading”, and getting told to smile more (as opposed to, say, FGM). Unfortunately, due to her seeming inability to shut up, Dunham even found herself cannibalized by her Boss Lady brethren after a series of PR slip-ups. She said that she wished that she had an abortion on a podcast about reproductive rights. She disclosed a series of pre-sexual experiences she had with her sister in her memoir, which despite being more or less developmentally appropriate, were weird enough to immediately be used as ammunition against her. She made a lukewarm statement defending a friend and coworker who was #MeToo-ed in spite of a credible allegation made against him.

Dunham has made blunder after blunder, some inane, some legitimately harmful, all of which have been used to firmly sort her into the camp of Reviled Female Celebrity (think Amy Schumer, Jameela Jamil, Amber Heard). In many online circles, it is no longer enough to find someone annoying—you must also find reasons to deem them morally reprehensible. The real reason most people can’t stand Lena Dunham is because she’s irritating; she’s loud and self-involved and not quite conventionally attractive enough to espouse typical celebrity nonsense without getting scolded. However, in a culture where finding someone grating is no longer sufficient grounds to dislike them, these are replaced with much more serious accusations on her character, ones that were pervasive for a very long time.

So why is everyone I know between the ages of 17 and 24 watching Girls right now?

Illustration by Frances McDowell, Production Assistant

Girls is so fucking funny. It is perhaps the most brilliant depiction of 20-something upper-middle class white women ever captured on camera. Dunham manages to create a razor sharp satire with boundless empathy, as mean spirited as it is generous to its truly awful and excruciatingly familiar cast of characters. All of the Girls feel textured in a way that characters on television usually don’t; their bizarre sexual neuroses, their astounding narcissism, their hysterical meltdowns, their barely cogent worldviews, their desperate desire to be loved. It’s a testament to the strength of Dunham’s writing that her characters feel so relatable, even to the vast constituency of those who are not grad students whose parents pay their rent. This is because Dunham doesn’t just write “strong female characters”- she writes characters that are fully realized in their personhood, as flawed and unlikable as they are compelling.

My personal theory as to why so many young women are revisiting Girls now is because, without jerking her off too much, Dunham inadvertently created the antidote to the current feminist micro-wave ten years too early. Girls was fundamentally incompatible with the feminist movement from which it was born, the age of lean-in corporate girlbossery that had little patience for fuckups like Horvath. In a similar turn, Girls is in tension with the current era of so-called “dissociative feminism”. Fleabag, who I consider to be the embodiment of this detached, nihilistic “born with pain built in” type, is the anti-Hannah. While Fleabag can turn to the camera, collar bones protruding, and deliver some cutting, self-aware quip on her own glamorous dysfunction, Hannah can only shove the Q-tip deeper into her ear and cry about it to her ex-boyfriend. Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, even Jessa, are all losers because they’re allowed to be. They don’t need a veil of ironic detachment to engage with the world; they feel everything deeply and fully. They don’t have to come off as nonchalant; they care so deeply about the world around them. And in simply permitting her female characters to exist in all their complexity and contradiction, Dunham crafts a narrative far more liberating than anything mainstream liberal feminism has offered women in years.

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