How the Lena Dunham show used a millennial

The girls in Girls were messy and made poor choices; masquerading as self-enlightened when they were reflexively self-indulgent.

Ten years ago, today, Girls premiered and offered us a realistic view of sex and a city than shows about girls and urban cultures before it.

Here were four young women in full form courting all sorts of experiences. The show started several conversations (or controversies) about how women can or cannot have sex even in the sexually-forward West with its depictions of autoeroticism, denigrating sexual fantasies and role play, STDs, abortions, and everything in the grotesque in betweens.

Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, says, “There’s all these experiences that I just feel like I’ve asked for, things where it’s like, ‘Who in their right mind would want that?’ Like one time, I asked someone to punch me in the chest and then come on that spot. Like that was my idea — that came from my brain. And it’s like, what makes me think I deserve that?”

The episode is literally a fever dream – Patrick Wilson’s character, the stranger doctor, revives Hannah’s unconscious body from the steaming hot shower, and the audience is not really sure how much stock to put in her words. Marnie is trapped inside a violently triggering art installation, and also under its owner, a celebrity artist with a superiority complex. She crawls out, clearly shaken telling him, “You’re so f*****g talented!”

In an early episode, Jessa is avoiding going to the clinic for an abortion and picks up a stranger at a bar to take the edge off. She commands him to put his hands down her pants. When he asks if that is okay, she says, “Don’t ask me that ever again in my life.” And then Shosh is falling out of love with Ray, visibly uncomfortable with his hand on her boobs. She tells him he can finish, and that he is being weird when he tells her that he will not finish until she does. Exasperated, she says, “Will you get out of me?”

In later seasons, Girls also based an entire episode called American Bitch on sexual assault before #MeToo became a feminist rallying cry across the world, but withheld from taking sides. As culture writer Elaine Blair pointed out, “​​If all you want to do is convey an erotic tension between two people, you can leave out explicit depictions of sex acts. But if you are interested in the psychological implications of what happens between people during sex, you need to show something of the sex.”

Where Game of Thrones was eventually accused of showing gratuitous sex and nudity, for Hannah Horvath, it was as natural as a shirtless dude as in locker room, all the while shouldering severe anxieties about her future and her body. A female ensemble was not written in a way that gave way to easy slotting in favour of social media tagging and personality quizzes. Although cheekily in the first season, Shoshana tells Jessa that she was a Carrie with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair.

They were messy and made poor choices; masquerading as self-enlightened when they were reflexively self-indulgent. Kinks and tears were not sanitised, sex was not played for levity, nor a woman’s breakdown. The show gave us all the wrong ways of dealing with racism, self criticism, addiction, and friendships, and that was the point. “Free is not through the working mind or the gratified senses,” American feminist and critic Vivian Gornick wrote. “Free is through the steady application of self-understanding.” And ultimately the millennial sexual revolution of Girls was treating a sexcapade as a way to understand oneself better, and not the achievement of a problem-free sex life, nor holding out in the hope of better sex.

But on Reddit, another attitude rears its ugly head in the comments: who would want to be intimate with such girls? The other legacy of Girls is that it was the voice of a generation. Girls walked so Master Of None, Broad City, Love, Chewing Gum, and Fleabag could run. At long last, we are also seeing women past the age of 40 be unlikable, fail, and f**k in On The Verge.

But when it first aired, Girls received scathing reviews and ridicule for its tone and sympathies. A Saturday Night Live! sketch planted a hardened, older Albanian immigrant woman as an audience stand-in with the girls. “Don’t speak! If you speak, they will know you are simple; if they know you are simple, they will drown you in river,” Blerta lectures, constantly shaming other characters for behaving younger than their age, their sexual promiscuity and even their self confidence. “You could never do better than this (Adam). He is strong like ox. You weak and soft and dressed like baby,” Blerta warns Hannah.

Apparently, no one called the Boomers out even as recently as 2013. It seems now the backlash has subsided – there is a small justice for Girls anniversary trend taking place in the media. Vanity Fair surmises that it was almost like the Girls characters were so convincingly unlikeable that their actors’ careers might have taken a hit. It is true that none of the actresses have seen the meteoric success that Adam Driver did following the show.

In India, Girls did not become the watercooler show that Game of Thrones did. Influencers would recommend shows centering a spectrum of male desires and motivations like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Narcos, and that Louis CK show, but Girls remained a hidden gem. I have heard friends who watched the inaccessible Hulu show, Insecure, deny a chance to the too-white Girls. That is a borrowed argument, considering Friends still remains the most watched English show in India. It is heart-breaking that a decade after Girls, it feels irresponsible to encourage its sexual politics in my own city. Lessons of caution are always conjoined with a performance of solidarity with independent women.


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