There were times during Girls’ boundary-breaking, controversial six-season run on HBO where it was hard to tell what all the cultural hubbub was really about, the show or its creator. This isn’t entirely unique; the reception of most cultural texts inevitably gets tangled in the perception of their makers. But Girls was a special case. Whether or not you liked the show seemed to be tied up in what you thought of Lena Dunham’s whole deal, her way of being in the world as a woman, and as an artist. In Girls, Dunham was an artist exploring portrayals of sex that were frank, awkward, and often unsexy; an average-bodied woman who nonetheless dared to bare it all on camera almost every week; and a millennial writing characters who could at times be selfish, cruel, and narcissistic—qualities that were somehow imputed, by her critics, to Dunham herself, as though she didn’t know what fiction was and could only be working in an autobiographical mode.
Throughout, you got the sense that Lena Dunham just did not give a fuck what anyone thought of her. Despite critics (male critics) who seemed to think there could be no possible artistic reason for a big girl to get naked on camera, Dunham persisted in doing nude scenes right up until the last episode, reminding her audience week after week that the awkward business of life is conducted in bodies—usually imperfect ones. And Dunham often seemed to lean into rather than shy away from criticism that her characters were awful people, in rocky middle seasons offering occasional episodes in which Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shosh behaved more as caricatures of youthful narcissism than as coherent, flawed characters. To fans and haters alike, Dunham was an artist committed to being exactly who she wanted to be, rather than what anyone expected her to be.
As it was with the creator, so it was with the show. Girls was what it was, refusing to conform to expectations—and as soon as you thought you’d figured it out, it would change. The premiere episode seemed to signal that the series would be a mumblecore-ish comedy of 20-something growth and maturation into adulthood, crossed with a sort of millennial, Brooklyn-set Sex and the City. It turned out to be neither, and even Hannah’s oft-quoted “I think I might be the voice of my generation, or at least a voice of a generation” turned out to be less a statement of intent than a joking headfake, a gesture toward a creative path not taken.
What the show turned out to be was endlessly frustrating in the sense that it consistently defied efforts to categorize it, and frequently upended expectations. That’s what made it great. And Girls defied no convention more than the prestige-TV expectation of character growth and change, the notion that every episode should be a chapter in a serialized novel with events pushing characters inexorably toward some reckoning, some emotional epiphany. Instead, Dunham’s perspective on character growth often seemed to be taken from Larry David’s dictum for Seinfeld, a TV juggernaut from an earlier age: “No hugs, no lessons.” In place of serial storytelling in which events bear upon and change characters’ basic outlook on life, Girls offered something that was at once more frustrating and more realistic: four flawed characters who evolve at a glacial pace, if at all. Four fundamental worldviews from which to launch narrative explorations of life, and love, and sex, and youth.
And what explorations they were. I’ll remember Girls best for the episodes that were almost one-act plays in their self-contained perfection—“One Man’s Trash,” “Beach House,” “Japan,” “American Bitch,” “The Panic in Central Park,” and yes, “Latching,” the unexpected series finale I didn’t like at first, but which is growing in my estimation in retrospect, as I write this piece. It seemed a cop-out at the time, but now it seems the perfect ending to this show that was at every turn completely committed to being exactly what it was rather than what you wanted it to be, one last attempt to frustrate and complicate the desires of the audience by rewarding those of us who’d stuck around for the whole glorious mess with the most conventional, conservative kind of fulfillment for Hannah: motherhood.
If you think about it, it’s pretty badass.
Andrew DeYoung is the author of The Exo Project. He edits children’s books and lives in Saint Paul with his wife and daughter.