In the first season of the HBO show Girls, Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham (who also writes and directs the show), is in between. Working an unpaid internship in New York City while pursuing a career as a writer and being supported by her parents, she is somewhere between dependence and independence.
The pilot opens with Hannah at dinner with her parents, unaware that they are about to cut her off. Engaged in a nebulously casual relationship with Adam, she is somewhere between friends with benefits and girlfriend. As she struggles with her body image and the various ways in which she compromises herself for Adam (a particularly awkward scene in the first season has her pretending to be an 11-year old girl during sex), we see her somewhere between self-loathing and self-acceptance.
In her in-betweenness, Hannah is frequently oblivious and self-involved in the caricaturistic way that has become a facile shorthand for the millennial ethos. She is surrounded by friends who are equally but uniquely oblivious and self-involved, all navigating the tenuous space between adolescence and adulthood.
Since the 1970’s, each generation has resided in this space for longer and longer periods of time, taking more time to finish school, find stable careers, and settle down in domestic partnerships. So it’s no surprise that the show, and Dunham herself, have resonated with an audience that seemed to have been hungry for an honest portrayal of a certain kind of girl at a certain time in her life. It is the story of a particular group of girls, yes, but it is also an echo from a generation that has rejected all kinds of binary identities. A generation that sees the world as more nuanced than just straight or gay, male or female, employed or unemployed. A generation that is, by necessity and choice, comfortable somewhere in between.
Beyond the demographic appeal, the titular girls are at times awful and at times decent in ways that feel real. Hannah’s best friend and roommate Marnie is pristine where Hannah is sloppy. She comes off as judgmental and overbearing, though sympathetic due to an earnestness that is palpable whether she is being sincere or insincere. In the first season, she ends a joyless relationship with her anodyne boyfriend Charlie, who she is clearly no longer in love with, but then struggles to accept it when he moves on with a Bushwick hipster.
The appeal of the characters is that while you can’t help but like them, you also revel in their humiliations. When Charlie’s new girlfriend asks Marnie “I’m sorry, who are you?”, you feel a mixture of empathy and schadenfreude. At the end of last season, she is in a joyless marriage in which she finds herself, as she did with Charlie, out of love but unable to let go.
Jessa is the most evolved but also the most self-involved of the girls, seducing as recklessly as a drive by shooter, but at least doing so for her own amusement rather than validation. She leaves a trail of emotional casualties in her wake, which include the father of the children she babysits, a husband, and eventually even Hannah.
Jessa’s cousin Shoshanna provides necessary levity with a mixture of naivety, sincerity, and self-importance. She is the most genuine of the girls, and you often find yourself rooting for her. Of all the characters, she achieves the most satisfying self-actualization. By the end of the fifth season, she has pursued a career opportunity abroad, and returns home disappointed but wiser. She deals with the emotional fallout of her relationship with Ray—her surly first love who goes on to sleep with Marnie—in a way that suggests she at least will become something like a well-adjusted adult.
Hannah’s story arc takes her to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in season 4, where her tone deafness and entitlement alienate her classmates. She returns to New York in the fifth season and ends up in a tangential job as a teacher and in a detour relationship with a teacher. By the end of that season, she is farther along on her journey and perhaps on the brink of the writing career she has dreamed of. Not quite as in between, but yet to arrive.
The show has been dissected and deconstructed for its unflinching portrayal of sex, friendship, and Lena Dunham’s nude body. It has been lauded and lambasted, imitated and lampooned. The discussion of the show is part of a larger referendum on millennials, privilege, and issues of representation. And whether or not its artistic merits will be remembered, its cultural contributions and failures are likely to endure, ensured by the polarizing public persona of its creator, Lena Dunham.
The proliferation of shows, movies, and celebrities that don’t conform to normative standards since Girls premiered makes it easy to forget that not so long ago, a girl like Hannah Horvath was a supporting character. She would have provided comic relief in a show or a movie about someone skinnier, happier, simpler, less neurotic, more focused, more together. The character is not really aspirational. You don’t want to be Hannah Horvath, but whether you like it or not, sometimes you are Hannah Horvath.
Dunham has often been conflated with her myopic character, sometimes fairly, more often not. Her book of personal essays, Not That Kind of Girl, suggests that while she does have a great deal in common with Hannah, she is reflective where Hannah is shallow, and that she is genuinely rather than performatively self-deprecating. Her talent has been compared to Woody Allen’s, though her neuroses have been reduced by critics to solipsism where his have been pointed to as a testament to his genius. Her public life has become as much of a linchpin of conversations about millennial womanhood as the show.
The fair criticisms of the show, and indeed of Dunham, have been of the extent to which both represent a certain kind of white, rather privileged girl to the exclusion of other types of experiences. The show has a notable lack of diversity despite its Brooklyn setting. Dunham herself has acknowledged this problem and admitted that if she were making a show now, she wouldn’t make “another show that has four white girls on the poster.”
Dunham’s comments suggesting that Odell Beckham, Jr., who she sat next to at the 2016 Met Gala, ignored her because she didn’t represent a “woman by his standards” caused understandable furor, prompting an apology from Dunham for feeding into racially charged stereotypes. A few months later, her flippant remark on her Women of the Hour podcast the she wishes she’d had an abortion made her the subject of further controversy, and Dunham issued another apology. Her comments and the ensuing backlash coincided with the controversy surrounding the inception of the Women’s March on Washington and, like the Women’s March, have informed conversations about the problems of white feminism.
It is notable, and indeed it has been noted, that similarly insensitive comments and similarly homogenous art from men has often failed to result in similar scrutiny. While there is no doubt that creative women are often held to a higher standard than their male counterparts, as Salamishah Tillet pointed out in the New York Times, the scrutiny is also a product of millennial feminism, which has allowed women of color to add their voices to the conversation through digital media.
These conversations are taking place in various online feminist forums and Facebook groups. Dunham, who identifies as a feminist, is often a topic, sometimes derided, sometimes defended. She is a topic among many that serve as a cultural barometer that delineate an uncompromising approach to intersectional feminism from a moderate one. The former tends to reject her as a feminist role model entirely, while the latter tends to defend her as an original and authentic if somewhat insular representation of millennial womanhood and feminism.
The issue of Dunham herself is much less significant to the movement than the conversations she provokes within it, which are negotiating the feminist dogma that is likely to motivate the future of the movement.
Dunham is perhaps much more significant to those who identify with her and Girls, who stand to learn as much from her personal missteps as from her creative triumphs. It is an uncomfortable truth that there are probably a great deal of women who identify as feminists who, like Dunham, are in the growing pains of learning about privilege, representation, and intersectionality.
And as much as the emerging millennial feminist movement will be defined by more inclusive representation, it may also come to be defined by whether it makes space for women to learn and to make mistakes. And though Dunham has tried to make amends for hers, the jury is still out on whether Dunham is a good or a bad feminist. Most likely, like most of us, she is somewhere in between.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.