Last night was the season 5 premiere of Lena Dunham’s divisive HBO series, Girls. It was an episode that stuck to the creative glue that’s held together the previous seasons. Hannah’s still gloriously self-centered. Shosh is still manic. Marnie is still desperate for validation. Jessa’s still pretending she doesn’t give a fuck about anything. Everyone on the cast is still white save for some random supporting character that had a handful of lines. More of the same that won’t persuade you to join the Dunham-worshipping cult if you aren’t already a fan and won’t force you off the bus if you’re a long-time viewer. The episode was neither spectacular nor awful. It fell somewhere inbetween, and while watching, I wondered if I should still be there for Hannah Horvath and the girls on wintry Sunday nights.
At a time where the US is deeply embroiled in matters of race and choosing the next leader of our country, there’s some really important shit we should be talking about. I’m not sure Girls ever spoke about anything important, but now’s a great time to start. For me, the show represented a sort of anti-Sex and the City. This was a post-Samantha group of 20-something people trying to figure life out and doing a really bad job at it. It was cringe-worthy, funny, thoughtful, and strikingly original in its portrayal of life in New York. This wasn’t a show about Meatpacking District lofts and Park Avenue duplexes. This was about dark, Williamsburg, pre-war apartments. When the show started 5 years ago, I was 26 years old and still experiencing some of life’s growing pains in my transition to true adulthood. By watching Girls, I was reliving my early 20s and living out all those stupid mistakes I wanted to make vicariously through Hannah.
But now, five years later, I’m not sure I can still relate to these characters, their place in the world, or Lena Dunham’s perspective.
For starters, Dunham is a divisive figure that makes me feel conflicted about being a fan. In the same way that Kanye West is simultaneously a musical force and a seriously flawed (and sometimes despicable) human being, Dunham is the same in TV and lit. She can stump for Hillary Clinton and create Lenny, her weekly newsletter that very successfully stands up for women’s rights. But then she tweets about Bill Cosby’s rape allegations, seemingly forgetting about the very public fight she had about whether or not she sexually abused her little sister. It’s hard to root for someone who can be so smart yet so unlikable.
As I watch Girls now, I feel very distant from the world that Dunham has created. The New York her characters live and fail in is nothing like the New York that I know. How can these people live so deep in Brooklyn and never encounter a single person of color? How is their world so claustrophobic and unrealistic? I know that the show is a form of satire in many ways, but its handling of race and diversity is not parody. It’s the result of a lack of awareness. How is it possible for Lena Dunham to fight so hard for the inclusion of women in all things and seemingly forget all other injustice? I’m not asking for Girls to be everything to everyone. After all, it is a show created for pure entertainment value; it’s not a documentary. But as its popularity has grown and its cast and staff have gained more visibility, one would think that the outside world would have some kind of effect on the show’s storytelling. Or at least in the extras or supporting characters.
Concerning the show’s treatment of men, this is obviously a spot where satire seems to play its biggest role. The guys in the world of Girls are laughable sad sacks with the emotional capacity of five-year-olds. From Desi’s self-important, faux spiritual creative to Adam’s bumbling Brooklyn equivalent of the Giant from Jack and the Beanstalk to Ray’s supremely cynical, lovelorn coward, these guys have nothing more to offer than misery and confusion. I don’t know any guys like this. But perhaps the male portrayal that gets under my skin the most is that of Elijah. He’s Hannah’s now gay ex-boyfriend. He gets a large chunk of the show’s best lines and seems to be the most grounded amidst a sea of clueless wannabe adults. But he also represents a trope of gay stereotypes that now seem tired. He’s the pill-popping, club-going, sexually overactive best friend that’s always equipped with something snarky to say. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t represent some gay men as it does. But haven’t we seen this gay guy before? Doesn’t Hollywood ever get tired of reproducing Will & Grace’s Jack over and over again?
So here I am longing for more shows like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None in which his New York represents what I am accustomed to. His crew includes a black lesbian, a preppy Asian, and a goofy tall white guy. His girlfriend is white. He attends acting auditions alongside other Indian actors. The cast is easily the most diverse I’ve ever seen on any show, and the best part of it is that they all simply exist. No one talks about how diverse everyone is. It doesn’t feel forced like some affirmative action take on diversifying TV. And better yet, Ansari’s Dev glides through many millennial-era challenges that anyone can relate to regardless of gender, race, or sexuality. You don’t feel alienated by the show’s characters or plots because you come from a different background. The show has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and yet, it is not fodder for think piece after think piece like Girls is.
The millennial in me wants to support Dunham as her show, as annoying and ugly as it can be, is probably the most realistic portrayal of our generation on TV. But there’s a much bigger part of me that knows we can do better. That knows that I as a viewer deserve something better. The tagline for the new season reads “finally piecing it together”. But as our shabby femme fatales are just starting to mature, perhaps their character growth is too little too late compared to the scope of growth in my own life. Next Sunday at 10pm, there may be one less fan glued to the TV screen.