Growing Up On GIRLS

Girls premiered in 2012, just before my college graduation. I had found myself in the tenuous position of figuring out what to do with my life at a point in time where I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. I had important decisions to make, but I was 22, alone, and completely unmoored from any sense of the future. Though I'd been avoiding the show, a chance viewing of S1E02 "Vagina Panic" hooked me. The show was bizarre, but sharp; I could immediately relate to it on a visceral level. I wasn't expecting that. 

Much of the discussion about the show in that first season was about race and representation. How could Lena Dunham create a vision of New York that was so incredibly monotonous? How could she so clumsily sidestep such glaring issues? How did that vision reconcile with her very public feminism? It's a critique that remained true and valid through the series' run, right up to the series finale. The defenses she gave were  pitiable at best and offensive at worst, but in hindsight I'm inclined to forgive her poor instincts. At 24, I was contemplating the inevitability of my death, not creating my legacy. I shudder to think how I would have fared under that kind of intense scrutiny at that stage of my life. I don't think I would have handled it well either, or even survived. Her behavior in later seasons, is less defensible. 

But what has always frustrated me about the way Girls treated race was the sheer simplicity of the problem. I am a college-educated millennial black woman from the Global South. Lena is a college-educated millennial white woman from the United States. If I was able to so immediately see myself in the stories she told about her life, why couldn't she see herself in mine? The idea that "writing what you know" means "only other white women" revealed to me that Lena saw black and brown women as inherently "other" in a way that meant she presumed our experiences had no overlap. It still irks me that after all this time, white women rarely seem to have any imagination past the tips of their own noses. 

But in the end I grew up on Girls; it has existed almost as long as my adulthood. It was there with me when I got my first job and when I got fired from my first job. It was there when I started my first adult relationship and when I went back to him long past the point at which it was over. It was there when I grew apart from friends and found my way back to them again. Girls has marked the milestones of my adult life, and its end coincides with my finally finding my own way.

Over the course of its six-year run, it served as a way for me to contemplate the failures of my own life and assess those of the characters from a distance. Whether it was Marnie's self-involvement masked as pseudo-spiritualism, Jessa's intense self-loathing parading as enlightenment, Hannah's mental illness or Shoshanna's misplaced awe, I could see the trials and tribulations of a life like mine play out before me; close enough to serve as a warning, yet distant enough to afford me the moral superiority needed not to emulate them. 

Stepping outside my own sphere however, Girls still exists as the best version of what it is: one woman's vision of life in the here and how. As detestable as these characters often were, they did feel real and actualized. I resented them, but I also resented the parts of me I saw in them. The show had gaping flaws, but it isn't the first to find itself in that position. I wish the show had been better able to course-correct as the episodes stacked up, but even in the messiness, there were flashes of brilliance: season 5 and 6 were some of the strongest, most coherent television I've ever seen. "Hello Kitty" and "American Bitch" were stand-out half hours of TV, the latter of which also served to delineate Lena's own personal ruminations on feminism and power. 

The finale "Latching" then, was a bit of a disappointment. While it felt like an end in the middle, it also did not address the glaring fact of Hannah's son's brownness and how that unforeseen factor might influence her mental approach to her own readiness for motherhood. With one last chance to get it right, Girls dropped the ball on race again.

What resonated about this final season however was that it was, to quote contemporary philosopher Kylie Jenner, "the year of realizing things." People came together and fell apart and mended things or didn't. But that finality existed in a way that never seems possible when you're in the thick of things. These characters moved on to new phases of their lives and shed the things that were binding them to people who no longer made sense for them. From Adam's realization that he could not be with Hannah to Shoshanna's revelation that she had simply outgrown the other three women, the characters peeled away at themselves to find the core of who they were, and then they moved forward, and sometimes, sadly, apart.

Now that it has ended, I find myself almost compelled to say that Girls was a better, smarter and more self-aware show that it ever truly got credit for. Looking back, I can admit to myself that I was guilty of conflating the issues I had with Lena Dunham the person, with my issues with Hannah Horvath the character. Like many others, I got lost in the deluge of think-pieces and criticisms that while true and fair, were too focused on peripheral ideas about what the show should or could be rather than what it was. Six years later, I can look back with fondness at the mistakes that Hannah, Shoshanna, Marnie and Jessa made on my behalf, so that I never had to. I loved Girls perhaps more than it deserved and gave it more credit than it earned, but I also know that it gave me something valuable in return and I will always be grateful for that.