The Meaning of Girls

This thread explores the cultural influence and meaning of Lena Dunham’s show Girls. 

Mon Apr 02, 2012 – 10:19am

If Louis CK Were A 25-Year-Old Girl

That’s Emily Nussbaum’s characterization of the young auteur Lena Dunham, star of the upcoming series “Girls”:

Like Dunham, [Louis CK] writes, edits, directs, and stars as a character based on him. Of course, Louie is a recently divorced middle-aged comic with two kids; [Dunham’s “Girls” character] Hannah is a twentysomething memoirist hooking up in Brooklyn. Yet the two share many qualities: They’re Mr. Magoos of the dating world, stumbling into mortification, then exploiting it as material. Each exposes an imperfect body for slapstick and self-assertion. These characters are sensitive solipsists, artists struggling through a period of confused limbo, prone to fits of self-pity – although the fictional personae are far less driven, hardworking, and ambitious than their creators.

Has the slacker finally gone female?

Think of popular culture’s great slackers – Bill, Ted, “Dude” Lebowski, the many schlubs of Judd Apatow’s movies – and you realise that what unites them is not just their use of the word “dude”: it’s that they are all dudes. On screen and on page, slackerdom has forever been a curiously male preserve, as if the glorification of idleness and a cheerfully non-aspirational attitude were dependent on an extra chromosome. This might be the year that changes that. Right now, a welter of films, books and TV shows from both sides of the Atlantic is yielding a new cultural archetype: the girl slacker. The version of twentysomething womanhood being reflected back at us in 2012 isn’t dressed in Louboutins, busy ball-breaking in boardrooms: she’s eating cereal, in her pants, in her parents’ basement.

Sat May 19, 2012 – 09:14pm

Better Cinematic Sex

Elaine Blair argues it’s happening on Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, referencing a scene where the male character climaxes on Dunham while fantasizing she’s a heroin-addicted 11-year-old girl :

Hollywood sex scenes are not typically interested in even hinting at the ways that people actually reach orgasm, and this is disheartening above all for female viewers, who develop a certain melancholy by the time that they have seen their one thousandth sex scene in which it is taken for granted that by sex we mean mutually rapturous face-to-face vaginal intercourse. Even though the only person having fun in Dunham’s scene is the guy, there is nonetheless a certain joy in seeing someone get off in some other way.

In a New York Times interview Dunham has spoken, apropos of this scene, about her male peers’ saturation in pornography, and about her own suspicions, in some intimate situations, that her partners were mimicking gestures that they had seen online. But if Adam is meant to be obviously under the influence of porn, and his moves echo a staple porn sequence, what Dunham has done with the scene suggests that pornographic convention can actually be an antidote to a certain kind of prudish Hollywood bias.

The explicit sexual nature of the show might explain why 60% of its audience is male. More analysis of “Girls” here and here.

Wed Jun 20, 2012 – 05:58pm

Did Girls Succeed?

The show just finished its first season. Matt Zoller Seitz celebrates its accomplishments:

I fear that a lot of anti-Girls hoopla came from the fact that it’s about, well, girls, and is set in a comically exaggerated version of reality, by which I mean that it isn’t a genre show: There are no gangsters, no spies, no vengeful socialites, no vampires, no cops or lawyers, just young women (and a few men) having relationships and losing jobs and moving in and out of apartments and hurting each other without thinking. Such stories have historically been devalued: witness “chick lit” and “chick flicks.” Critics (male and female) often embrace the thinking behind these condescending labels even if they avoid using the labels. A lot of the same gripes about Girls could have been lodged against The Catcher in the Rye, The Graduate, Harold and Maude, Risky Business, The Royal Tenenbaums, or any number of very white tales of young men with money and no sense of direction, but weren’t.

John Cook, by contrast, still can’t stand Girls:

The ‘artist’ and the character are virtually identical, and you valorize the artist for skewering the character. Besides, [creator Lena Dunham is] not skewering the character. These people are meant to be loved, to be understood and explained. It’s a celebration, not a satire.

Dish commentary on the show compiled here.

Mon Jan 07, 2013 – 02:19pm

Girls And The New Narcissism

Stephen Marche investigates:

This month, The Carrie Diaries relaunches the Sex and the City franchise while Girls starts up its second season. The contrast is stark: In the old narcissism, we have dumb, beautiful moneyed people trying to become more beautiful and more moneyed. In the new narcissism, we have smart, unattractive poor people trying to confront their pervasive, intense self-obsession. All of the best shows on television, the most urgent, most relevant pop culture of the moment – Louie, Community, the upcoming season of Arrested Development – reflect us as we are: narcissists in search of a cure from ourselves.

[Girls] really is legitimately the marker of a generational turn. There were women like the women on Girls fifteen years ago. I remember them. They had graduated from the Ivy Leagues, they didn’t have good jobs right away, and they were so obsessed with the drama of their own potential that they forgot to do anything. They were writers who talked about what it meant for them to be writers rather than paragraph structure. The brilliance of Lena Dunham – or one of them anyway – is that she’s aware of this self-induced crisis. In one of the final scenes of last season’s Girls, her boyfriend screams at her, “You love yourself so much,” and then gets hit by a truck because he’s not paying attention to the world around him. Exactly. She has been self-aware enough to pass through narcissism, at least partially.

Tue Jan 22, 2013 – 02:02pm

The Meaning Of Girls

Michael Brendan Dougherty contemplates the hit series:

The oddest thing about the show is that these girls are fascinated – that really is the right word here – by men who have so few qualities. And the fate of these girls is to continue these confusing sexual relationships with badly damaged men, where pantomimed rape fantasies are a feature and a bug, for perhaps a decade. Only then it may become permissible for their social set to start thinking of marriage.

Perhaps I underestimate the trials of my more suburban, married existence in comparison to those of my Brooklyn friends and their stand-ins on this drama. But for a show with the tone of wild celebration in self-discovery, enabled by so much social capital, the ambitions and possibilities for these Girls seem so small and sad, and their 20s seem tragic.

So few qualities in the men? Have you seen Adam with his shirt off? Have you never fantasized about fucking a carpenter with sawdust under his fingernails just after he fixed your creaking door? (#SullyTMI: I pulled that one off in real life in 1989.) As for the girls’ lives appearing sad, I think my favorite moment ever on the first season (at the very end) was the unexpected but deeply happy grin from Hannah after her alley showdown with Adam. She’s sitting in the middle seat in the back of a cab next to Adam, her distant yet irresisitible love/sex-interest, with his fricking bike on her lap. Yes, that’s being in your twenties.

As far as I’m concerned, Dunham’s as brilliant an actress as she is pioneering as a writer (a kind of Judd Apatow with balls and more intelligence). But I may be biased here. I must confess to a real admiration for Millennials – and this series lingers over their idiosyncrasies like a Planet Earth for Brooklynites and their ilk. They seem to me to be the most honest generation in a long time, realistic without excessive cynicism, ironic while retaining unironic experiences to be ironic about, sexually alive in ways that enrich life, rather than depress it. Some of the sex is a little graphic and a little funny. But that’s what sex is: often deeply awkward and hilarious, when it isn’t the most amazing thing you can ever experience. Thank God for a generation able to tell the truth about it – and so well.

TNC is much more positive than Dougherty. Here’s his follow up on the series’ awesome sex scenes:

What Girls says is “Fuck the gaze.” Lena Dunham ain’t really performing for you. She’s saying people like me–which is most of you–like to fuck. And in a real narrative of real life, the people who do most of the fucking don’t actually look like Victoria Secret models. Your expectations for what fucking should look like are irrelevant. Here is how it looks like to the narrator. I kind of love that. In this (perhaps limited) sense, I can understand the “For Us, By Us” acclaim.

The show’s disregard for male notions of sex is pretty profound. And it achieves this while still giving us a fairly interesting cast of male characters.

I would say it often embraces the male notions of sex and throws them back at the less mature gender (which makes the series kinda gay in the best way). Watching Hannah watch Adam jerk off in bed in front of her is something I didn’t expect to see on TV (and more disturbing than the high camp of American Horror Story). But I bet you it’s happened. Just as surely as I bet you it doesn’t mean the end of civilization.

Wed Jan 23, 2013 – 03:39pm

A reader writes:

I’m a 24-year-old girl living in NYC and first-time emailer despite reading and loving your blog since high school. Thank you for defending us – the real-life girls whose very real lives are what everyone is actually criticizing when they criticize this show (and I’m not just projecting – many of my friends went to high school with Lena Dunham). I’m in medical school right now, following ambitions that may seem less “small and sad” than those of the show’s protagonists, but my more secure career path by no means inures me to the petty and constant growing pains of being a young woman in the big city.

We recently learned Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, which are based on the idea that different periods in your life are marked by different conflicts. The conflict of your twenties? Intimacy versus isolation … the existential question, “Can I love?”

An older female writes:

Yes! Yes to you and TNC. The reason women are more empowered in their 30s is that they finally have the confidence to move on from sexual experiences like the ones they have in their 20s. Girls gets it excruciatingly right.

Reader TMI:

My female friends and my 20s were riddled with guys who want to pee on you; guys who want to have anal sex with you but aren’t particularly good at it; guys who are genuinely surprised when you try to tactfully inform them that 30 seconds of foreplay is not going to do the job. It’s not really fair, but for girls, so much of figuring out your own sexuality involves wrangling the sexuality of guys. For some period of time, many girls in their 20s put up with this because they don’t have the confidence or experience to insist otherwise. (My sense of the character Adam, by the way, is that he actually does have the potential to be decent in bed, but Hannah is not giving him many pointers.)

I found that masturbation scene as surprising as you did. And what I loved about it was its complexity. Hannah wasn’t expecting to be mean to Adam in that way. And Adam was completely comfortable with asking for what he needed. Very interesting.

So, yes, it is sad. For a lot of girls, sex in your 20s is often sad, because you are fending off bad sex all the time. Then guys mature, and we mature, and we learn to be better to each other. And better for each other. And Lena Dunham is showing that process. It’s awesome.

One more thing: my 15-year-old daughter watches girls religiously. She wants me to be up-to-date on it, but she definitely does not want to watch it along with me. And I will say that I am so happy that she is getting an education from that show. Because it is not from the male gaze. It shows the gaze in action, but the perspective of the show is girls.

I didn’t have anything like that when I was her age. Well, let me correct myself. I had Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde. But there was no TV show – no mainstream smash hit – that reaffirmed my experience. That is a powerful thing.

Thu Jan 24, 2013 – 09:25am

A reader tones down the enthusiasm:

Ugh! Why do we have to analyze the “meaning” of Girls? I’m a 45-year-old married hetero male currently living in the dreaded suburbs and I’m a fan of the show. I think Lena Dunham has created a terrific but very specific group of women living in a specific place at a specific time. Somehow, this leaves a number of critics and viewers either dismayed or disproportionately giddy. On one side, the reaction seems to be, “It’s not accurate, it’s too cynical, and the women don’t seem to respect themselves.” Or: “It’s brilliant, unapologetic, and these ladies are archetypes for their generation.” Neither viewpoint says anything that hasn’t been said before about a television show.

Me? I like Girls for its interesting characters and the way they interact with themselves and the city they live in. I’m not looking for an anthropological exploration of 20-somethings in Brooklyn, as if it would answer profound questions about the wider world. And, please, Girlsdoes not validate the importance of so-called Millennials.

Every generation gets a label from an earlier generation, usually for self-serving marketing or political campaign purposes. Then that labeled generation picks the parts they like and reinforces the stereotype through contrived behaviors. That doesn’t prove anything except that some folks are willing to play along. Girls may, consciously or unconsciously, play into cliches about 20-somethings, but can’t we recognize the good work of 20-somethings like Lena Dunham without turning it into a thesis on an entire generation?

Mon Jan 28, 2013 – 06:37pm

Achievement Anxiety

Heather Horn ponders the sentiment among millennials who see Lena Dunham achieving the kind of early fame her Girls character can only dream about:

The feeling of having hoped you’d be further along by age x is pretty common, whether the yardstick is in financial success or artistic achievement and critical acclaim (and often young writers aren’t sure which they value more). … The writer goes through all the standard justifications, including looking for great late-blooming poets to use as benchmarks. But – oh, damn: Do you want to be one of those late bloomers? No, you want to know that you’re going to be a great poet now! No one wants those years wondering if you’ll forever be trapped in your own mediocrity.

It’s not unique to the millennials, however, as Horn illustrates by turning to an anonymous Atlantic column from the early 20th century:

[T]wenty-one threatened me to the very teeth. Drake’s Culprit Fay mocked me; Holmes’s Old Ironsides roared at me; Campbell’s Pleasures of Hope enticed me; Milton’s Nativity ode submerged and cowed me. ‘No, no,’ I cried, as I read again these resonant strophes, ‘I will be a minor poet and never strive with Milton.’ Later, by strange reversal, I consoled myself with proofs that the great poet must come slowly to his height, and I lived for cheerful months on the surpassing badness of Shelley’s work before Alastor, fruit of twenty-three.

Tue Jan 29, 2013 – 08:46pm

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A reader writes:

In what I trust will not be breaking news: achievement anxiety (particularly in relation to others) is nothing new. Consider this famous anecdote from Suetonius’ “Life of Julius Caesar”:

As quaestor it fell to [Caesar’s] lot to serve in Further Spain. When he was there…he came to Gades, and noticing a statue of Alexander the Great in the temple of Hercules, he heaved a sigh, and as if out of patience with his own incapacity in having as yet done nothing noteworthy at a time of life when Alexander had already brought the world to his feet, he straightway asked for his discharge, to grasp the first opportunity for greater enterprises at Rome.


I’m a 22-year-old, freshly graduated, unemployed, parents’ basement-dwelling sometimes-writer and aspiring comic. I just watched all of Girls. I think it’s great. I think it’s also maddening how greedy Lena Dunham is with all of the material I was going to use – right down to HPV. I can’t speak for anyone else my age who similarly strives for creative success, but for my part, I’ve gradually become used to the idea that it’s not going to happen over night. That’s been really hard and hugely important for me. Writing in particular has really taught me patience. No, actually, I’m still not that great and neither are the things that I write. Why would they be? What have I done? What do I know that’s worth writing?

Mark Twain is one of my idols. Being Mark Twain is my career goal. Which is why I have to remind myself that when Samuel Clemens was my age, he was still Samuel Clemens, and he still had a few years of steamboat operation ahead of him before the “Celebrated Jumping Frog.” And that he claimed to have met every character in all of his stories while working up and down the Mississippi. Which he did, as a dream-fulfilling career, for years.

So good on Lena for all of her successes; may she grace us for years to come. But to the others like me who are prone to frustration and anxiety and discouragement and ice cream: don’t be in such a hurry to finish your masterpiece that you ignore all of its characters and dialogues and subplots waiting to be discovered on your steamboat or in your office or at the bar you tend or on that trip you couldn’t take because you really, really need to focus on your writing this year.


One of my best friends from college struck it big as a designer shortly after graduation and was a millionaire by 24. But the success went straight to his head, causing him to alienate most of his closest friends. He also never felt satisfied with the project he was currently doing and was always trying to live up to that sudden and overwhelming success of his early twenties. His experience reinforced my long-held belief that slow but steady success that ends in greatness is a far more preferable path. That way you get to savor every stage of success and never take it for granted.

Mon Feb 04, 2013 – 11:19am

New Media; New Models

Obviously, today is a big one for us. But we’re just as obviously not the only ones dealing with the core issue of how new art, writing, film, poetry etc can pay for itself in this new era. We’re not the only ones who have become frustrated with advertizing. And we’re not the only ones who grew a little exhausted after a while asking bigger media institutions for assistance or permission to get something done. Take, for example, this interview with Lena Dunham, the genius behind Girls:

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Wed Feb 06, 2013 – 12:30pm

How Women Are Changing TV

After the finale of 30 Rock (sob), Emily Nussbaum contemplates Girls:

[T]he most significant thing about Girls may be that it’s not a book, a play, a song, or a poem. And not a movie, either; since women rarely control production, there are few movies of this type, and even fewer that have mass impact. Girls is television. It’s in the tradition of sitcoms in which comics play humbled versions of themselves: Lucy, Roseanne, Raymond, Seinfeld. But it’s also TV in a more modern mode: spiky, raw, and auteurist. During the past fifteen years, the medium has been transformed by bad boys like Walter White and sad sacks like Louis C.K.

Girls is the crest of a second, female-centered wave of change, on both cable and network, of shows that are not for everyone, that make viewers uncomfortable. It helps that the show’s creator has her own roguish, troublemaking quality, a Molly Brown air that lets Dunham wade into controversy without drowning.

In that sense, I think, as Dunham herself explained, that the new wave of television is related to the impact of the web. We’re slowly breaking up the blockbusters for mass audiences (although there will always remain a place for them) and actually providing more options for more audience segments with more varied and specific and niche interests and experiences.

As long as we can find a way to finance these projects, we are slowly turning TV into more of a web experience, with options to watch a huge amount at once in your own time – binge-viewing – or track your favorite shows by DVR to watch when you see fit – and on and on. TV will always have live events to make it unique – the Super Bowl, the Grammies, Campaign debates, game-show finales – but it’s merging with web culture before our eyes. And not just in form but in content.

Thu Feb 21, 2013 – 2:29pm

A Girl’s Awakening

An excerpt from a new Lena Dunham profile:

Dunham developed an intense dread of sex as soon as she learned what it was. From the evidence presented on Girls, it’s unclear whether she’s ever fully gotten over it. “I’d come up with a theory that I thought made a tremendous amount of sense,” she says, “which was that you’d lay next to someone you loved, you wished for a baby and then the sperm and the egg met through the pores of your skin. My friend Amanda was like, ‘No, a man puts his penis in your vagina,’ and I was like, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard; this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.’

I do remember distinctly the moment this dawned on me as well. I was in a Catholic elementary school, aged 10. We had a class on the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. I listened dutifully and then asked: “What’s a normal conception?” I saw the headmaster’s eyes roll back a little; he sighed; there was always one like me on most classes; and he then launched into an empirical discussion of the mechanics of sexual intercourse and procreation. All because of me! And what I remember about it is that I thought it was completely preposterous. He puts his what in where? It seemed utterly weird. I could maybe accept it when it came to rabbits, I thought on my walk home. But my mum and dad? No way.

Alyssa’s two cents:

In the first season of Girls, Dunham was confronting her childhood fears of having sex. Now the show is daring Hannah to not just go to bed with someone, but to enjoy something she once was scared of and didn’t understand.

Mon Feb 25, 2013 @ 10:26am

The Roth Of Her Generation?

Howard Megdal compares Lena Dunham to Philip Roth:

Roth went to Bucknell, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, to study literature. Dunham went to Oberlin, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, to study film. Both worked relentlessly at their crafts, each taking the well-established path toward what tends to be limited success for few. For Roth, it was placing some short stories in literary magazines, with the hope of attracting the attention of a publisher. For Dunham, it was YouTube, a short film, and heading to SXSW with her feature Tiny Furniture in the hope of attracting a producer.

And then, suddenly: fame like no one expects. Work under a microscope. Roth, the great American hope as a novelist, and a Jew, with a great American novella about Jews. Dunham, “The voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation,” as Hannah describes herself to her parents in the Girls pilot. No one makes the front page of the New York Times Book Review at 26. No one has complete creative control of, writes and stars in an HBO television show at 26. Both of them had to answer for their successes.

He goes on to note the extent to which Girls and Goodbye, Columbus “serve as parallel works, Dunham and Roth as parallel artists, and American reaction as parallel paranoid nonsense”:

The love of Goodbye, Columbus was nearly universal, and not because it somehow accurately depicted all Jews. Girls resonates for precisely the same reason, not because it has the requisite number of black cast members.

Feb 28, 2013 @ 11:22am

Dish Bait

Chelsea Davison does Lena Dunham doing Zero Dark Thirty:

(Hat tip: Dunham)

Mar 12, 2013 @ 1:44pm

Q Tips On OCD


Kent Sepkowitz applauds how the latest episode of Girls depicts Hannah’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

She inserts a Q-tip into one ear and traumatizes it, causing a bloody mess and giving the episode its great line (“I heard hissing” after the puncture). Then comes the requisite sitcom schlemiel-like ER visit with a doctor and some drops and some close-ups. But in the episode’s last scene, she grabs the difficult third rail of mental illness once again, showing us Hannah placing a new Q-tip into the other ear. And counting.

With this scene, it appears Dunham is willing to portray real OCD, not the scrubbed and kinda fun version where people are cleaning their hands at inopportune times or else hopping over cracks in the sidewalk. She is trying—I hope—to pull the mental illness away from the lighthearted and silly, and show it as the anguishing compulsion that requires immediate attention and a rain-dance-like repetitive activity to maintain the ordered rows and columns necessary to assure that true darkness remains way over there. The depiction seems promising enough that Dunhamalready has gotten thumbs-up from people involved with OCD treatment and research.

Relatedly, William Brennan advises never putting Q-Tips in your ears:

The problem with removing earwax (by Q-Tip or any other home remedy) is that earwax serves important functions: It is a lubricant, a defense against foreign objects, and even a natural antibiotic. Earwax becomes a problem when it is packed into the canal and hardens, causing “impaction” (or blockage), and evidence shows that Q-Tips can cause impaction.

Mar 15, 2013 @ 3:38pm

Girls On The Global Stage

Drezner has some fun translating the HBO series into a parable of international politics:

Ray is a coffee-shop manager, the oldest member of the group, and far and away the most cynical and angry character on the show. He scorns just about everything that every other character says or does, but seems unable to make much of himself. Ray is Russia personified.

In contrast, Adam — Hannah’s former beau — is China. He’s a force to be reckoned with, but it’s not entirely clear whether he’s socialized into how the rest of Brooklyn society behaves. One could posit that Hannah’s relationship with Adam represents the promise and peril of the “responsible stakeholder” concept. On the one hand, Hannah seems to use her “soft power” to entice Adam into liking her a lot more than he originally thought — in other words, getting him to want what she wants. He begins to socialize with Hannah’s circle of friends. At the same time, Hannah is unsure just how much she wants to engage Adam, reflecting America’s ambivalence in its relationship with China. At the end of the first season, she is quite uneasy about moving in together. The result is an Adam that, much like China, is angry and frustrated at his treatment by others — which in turn leads to bellicose behavior, which in turn leads Hannah to call the cops and try to contain his behavior. The breakdown in the relationship between Hannah and Adam is yet another example of the security dilemma destroying lives.