Lena Dunham’s ultimate message in Girls is conservative: a lesson in the cost of flouting bourgeois norms.
To put in perspective the magnitude of what Lena Dunham has accomplished with her HBO sitcom Girls, imagine that Michael Jackson had written a merciless satiric novel about a freakish, plastic-surgery-obsessed, formerly black pop singer, or that Bill Clinton had come up with a hilariously caustic screenplay about a truth-challenged southern horndog of a president. Dunham herself, in public appearances and interviews, says unconscionable things, just like her narcissistic screen alter ego Hannah Horvath. But between Dunham the public figure and TV Dunham stands Dunham the writer. She is everything the other two are not: perspicacious, surprising, keenly aware of her own shortcomings. Girls is a prosecutorial indictment of Millennial self-absorption and entitlement. If, in other words, you can’t stand real-life Lena Dunham, writer Lena Dunham has your back.
Girls, which on Sunday concluded a six-season run that proved to be to the think-piece industry what the Marcellus Shale is to fracking, was from the start transparent about its intent to provide a soiled corrective to Sex and the City — one character lovingly put on her wall a cheap poster of the earlier show in the Girls pilot. But it owes an equal debt to Seinfeld, which drew most of its comic energy from the selfishness and etiquette violations of its four central characters. Girls does both 1990s sitcom stalwarts one better, or worse: Hannah Horvath (Dunham) and her three twentysomething friends don’t just contravene social niceties.
They repeatedly do and say horrible, friendship-endangering things to one another, unaware of the serious harm they’re doing. When Hannah’s gay ex-boyfriend and roommate Elijah (Andrew Rannells) learns that she is pregnant in the final season, he objects to the prospect of being roommates with “some boring 27-year-old single mom” and continues, “I’m going to say this to your face because no one else will have the guts to. You’re going to be a terrible mother. Oh, great, you’re going to cry now?”
Unlike the girl-powered Sex and the City, in which the supposedly strong, confident single ladies gradually turned into victims whose conversation tended to complaints about the many ways they were being let down by their men, Girls never lets its women off the hook. If anything, the girls of Girls come off looking more venal, dishonorable, and duplicitous than the men in their lives, who are at least relatively honest and forthright.
Dunham has a surgical way of undercutting her characters’ claims. Throughout the series her underemployed Brooklynites will say one thing that will be proven a lie by their next action or sentence. “I want to spend more time with you, I just want some of that time to be apart,” Marnie (Allison Williams) tells her boyfriend Ray (Alex Karpovsky). In season two, the loudly progressive Hannah breaks up with her black Republican boyfriend (Donald Glover), supposedly over political differences, dramatically telling Elijah and Marnie, “Your rights happened and your rights happened, because I can’t be with someone who’s not an ally to gays and women.” We know this is a lie: Hannah broke up with the young man, Sandy, solely because she was miffed about his unenthusiastic, though politely given, response to an essay she’d given him to read. Sandy speculates, probably accurately, that her interest in him was skin-deep anyway, so she gets huffy about his views of white girls: “And maybe you think of us as just one big white blobby mass with like stupid ideas that you can’t deal with.”
Three years later, real-life Dunham would use similar language to smear the black NFL star Odell Beckham Jr., ascribing rude thoughts to him because he didn’t talk to her at a party: “He looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards,” Dunham said. “He was like, ‘That’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog.’ . . . The vibe was very much like, ‘Do I want to f— it? Is it wearing a . . . yep, it’s wearing a tuxedo. I’m going to go back to my cell phone.’ It was like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie.” Real-life Dunham is forever stumbling into saying the kinds of things writer Dunham uses to expose Hannah’s reckless, destructive self-absorption.
At its foundation, despite Dunham’s much-advertised progressive politics, Girls is a conservative work, a six-year course in the cost of disregarding simple bourgeois norms and romantic conventions — be true to your word, don’t start an affair with someone if you’re already in a relationship. Everyone (as Hannah says of Marnie) is stuck on a “psychosexual hamster wheel,” the women in particular finding it nearly impossible to treat sex as a mere leisure activity. Older characters, people who remember the conventions and respected them, sometimes try to nudge the Millennials back in the right direction, but when Hannah does get offered sound advice, she is liable to say, “You sound like my mother.”
By the closing moments of the last episode, though, she herself is a mother of a newborn, and in a typically bizarre and funny encounter that takes place in a small town in upstate New York, she meets a distraught teenager in tears, fleeing something, wearing neither pants nor shoes. Hannah thinks the girl must be in flight from a sexual attack, but it turns out the kid ran away because her mother tried to get her to do homework. Hannah upbraids the brat for being whiny and entitled and tells her to consider the matter from her mother’s point of view. After 62 cringe-inducing episodes of unforced errors, Hannah has learned her lesson: Listen to your mom. She probably knows more about life than you do.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.