As Lena Dunham’s groundbreaking series begins its final season, Stylist explores the personal, political and cultural impact her work has had on us all.
It’s been five years since Girls premiered on our TV screens and audible gasps rang across the globe as young, chubby Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) got naked and amorous with her reluctant lover Adam. He accidentally ‘puts it in the wrong hole’ and in return, Hannah begins a typically verbose examination of his actions. His response? “Hey, let’s play the quiet game.” It was cold, brutal and entirely believable – Dunham’s character is, many agree, like your most annoying pal dialled up to 100.
That first season symbolised a new era in TV shows for young women. Though Sex And The City dealt with glossy sex for Generation X, who knew what they wanted and what it took to get it, never before was there a show that dealt with the immaturity of those tentative steps into adulthood with such raw aplomb. It was awkwardly real, entirely unflattering but recognisably brilliant. Now, after six seasons, Dunham has signalled the end. “I think America has a tendency to push shows past their due dates,” she said early last year. “I like the British model – in and out.”
Not everyone loved Girls and its overtly risqué scenes, self-indulgence and narrow portrayal of society (pretty much the whole cast is white), yet most acknowledge that through it, Dunham has created many pivotal moments in pop-culture history. And outside of her role in Girls, her political activism (she was proudly #teamhillary), her podcasts and feminist online newsletter Lenny Letter, Dunham has used her multiple platforms and posse of influential celebrity friends to amplify her voice and the issues affecting women as she sees them.
As the final season begins (13 February, Sky Atlantic), we ask a range of writers and commentators to pen their thoughts on how Dunham has changed the feminist conversation for them – the good, the bad and the ugly. Whether you love it or hate it, here’s why Girls – and Lena – became a grade-A inspiration.
Girls brought politics to the mainstream
“Dunham, along with artists like Beyoncé, is part of a tribe who have used their craft rather than just their platform to stand up for what they believe in. Both women clearly use their own voices, anger and frustration to give clarity to their political messages and are unrelentingly unapologetic to those who want them to write great but inoffensive pop songs or to phone in another drama about female friendships and cheery sorority. It is their politics that gives their art clarity and purpose, reaching across divides of class, race and geography. We can hear their voices rather than that of their producers, record companies or brand managers. And this honesty doesn’t just get their message across, it makes them more, not less, entertaining and extends their popularity to better spread their movement. This is political campaigning at its best.
Artists engaging with politics is nothing new of course. During the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and the austerity of the Eighties, we saw many examples of politicisation of mainstream popular culture. For Dunham’s generation, however, coming of age in the Nineties and Noughties (a time of relative plenty and progress), popular culture was largely a vehicle of entertainment and aspiration rather than politics.
But Dunham wrote this show as a feminist pamphlet. A guide book for young women to sit up and recognise the intolerable everyday sh*t we put up with, from the sexual perversions demanded of us through to treating abortion as an everyday topic. The message is clear: abortion happens, because men and women have sex – get over it. Politicians could only dream of crafting such clear messages.”
Lena rewrote the script for women on TV
Vanessa Sanyauke is CEO and founder of Girls Talk London, @girlstalklondon
“Lena Dunham is a woman with a lot of impressive job titles – writer, actor, director, executive producer, bestselling author. She pitched the idea for Girls to HBO executives when she was 23 years old. At the time, this was unheard of for someone so young – let alone female. She paved the way for young female comedy writers on a global scale. [The best comedies on TV right now are written by women, starring women and speaking to women – from Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, to Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.] Of course, Dunham had a strong team around her too, including Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner.
She constantly challenged herself to take on more responsibilities, and encouraged the rest of us to be bold and approach our careers as if there were no limitations.
Her record-breaking accomplishments are sometimes overlooked. In 2013, she was the first woman to win a Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Director in a Comedy series. She is blazing a trail in an industry where women still make up just 11% of writers and 20% of executive producers. Through her success, she has demonstrated that women can excel in male-dominated sectors when they’re given the opportunity. Let’s hope that Hollywood finally takes up the initiative and gives more women the chance to break boundaries.
It has changed our views on body image
Emma Gannon is an author and presenter of the podcast Ctrl Alt Delete, @emmagannon
“When I set eyes on Lena Dunham in Girls in 2012, I’m ashamed to say my first instinct was to recoil slightly at the rawness of the sex scenes and Dunham’s body. I quickly realised my defensive reaction was a sign of just how many Hollywood movies and millions of airbrushed bodies I’d been exposed to and what I – strangely – had always perceived as ‘normal’. It shouldn’t be revolutionary, seeing a woman’s body larger than a size 12, naked and confident on screen, but it was then and largely still is. I realised I’d been conditioned to dislike the sight of a body that resembled mine. But the more I watched the show, the more the teenage girl inside me was unlearning all of the bullsh*t I’d been previously fed in popular culture. We have to thank her for not being afraid to come of age in the public eye. We now live in a post-Girls world, which means we will always have that important reference point – not just culturally, but personally, too. For me, it truly changed the way I saw myself.”
The show encouraged us to share more often
Emily Badiozzaman, freelance writer at shortlist.com, @ebadiozzaman
“The first thing I did after watching the Girls pilot was text a friend and tell her that even though I felt like a failure – currently lying in a lukewarm bath – it turned out there was a whole show full of women who felt the same. I implored her to watch it and from that episode onward, we began to share more of our feelings with each other than we’d shared before. Our fears about the future, anxiety over our careers – all the things women think about constantly and internalise.
In the show, we see the characters deal with so many of the issues young women face: addiction, toxic relationships, self-destruction, self-doubt, betrayal, abortions, sexism and more. It was honest and that gave me a sense of feeling OK about myself when things got tough. Dunham’s success gave her an amplified voice across Hollywood, in magazines and online. Open letters (that no-one really asked for), books (followed by controversy), a weekly feminist newsletter (lennyletter.com) and a podcast (Women Of The Hour, celebrating women who blow her mind) are her platform, and in all of them she’s always relentlessly shared her personal journey and talked about her mental health.
Sure, it’s in your face and she can be painfully sanctimonious at times, but the legacy of Girls and Dunham is openness and honesty. That in itself has dented the stigma around mental health enormously, and by her own example, Dunham has taught us a valuable lesson on the power of sharing.”
It presented an honest conversation about sex
Zoe Williams is a journalist and author, @zoesqwilliams
“I started watching Girls because of the sex. People kept calling it awkward, which obviously you want to see out of curiosity, the way any sane person would click on a link that said ‘watch this dog get its head stuck in a cat flap’. It wasn’t awkward; what it was though, was different. It was a conversation about men and women that just didn’t happen last century, or even in the last decade – certainly not in the mainstream. This wasn’t just because of the novelty of seeing sex from a woman’s point of view and a relief, finally, to see women with kinks, women get bored, women be flawed.
Girls was like the sexual marketplace after a gigantic credit crunch. Hannah meets Adam on the most transactional possible terms: she can just about prise his door open for sex, after the tiniest gesture of human intimacy – he touches her face. Even while Shoshanna is a virgin, she talks about it to Matt with this painfully open clarity and still gets knocked back – in case she gets ‘over-attached’. Everybody is terrified of the high cost of intimacy, but intimacy is the thing that takes the price tag off the act. Without it, it’s just a series of anxious transactions: ‘You do this for me and I’ll do that for you, oh no, wait, that isn’t what I wanted, that’s what I thought I wanted but it isn’t any more...’ That’s why Girls is honest and insightful, simultaneously resonant and deeply original. To echo the doctor at the women’s health (translation: STI) clinic in Vagina Panic (Season 1, Episode 2), ‘you couldn’t pay me enough to be 24 again’.”
Dunham has been open about her mistakes
Anita Bhagwandas, Stylist contributor, @itsmeanitab
“I’ll be honest: I found Girls, especially the first few episodes, which Lena Dunham directed and wrote herself, entirely self-serving. After the furore of ‘realistic bodies and sex’ died down, I got into the show a bit more, but couldn’t escape one fact that overrode everything: the whiteness. That created a talking point – and from my perspective as a woman of colour, brought the realisation that nobody who worked on that show at any point thought it was odd and a misrepresentation that the entire cast was white. For me, that echoes the industry I work in, the way I grew up and everything I see around me now – and it’s made me more aware of why we all need to keep having these conversations.
Dunham acknowledged her error and that it came from a lifetime of white privilege, but still, for me, as much as I found Girls mildly entertaining, the show proved exactly why the gulf between black and white feminism is so huge. I applaud her for realising her mistake openly in a way that more people should.”
Girls exists outside the male-female dynamic
Alexandra Jones, commissioning editor at Stylist, @alexliviajones
“The portrayal of friendships is one of the most subversive parts of Girls. We live in a world that fetishises female friendships (after all, fractious, compelling and ever-changing relationships have no place in the age of the #squad). But we all know that within the greatest of friendships there is often a granule of pain: a push-pull power dynamic that rears after one too many wines and that is forgotten just as quickly.
The iconic final episode of season one, with a tight-lipped fight between Marnie and Hannah, or the moment in season five when Hannah puts it to Jessa that maybe they’re ‘growing apart’ and – much to Hannah’s surprise – Jessa nods, ‘maybe’. Their emotional complexity makes these scenes uncomfortable to watch, but that same emotional complexity makes them an act of feminist subversion. Love, fear, cruelty, jealousy: so often emotions that fictional women express solely in relation to men, in Girls exist outside of the male-female dynamic. What Lena has put on our screens is women experiencing feelings, experiencing life, without the need for a man to act as a prompt for these experiences. Hallelujah.”
Girls returns to Sky Atlantic on 13 February at 10pm
Photography: courtesy of Sky