HBO’s ‘Girls’ Isn’t about Millennials or the ‘Zeitgeist.’ It’s About Narcissism.

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Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls has just finished its fifth and penultimate season. Despite what you may have heard, Girls is not the definitive portrayal of the millennial generation, or the official update to Sex and the City (which it far surpasses), or whatever hole it is supposed to be filling in the zeitgeist. Its appeal has always been a commitment to earthbound, uncensored depictions of selfishness, delivered with full awareness and a particular attentiveness to contemporary life, all centered on a group of female friends who don’t actually like each other.

How did a show about narcissists survive for so many seasons? In The New York Times, Wesley Morris makes a strong case for the show’s steadfast interest in psychological complexity, not usually a theme of television sitcoms. As Morris mentions, the most recent season of Girls explored the painful splintering of a group of women after years of forced continuity, an anti-sitcom move if there ever was one. Then again, the show isn’t a typical comedy; the laughs on the show, more often than not, come with an uncomfortable cringe by the viewer as one watches the characters engage in disastrous job interviews, far too many strange and surreal sexual encounters, and even a webcam-recording of painfully bad original songs performed by a weirdo who can’t deal with a breakup.

But this “dramedy” style is no longer unusual—Master of None and Love on Netflix certainly fit the profile, as well as Catastrophe on Amazon. In truth, the market is now oversaturated with such fare. But there’s little doubt that Girls was an early adopter and an inspiration for these current shows. Amazon’s Transparent (about a man transitioning to living as a woman) has been another critical darling, but it likely wouldn’t exist if Dunham’s blend of cultural satire, lack of concern for propriety, and third-wave (or fourth, or whatever) feminist politics, had not already ushered in the idea of making television shows about compelling narcissists.

There are limits to the formula, of course. Girls can make for difficult viewing (as can Transparent). Content to let its protagonists behave with utter disregard for anyone but themselves, Girls has them do so gleefully and often long past the point of comfort for the viewer. This is especially true of the gratuitous nudity of the show’s lead character Hanna Horvath (played by Dunham). One television critic got into trouble for asking Dunham and producer Judd Apatow if there was an artistic reason for Dunham’s character appearing so often without her clothes (not surprisingly, the critic was pilloried as a misogynist for daring to ask).

Yet even the liberal publication Mother Jones called Girls “as profoundly bland as it is unstoppably irritating,” whose lead character was “an unsympathetic victim of First World Problems who mumbles her way through a Brooklynite’s perdition of unpaid internships and missed orgasms.” And Mother Jones is correct. Despite spending hours with these characters, you may not end up liking a single one of them; their selfishness is profound.

But that’s also where the show locates some of its most effective satire.

Longtime viewers will recall the episode during Season Two where Hannah lectures a black Republican (played convincingly by Donald Glover) about the treatment of minorities in America, finally suggesting that he’s the one guilty of racial stereotyping. It’s a brilliant scene, responding succinctly to critics who accused the series of “whitewashing” its plot, while simultaneously lobbing bombs at whites who claim to be “colorblind” and at liberalism’s general disdain for conservative minorities. In these moments, Girls uses the narcissism of its characters to reveal contradictions in the liberal worldview, albeit gently.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate Girls is to follow the advice New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum gave about another critically acclaimed show. In an essay about Mad Men, Nussbaum expressed envy for the viewer taking in the series in the future—free from the glut of reactions, free from the crushing weight of Cultural Narrative, the viewer can just follow the story. This might be the best way to appreciate Girls once it wraps its final season next year: when we don’t have to debate its cultural impact in real time (or listen to a constant stream of political opinions from its creator).

At its worst, Girls cravenly tries to titillate and shock viewers. But at its best, the show presents the secular-humanist-progressive view at its most self-critical. In these moments the show resists easy sloganeering and offers viewers something useful amid its fictions: a dramatic rendering of the consequences of extreme narcissism.

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  • Burn_the_Witch

    Thinking this show was about satire is simply self-delusion and excuse-making.

    • Kevin_OKeeffe

      I have a worrisome suspicion that this guy is correct, alas.

  • Scuttlebuttin’

    the critic was pilloried as a misogynist for daring to ask

    This is so wrong. The critic should actually have been pilloried as an idiot for not already knowing Dunham’s nudity is the most pathetic kind of attention-whoring.

  • oldwhig

    You’ve persuaded me that narcissism (and its unlikable exemplars) is at the heart of Girls’ vision, but not that it is anything new. Seinfeld had four despicable, selfish (and shallow) protagonists that most people would find unlikable, and it aired its last episode nearly two decades ago!

  • Kevin_OKeeffe

    I’d always tended to assume this show was essentially a celebration of the values you say its actually lampooning. I’ve gone out of my way to never view even a portion of a single episode, but I may be re-thinking that position.