When Lena Dunham’s Girls premiered on HBO in 2012, it arrived in a cloud of harsh criticism and rapturous praise that nearly obscured the show itself. In five years, Girls has come to symbolize a lot, to stand in for a lot of valid critiques about television and privilege, but it remains fairly easy to overlook the show in favor of the conversations it started.
Girls debuted at a moment defined by Judd Apatow’s reign as comedy tastemaker, by the festival success of Dunham’s feature film Tiny Furniture, by HBO’s conspicuous inability — in the midst of its golden age — to let a woman run a television show by herself, and by the way its female-authored exhibitionism seemed to productively contrast with the male-authored objectification of Game of Thrones. In this way, Girls was set up to explode, in a good way. But it was also set up to explode in a bad way. Some critics chafed instinctively at the glowing praise that characterized the show’s early buzz and tended to sand down its edges, while others objected more substantively to the show’s apparent myopia, to its whiteness, to its implicit claim to universality (Girls, rather than, say, Some Girls), to the polarizing public persona of Dunham herself, to the fact that all four leads are the daughters of artists or famous people, and to the “unlikability” or “unrelatability” of its characters. Girls was able to embody, in one moment, everything that was right and everything that was wrong with the contemporary TV landscape.
So what about Girls itself? Is Girls just the sum of the arguments we had about it, or is it something more? The Los Angeles Review of Books has been covering the series since its beginning, but, rather than commission a review of this new season, we’ve asked a handful of writers who participated in that initial wave of response to revisit the show now, as it begins its final season. What did Girls mean when it debuted? What has it come to mean to critics, to scholars, to its audience in the meantime? And what does it mean now? Looking back, and looking forward, what do we talk about when we talk about Girls?