The Hold Up: The Legacy of Girls Gives Us A Lot to Chew On…

Girls was the show that launched a thousand think pieces. When it premiered on HBO in 2012, every critic had a hot take, even James Franco, whose piece I will not link to because he’s a pretty odious person. Created by, starring, and often directed by Lena Dunham, the series chronicled the misadventures of Hannah Horvath and her group of white hipster friends. Sometimes funny, and often cringeworthy, Girls was always topical…

While some found the series an insufferable deep dive into the lives of underemployed but privileged youth, Girls also received praise for  its nuanced portrayal of female friendship and the show’s body positivity (Lena Dunham was frequently seen nude, and didn’t seem to care whether you approved of her body). So, does the series hold up? Let’s discuss!


Arguments In Favour:


The Body Positivity Was Key

It’s strange to remember how radical the body positivity on Girls felt in 2012, but it did. People marvelled over Lena Dunham’s unphotoshopped body, sprawled out naked on our TV screens. While Dunham’s figure only looked a few sizes larger than what we’re used to seeing on celluloid, the series pushed the ball forward. By proudly displaying the nude form of a woman who didn’t look like a model,  Girls helped pave the way for body size diversity on other series, like Glow, Shrill, and Dietland. Popular culture still has a long way to go, but Girls was took step in the right direction.


It Took Young Women Seriously

Prior to 2012, most popular shows starring young women aired on The CW. That HBO greenlit a series starring four (admittedly white) women under thirty was practically unheard of. People who didn’t have penises on PRESTIGE TV? And they’re not sex objects there to appeal to The Male Gaze? For realsies???? It was a radical departure from what we were used to watching.

Girls dared to take young female characters seriously. It told grand, dramatic stories about sending nude selfies, getting diagnosed with HPV, and other things millennial women were talking about. I found it fun to watch a bunch of people my age cavort around NYC with no concrete career goals and questionable work ethics. It made me feel like I wasn’t a loser for living with roommates at age 25, still spending all of my money on bagels and rent. After a decade of watching the Don Drapers and Tony Sopranos of the world sort through their Sad Boy problems, Girls was a welcome change of pace. For a small group of privileged, white-presenting women like me, Girls made us feel seen.


Arguments Against:


All That Uninterrogated White Privilege

Girls took place in New York City, but the racial makeup of the show was more akin to rural New Hampshire. Pretty much every character we got to know was white. When the show did cast BIPOC characters, it was frequently in bit parts, and they were often written as ethnic caricatures. The show was hardly the only series of its time to sideline racialized characters After all, pretty much every other prestige show was about a white male anti-hero and his white male problems (If you don’t believe me, see Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Homeland); however, the fact Girls was no more racist than popular series about old white guys isn’t a great defense. The bar for representation should be higher than “Whatever Feels More Diverse Than Entourage”.

Interestingly, Girls’ most cringeworthy moments came on the rare occasion it attempted to give meaningful representation to its characters of colour. In 2018, Donald Glover himself alluded to the tokenistic nature of the Black republican character he played for a mere two episodes in Season Two. Glover gave a charming performance as Hannah’s short-term boyfriend, but it also felt like the show cast him to stave off criticism. Later, In Girls’ final season, Hannah falls pregnant after a brief romance with a surf instructor played by Riz Ahmed. Hannah decides to keep the baby and raise him as a single mom, which is a completely valid decision. However, one would expect her to spend a little more time contemplating how she as a white woman will parent a racialized person…


Why Don’t Any of These Women Like Each Other?

Before Girls, few shows took female friendships seriously. Girls represented how much time and energy millennial women devoted to their friend groups. It also demonstrated how heartbreaking it can be for young women to fight with – and lose – their closest female friends. However, rewatching the series in 2021 made me more conscious of the dysfunction nature of the female friendships it showcased. It may be normal to be in the occasional toxic relationship at a given time, but Girls provides nary a single example of a functional friendship. Intentionally or not, Dunham’s series promotes the idea that women are constantly jealous of one another, sniping behind each others’ backs and ruining each other’s reputations. Almost a decade later, every woman who’s read Big Friendship knows we don’t shine if our friends don’t shine…


Dunham’s Questionable Feminist Politics

The art exists separate from the artists, but not completely. When you’re one of the few self-identified feminist showrunners, it’s not a good look  to publish essays discrediting a young racialized woman’s rape allegations against one of your show’s writers; however, that’s exactly what Dunham did in 2017. She has since apologized for the gross lapse in judgment, but remembering the incident makes Girls feel far less empowering…


The Verdict:


Rewatching Girls is like eating one of those medleys of chocolate bars they sell at the drugstore. You know, the kind that go on sale just after Halloween? Parts of Girls are absolutely delicious, like Aero Bars and m & ms. At the same time, some of its “goodies” make you regret paying $5 for the entire box of candy (For this metaphor to work, please insert your least favourite kind of Halloween candy here). The legacy of Girls is complicated and flawed but interesting. Like a Twix bar, Girls may not be your favourite treat, but it gives you a lot to chew on…

Sarah Sahagian

Sarah Sahagian

Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as Elle Canada, Flare, Bitch Media, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-host of You Do You: A Dating Podcast. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about politics and live-tweets The Bachelor