As someone with a propensity for drama, one of my favorite ice-breaker questions is: “Who is your problematic fave?” In a time when absolutely no one in the public eye is blemish-free, it’s a revealing question. First off, it tells us what a person views as “problematic,” but also what they value and appreciate, to such an extent that they’re willing to overlook certain bad things about their “fave.” Everyone’s boundaries are different.
My problematic fave is Lena Dunham. I’m confessing this because Girls—the HBO show Dunham created, wrote, directed, and starred in, which followed a group of unlikeable millennials in Brooklyn—celebrates its tenth birthday on April 15.
Girls divided critics when it dropped in 2012. The Hollywood Reporter described it as “one of the most original, spot-on, no-missed-steps series in recent memory.” Dunham was compared to Woody Allen and Louis C.K. (comparisons which were both intended to be complimentary at the time, I think). The Daily Beast described it as the best new show of the year. Others weren’t so convinced. In a particularly scathing review, Frank Bruni wrote for The New York Times: “You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of Girls engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” Ouch.
But was the show problematic? Sometimes, yes. One criticism most people agree on is that Girls was too white and privileged. Just like NYC-based shows like Sex and the City and Friends, there’s an argument that Dunham’s privileged protagonists would not actually have had Black friends, so the show’s glaring whiteness was at least realistic. But in 2012, when social media had democratized cultural criticism and raised expectations, that defense no longer cut it.
Like SATC and Friends, Dunham made some clumsy attempts to stop the show being stalked by discourse about its lack of diversity. But Sandy (Hannah’s Black Republican boyfriend, played by Donald Glover) only made matters worse, with The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates writing: “I have trouble believing that Hannah found that one black dude in Brooklyn who is anti-marriage equality, anti-abortion, pro-guns, and anti-health care.” Judy Berman, also for The Atlantic, described Dunham’s approach to race as a “well-intentioned disappointment.”
A recurring problem for Dunham—and a big reason she often finds herself being described as problematic—is a blurring of the line between herself and Hannah Horvath, the character she plays on the show. Sometimes, this is thrust upon her: “I think I’m the voice of my generation,” is a quote that is often attributed to Dunham, as if she was talking about herself. But actually, this was said by Hannah in the pilot episode. (She was high on opiates at the time).
Dunham has blurred these lines herself, too. Narcissistic writer Hannah is loosely based on her. The self-obsessed Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams) is modeled after Dunham’s IRL best friend Audrey Gelman, founder of The Wing. Damaged “free spirit” Jessa Johansson is also inspired by a young Jemima Kirke, the actor who plays her. Like their characters, Dunham and Kirke are childhood friends, so it feels close to reality. (Sidenote: Nepotism is another allegation often leveled at the show, since its four leads are all the children or famous artists or media figures).
During one of Dunham’s many public apologies for insensitive comments, she acknowledged the fluidity between herself and Hannah. “My words were spoken from a sort of ‘delusional girl’ persona I often inhabit,” she explained. “A girl who careens between wisdom and ignorance (that’s what my TV show is too) and it didn’t translate. That’s my fault.” This apology was covered widely in the press and dubbed “the most Lena Dunham apology ever.” It’s a testament to the fact that she has spent a lot of her time in the public eye saying sorry for various things, from reckless comments to the whiteness of her show. Platforms like The Cut have even compiled extensive lists of her “history of apologizing” and there is a satirical Twitter account, Lena Dunham Apologizes, dedicated to creating imaginary mea culpas which feel plausible.
The thing is, none of this changes the fact that Dunham is a creative genius.
Ten years on, it’s clear that Girls was imperfect. But it also revolutionized the way sex and women’s bodies were depicted on TV. At the time, television was not reflecting the type of sex people were actually having—clumsy, fun-in-a-weird-way, humiliating (for all participants), dark and awkward—particularly from the perspective of women. Watching Che Diaz finger-bang Miranda Hobbes in And Just Like That… (while an immobile Carrie Bradshaw peed into a peach Snapple bottle), or the sex scenes in a show like Fleabag, the influence of Girls is clear.
Dunham’s body was also brutally picked apart, shamed and mocked from the get-go. Looking back at her nude scenes with Adam Driver in Season 1 of the show, it’s astonishing that she was considered controversially or radically large. But that in itself demonstrates how much TV’s norms have changed since then—a shift Girls isn’t solely responsible for, but undoubtedly contributed to.
Character-wise, the archetypes in Girls were not revolutionary, but they were notably less rigid than other shows. By the end, its male characters were just as deep and flawed as its female protagonists. Elijah, portrayed by Andrew Rannells, was the first “gay best friend” to fully move beyond one-liners and shallow stereotypes. His gayness was no longer the butt of every joke and his individual storylines paved the way for much more interesting gay characters on TV.
Dunham masterminded so many iconic TV moments. Hannah and Marnie dancing to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” Shoshanna’s venomous Beach House monologue and, of course, Marnie forcing a room full of strangers to listen to her singing an acoustic cover of “Stronger”—a scene I still struggle to watch without skipping—are just a few. (Belated Emmy for Allison Williams, when?)
Some episodes brought the entire cast and their mess crashing together, like Season 1’s “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident,” where they attend a warehouse party in Brooklyn. Elsewhere, the tempo switches, with episodes which dive into one character or a relationship between two characters in more detail. Dunham’s solo episodes, like Season 2’s “One Man’s Trash” (guest starring Patrick Wilson) and Season 6’s “American Bitch” (guest-starring Matthew Rhys), were particular standouts—plus the fittingly imperfect finale.
Euphoria—another HBO show following the lives of a cast of (mostly) young women, which has reached dizzying cultural heights—is a place where Dunham’s influence can also be seen. “Lexi’s play,” the explosive Season 2 finale, felt similar to the final season of Girls, when Adam makes a film about he and Hannah’s doomed romance—unbeknownst to her. It was also reminiscent of Season 5’s “Hello Kitty”, which centers around a theater performance starring Adam, where Hannah dramatically realizes her ex-boyfriend and her ex-best friend are having sex behind her back.
It is easy to forget that Dunham was just 23 years old when she sold Girls to HBO (with an assist from executive producer Judd Apatow). There is little doubt that her privileged upbringing contributed to her early success, but it is unfair not to acknowledge the creative vision and undeniable talent it required to bring the show to life. At that age, it’s hardly surprising that Dunham wrote about what she knew: the trials and tribulations of people like her. On rewatch, ten years on, she unflinchingly captured the humiliation of trying to “make it” in the era of BuzzFeed listicles and monetized side-hustles. The sheer panic of feeling like your dreams were slipping through your fingers, while everyone else is surpassing you.
It is also not exactly shocking that Dunham made her fair share of public mistakes. Most of us would consider ourselves problematic at 23 if we were suddenly given a huge platform, with fans and detractors hyper-analyzing our every word looking to celebrate or castigate us.
This isn’t to say some of Dunham’s apologies were not warranted. Her defense of Murray Miller—a Girls writer who was accused of rape by actor Aurora Perrineau—was particularly hard to justify. Miller always denied the allegations and charges were dropped, but fans thought Dunham’s response conflicted with her past insistence that women should be believed. Dunham later apologized, admitting her backing of Miller was not based on any insider knowledge, as she had claimed.
Scandals like this are partly why Dunham’s politics and that of her show are often described as “white feminist.” (A brand of feminism that is thought to be primarily focused on furthering the interests of white women, at the expense of others). But away from Girls, she has used her platform to amplify different perspectives—like on her podcast Women of the Hour and her feminist newsletter Lenny Letter. This doesn’t undo the whiteness of her show, of course, but it does suggest growth. (As an aside: Lenny Letter might have closed, but now everyone seems to have a newsletter, so clearly she was onto something with the format).
It’s certainly easy to understand why people took issue with someone as privileged as Dunham—who was raised in a $6.25M Tribeca loft—being heralded as the new face of feminism. But it’s not entirely her fault that she was put on such a ridiculously high pedestal. There’s a long history of women in the public eye being given this type of hyped-up “moment”—from Anne Hathaway to Jennifer Lawrence—where they’re celebrated, then thrown to the wolves when they aren’t perfect. And let’s face it: a decade ago it was pretty rare for the media to celebrate young women with politics that genuinely threatened establishment interests. In fact, it still is.
Industry misogyny also feels linked to the fact that, out of all the people who appeared in Girls—a show about young women, created by a young woman—its breakout star is a man: Adam Driver. That’s not to say the women have done badly out of it. Dunham has thrown herself into writing and directing, including episodes of HBO’s Industry and the 2022 film Sharp Stick, starring Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal. Kirke joined the cast of Sex Education and Hulu’s upcoming TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, while Zosia Mamet starred in The Flight Attendant. And who can forget Allison Williams’ terrifying performance in 2017’s Get Out? (Even if she has only appeared in two movies since then).
Still, Driver’s rise has been meteoric by comparison. He has been nominated for two Academy Awards, two BAFTAs, four SAG Awards, and a Tony Award. His starring role as Kylo Ren in the multibillion-dollar Star Wars franchise underlined his status as a blockbuster heartthrob and villain. Elsewhere, Jake Lacy (Fran) gained critical acclaim for his role in the uber-discoursed The White Lotus and Oscar-nominated film Being The Ricardos. Christopher Abbott (Charlie) starred in The Sinner, one of Netflix’s most-watched shows, and a number of acclaimed indie films. As Vanity Fair’s Chris Murphy put it: “Many of the men who came through Girls left not only unscathed, but better than when they arrived.”
The sheer amount of talent on display in Girls—whether that’s behind or in front of the camera, in starring or guest roles—is a testament to the quality of Dunham’s work. In litigating her every move and misstep, it feels like that often gets lost.
I can’t escape the feeling that the primary charge against Dunham—regardless of what it’s dressed up as—is that people simply find her annoying. She would probably be the first to concede she can be, sometimes, but I don’t think it’s helpful to overly blur the line between annoying and harmful. We should get more comfortable admitting that we dislike people, whether it’s our friends or celebrities, because they get on our nerves—rather than jumping through hoops to “hold them accountable” for personifying all of society’s systemic injustices.
At risk of sounding like a “Holmie”—those who defend disgraced #GirlBoss Elizabeth Holmes— famous men who have done much worse things than Dunham are not held to the same standard. People don’t seem to have much trouble separating their often very harmful (and sometimes criminal) behavior from their art, either, whereas Dunham’s clumsily-worded, badly-timed tweets are presented as irrefutable evidence for her work having no merit whatsoever.
We are living through a moment where we are re-evaluating the way famous women were treated in the early-to-mid 2000s, by the media and fans. Dunham’s fast ride to fame in the 2010s might have seemed less turbulent, but there was a clear brutality to how she—a young woman who has struggled with addiction, chronic illness, and pain—was often treated. After spending so much of the last decade apologizing, I think Dunham is owed an apology for some of that, or at the very least an acknowledgement that her controversies don’t make her less talented. Because you don’t have to like her to see that, ten years on from Girls, Lena Dunham’s work deserves respect.