A decade ago, when Girls had just debuted on television and an entire media subdivision emerged to cover the frailties and shortcomings of Lena Dunham, I settled into the first season with a few college friends, determined to see what all the fuss was about. This was the total apex of Girls mania: a time when this unassuming HBO series could induce blind rancor, giddy acclaim, and a bizarre, ambiguous bitterness in all those who came near it.
One of my friends at the screening was especially stricken with a strong anti-Dunham sensibility, and she looked on with a taut, curdled glare—just waiting for something to piss her off. Her wish came true in the pilot episode when Hannah (played by Dunham) swills some opium tea and rolls up to her wealthy parents’ house, lost in a dangerous high. She tells them, hilariously, that she believes herself to be the voice of her generation. My friend had finally confirmed that Girls was out-of-touch, vain, elitist, and oppressively New York, and she gleefully hate-watched the next batch of episodes.
In retrospect, anyone who digested that line at face value was clearly missing the point. Dunham’s character—a privileged, headstrong art-school scion, who has never worked a day in her life—is absolutely the sort of person that succumbs to wild swings of unchecked narcissism. (In other words, the scene was not meant to flatter Hannah.) But this criticism was par for the course during the age of Girls. It became a show that kicked up so much ridiculously overheated discourse, it became almost impossible to watch without being in the thrall of long-forgotten Gawker and Grantland takes of yore (some merited, others barely legible).
But in 2023, divorced from the zeitgeist, you can find the faint hints of a sedate Girls renaissance glowing in the ether. Over the last few months, I’ve seen the show consecrated by TikTok memes and viral tweets, which are all arriving at a moment where anyone can watch Girls without being forced to participate in a strange, unwieldy political conversation. We are not the only ones to notice this; both Dirt and The New York Times have recently issued their own ruminations on why, exactly, the world is back on the Girls train. Clearly there’s never been a better time to jump in, and zoomers and millennials alike are taking advantage.
“I was originally avoiding the show because the subject matter sounded pretty annoying to me at the time it aired. I was a busy, struggling college student back then so watching a show about a bunch of spoiled Brooklynites’ non-problems didn’t sound like it’d offer much,” says Kaila Philo, a 27-year old reporter who grew up in Washington, D.C. She started watching Girls for the first time late last year. “I was surprised at how self-aware it was. It’s remarkable that Lena Dunham managed to be so conscious of the arrogance, delusion and narcissism that a lot of us have at that age when she herself was so young. … As a former Lena Dunham hater, I’d like to apologize. I see the hype now!”
In general, Philo has found herself reflecting on the early 2010s lately—particularly how breezy and “less serious” everything felt in a pre-Trump, pre-Covid world. Girls, a show that averaged less-than-a-million viewers per episode and yet still managed to become a nuclear topic of social discourse, epitomizes the sublime naivete of Obama-era liberalism. If you want my most basic theory for why Girls is mounting a restorative comeback, I’d point to the illuminating power of nostalgia, and the calming truth that the things we once agonized over never seem to matter much in the long run.
The 2010s are just now solidifying into an identifiable era with its own aesthetic signifiers; it has been excised from the dialogue and now hangs in a museum. Within that context, all of the teeth gnashing that Girls engendered seems remarkably facile and unnecessary. After all, nobody complains about the manifold insensitivities present in old Sex and the City episodes anymore, either.
“I think we’re moving away from the aggressively ‘woke’ era that we were in in 2015 to 2018, where everyone was canceling and calling out anything remotely problematic,” says Raynee, a 22-year old in Bushwick, who was 12 (twelve!) when Girls debuted and has just started watching the series herself. “I think that although there are definitely parts of Girls that can be critiqued, it’s interesting to look at as a microcosm of culture in the mid-2010s, especially because I was a jealous observer at the time, too young to participate, but can now compare it to my own experiences in Brooklyn and being a young adult.”
Raynee, like Philo, avoided Girls initially after absorbing the tidal wave of scolding essays written about Dunham—most of which, of course, were written by other young, privileged people in New York City and always carried the unmistakable odor of professional envy. However, one complaint remains eternally valid. Girls was pervasively white in its early seasons, to the point that Dunham added a brief Donald Glover romance for Hannah in the second season, as a gesture towards self-effacing meta-commentary. It’s a blindspot that permanently grounds the show in a time and place, not unlike the Kanye West cameos in long-gone Keeping Up With The Kardashians seasons. It’s hard to imagine HBO greenlighting anything with an all-white cast—especially one christened with a title as universal as, you know, Girls—in 2023.
But Alex Abad-Santos, a writer at Vox and one of the primary Twitter boosters of the Girls renaissance, correctly asserts that it made sense that these “myopic, sheltered, terminally self-centered women” at the heart of the show probably wouldn’t know any people of color. It’s a point that gets back to his grand theory of why the Girls zeitgeist grew so toxic. Abad-Santos argues that the show was marketed as a Sex and the City-like romp for an ascendent generation of twentysomething millennials.
As the series progressed, however, it became increasingly clear that Dunham was making a show about a cadre of bad friends—and bad people—who slowly watch their relationships disintegrate over time, without really having anyone to blame but themselves. “[When] you don’t have those scrappy protagonists to root for, you’re like, ’What happened?’” he says.
But as the years passed, and millennials were slowly drained of all of their piousness and self-righteousness, it became uncomfortably clear that the core supposition of Girls was spot on. None of us were ever going to change the world, and nobody emerged as the voice of our generation, except for maybe Lena Dunham. “I think part of the reason it’s aged well is because the show was very good at satirizing and roasting millennials,” continued Abad-Santos. “Roasting millennials is what millennials love to do themselves now! And I don’t know if there’s a better show at pointing out how selfish, stupid, and confidently wrong millennials have been.”
To prove his point, Abad-Santos asks us to consider the arc of Allison Williams, who played Marnie on Girls and became the go-to vessel for vintage Girls backlash. (Williams is the daughter of the semi-disgraced newscaster Brian Williams; she embodied the burgeoning resentment toward nepo babies before we had the language for it.) Since the show wrapped up, however, Williams’ two most notable roles have been the bougie, sociopathic girlfriend in Get Out, and the useless, hateful, absentee surrogate mother in M3GAN. It’s the Jokerfication of Marnie. She’s been in on the gag the whole time. We’re just now realizing it.
Personally, I tapped out from Girls after the first season. I’m an unreliable TV watcher in general, and the keening shrillness of the Girls think piece sector was too oppressive to endure. But the revival has me curious to dip my toes back in, so that I—a New York-dwelling writer on the cusp of his 32nd birthday—can be among my peers: young people who are just now coming to terms with life’s cosmic joke. There will be no hedges, or theses, or tart political digressions; nobody will be watching with the intention of becoming angry. Instead, we’ll all just be peacefully, inertly washed up. Irrelevance has never felt so good.