What’s Worse Than GIRLS?

by David Salinas

Full disclosure: I haven’t watched GIRLS since the third season. I think. And I’m not sure it matters. The plot is so insignificant—characters shuffling between love, languor, and leases—that whole seasons meld into a single, incessant feeling of dyspepsia. I’ve had acquaintances comment on the anxiety provoked by Curb Your Enthusiasm, but that anxiety hardly reaches the level I felt watching GIRLS. As I write this, a few moments rise from the ether to haunt me: Jessa eschewing an abortion to day drink White Russians, which she cloyingly calls milk; Marnie’s sex scene with a tiny actor aping Toulouse-Lautrec, their bodies stacked in splayed symmetry, like an X-Wing fighter. The scenes I’ve glimpsed from later seasons do not portend improvement. The last image of the show I saw was a GIF of Allison Williams’s motor-boated butt cheeks, flapping to and fro in a pantomime of salad-tossing. I almost worried about the fates of our beloved foursome.

Was GIRLS bad? Undoubtedly. But as much as I’d like to agree with Milo Yiannopoulis, creator and showrunner Lena Dunham isn’t an America scourge; she doesn’t “represent the continued lunacy of the left and the progressive march off the cliff.” That’s Jon Ossoff. GIRLS, at least what I watched of it, never achieved a remarkable level of atrociousness. It wasn’t the worst comedy (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), nor the worst show of its “generation” (The OA), or the even the worst show on HBO (Show Me a Hero). In the list of shows that seriously damaged the reputation of their target audiences, it holds no candle to Transcendent. No, what made “the GIRLS years” a hellish ordeal was the sheer amount of press, criticism, and “new media” rubbish it left in its wake.


Of course, cultural criticism and writing did not emerge with the arrival of GIRLS, nor did its coverage represent the apex of internet commentary. The noxious influence of Emily Nussbaum is boundless. Hell, for many years, Mad Men birthed an insufferable amount of internet analysis comparable to GIRLS. But all TV writing is not created equal. Mad Men was saved by high-level production value and writing that made its media commentary, if not readable, at least forgivable. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to read any praise for GIRLS‘s “artistic direction” or mise-en-scène. If anything, writers have noted the show’s general, visual ugliness. From Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones, the majority of articles about television today comprise inane recaps, reviews, and conspiracy theories about future plot developments. Pieces about, say, 21st century male neurosis represented by Theon Greyjoy’s castration, have been mercifully few.

And while Mad Men had its diversity critics, I’ve defended its approach to race. It seemed like every episode contained a conspicuous scene of black service workers, be it elevator operators or custodians, being ignored by an oblivious white advertiser, their knowing, bemused eyes nearing a fourth-wall breach as they telegraphed a “What the fuck?” to the viewer. Perhaps it’s age and experience—creator Matthew Weiner was in his forties throughout Mad Men’s run— that differentiates Mad Men’s subtle yet memorable engagements with race from the jejune approach of GIRLS. After season one of GIRLS elicited reams of justifiable criticism for its unadulterated whiteness, Dunham first defended her pale ecosystem, resting her defense on the innocent idea that her lived reality had always been centered around white people, before acquiescing, saying she heard the criticism and would respond appropriately. And how did she return the feedback? By showing her character Hannah, in her first scene of season two, being railed by a black dude. The kicker? The black dude is a Republican! Issue solved.

Forget the clumsy and tone-deaf handling of modern miscegenation that followed. How are we supposed to interpret this penetrating irony? I may have been too stupid to realize that The Brave Little Toaster was an allegory for the Holocaust, but I refuse to believe that Dunham was conveying anything more than a pure, pasty middle-finger to her black critics. Is GIRLS racist? Hmm, not really? This was always a show by white people, for white people, and any demographic crossover was a happy accident. What more did you expect from these dopes?


William Styron she is not, despite Dunham’s Trump-like addiction to inserting herself into areas she’s not deserving or wanted (if she doesn’t talk to black people, why should Odell Beckham Jr. talk to her?). It’s true that some provocative writing about GIRLS has come from black critics. And while I applaud their eloquence and feel their anger, I’m frustrated at how this criticism elevates GIRLS into a realm of importance it never occupied. As a Mexican, I’ve tossed around my noodle the idea of writing an essay series on Richard Linklater’s hatred of Hispanics, but he and his movies have retained zero relevancy. I foresee a future where the audience for GIRLS is analogous to that of My So Called Life: a sphere of bored nostalgia addicts binging on the show in order to laugh at our early century’s prevailing tastes and pettiness.

So why, then, did we write so much on a show about listless, privileged white people horsing around whimsical locations in perpetual existential crises? Didn’t Antonioni put that genre to rest fifty years ago? Well, we just couldn’t help ourselves, could we? GIRLS, like brunch and The Bedford Stop, is just too tasty a topic not to ridicule. I don’t know anyone who can’t make an insipid quip about the “bubbles”—of coastal liberals, creative elites, whatever gentry du jour it’s fashionable to hate—these phenomena occupy. A Google search of “Girls HBO” returns twenty million hits, the vast majority published by the same denizens of these vilified bubbles. And while the general tone of these articles is negative, one has to wonder about the layers of unconscious masochism and self-loathing held by these movers-and-shakers. These are people that “hate watch” movies and shows, that play clever, smug drinking games (“Take a shot every time you know Steven Avery is innocent.”). GIRLS was fun to watch because, in loudly proclaiming the character’s horrible attributes, we distance our similar qualities, and position ourselves as superiors. But if I learned anything from the two hours I’ve spent in therapy, it’s that identifying your faults and changing them are very different things.


It’s notable how closely the writing about GIRLS seems to inhabit the same naïve, clueless realm occupied by Hannah and her girlfriends. Journalists from notoriously homogeneous publications (which is most) boldly criticized Dunham and the evident nepotism that seemed to subsidize the show’s creation, yet turned a blind eye to the structural, white nepotism that has gainfully employed themselves and their cohorts. No person of color that’s spent any time among the young, creative class hasn’t been privy to the “hipster racism” so “shockingly” spewed by GIRLS writer Lesley Arfin. In the same way that Hannah was flabbergasted that her black boyfriend had an identity different from her fetishized, André 3000 ideal, these journalists are startled that liberal “creators” show any racial idiocy. I’ll give the show this credit–In striving for “authenticity,” it unwittingly exposed a grand truth: it’s white people who are all the same!

I haven’t read one piece of writing about The Wire that wasn’t babble. But the glut of exegeses of the show does not implicate its creators, whom, by most measures, produced a good product. Can we exculpate Dunham and GIRLS in the same way? Hell no. Because I don’t recall Wee-Bey and Poot licking their lips on the cover of Rolling Stone. Dunham and Co., masters of media, knew the benefits of bad press from the beginning, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for making them the embodiment of the adage.


David Salinas is a writer based in Shanghai, China.