HBO’s “Girls:” Role Models and the Freedom to Be Imperfect


For many students, senior year of high school is a moment of limbo. My classmates and I spend inordinate amounts of time obsessing over our futures while still trying to “live it up” and enjoy what we have right now. As my high school experience ends, the previously confining structures of the home-school-homework-sleep-routine are slowly being chipped away. What’s left after this decimation is an open vastness that many choose to call “possibility.” Yes, opportunity is “just around the corner,” but I am still at a loss about how to conquer this seeming beast of freedom.

Luckily, people long ago decided to help me out a bit when they invented television. Anxieties like mine have commandeered the screen and given rise to numerous, aptly titled “coming-of-age” TV shows and movies.

During my early summers in high school, I was captivated by the teenage drama, Degrasi. This near-soap opera showed me how to conquer any situation I might face in high school. Thanks to the geniuses behind this Canadian import, which followed the lives of students in a supposedly “typical” school, I never had to wonder how to help the drum-playing bully-turned-sweet-friend when he gets testicular cancer. Phew.

But, as my friends and I realized recently, there are few shows or even books that can give insight into the college years and the elusive “20-somethings.” All of our childhood favorites like Boy Meets World and Sister, Sister seemed to fizzle out as their characters aged out of high school and began adulthood. Not a very encouraging model for my near future.

Luckily, amidst the rubble of TV shows like Jersey Shore and Real World, which seemed like TV’s only examples of how 20-year-olds live, arose Girls.

For those who have not been following this hit HBO show, before reading any further, go find a friend with HBO and begin watching. For those without such access to HBO, I am sorry. The show Girls depicts four women of the 20-something demographic as they painfully figure out how to live this thing called life. For a taste of what this show offers, [spoiler alert] in the second season’s fourth episode a spur-of-the-moment marriage dissolved, an ex-boyfriend was re-rejected by his ex-girlfriend because she is dating a somewhat creepy young artist, and a gay roommate moved out of his apartment because he had sex with his ex-girlfriend’s best [girl] friend.

This show, of course, has fallen victim to the gnarled teeth of critics. Many of these critics are 20-year-olds commiserating with the women on Girls or older viewers fearfully looking down at the mess these young women have created for themselves. Few are like myself; looking up at this example of a possible future.

Now, just to let my mother breathe, I would like to clarify that I do not idolize the characters in Girls nor do I pine for the day when I too can live the dysfunctional life they lead. Instead, I see Girls as the blueprint for exactly what I shouldn’t do. How should I maneuver controlling relationships? Deal with losing a job? Fix friendships? In the exact opposite way that the characters on Girls do.

Still, having these morally dubious role models is important. In so much of our media, women are painted as pristine archetypes. These characters often have predictable behaviors that usually do not stray far from societal expectations—exactly the way the world would like women to be. Girls presents a refreshing relief from this monotony. The show’s female creator, producer, director, writer and star Lena Dunham, pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable for women to do on TV. Besides the fact that Dunham holds so many usually male-dominated production roles, Girls proves that a show can present strong female characters who do drugs, have tattoos, are overweight, have casual sex, talk about STI’s and still be a big hit. Dunham’s feat should not be understated. In TV history, there are very few shows that have cast young women in this honest light that are not quickly discontinued (Freaks and Geeks, My So Called Life, just to name a few).

Meanwhile, Fox has offered its own take on the modern, millennial woman with its sugary sweet comedy, New Girl. While the two shows both attempt to define the experience of this young demographic, it is the roughness that Girls includes and New Girl often omits that makes Girls so much more provocative and meaningful.

While I love Fox’s ridiculous show, which follows a similarly aged group of friends, its characters’ imperfections are unsurprising and often one-dimensional. The show boasts the usual mélange of character flaws. There’s the guy whose enormous ego doesn’t match reality, the one who lacks motivation and of course, the girl who is just too darn sweet for her own good. For me, shows like New Girl are good respites from the less cookie-cutter distress of real life. Still, I tend to find that this cuteness often leaves little room for thought-provoking reality. Whether or not I condone what the characters on Girls do, their actions and flaws sure make me think.

As my friends will attest, it is this self-reflection and dose of hard reality that I believe girls my age need. The fact that these women make mistakes and that they are not just glossy shells of people is what makes this show so inspiring. On the show, Dunham exposes her own vulnerabilities and the vulnerabilities of her female cast-mates. Her example has taught me that it’s okay to step back from the picture-perfect veneer that I so often try to paint. The women on Girls have inarguable flaws, but it’s their willingness to show these shortcomings that is so empowering.

Even when the characters enter unhealthy relationships their missteps are important in illuminating what unhealthy relationships look like. As the girls become more entangled with dubious men, their hardships could be the example that emboldens some viewers to identify dangerous relationships and leave. And as the show depicts, even when significant others let you down, your girls have always got your back.

The Girls characters are examples of how to fail and keep on living. What is amazing is not how they fall but how they choose to rise up again and again. The women on Girls show that making mistakes is inevitable and, remarkably, even ok for a woman to do. By showing how these women make one questionable choice after the next, Girls shatters traditional concept of how a girl “should be.” With Girls paving the way, my future continues to be filled with this thing that I guess I can begin to see as “possibility.” 

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To schedule an interview with Hannah Weintraub please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.glickstein Barbara Glickstein

    Great media analysis. Love your crisp writing. I’ve been watching Girls too. And I’m a 58 yo feminist. You’ve provided great insights. Look forward to reading more of your writing here.

  • Rebecca

    this is an awesome analysis of Girls. when I first started watching it, I was unsure of whether I actually liked the show, because none of the characters were fully likable in a way I was used to. But then I binge-watched the entire first season and all the episodes of the second season that are online, and I’ve realized that it’s okay that not all the characters are likable, because they’re realistic, and they are unlike any characters on any other show that’s on TV today. totally agree with your points in this article.

  • nettwench14

    This is a great review. I haven’t yet seen the show, and haven’t read any reviews that really told me why the show is so important. Very insightful.