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The Massive Influence of a Little Show Called Girls

6 minute read

Not many people watched Girls.

Lena Dunham’s HBO dramedy about four millennials stumbling toward adulthood in New York City never reached more than about 1 million people each week. Little did it matter. The show touched on something essential and its influence echoed beyond its niche on a premium cable channel.

As a woman in college planning on moving to the big city to make it as a writer—just like Dunham’s Hannah Horvath—and mooching off my parents’ HBO subscription, I initially tuned into the buzzy new show in 2012 expecting to see my future life: This is how 20-somethings in New York behave. I quickly learned that Girls was less a crystal ball than the giant “caution” sign by the gap between the train and the platform at the Union Square subway stop.

The show presented four young women utterly unprepared for the world. While I sympathized with their aimlessness—Am I meant to be a writer? A teacher? A barista?—they also proved as narcissistic as the male anti-heroes we’re used to seeing on television, from Tony Soprano to Don Draper. They were permitted to behave in a way that women on television couldn’t before, which made them unappealing to mimic but intriguing to watch.

Girls was the millennial generation’s TV debut, and not always a flattering one. Hannah’s declaration that she was the voice of the generation was partially true. Some older viewers treated the show as an anthropological study or, when it came to episodes about casual hookups or experiments with cocaine and raves, a reason for moral panic. Simultaneously self-aware and self-absorbed, the characters became memes for the hookup generation, the selfie generation, the “me, me, me” generation. Along the way, many people—even those who never watched a single episode—formed an opinion of co-creator and star Dunham. Those people also took the show at face-value, rather than reading it as a satire.

For a younger generation, it was the way her show tackled subjects like sex and friendship—specifically how they fall apart—that struck a chord. The four main characters had the sort of tenuous bond formed in college that slowly strains and then disintegrates in the real world. And then there was the sex. Each season had at least one boundary-pushing sex scene: Adam Driver’s Adam committing what some called rape, Allison Williams’ Marnie on the receiving end of analingus. Like Sex and the City, Girls offered an unabashed look at the sex lives of women.

But unlike its HBO predecessor, Dunham used her platform to stage a one-woman revolution against norms of female beauty and sexuality. The show kept the camera trained on her body, and those of her male and female costars, when they were stripped down, not to have some romanticized version of sex, but to walk around the apartment, try on clothes or take a shower—all the normal, unsexy things we do every day.

Dunham’s body, in particular, garnered attention. Rather than ignoring her body shamers, the actress used the opportunity to spark a conversation about our cultural obsession with thinness. She wrote about her body, encouraged a debate over the use of Photoshop and even starred in an Inside Amy Schumer sketch about body shaming.

The show clearly influenced the television that came after. Girls was one of the first shows created by and starring a young woman, a trend that’s since grown. Female creators including Transparent’s Jill Soloway and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom have cited Dunham and Girls as inspiration for aspects of their shows. The television landscape is now populated by a number of women run-and-led shows like Broad City, The Mindy Project, Insecure and Inside Amy Schumer. Other showrunners picked up on some of Girls’ theme of millennial malaise, Search Party, Master of None, Looking and Love among them. Critics now compare every new show about millennials to Girls, fairly or not.

Certainly, Girls had its faults. The show was criticized for its lack of racial diversity, for its tendency to naval gaze, for its myopic obsession with First World Problems.

But at its best, Girls excelled at presenting fresh ideas and, yes, stoking controversy. Take for example, the season five episode in which the leads attend Adam’s interactive play based on the story of Kitty Genovese. In 1964, the 28-year-old woman was murdered in Queens, ignored by neighbors as she screamed from the street. The play asks how such a tragedy could occur—were the people surrounding Kitty too self-absorbed to notice her cries? In a sort of meta-commentary, the Girls characters, caught up in their petty fights and rudely interrupting the actors, are too narcissistic to notice the narcissism of the characters in the play. That sort of self-awareness about the show, including critiques of the series and millennials as a group, did double duty in calling attention to a real issue—the safety of women—while skewering the audience’s own ignorance. It was revolutionary.

But so, in her own way, is Dunham. She and her co-creator Jenni Konner have used their perspective as young feminists to make social commentary an integral part of the series. Off-camera, Dunham used her memoir Not That Kind of Girl to share a very personal story about sexual assault on college campuses and campaigned tirelessly for Hillary Clinton and Planned Parenthood. Countless young girls now call themselves feminists thanks to Dunham’s friendship with Taylor Swift. And her newsletter, Lenny, offers A-listers a platform to write on subjects from the pay gap to politics.

When Girls ends this season, Dunham will surely continue to make waves—just not necessarily on a weekly basis as she did with the show. Love it or hate it, audiences will miss the ripple effect of Girls when it’s gone.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com