Girls creator Lena Dunham has received criticism from all sides. Detractors on the right see her as an exhibitionist provocateur. Those on the left see her as a privileged narcissist, who can’t help but see feminism through a white middle-class prism — and who unforgivably rooted for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.
The HBO show that made Dunham’s name, which she has written and starred in since her early twenties, is on its final season. It has portrayed the young lives and friendships of four millennial women trying to succeed, or just subsist, in New York, and how their dreams either lose grandeur when they come true or don’t come true at all. It honestly and often messily bears witness to a generation trying to negotiate sex and new relationships, where everything seems to be permitted. It also offers one ofthe most revealing and sound critiques of themodern man available on television.
Say what you like about Dunham, but she can write men. Adam Sackler (played by Adam Driver) is the most consistently, unsparingly but also sensitively drawn modern male to grace the small screen this decade who is not a gangster or a detective. If it wasn’t for Girls, Driver probably wouldn’t have been cast as the conflicted villain Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars trilogy. He is a Hollywood A-lister because of the room and complexity the Girls character has given him.
When we first meet Sackler he is an odd and imposing man who is casually sleeping with Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath. A recovering alcoholic, he is repeatedly referred to as a ‘sociopath’ or ‘sex addict’. But as the show progresses, and his depths are revealed, you realise that Hannah might be fetishising his bad qualities. ‘You never ask me anything,’ he tells her. ‘You don’t want to know me.’
It’s like a reversal of the Jane Austen narrative: designated cad charms us, along with the heroine, then repels us all with his true nature. Adam’s character is constantly gaining then losing our sympathy. He is by turns intransigent, annoying, pitiable, frightening. He is progressive in his views, accepting and good at giving pep talks, but also possessed of latent misogyny. He’s a collection of qualities, the roundest character in Girls, and an impressive artistic achievement.
Modern men ought to watch the show, not for the insight into how women work, but for what it tells them about how they — men — can come across. In an age where young cultured men identify as feminist by default, we are desperate to shed any residual trappings of misogyny while also retaining some sort of masculine identity. It’s not always a smooth process. Girls shows us the successes and failures of this in motion. As well as Adam there are various sensitive, well-adjusted, conventional men who stifle, or else use their very considerateness and progressiveness to ensnare or manipulate.
There’s something liberating about a programme that features imperfect people who it’s OK not to like. In fact, we dislike every principle Girls character most of the time. They are drawn with a critical detachment that allows them to flourish badly — make their own mistakes in a way that can be deeply involving. Just as the camera seems, in the show’s many notorious sex scenes, to linger for too long, as if it has forgotten to look away.
Since campaigning for Hillary Clinton, Dunham has become visible enough to be deemed a worthy hate figure for the American alt-right. Spokesmen such as Mike Cernovich, a prominent Trump supporter, posts blogs like: ‘How to Cheat on your Girlfriend’ and ‘Misogyny Gets You Laid’, while alt-right outlets such as Breitbart News have published numerous articles about her. One, by Milo Yiannopoulos, says, ‘Without a doubt she is one of the best examples of how feminism attracts ugly women.’
But the joke, we feel, is on them. They are exactly the sort of people who could do with watching Girls.
Girls, which is in its final series, airs every Sunday on Sky Atlantic.