It was always winter that year, my first year in Brooklyn. Snow fell on the power-lines. A grey tree shivered outside my bedroom window. I had many friends but none that I could call. I wanted to feel connected to the city the way other poets had, like Frank O'Hara in his famous poem “Steps"— "oh god it’s wonderful/ to get out of bed/ and drink too much coffee/ and smoke too many cigarettes/ and love you so much"— but I didn’t smoke, nor did I drink coffee. I barely made it out of bed some mornings.It felt more like I belonged in Muriel Rukeyser’s poem "Empire State Tower”:
The far lands melt to orange and to grey.
The city lies, quiet but for a rumor,
A single voice. People are guessed. We hazard
The world we know is there, below, unseen.
And in the street the many beautiful
Unstaring walk unwaiting the knives of doom…
It was 2012 and I was 21, living in East Williamsburg in a two-bedroom on Frost Street with my roommate Paul. Paul treated the few women in his life poorly. He despised his girlfriend (uncreative, immature, and blank were some of the adjectives he used) but no matter how many times he dumped her, she’d be back again the next week, sitting on our couch, Paul avoiding eye contact with me. For her birthday, he bought her a $200 steak at Peter Luger’s. “Maybe you actually like her,” I suggested one day, and he shrugged. My romantic life was no less antagonistic. I often brought strangers home to have sex with, only to decide halfway through the act that I didn’t want them there, at which point I’d kick them out into the snow at some ungodly hour. Paul witnessed all of this but never brought it up, and I was grateful for that. His great passion was television. He liked watching TV with his girlfriend; it was passive, I deduced, and allowed him to ignore her for long stretches of time. I didn’t understand television, and found it distracting and unsatisfying. His favorite show, still in its first season, was Lena Dunham’s cult hit Girls. Paul worked at a law firm and hated women, so this baffled me. When he turned it on, I’d note silently how obnoxious the girls were, then retreat to my bedroom to read Paul Celan.
One night, unable to sleep, I wandered into the living room and watched the entire first season of Girls. Still, I made it a point to actively hate the show. I told everyone I could: “The girls aren’t smart, or driven, and none of them have jobs. I can’t relate.” Occasionally episodes would be filmed on my block, in my coffee shop, in my neighborhood bar. I’d continue my criticism to whomever would listen: “I don’t recognize the world they live in.” Each month a check would arrive from my father to cover my rent. “They’re such spoiled brats,” I lamented to Paul.
Lena Dunham’s lime-green raincoat, dotted with pink flowers, falls open at the crotch. Her teeth are crooked; her lips bright red. It’s February 2017 and she’s posing on the cover of Nylon magazine, happy to capitalize on the character she’s developed: part-child, part-woman, all-provocation. Fresh out of college in 2012 and riding the success of her movie Tiny Furniture, Dunham launched the pilot for her show Girls to much fanfare. She snagged the dream network (HBO), the dream co-producer (guru Judd Apatow), and the dream co-writers (Jenni Konner & Lesley Arfin among them). Girls invited both acclaim and criticism from the get-go. Deemed “toxic” and “white girl feminism at its worst,” the show, set in contemporary Brooklyn, New York, features four protagonists: Hannah Horvath (Dunham), Jessa Johanson (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet), and Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams). Dunham is not the first to have the idea to follow four white girls around New York (see: Sex & the City) but she is the first to be held accountable for her show’s lack of diversity. In The Atlantic in 2013, Judy Berman spared no mercy: “Dunham continues to cast non-white actors only when race defines their character—which is to say, she still doesn’t get it.” Lena Dunham, sometimes to her own detriment, is not concerned with political correctness (“I haven’t had an abortion but I wish I had,” she said recently in an interview). It is part of what makes the dialogue in her show so accurate and brightly humorous, and it is also part of what might be deemed problematic about her public and professional persona. Is there an upside? This insistence on accountability has encouraged a long-overdue dialogue about diversity in television. And Dunham herself has learned a little something along the way: “When I wrote the pilot I was 23. Each character was an extension of me,” she told Nylon. “I wouldn’t do another show that starred four white girls,” she added.
In the first season, Hannah (Dunham) has weird, sloppy sex with the overly aggressive Adam (Adam Driver); Jessa misses her own abortion appointment because she is getting drunk and having sex with a stranger in a bar; Shoshanna sets out to lose her virginity; and Marnie dumps her boyfriend of five years because he’s “too nice.” Later, Hannah takes acid in order to write a more interesting article, and Adam sends Hannah a picture of his dick wrapped in fur, then quickly texts, “That was for someone else.” Despite this (or because of it) Hannah falls in love with Adam. Adam, for his part, seems drawn to Hannah, but disdains her, presumably because she evokes emotional reactions from him that he’s not fully comfortable feeling. In subsequent seasons, he dates ‘conventionally’ beautiful women, but finds himself defending Hannah, as in a scene where the stunning Shiri Appleby (whom Adam’s character degrades sexually, then dumps) bumps into Hannah and Adam at a coffee shop. Appleby sizes up Hannah’s body and exclaims, with lacerating cruelty, “That’s her?” Late at night I considered my own body in the mirror. I had a proportional hourglass shape, with big boobs. But my body scared me. I preferred being thin and wearing baggie clothes, and it was my worst nightmare that anyone would learn I had large breasts. I liked watching Hannah move through the world partially clothed, because I couldn’t, and her obliviousness, while sometimes problematic, seemed in this one sense a blessing.
As the show progressed, I expected a personality transformation in the characters much like the one I expected in myself: I assumed Hannah would eventually mature, stop loving Adam, publish some writing, make a real career for herself. I thought Jessa would stop doing drugs, get her shit together, that Marnie would become less obnoxiously privileged and white, that Shoshanna would shed her Jewish-American Princess prissiness and learn to take care of herself. I hoped Adam would have a functioning relationship and make peace with his demons. I was pissed when this didn’t happen. I was angry when Hannah went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then left because she couldn’t live anywhere but New York City, and didn’t understand how to take constructive criticism. Her writing was self-referential and sometimes straight-up bad. When I first watched Jessa attend AA meetings, I thought it was silly. Jessa’s stint in rehab seemed futile, and she picked up drinking soon after. When, on my 23rd birthday, I broke down in front of my brother and admitted I needed help with my alcoholism, I didn’t make the correlation to Jessa’s character. I was proud and vocal when I stuck with AA for one month, and then two. And I was mortified and quiet when I stopped going and picked up drinking again, more heavily this time.
Around the time the fourth season came out, I fell in love with an artist named Charlie, who had dated a friend of mine years earlier. This friend was particularly possessive of him. I made lists of all the reasons why my attraction to Charlie was bullshit, why it wouldn’t work, why I should avoid him. I assumed the attraction was based on some subconscious yearning, the fucked up parts of me attempting a ruinous self-sabotage. In a fury with myself, I used the money from a poetry prize to buy a ticket to France for a week. I decided in that time I would get over my bizarre crush and move on with my life. I fell in love anyway. I lost my friend. And eight months later, I lost Charlie too.
In the fifth season of Girls, something surprising happens. Adam begins pursuing Jessa. As Hannah’s best friend, Jessa is furious to find herself falling for Adam as well. They date. Hannah finds out; Jessa begins to resent Adam. “Y'know, people hate me,” Jessa confides to Adam. “I’m a hateable kind of person. I don’t know why, I can’t help it, maybe it’s because I have a big ass and good hair but I know, I know that I have principles and one thing I don’t do is steal people’s boyfriends. But you ruin that. Don’t you see that? We could die in the same bed and I will never forgive you.” Adam, livid, replies: “Hannah is a lazy, entitled, manipulative, myopic narcissist who knows a lot less than she thinks she does. Why do you think I fucking hated you for so long? Because Hannah fucking hates you.” Jessa whips her long blonde hair. “Welcome to having a friend,” she digs coolly, and Adam smashes a lamp against a wall.
As the other characters slide into caricature in the late seasons of the show, Adam seems actually to begin to mature, even playing guardian to his nephew after his unstable sister (the brilliant Gaby Hoffman) disappears. In this way he serves as Hannah’s foil, and his maturity highlights the ways in which Hannah fails to grow up with the world around her. Ironic that the character with the most interesting arc on Girls is a man.
I consoled myself a lot in my graduate school years by comparing myself to those I deemed less intelligent. I was convinced I could’ve written Girls, but better, and I protected myself this way, moving through the world with the conviction of my own gifts, and no awareness of the deep uncertainty I harbored inside. In the poems I wrote, I was at the mercy of everyone in the world who didn’t love me back. Girls, for all its flaws, anticipated and mirrored my own life in ways I did not want to acknowledge. As I grew older and more forgiving of myself, I found myself more forgiving of the characters on the show, and their myriad missteps. Annoying, immature, adolescent—sure. But Lena Dunham had something I wanted: agency. It’s this that I think we all work towards as we get older. Agency in our relationships, in our writing, in our careers, and in ourselves. I still want to be, as Hannah Horvath puts it in the pilot episode, “the voice of my generation. Or, you know, a generation.”
I haven’t spoken to Paul in years, but I think of him each time I watch Girls. How badly we behaved back then. How scared we were of being hurt. I think of telling him how he saved my life with his dumb shows and giant flat-screen TV. How safe I felt, hearing him have hate-sex with his girlfriend through the wall. How I loved him, though I never said it. How I knew him by heart. When I walked past the other day, Frost Street was quiet. Three trees struggled under ice. I live on South 3rd now, a street with small fenced-in yards, and a happily neutral name.