It might have a small title, but our new TV obsession is making huge waves, says Hadley Freeman

 “Cool and clever”, “simultaneously attractive and off putting”, “too white”, “grotesque and unpleasurable”. When HBO’s smash hit Girls hit US screens this April, these were just a few of the things reviewers had to say. And while they couldn’t seem to agree on whether it made women look good, bad, or both at the same time, they still can’t stop debating its role in the TV canon.

Description: From left: Allison Williams (Marnie), Jemima Kirle (Jessa), Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna), Lena Dunham (Hannah)

From left: Allison Williams (Marnie), Jemima Kirle (Jessa), Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna), Lena Dunham (Hannah)

Do you think I’m SATC-y?

No TV show since Sex and the City has provoked so much discussion in the media, online and among viewers about women, sex, women and sex and, finally, the representation of women on TV today. Given that Girls is about four female friends living in New York, fumbling their way through job crises, money panics and, of course, romantic disasters, the Sex and the City associations have been inevitable and were, to a certain extent, courted. The show’s writer, producer and star, the astonishingly precocious 26-year-old Lena Dunham, has said that she “reveres” SATC, and that the Girls set-up pays homage to that show.

But in more important ways, the two shows are so different that any comparisons seem shallower than a Casmo.

Perfectly flawed

Co-produced by Judd Apatow, better known for making boy heavy Bromances, Girls is intelligent, witty and brutally honest about the relations between women and men in a way Sex and the City, with all its high-sheen gloss, never could be. While it is now a cliché for leading ladies to be depicted as, say, charmingly klutzy in order to garner audience sympathy (while always being gorgeous), the Girls are all deeply fallible. Leading lady Hannah (Dunham) is selfish, narcissistic and obsessed with Adam, an actor/ artist, but, as he points out, “You never ask anything about me you only ask what I think of your skirt…” (personally, that moment sparked a shiver of recognition). Marnie (Allison Williams) stays in a relationship longer than she should because she’s too scared to do the breaking up; Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is obsessed with losing her virginity; and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) causes fights at parties. These are all things that we’ve seen onscreen before, but from male characters, not girls.

Normality bites

The show has come in for some stick for not featuring any non-Caucasian characters and, while that is true, one has to wonder if the critics had ever seen an American comedy before, seeing as they’re almost always racially homogenous (I don’t recall any non-Caucasian main characters in Friends, say, let alone Sex and the City). That doesn’t make it right and, yes, it does need to change, but it’s hard not to suspect that this was just an easy stick with which to beat Dunham for being young and successful.

Description: The tidal wave of reviewer praise for the foul new HBO show Girls

The tidal wave of reviewer praise for the foul new HBO show Girls

Aside from Girls, Dunham has already written, directed and starred in the excellent award-winning film Tiny Furniture, in which she wandered about in various states of undress. She amps that up tenfold in Girls. Nothing remarkable about seeing a half-naked twenty something on screen, you might think, but Dunham’s body is not of model proportions and it feels downright extraordinary to see a normal-sized woman stripping off on IV. Moreover, while Hannah occasionally makes reference to being overweight, it doesn’t define her, and it certainly doesn’t stop her having sex or fun.

A game changer

In the 21st century, we like to think that feminism has opened our eyes to old imbalances, and we might get a smug kick out of watching Mad Men, thinking how much more forward-thinking the world is now. But then you find yourself astonished as Hannah takes off her top, revealing belly and all, and is pursued by various men, as opposed to being relegated to the ‘sexless best friend’ role, and you realise that easily the biggest revelation to come out of Girls is just how revelatory it is.

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