Revisiting HBO's Girls feels like a time capsule of youth, failure — and grace

Lena Dunham's breakthrough series was a blotchy portrait of the messy and annoying era it was set in, and it cracked us wide open.

'It was a blotchy portrait of the messy and annoying era it was set in, and it cracked us wide open'

Still frame from the tv show Girls. The main cast of the show pose together on a blue couch in a modest apartment. Left to right: Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet.
Left to right: Jemima Kirke as Jessa, Lena Dunham as Hannah, Allison Williams as Marnie, and Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna in Girls. (HBO)

Few relics of my twenties exist in my current mid-thirties world. I've tossed the black bodycon dresses I wore, the coasters and beer glasses stolen from my favourite bars on Dundas West in Toronto. My cell phone no longer holds the selfies with or phone numbers of men I loved for a night but would never see again.

One holdover remains, though, that I still use: a ringtone I made of the song "Same Mistakes" by the Brooklyn band, The Echo Friendly. The track appeared on the first season of Girls in 2012 and was a brief hit. It's a moody song; deflated, too, sounding like it reeks of whiskey and cigarettes. Singer Shannon Esper's vocals are like smudged eyeliner and regret as she sings, "I never did grow up / Feels like I never will."

Nearly 11 years on, this song is what my twenties felt like — and it's the perfect snapshot of the show it appeared on. Revisiting the track and Girls is to revisit another self, one who wasn't perfect but tried their best, even if they were a bit of a brat. 

Lena Dunham's Girls chronicled the lives of four female friends, fresh from their liberal arts college, navigating the 2010s era of a gentrifying Brooklyn. Girls was to be the early-twenties companion to Sex and the City's thirties women: frank portraits of love, life, and growing up in New York. But it brought intense criticism, first to Lena Dunham (who was emphatically not Hannah Horvath, but that didn't stop her detractors) and the elite whiteness of the girls in question because they were unlikeable and annoying. 

Now, the show is having a resurgence on — of course — TikTok. New viewers, mostly early twenty-something Gen Zers, are on their own journey of discovery. Girls resonates because it's the shadow of the human experience: all of the uncomfortable, squeamish bits of ourselves we never like to admit, especially out loud. The times might be changing, new technologies and problems emerge, but what's evergreen is you'll end up sleeping with a narcissist artist who wants to ruin your life. 

Still frame from the tv show Girls. Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays an acoustic guitar as Allison Williams looks on, grinning. They're in a cafe with colourful balloons behind them.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Desi and Allison Williams as Marnie in Girls. (HBO)

Girls was unparalleled at depicting failure and the insecurities that come with growing up. For six seasons, you watched people stumble to create a life; falling apart in spectacular or humiliating ways, attempting to put themselves back together again. It was a blotchy portrait of the messy and annoying era it was set in — and it cracked us wide open. 

I was 23 when Girls aired. I was lost, stupid, having sex with terrible men, and, god, worst of all, I was a writer. I had just begun journalism school and moved away from home for the first time. So I heard and held Hannah Horvath's narcissistic monologues on self-hatred in the same breath of delusional confidence as gospel for decidedly weird and emotionally abandoned young women like myself. Watching the show for five years was like having another female friend to see and hear me — one who vexed and disappointed me, and, eventually, one I moved on from like the girls do. 

Nearly every character and situation on Girls is annoying, but that's the point. It's overwhelmingly white, obtuse about financial realities, out of step with how people actually live their lives, and Marnie's a terrible singer. Girls isn't meant to be a reality show, and that's freeing when re-engaging with it now.

The show is informed by textures of the shape-shifting 2010s — and perhaps that's why it riled up viewers so much at the time, fuelling take after take to justify why it was brilliant or vile. The show's evergreen strength is in providing space for the dirt of our lives to show — how we treat each other and ourselves, the gaffes we need to endure to grow, and just how hard it is to be a person in this world

For us millennials: did we mimic Girls or did it mimic us? 

Still frame from the tv show Girls. Lena Dunham sits at a table in a diner, wearing a bright yellow leather jacket.
Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls. (HBO)

It's difficult to place myself back in the mind of twenty-something Sarah, though I know she once existed. She tried to speak with such authority about how her life would go before admitting she knew absolutely nothing about anything. She dyed her hair red sometimes but preferred dark brown. She got tattoos when she was heartbroken. She wanted to be a famous music writer but hated public attention. She walked down Lansdowne Ave. listening to Robyn and Pity Sex, on her way for a drink or two or four at Get Well with her going-out friend, bemoaning her love life and if that guy in that punk band actually liked her after they hooked up or if he was playing some narcissistic game. (It was the latter.) She slept with men to find love instead of asking for what she needed, which was to feel safe. She accepted their lascivious text messages about the body she never loved. 

But she was beautiful. 

I don't see many of those friends from my twenties anymore. All of those men are now memories. I've been in a nearly decade-long relationship that is more like a marriage. The chosen family I've collected doesn't know that twenty-something Sarah. 

Annie Ernaux writes in The Years of her mid-thirties self looking back on her twenties, "These are her selves, it seems to her, who continue to exist in these places." How liberating to contain all of these selves in you and to be the only one who knows them.

Still frame from the tv show Girls. Jemima Kirke and Lena Dunham stand with their arms crossed, looking sullen; Jemima stares straight ahead as Lena looks at her.
Jemima Kirke as Jessa (left) and Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls. (HBO)

Watching Girls now is a lot like visiting this version of myself who, at the time, was bright and infuriating. That Sarah earnestly put a dreary song about making mistakes as her ringtone and thought it would empower her. I hold her, and all of her complexities close to my heart — and love her the way she should have been.


Sarah MacDonald is a music and culture writer whose work has appeared in The Walrus, Flare, NOW, and many more. Previously, she was an associate editor at Noisey Canada. She's happy to be here.

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