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Girls Comes of Age

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The characters of Girls go into their fifth season moving from self-absorption toward self-possession...

“I’m just trying to not be so attracted to drama.”

Late in the fourth season of Girls, Hannah Horvath is stunned when she gets turned down for a second date by a cute teacher at the high school where she works. His explanation? “I’m just trying to not be so attracted to drama.”

These words should not have come as a shock. Hannah, the alternately hilarious and infuriating central character of Lena Dunham’s Girls, has spent most of her twenties chasing — and aggravating — interpersonal turmoil. When she quits jobs, she delivers long-winded, pissed-off speeches. When she doesn’t have anything nice to say, she says it anyway. And she has consistently sought messy-but-exciting romance over bland companionship. 

As Girls matures into its later seasons, however, Hannah seems to be outgrowing some of her most juvenile preoccupations. Upon its controversial launch in 2012, the series was both praised and criticized for its unapologetically self-involved protagonists: Here was a coming-of-age comedy in which everyone was too distracted by self-destructive love lives and clichéd creative projects to actually grow up. Despite lofty goals, they were stagnating. Jobs, friendships, and relationships were hard to maintain — while their sense of frustration lingered.

But the characters might be breaking free of their millennial murk. Last we saw Jessa (Jemima Kirke), she announced she was going to become a therapist. After a protracted job hunt, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) landed a dream gig in Japan. Marnie (Allison Williams) gets stood up by Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), her flaky singer-songwriter fiancé, at their record-label showcase — but decides to take the stage solo. And Hannah, having quit writing and picked up teaching, finally puts a lid on her on-again, off-again tangle with Adam (Adam Driver). In the final moments of the season finale, she was walking hand-in-hand with Fran (Jake Lacy), the guy who called her out on her drama. It’s possible that his words resonated.

During a post-finale interview, Girls executive producer Jenni Konner acknowledged that the friends, at least for the time being, have shifted from dithering to decisiveness. “We kind of wanted to end on this up note [at which], at the end of the season, everyone — at least to themselves — feels strongly about what they want and how they want to move forward,” she said. “It does not mean it will work. This is Girls, after all. But they are going to try.”

Most important, these developments demonstrate a progression away from self-absorption and toward self-possession. Girls’ early episodes depicted navel-gazing as a way of being. Hannah and Marnie mooned over their boyfriends, Shoshanna obsessed over her lack of a boyfriend, and Jessa was consumed by her own free-spirited eccentricities. Their youthful energy was entirely focused inward. A few seasons later, that restlessness and ambition is getting redirected into the world.

“The more I grow up, the more I grow apart from Hannah...”

Girls always has been Dunham’s vision, and the characters’ small steps forward reflect the evolution of her creative perspective. When Girls launched in 2012, Dunham and Hannah had a lot in common: They were both recent graduates of Oberlin College who were now pursuing writing careers — and juggling romantic misadventures — while living in New York.

Fast-forward a few years, and their lifestyles have drastically diverged. Dunham has become an A-list celebrity, released a memoir, launched a production company, founded an email newsletter, and signed a deal to create a new pilot for HBO. (Called Max, the show will follow women working in the magazine world of the 1960s.) Hannah, meanwhile, has shed her literary goals in favour of more under-the-radar undertakings.

“The more I grow up, the more I grow apart from Hannah,” Dunham explained in an interview last year. “I would say she started as much closer to who I was, and the nature of my job and my life has forced me to mature in positive ways that Hannah hasn’t necessarily had to.”

Which means that Hannah, who started as a partially autobiographical persona, has become fiction. This marks a significant development. When Girls premiered, Dunham faced not just criticism, but rage. Some critiques, including those denouncing the show’s lack of racial diversity, sparked important discussions. But Dunham also was subject to less substantiated accusations of nepotism and classism, as well as overtly sexist scrutiny over Hannah’s frequent nude scenes. Dunham and Hannah were seen as one and the same: Hannah’s (satirical) proclamation that she was “a voice of a generation” was interpreted as Dunham’s own delusion of grandeur.

Dunham has, in fact, emerged as a key voice of a generation in which female stories and perspectives are gaining essential ground within mainstream media. Hannah is not a poster girl for twentysomething self-absorption: She now represents not Dunham herself, but Dunham’s insistence that a young woman’s experiences and opinions — and even one’s narcissistic preoccupations — embody a story worth telling.

Hannah might be entering a more assured, less chaotic chapter. But even if she sheds her least grown-up tendencies, she likely won’t ditch her defining comedic trait: a predisposition for uncomfortable but lovable drama.

Eleni Deacon is a Toronto-based freelance writer.