It’s hard to separate Girls, the show, from all the fires it’s started. Over the course of five seasons, the HBO series has been a minefield for debates around representation on TV, privilege, and body politics, in ways that often overshadowed the show itself. Ahead of the final season premiere Sunday night, Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, and Zosia Mamet sat down with Vulture and let out their frustrations with the critiques that irked them most. Plus, they revisit the moments their characters let them down, filming sex scenes with arrogant day actors, and consider which of the four girls has inched the closest to maturity. They all were in agreement: By the end of season six, Shoshanna will be the one who “goes the distance.”
When Girls first premiered, there was famously a backlash, where it somewhat disproportionately answered to a lot issues that were culminating at the time, most specifically, legitimate frustrations about representation on TV. This was compounded by the fact that many people didn’t quite get the humor of the show and how self-aware it was about these characters’ privilege. At times, it’s been difficult to judge the show as a show, outside of all these questions.
Lena Dunham: No one has ever wanted to talk to us about craft. They just want to know, “What does it feel like to have people hate you?”
Zosia Mamet: “Why do you get naked so much?”
Allison Williams: It’s very similar to the questions asked of reality-TV people, and I’m not even being facetious.
How do you all feel looking back now, and what was it that you think made Girls strike such a nerve?
LD: There are three points I want to start by making. One is, we never resisted that criticism. We were like, there’s a conversation about diversity that needs to happen in this industry, and if we’re going to be the show that starts that conversation, we’re thrilled to have the job. I tended to think we were capturing something that was real about life as a young woman, but not necessarily capturing what was real about everyone’s life as a young woman. People feel connected to the show, and they want to feel more connected to the show, and they want to feel more seen by this show. That being said, there is a really fascinating phenomenon we’re in, unlike male television creators. We were never given the benefit of the doubt. So the idea that we would understand the humor of our show, that our show might be a commentary on the attitudes of white middle-class women, that we were self-aware, was completely disbanded based on the notion that we were somehow four idiotic white women incapable of understanding what we were performing or writing.
Jemima Kirke: That everything was said at face value.
LD: Everyone was like “that was rude,” and it’s like “yeah, we’re writing…”
AW: We wrote it to be rude.
LD: It’s satirical, and it’s an analysis of a certain kind of American woman. It’s also been fascinating to realize that complicated, messy, and, at times, unappealing female characters receive more hate than characters that commit straight-up murders, start drug rings, and rape women.
ZM: Because people are willing to suspend their disbelief for that. They’re like, “Oh, that person’s not actually, you know, killing people and raping people. This is a story.”
LD: We’re so lucky to have had so much cultural conversation about it, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that it was frustrating to have the most talented cast, the most talented crew who show up every day and push their boundaries, and then basically to be treated as if we are the cast of The O.C. is ludicrous.
AW: Constantly we’re referred to in articles about the show with our name, and unfortunately I think Vulture’s been guilty of this, but like “Allison Williams gets her ass eaten” is not a thing that’s happened.
LD: That’s what we call “fake news.”
AW: And that is not something I’m convinced would happen to other shows or other actors, particularly male actors. I don’t think I ever saw “Bryan Cranston did …” anything.
LD: “Bryan Cranston kills his family.”
JK: One criticism is, how are you supposed to change the cultural conversation if you’re not including people of color in the show? I said this to Vulture a few years ago, I think the first press thing when I had no idea how to give an interview … and I still don’t. But, I said something about, “Well, this isn’t a show about the projects, right?” Which, take that out of context, and it’s appalling. But what I meant was, we’re telling a reality here, not trying to perpetuate one. There’s an argument to say they’re symbiotic, culture and art. But it’s absolutely absurd that if you go and make a joke, then suddenly the writers believe that joke, that writers who wrote that joke are of that opinion.
LD: I’ve always felt the need to be like, “I accept every criticism. Thank you so much for watching the show. I’m so grateful.” Now that the show is ending, I feel like I’m finally ready to blow it up a little bit and be like, “You know what, fuck all y’all.” I’ve made mistakes as a person. I’ve said things I regret, but at the end of the day, we spent six years making a piece of art that completely busted open the way women were allowed to behave on TV, and I’m not going to apologize for it.
JK: There’s so much apology that happens, it drives me nuts. How much everyone is asked to apologize in the media today for …
LD: We’ll apologize if we’ve done something wrong, but we’re not going to apologize for the existence.
JK: But about a mistake? Do you have to apologize for a mistake as an artist?
LD: I think I have to apologize if I say something dumb in an article.
Parallel to all of this, you particularly, Lena, have become the fall guy for whatever’s wrong with white feminism. I’m wondering if you’ve reflected on why you specifically have become symbolic of this in ways that other people haven’t?
LD: I think it’s a combination of issues. It’s an issue of privilege. It’s an issue of coming from a culturally elite space and people feeling as though I wasn’t able to comprehend other people’s experiences. I’m not interested in telling people that that’s not a valid claim. I just continue to come from where I come from. When you’re outspoken often about a lot of issues, it’s impossible to never misstep. The other thing is, there’s no one face of feminism, and there’s also no one face of white feminism. I would love to be a part of busting open the very dangerous traditions of white feminists casting aside the needs of their sisters of color or their trans sisters in pursuit of their own glory. I don’t want to be a part of that story. I don’t want to be a line item in the history of privilege and oppression that white feminists have perpetuated. I also can’t do it alone. Especially right now in this regime, all of our jobs are to advocate the way that we know how and to try to be as inclusive as we can while we’re doing it.
AW: I also think you’ve had guts. What requires bravery for anyone, in a media culture like the one we’re living through, is to continually stand up for what you believe. It inspires all of us and is something I’ve tried to learn from. Because it’s not like you don’t get threats. It’s real. When she speaks up about things she believes in, her personal safety is at stake. People are ignoring the fact that for someone in the public eye to speak up so clearly and loudly in support of something like women’s rights or reproductive rights, they’re doing it at their own risk for the benefit of other people.
JK: There’s something heroic about it. But also, that’s where the mistakes come in. If you’re willing to go and put your words out there and constantly be standing up for what you want to say, you’re going to say some things in the wrong. That’s what keeps people so quiet — no one wants to say anything wrong or make a mistake.
LD: So then no one says anything.
I feel so supported by these girls and by the work, but I guess the thing I always want to say is, I understand that this show was able to happen because I was lifted up by systems. I was just as far as they were willing to go, which was a chubby white girl. But still a white girl, and still somebody who’s story wasn’t particularly scary and wasn’t particularly offensive and fit into the guidelines of what people understood to be an archetypal woman on TV. The fact is, what we need isn’t more creators like me. Of course we need representation. Of course we need to have characters of color on every single show. We have diversity of gender and sexuality and religion now more than ever, but what we really need to do — and what I’m really trying to do with Lenny Letter and my production company — is to use the same systems that benefited me to lift up the voices of other creators. Not just try to appease an angry public by stuffing my show full of voices that I don’t personally understand fully how to write.
Going back to Girls, another phenomenon that fits into all of this is it was a show where people felt empowered to comment on it without having seen it.
LD: Our ratings aren’t high enough for how many people are pissed about the show.
AW: Most people are very willing to tell me that it’s not for them.
JK: I don’t mind that, being told it’s not for me. But I’m not the one to go to when you have a real criticism of it. I’m like, you’re putting me in a really awkward position, because I don’t want to defend and then look like a nerd.
AW: I’ve long since abandoned my fear of looking like a nerd.
LD: My favorite thing is, before I got off Twitter I would see these tweets that were like, “I fucking hate Lena Dunham but I can’t wait for Girls to come back. It’s my favorite show.” If you like the show, you like me, because my show is me. If you’ve got a huge problem with me but the show gives you great pleasure, you need to reexamine.
ZM: I think our show came out at a specific time where the world was yearning for something of this ilk, and in many ways it opened the door for so much that has happened since in terms of women in entertainment. But because it was a first, it was under an incredibly strong microscope. I remember Judd [Apatow] said something in our first season: “People are either going to love it or they’re going to hate it, but they’re going to talk about it, and that’s what’s important.” Okay, yes, some people are adoring it and it’s literally making some people enraged, but they’re talking about it, and they’re talking about the things that we want them to talk about.
Do you think the show’s legacy will change as time passes?
LD: It’s so funny. I just wrote a piece about Mary Tyler Moore for the New Yorker because that was a huge influence. I remember when we were first doing the show, I told everyone in the writers room to watch certain episodes of Mary Tyler Moore and certain episodes of Mary Hartman, My So Called Life. It was interesting for me like, “Oh, I’m reflecting on the legacy of Mary Tyler Moore as someone who was born 17 years after it was canceled and started watching it 24 years after it went on the air.” So I’m watching it without political context, I’m understanding what it meant to depict a single woman, but I’m watching this and was like, “There are no black people on Mary Tyler Moore. This is problematic.” I have a completely different lens on the show. I will be very happy and honored if, when we’re 60, we get to go to a screening and see the reaction of girls who weren’t even born when the show went on, and I hope, I genuinely hope, that they go, “It’s insane that people see female characters like this on TV every day.” I hope they’ll be shocked by the idea that people were scandalized, like “the girls on Girls are bad bitches.” I hope they’ll be like, “Uh, this is every TV show I’ve ever watched.” It’s a really exciting thing to watch something become politically outdated. Unfortunately, we’re now becoming politically redated again, but that would be really a great gift if this show became normal in a way.
As actors on the show, did you ever have to do something as a character where it made you recalibrate who this character is? Something that made you change your understanding of who the character is?
JK: Well … I had to date Adam. So that was a difficult one.
LD: Forced to date Adam Driver.
AW: Every time Marnie slept with someone else’s ex.
LD: One of her favorite hobbies. It wasn’t even always someone else’s ex.
AW: No, it was often. Desi was Clementine’s boyfriend. Ray was Shosh’s ex. Elijah was your ex. Then in the final season she’s cheating once again. She’s a fucking mess. Every time she did it, I had to be like, “Lena, why? People already hate Marnie so much.”
LD: Jemima was really upset about that Adam story line because something people would be surprised to know about Jemima in real life is, despite her lush persona, despite her naughty Britishness …
JK: I’m extremely neurotic …
LD: … and moral.
JK: A lot of the stuff comes from how tightly wound I am about the way things should be.
LD: We had a friend in a college who slept with another friend’s ex-boyfriend, and Jemima was the one who was like, “If you don’t tell her, I will.” She was really intense about it. So to have to play that, it really didn’t speak to your particular moral compass. I feel like Shoshanna has always been a pretty good girl.
ZM: It was always a challenge to play someone so intrinsically opposite to me who’s then growing up during a period of life where you grow up so hard and so fast. So in that way, I had to continuously shift gears, but I don’t think I ever really had anything that felt like a huge bump like, She wouldn’t do that.
JK: Little things like fucking a guy in a hotel lobby.
LD: That was just a make out and a feel up.
ZM: The actor, every take, he apologized, which I thought was kind of hilarious.
AW: That’s such a relief given how we’re often treated by those actors.
ZM: I know! It’s so terrible.
LD: Often those actors are like, you’re welcome.
AW: Like, your nose just brushed against my vagina, I’m not thanking you for anything.
ZM: No thanks.
AW: The other thing to note is, I cannot stress enough how un-20s our collective 20s have been as people. All we’ve done is work. We’ve been in pretty much the same relationship for the entire duration of the show. We all have dependent animals.
LD: Or children.
AW: And we’ve been really fortunate because of the show to be able to afford to live where we wanted to live, make a lot of good choices, be empowered financially as women. In that weird sense, I would say I lived my 20s through Marnie’s experience of them because mine felt a lot like a more classic 30s decade.
ZM: For sure.
AW: One of the weirdest things about the show ending is hoping I absorbed all of Marnie’s mistakes rather than having to go out and make all of them.
Is there one character who has matured more than the rest in these seasons?
AW: I’d say Shosh.
LD: She’s the one who goes the distance.
AW: Especially by the end of six.
LD: We really gave it to her. She deserved it, and she got it.
AW: She learned from her mistakes. She watched all of us flail against the world and was the only character that was capable of learning from the mistakes that people made around her. She’s the least narcissistic.
ZM: Her neuroses about figuring out the coolest, the most right, the most interesting way to do things, is the thing that saves her in the end. She’s like, wait, I actually want to figure that out as opposed to spinning my wheels. All of the other girls’ experiences, collectively, are so fucked up it really scares her straight.
Who has matured the least?
LD: Most of us are still neck and neck. We’re all doing our darndest. I always make this joke: I want to leave like a campsite, better than you found it; I really think we did it.
AW: I feel like we ended it the way Hannah would leave a campsite.
LD: Which is like kind of better.
AW: Like kicking dirt over a still simmering fire [laughs].
LD: One-hundred percent. I like leaving it open for our movie.
ZM: But like, maybe putting flowers over the embers that catch fire.