By Erin Cabrey
Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna, the leading ladies of “Girls,” have returned to television screens this week for the final season of the oft-debated HBO series. Over its five seasons, “Girls” has been deeply dissected by critics and fans, giving it a reputation as a show one either loves or hates. As the show enters its sixth season, it provides an opportunity to take a look back at why the show has been simultaneously praised and chastised, and the effects this kind of television polarization has on audiences.
When “Girls” premiered in 2012, it quickly became one of the most buzzed-about shows on television. The series, about four twenty-something women living in New York City as they navigate through the difficulties of friendship, romance and careers, was quick to earn accolades. The first season earned two Golden Globes: one for Best Television Series- Comedy or Musical, and the other for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Comedy or Musical, awarded to Lena Dunham.
Critics and viewers were torn. The series’ honest portrayal of female friendship and post-college millennial confusion was something not previously explored on television. The New York Times also called it “sexually frank,” creating realistic depictions of sex and redefining the female body. That being said, Dunham’s frequent onscreen nudity proved divisive for viewers. The show was also deeply criticized for its lack of inclusion, with four white women heading a show set in one of the most diverse cities in the world. The show, while praised for its depiction of millennial feminism, was condemned for its lack of intersectionality, to the point that Dunham admitted to Nylon that “I wouldn’t do another show that starred four white girls.”
“Girls,” therefore, has been polarizing for viewers. The show has launched countless think pieces, and its episode reviews are often in-depth analyses. However, this polarization can affect television viewers in a number of ways. It can tear audiences, and perhaps even households, apart. Some may wait eagerly until the season premiere, participating in the “Girlsathon” on HBO. Others may see a naked female body or sex scene on their TV screens and quickly change the channel. Women of color could choose not to tune in at all because they are largely unrepresented in the “Girls” narrative. For the many things that “Girls” has not done, there is one notable thing it has: created a dialogue. Since the show’s inception, critics and audiences have been discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion, intersectional feminism, representation of the female body and millennial entitlement.
“Girls” is not the only show to prove divisive for audiences. The sitcom “Ellen” starring Ellen DeGeneres and running for five seasons from 1994-1998, received intense media exposure following its monumental fourth season episode entitled “The Puppy Episode” where the series’ main character, Ellen Morgan, came out as gay. The series lasted only one more season after this episode, with each fifth season episode prefaced by a Parental Advisory and receiving criticism for excluding viewers by focusing too heavily on the LGBT community. However, the show is lauded for paving the way for the representation of homosexuality on television and reducing prejudice toward the LGBT community.
The CBS sitcom “Maude,” starring Bea Arthur and airing from 1972 to 1978, chronicled the life of an outspoken liberal woman living in New York. It was the first primetime television show in which the leading character has an abortion. The two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma”, airing two months before Roe v. Wade and the legalization of abortion, featured Arthur’s 47-year-old character facing conflict when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Not wanting to raise a child so late in their lives, she and her husband ultimately decide to not have the child. The Chicago Tribune called this episode “a watershed in TV history, an event that brought the battle over choice into the prime-time arena.” While the show was one of the most-watched during its run, this episode led to corporate sponsors refusing to buy commercial time during the shows airing and CBS receiving thousands of protest letters. While abortion remains a highly-debated issue today, the show contributed to an increased dialogue and opened the door to further media depictions of abortion, such as in shows like “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood.”
While “Girls” concludes in April, the long-term effects of its honest depiction of sex and the female body could perhaps be felt in future programming. Newer shows with similar themes, like “Broad City” and “Master of None,” which also call New York City home, avoided the mistakes regarding diversity made by its predecessor. Series come and go, but their successes and pitfalls often live on far after their time slots are filled. Television shows tackling controversial issues, exploring uncharted territory and often making mistakes can lead to polarization. Criticism might be deserved or unmerited, but it does not change the fact that the shows that isolate audiences create a dialogue about what exactly it is that makes audiences so uncomfortable.