How HBO defines Girlhood

Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s Girls, has a peculiar definition for the word “girl”. The show itself deals with an array of adult themes: sexuality, career, coke binges, being peed on in the shower. But if the show and the characters in it are acting out such adult themes, then why the title? As girls grow up in modern America, their privileged lifestyle allows them to enjoy all the perks of adulthood without its responsibility, creating a large generation of 20-something women that, by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh’s definition in “Girlhood”, ought to be considered girls. This acting out of true girlhood is mirrored from traditional definitions, such as the experience of the Ingall sisters in Little House on the Praire, into the modern definition of girlhood that we see acted out by the characters in Girls.

Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s character, is a 24 year-old writer who assumes the role of a girl in many ways. She is dependent, often seeking the approval and adoration of friends, lovers and strangers. She demonstrates the “vitality, playfulness, and unconventional…” (Reid-Walsh, 94) lifestyle of girls in children’s literature. With New York City as her frontier, Hannah explores her limits and makes mistakes with relatively little consequence, just like Laura and Mary in Little House on the Prairie. Most of all, Hannah and all of her friends struggle throughout the series to achieve the unrealistic expectation of true womanhood. Though it’s arguable whether or not the characters in Girls achieve it, fitting into the expectation of womanhood is a consistent theme carried through girls’ literature and is a cause of inner-character conflict for most of the stories we’ve read in class.

So though Little House on the Prairie defines girlhood in ages 5-7ish, and Jacqueline Reid-Welsh’s essay “Girlhood” defines it as late as 18, Girls makes it clear that age isn’t really a factor in who can be considered a girl. What includes someone in the “girl” category is, in fact, the way that person behaves in their environment.

2 thoughts on “How HBO defines Girlhood”

  1. I’m really interested in the connection you made between Little House on the Prairie’s titular prairie and Girls’ New York as spaces of exploration. I would never have thought to draw that parallel, but both are “frontiers”- spaces in which the girls can explore, discover, and ultimately grow into womanhood. (Although, I’ve only seen one season of Girls, so I’m not sure- they might stay in girlhood for the duration of the series.)

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    I also really enjoyed your parallel between Prairie and the show Girls (I’ve never seen it, but I think I get the gist of it). This reminded me of a reading from a psych class I took last semester We read a chapter of a book by Michael Kimmel called “Welcome to Guyland”. He basically spends the whole first chapter explaining this phenomenon that we see in the show Girls but for boys instead. Kimmel argues that this suspension between adolescence and adulthood that some 20-somethings are going through now characterize a whole new demographic. For men in particular, he writes that it is a , “A kind of suspended animation between Boyhood and Manhood, Guyland lies between the dependency and lack of autonomy of boyhood and the sacrifice and responsibility of manhood.” (p. 6). Kimmel actually goes on to provide evidence about why he thinks this is overall a negative thing for society (a really interesting read actually!). I’m not sure this kind of suspended childhood/adulthood in women is necessarily negative, but it’s certainly interesting. Thanks for the insightful post!

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