One of the persistent questions surrounding Girls is how much Hannah Horvath can be conflated with her creator. Critical responses often highlight the way that Dunham incorporates her own experiences into the show—how, as executive producer Jenni Konner has said, “Something happens to Lena the night before, she literally comes in the next day and pitches it.” Indeed, a recent New York Times article on the costumes emphasizes the way that even the wardrobes selected “are often imbued with autobiographical specificity.”
Dunham is certainly not the only contemporary popular auteur to write what she knows; art often comes from life. But questions of verisimilitude have served a uniquely central role in Girls’ critical reception, in many ways setting the terms of the debates that follow the show.
Girls is not the first time that Dunham’s work has raised questions about the slippage between the fictional and the autobiographical. Dunham’s feature film Tiny Furniture (2010), Girls’ tonal inspiration, starred Dunham, was shot in Dunham’s parents’ TriBeCa apartment and featured Dunham’s family. One representative review praised the film for its authenticity and “clever distortion of reality, in which Dunham, for comic effect, rehearses only the most pathetic aspects of her life.” Reading the protagonist, Aura, as a surrogate for her creator, critics embraced Tiny Furniture as a small story about personal failures, a “house of mirrors” making very specific claims.
With Girls, Dunham clearly draws from the same experiential well, but the critical discourse of “autobiographical specificity” surrounding the show has been more complicated. Dunham herself claims that Girls is her least autobiographical production. And then there is the show’s “meta-title,” which seems to make a bid for a universality that might carry representational responsibility beyond the specific.
How closely we read Hannah to map on to Dunham, in other words, might have quite a bit to do with what we, as viewers, think that Girls owes us. Does “real-life” inspiration excuse the show’s circumscribed scope, or simply mark Dunham as a navel-gazing narcissist? Or, on the contrary, is the strong autobiographical strain precisely what makes the show authentic or important? Differing investments in these questions are at the heart of the arguments made by Dunham’s—and Girls’—strongest advocates and most vocal detractors, and the answers are often shaped, in various ways, by the degree to which critics understand Dunham to be telling her own story.