The Criticism Of 'Girls' Never Stopped The Writers From Creating The Show They Wanted To Make, Says Sarah Heyward
As much as Girls will be remembered by its fans for its complex, humorous, and sometimes heartbreaking depiction of four 20-something women navigating their way through Brooklyn, the HBO series won't only be remembered for its plot when it ends on April 16. Throughout its six seasons, Girls has had its fair share of controversy — in large part to the public's perception of the show's creator Lena Dunham. Yet, the discussions that have stemmed from Girls, while not always complimentary toward the show, are an indication of the important impact the series has had on pop culture — and that's something that Girls writer Sarah Heyward has been proud to be involved in.
"The backlash to Girls, I think, at least in part led to really important changes in what kind of TV shows are being put on air," Heyward says in an interview with Bustle. From the way she speaks of the writers' process, Dunham clearly always had a direction for what her series would represent in a larger sense, but she also focused on showing the lives of these four girls in an organic way. Thanks to the writers following Dunham's distinct vision, Girls struck a nerve within the pop culture landscape and beyond. And while the writers had to hear a lot of criticism, it rarely influenced that story that they set out to tell back in 2012.
"[The criticism] didn't affect us that directly or as directly as people seem to think in the writers' room," Heyward says. But she's also quick to bring up the most glaring issue of all that has plagued the series since it premiered — Girls' portrayal of a very white and very privileged Brooklyn, New York — which Dunham did feel the need to address. "The biggest criticism, of course, was between Season 1 and Season 2 about the lack of diversity," Heyward says. Interestingly enough, while the addition of Donald Glover's Sandy looked like a response to this, Heyward says that the writers had already written that Season 2 story line before Season 1 had aired. "So we already had that plotline in motion," Heyward says. "But I will say of all the seasons with all the criticism, that diversity criticism was certainly the criticism we took to heart the most because we agreed with it and Lena took it really seriously."
Yet, neither Dunham or the writers were ever going to change what the core of Girls was all about — even when some legitimate criticism was thrown at the show. "[Dunham] was never going to write something that wasn't what she wanted to write," Heyward says. "She agreed that the show needed to be more diverse and show a more realistic portrait of Brooklyn, of New York, and we took the criticism in in that sense. But ... I can't even remember a single instance of us sitting around the room and being like, 'OK, well they didn't like this, so we have to make sure we do this.'"
"If anything, [the writers are] a bunch of stubborn men and women, who are like, 'No we're gonna still write what we wanna write,'" Heyward says. "It's more just Lena is so political and so liberal and interested in all of these conversations. It's always something that's on her mind and on our minds. I just wouldn't say that she's ever sitting down to directly address something that's been criticized the season before."
While many shows feature mainly white casts, Girls has always been a lightning rod of controversy — beyond the lack of diversity. And Heyward believes that partly has to do with the creator herself. "I think it all ties back to people thinking that Hannah is Lena, the fact that we called the show Girls, and people then thought it was supposed to be like a universal portrait of all women," Heyward says.
Another aspect that leads to criticism is people not giving Dunham and her writers enough credit that they are aware of what they're doing. Often people miss the irony in the dialogue that Heyward, Dunham, and the other writers have written for their self-absorbed characters. "People haven't always understood which elements are tongue-in-cheek," Heyward says. She specifically references the line from the pilot (that's being used in the trailer for the series finale), where Hannah says, "I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation."
"People first thought that was Lena saying that, not Hannah saying that, so I think it's been hard for everyone … to understand there's a difference in that Lena might write something that she absolutely doesn't agree with and put it in Hannah's mouth and it doesn't mean that it's Lena saying it," Heyward says. But while Dunham has been unfairly judged as being her fictitious character Hannah, Heyward recognizes that this is a struggle that all writers face.
"That's always been an issue and that's true for all writers," Heyward says. "Like, I'm also a fiction writer. I can't even tell you how many people when referring to my short stories say, 'When you harassed that girl at camp.' I'm like, 'I didn't bully anyone at camp!'" (Fun fact, Heyward attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop that Hannah went to in Season 4.)
My type is people who give disturbingly few indications that they're listening while I'm telling a story.— Sarah Heyward (@shinyunicorn) September 24, 2014
Despite any backlash or misinterpretations of what Girls was trying to say, the writers, according to Heyward, were understandably pleased with what they created. "At the end of the day, [the writers] were thrilled that Girls was causing important conversations to be had. These are topics that needed to be discussed, these are problems that needed to be brought to light, and frankly, we're in a completely different TV and global climate than we were six years ago when Girls started," Heyward says. "And in a small way, Girls has something to do with that."
Fans of Girls would certainly agree with that and perhaps, even the critics will someday look back on the significant impact the series had on so many people — and enjoy it for the raw, chaotic look at four women figuring out their lives that it was without judgment.