When the fourth series of the TV show begins, social media will light up with comments. Why does everyone seem to have an opinion? Lisa Schwarzbaum explains.

A fifth season of Girls has already been guaranteed by HBO, even before the fourth premieres on 11 January. This is great news for those who love Lena Dunham’s series about four twentysomething women in Brooklyn with unreliable instincts and ambivalent feelings about moving from girlhood to womanhood.

But the renewal is equally exciting for those who hate the show but watch obsessively, and are happy to explain why. And it is cheering also to those who hate the show and refuse to watch, with a similar urge to tell stranger all about it. It is also a boon to those who write about pop culture, or blog, or rant on Twitter; to editors looking to generate think pieces; and to fashion commentators, feminists, political conservatives, and anyone who has ever held an opinion about Brooklyn as a state of mind as well as a borough of New York City.

I cannot think of another TV show that has provoked as much passion and verbiage. And the chatter will not stop any time soon. Here I am, adding to it.

I should state, in the interests of transparency, that I happily watch every episode of Girls, that I think Ms Dunham, 28, is an exciting artist with an original voice – and that I often want to take the characters she has created and slap them silly. I might also want to edit the wardrobe of Hannah Horvath, the character Dunham has created for herself, whose clothing choices aim for fun but sag with sadness.

But, then, even my slightest critique of Hannah sends me into spirals of self-analysis: Who am I to say that a young woman cannot adorn and display her body any way she likes? What do older generations know about how life is lived by Hannah’s generation? Whoever said Hannah represents her generation, anyway, except essayists, many of whom are older like me, and none of whom is Hannah? Who am I to decide what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘appropriate’ for a woman who is not me, whether the subject is clothing, friendship, sex, romance, career or aspiration?

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These questions are exactly why 28-year-old Dunham and Girls provoke such admiration and resentment, Twitter traffic and digital diatribes, imitators and parodies. The show’s remarkable success, and the creator’s subsequent celebrity and wealth, coincide with the cresting of a social media wave that has created an agitated new kind of online democracy. Right now, as never before, all viewers – from those with the mightiest bylines to the loneliest Facebook pages – have the opportunity to comment in public and be heard. Those who wish to watch and tweet can even do so simultaneously, in real time.

Girls is a convenient screen onto which each viewer can easily project her own preferences and prejudices, fears and anxieties. It is not the first US TV series to court such scrutiny and commentary: Sex & the City, Seinfeld, South Park, thirtysomething, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Soap and Married... with Children and others all did this too. But Girls has the odd cyber-luck of being an elitist cultural provocation at exactly the moment when populist self-expression (home alone at the keyboard, that is, rather than agitating in the streets or working together for change) has become so integrated into our days and nights.

Name an issue, Girls provides a target. Opinions can be fired like darts at millennials, feminism, misogyny, sexism, sexual desires, the human body, body art, body fat, ‘boy men’, nudity, personal finance, parenting, friendship, hipsters and, of course, Brooklyn too. Widen the board to include the making of the show, and there is plenty of room to take aim at racism (the Girls are all white!), nepotism (some of the actors have famous parents!), and, for those who so inclined, the comedy universe as created by executive producer Judd Apatow (no one grows up!).

Dunham herself provides the bullseye – and withstands the rough game with apparent equanimity. Those for whom it is soothing can dwell critically on her privileged Manhattan upbringing, her multi-million dollar advance for her book Not That Kind of Girl and her vertiginous elevation to cultural and generational superstar, with all the photo shoots, red-carpet appearances, and famous new friends that go along with the portfolio. Others can find inspiration in the confidence, sense of play and experimentation she displays.

The slogan writers at HBO were on to something when they said of the network and its series such as Girls, “It’s not TV”. Girls is more a Rorschach test. All who like to prattle on about the show will happily do so this season and next because we know that Hannah and her friends are exactly who we need them to be.

Girls - season four trailer

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