One of the amazing things about women is how quickly we adapt to change. No matter how weird or new things are to us at first—ankle-revealing dresses? the right to vote? Lady Gaga?—we eventually just absorb them, like drops in a stream, until memory fades and they join up with the continually flowing river that is progress. Which is why it’s kind of hard to remember that five years ago, when Girls premiered on HBO, the world was a different place. Sure, single-gal shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Murphy Brown had laid the groundwork for then 25-year-old Lena Dunham’s creation. But Dunham made clear in the first episode that neither her character, Hannah, nor Jessa (Jemima Kirke), nor Marnie (Allison Williams), nor Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) would be a Sex and the City fantasy: When chirpy Shoshanna tells Jessa, “You’re definitely like a Carrie, but with, like, some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair,” Jessa shoots her a look that just says: No. This show would be different.
Girls is fiction, obviously. But it has been committed to portraying life, for the most part, as it is. The characters look like people, not actors who spend every waking second working out or tanning or shooting up human growth hormone. The apartments they inhabit are dim and cramped. Their panic about work, money, and love is relatable, the sex they have is awkward, and they go to the bathroom, a lot. At times watching the characters flail around and shoot snot rockets in the bathtub can get uncomfortable, but then they reel you back in with a spot-on joke: “Nobody tells you how bad it’s going to be in the real world,” moans Shoshanna in season four. “Yeah they do,” Marnie snaps. “It’s pretty much all they ever tell you.”
It is a comedy, after all. But from the start Girls intentionally pushed buttons: There’s nudity, which Dunham has explained is her way of trying to normalize real women’s bodies, homosexuality, and a character who is “super chill,” as the website Jezebel put it, about getting an abortion. Because of that, conservative critics began to rage against it almost immediately with what seemed like outsize fervor. “If, as [Dunham’s] character suggests in the show’s first episode, she is the voice of her generation, then one could seriously argue that we’re doomed,” the National Review warned in 2013.
In hindsight it seems that perhaps its detractors saw before anyone else what a force Girls would be and how it would permeate our culture. The Internet roiled with Girls think pieces and interviews with the intelligent cast, all of whom made a point of identifying as feminists and encouraged others to do so. Traveling to Texas with Dunham in 2014 for a profile, I was startled by the size of the crowds at events for her book, Not That Kind of Girl, which she held in conjunction with Planned Parenthood, a favored cause. Since then Dunham has further immersed herself in politics; she was one of Hillary Clinton’s most vocal campaign surrogates. Meanwhile, Kirke advocated for the Center for Reproductive Rights, candidly sharing her own abortion story; Mamet wrote about her insecurities and struggles with an eating disorder in Glamour; and as an ambassador to Horizons National, Williams focused on closing the education gap. Last year all four women released a PSA urging support for sexual-assault survivors.
One can bet that Girls isn’t going to go out lightly in its last season. And the show’s legacy will be felt long after it goes off the air: Shows like Broad City, Love, and Better Things all have Girls in their DNA. Dunham and Girls executive producer Jenni Konner, who interviews the cast below, have made it their mission to deepen the bench of women storytellers by founding a newsletter, Lenny Letter, and a production company, A Casual Romance Productions. And so the river of progress will continue its inexorable flow forward and not back. With that, Jenni, take it away.
JENNI KONNER: Here’s the idea: When you leave a job, they do something called an exit interview, where they ask you questions about your experience at that company. I want to ask you questions from a corporation’s actual exit interview for this interview. And the company we’re going to talk about is Girls. So. Hi, guys. Welcome.
LENA DUNHAM: Hi, Jennifer.
JENNI: I’m going to start with Jemima. What was the most satisfying thing about your job, and the least satisfying?
JEMIMA KIRKE: OK, thank you. The least and the most satisfying thing about my job was my relationship with Lena. [Laughter.] In a good way. It definitely caused us to get closer [after 15 years of friendship,] and it caused us to fight. And then at the end of it, you know, [our relationship] was nicer.
JENNI: Everyone, take your cue from Jemima and be brutally honest. [Laughter.] All right—Allison?
ALLISON WILLIAMS: I started playing one person, then she evolved so much. I got to exercise all kinds of muscles. The least satisfying? I always wanted to be in the show more. [Laughter.] That was my M.O. every year. I wanted to be a piece of furniture in Hannah’s apartment, if that’s what it took.
JENNI: Jemima just said, “That’s so typical.” And I was about to say, “That’s so on-brand.”
ALLISON: Listen, I’m consistent.
JENNI: You are nothing if not consistent. It’s such a relief. Zosia?
ZOSIA MAMET: The most satisfying part was getting to play a person who was so intrinsically opposite of me in, like, every atom of my being. The dissatisfying thing was that I came to know this human that I created. And love her. And now I miss her.
LENA: I think the most satisfying part was learning to treasure collaboration. When I went into the job, I had fear about letting other people into my process. So whether it was becoming partners with you, Jenni, and realizing that I had a lifelong creative partner, which isn’t something that I ever expected to have in my life based on being raised by parents who went into a studio alone and acted like art was a solitary activity. Or building my relationships with Allison and Zosia, and learning to listen when they had a note and not become defensive. Or the hardest, learning to listen to Jemima, because I always felt like she was, like, six steps from murdering me and I had to protect myself. But all of that helped me learn the satisfying thing of opening up and understanding that other people’s concepts of their characters, their ideas, are just as valuable as mine.
JENNI: And least satisfying?
LENA: Sometimes I would get very lonely, because I wanted to be a part of the group, but there was also the element of, like, having to boss people around. And we would be doing all this as a team, [but] if we got criticism, I felt like it would all come down on me in this shit-storm torrent. Even though I was surrounded by love, there were times where I felt very “by myself” in the process.
JENNI: I’m just gonna say—the hardest part of my job was just trying to get you guys not to get haircuts and tattoos! [Laughter.] Now back to the questionnaire: What would you change about the job, if you could, now?
JEMIMA: Ugh, I think season two.
JENNI: Your whole season?
LENA: That was the season where you said I had to get out of your dressing room or you were gonna punch me, Jem.
JEMIMA: Season two was kind of traumatic for me. I think for everyone. And I know that I was a bit of a tyrant myself.
LENA: I think it’s time for us to disclose to the world that, like, three days before season two, Jemima tried to quit. [Laughter.]
JEMIMA: Yeah. My sense of who I was and what I wanted was really thin. I really wasn’t sure what the f-ck I was doing.
LENA: I remember being in a cab. And Jemima called me. She was like, “I have to tell you something. It’s not a big deal. I don’t want you to freak out. I want to quit the show.” [Laughter.]
JENNI: We’re so glad you stayed, Jem. Zosia, what would you change?
ZOSIA: Oh, f-ck. That’s so hard. So much of my day-to-day work on the show was my attempt to try and find Shoshanna. I think I had a lot of anxiety that I wouldn’t hit her tone right.
JENNI: But you invented her tone.
ZOSIA: It was such a surprise to me that that [character] came out of me. I was so all-encompassed in getting it right that I think I lost some of the “relishing the moment” of being in the scenes.
ALLISON: What would I change? The entire show was a real exercise in trust and lack of control for me. And so three seasons ago, I probably would have said I wish I had been a writer and producer on the show. [Laughter.] Have some element of control. But now I know that it would have driven me to an early insane asylum. I don’t have the skill that Lena does, which is to be able to extricate myself from my own body as I’m writing my character.
JENNI: OK, Lena? What would you change?
LENA: Making my deal with HBO as a 23-year-old woman, I felt that I had so much to prove. I felt like I had to be the person who answered emails the fastest, stayed up the latest, worked the hardest. As much as I loved my job, I really, like, injured myself in some ways. If I had felt like, “You’re worthy of eight hours of sleep, not four; you’re worthy of turning your phone off on a Saturday,” I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of the show. [But] I could have worked with a sense of joy and excitement, rather than guilt and anxiety of being “found out.” The advice I would give any woman going into a job if she has a sense of impostor syndrome would be: There will be nothing if you don’t look out for you. And I can’t wait, on my next project, to go into it with the strength that comes from, like, valuing your own body and your own mental health. Jenni’s like, “We’ll believe it when we see it.” [Laughter.]
JENNI: OK, next question: What do you think it takes to succeed at this company? [Laughter.] Jemima.
JEMIMA: Communication, obviously. It is a workspace, but it’s creative. Like, we’re all putting so much of ourselves into this. And feelings do get hurt. You need communication.
ZOSIA: In order to succeed, all you had to do was really show up prepared, and ready to be open and a part of the team.
LENA: Gotta show up to play.
ALLISON: And a willingness to thrust your ego aside and say yes. You guys said, “Jump,” and I would say, “How high?”
LENA: What it takes to succeed at the company? Bravery. Not just the bravery to do a scene that might be uncomfortable or to take your clothes off. But also the bravery to be like, “I have a question.” To admit when you’re not sure about something, so that we can come together and make it better.
JENNI: Al, did your job duties turn out to be as you expected?
ALLISON: I associated sets with a high-drama atmosphere. To my enormous relief, the cast was the source of almost zero drama, with the exception of one very abrupt departure [of actor Christopher Abbott, who played Williams’ boyfriend Charlie].
JENNI: But we’ve healed. We’ve all healed.
LENA: I text him all the time. And he texts back! Yeah. I feel the same thing as Al. I remember telling people we were doing the show, and they were like, “Who’s on it?” And I was like, “It’s all of our first job, and we’re all 24.” And everyone was like, “Good luck.” [Laughter.] And I thought, at a certain point in the second season, I was gonna have to sit you girls down and be like, “Listen, bitches. You’re lucky to have a job. So get it together and cut out this behavior!” Like, “If you’re spotted out with Jared Leto one more time, this is done.” [Laughter.] And then everyone was just nice. Jemima and I fought sometimes because we’ve been close since we were 11, and that’s one of the things you do when you’re family.
JENNI: OK. Next question: Were you happy with your pay, benefits, and other incentives? [Laughter.]
ZOSIA: This might be too dark. But being sort of an orphan child, without, like, parental figures, it was incredibly pleasant to be surrounded by human beings whose job on a daily basis was to take care of me. I was eating up that parental substitution love.
JEMIMA: Benefits of being on the job? I’m not mad about a good table at a restaurant. Do you know I actually [pretended to be] my own publicist when I didn’t have one?
LENA: She did. And she would call for reservations and clothes. What did you say your name was?
JEMIMA: I was just like, “Hey, I’m a publicist. I’m calling on behalf of one Jemima Kirke on HBO’s Girls.” [Laughter.]
ALLISON: Well, we were very well compensated, which was a real privilege. Putting aside the fact that it’s nice to be well paid…it allowed me to be selective [with other projects] and thus much more creatively fulfilled.
LENA: There are a lot of shows where the dudes make a lot more f-cking money than the girls. And we were on a show where the girls were The Thing.
JENNI: And they got paid for being The Thing. What do you think your favorite memory will be at this company? Jemima.
JEMIMA: My best day was the day that I experienced what it’s like to be picked up [in the air] by Adam Driver. [Laughter.]
LENA: I like it too. Adam Driver cradled me like a motherf-cking baby for, like, eight takes, and I won’t lie, it felt good.
JEMIMA: You know the big thing that you jump over in gymnastics?
JENNI: The vault.
JEMIMA: That’s Adam Driver. [Laughter.] Like, you can just run and jump on it. It doesn’t move, and it supports you fully.
LENA: It’s like a hot-ass future-Oscar-winning vault. I’m glad we live in a world where women can reduce men to vaults…. I also didn’t mind being laid across, like, a satiny bed by Patrick Wilson while he stared at me like I was like a queen from heaven. Like, I’m not immune to that shit. But my best memory—I hope this isn’t too personal, Jenni—it was on our last episode. You and I got in a small argument. Went in a room. And we managed to cry, apologize, and work it out within three minutes, then go back to work.
JENNI: And then everyone outside was like, “We heard you got in a huge fight.”
LENA: Huge fight! But I was so proud. I saw the seven years of hard work we put into [perfecting our communication], because we f-cking super-processed.
ZOSIA: Not to be dark and Wednesday Addams again, but my last day, which was also Jemima’s last day, hit so hard: the tidal wave of true sadness. But in the weirdest way, it’s such a happy memory. Before the age of 30, I got to spend six years on such a joyous experience that it caused that type of grief at its funeral.
LENA: If you’re sad, Zosia’s an amazing person to text for a quote. I was having issues with the loss of a relationship, and she texted me, “We may be soulmates for life, or only a train ride. But it just changes your life no matter what.” Zosia is Oprah.
JENNI: Last question: Would you work for this company in the future?
JEMIMA: That’s like if someone asked me, “Would you like to go back to college?” Of course I would. ’Cause I would finally do it right. So yes, I would do it all over again.
ALLISON: I would 100 percent come back, because—one, I’m spoiled by the scripts. To start your career with these scripts is a weird albatross. Every time I read a script by anyone else, I’m like, “Oh, come on. This is not good.” I will always trust your judgment as a show-running operation.
ZOSIA: So often you work on another project and there’s that feeling of, like, “I think it’s gonna be good, and I hope that they want to cut together my scene in a pleasant way.” But there isn’t just innate, intrinsic trust that exists of, like, “Oh, no matter what happens on set, even if we all vomited, we would still make a good show.”
LENA: And sometimes we did vomit.
ZOSIA: We were allowed to grow. Not only as ourselves but as characters. And if I got to do that for the rest of my life, I would die a happy woman.