Modern-Day Flappers: Lena Dunham and Girls

"Where There's Smoke There's Fire" by Russell Patterson. Image via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Were you among the masses tuned in for last night’s season premiere of back-to-back episodes of Girls on HBO?

Deep into an advance copy of Judith Mackrell’s fascinating group biography Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, to be published in the U.S. tomorrow, I missed it, but at some point this week, I’ll catch up online. (In a bold marketing move, starting at 10 a.m. EST today, HBO will upload the double episode on their YouTube channel).

Despite Flappers’ immersion in the avant-garde mecca of Paris in the early 1920s, in reading it, I kept thinking of the ubiquitous Lena Dunham, creator of Girls, and her show as it depicts characters traipsing around twenty-first-century New York City.

Even more than the period dramas Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire, which portray the era explored in Flappers, Girls captures the roaring spirit that fueled the Jazz Age and the six women who, in Mackrell’s opinion, defined it: Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Tamara de Lempicka.

Starring in the role of Hannah Horvath, a contemporary transplant to New York City struggling to navigate love and work, both Dunham’s public persona and her Girls’ character embody many of Mackrell’s flapper-defining traits:

“But if the flapper seemed to her critics to be passive in her politics and selfish in her desires, to others she was celebrated as a new and necessary phase in feminism,” she writes:  “The vote had been a public milestone on the journey towards emancipation, but just as important was the unfettering of women’s private emotions. The American writer Dorothy Dunbar Bromley applauded this generation’s ability to disengage from the traditional feminine virtues of sacrifice and duty. To her, their embrace of an ‘inescapable inner compulsion to be individuals in their own right’ represented nothing less than a seismic shift in female consciousness."

Much like the women of Flappers, Hannah and her friends Marnie (played by Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) dress and behave in a way that pushes the boundaries of convention. And, like flappers, Hannah and her companions are sometimes viewed as superficial, self-absorbed exhibitionists.

While there’s plenty to debate about the choices made on Girls and Dunham’s role as feminist icon, there’s no doubt that her energy, resilience, and outwardly confident maneuverings are laying a groundwork for self-perception and self-expression among current and future generations of young women.

In Josephine Baker’s dancing, and in bold paintings by the Polish-born painter Tamara de Lempicka -- who fled the Russian Revolution for Paris in 1917 and painted naked women entwined in intimate physical embraces -- there’s a sexual liberation similar to that displayed by Dunham in her controversial decision to make frequent nude appearances on Girls.

"Naked or clothed, the subjects of her portraits also possessed a liberated sexual poise: they looked like women who were accustomed to drinking in cafes or bars, who took lovers yet cherished their independence,” Mackrell writes of de Lempicka. “Tamara, by instinct as much as by choice, was making herself into the portrait painter of the new woman, the flapper, the garçonne, and everything conspired to make this a highly marketable move."

Though their choices in clothing and music might be worlds away from 1920s Paris, the young women of Girls, like their flapper forerunners, are seeking adventure and artistic validation in finding out for themselves what life is all about. The drinking, the casual sex, the pleasure seeking, the pursuit of independence -- in watching Girls, or in reading Mackrell’s engrossing book, we can live vicariously through it all.