Back in 1968, when it was still cool to advertise cigarettes, a remarkably successful campaign featuring a tall, skinny bitch proclaimed, "You've come a long way, baby". It was a courageous bid to demonstrate that the modern woman had not just earned the right to starve, wear halter-tops and earn inequitable wages, but catch cancer - just like any fat, under-achieving man.
The Virginia Slims woman morphed into Mary Tyler Moore, tossing her hat jauntily to the sky, in the opening credits of the equally iconic Mary Tyler Moore Show. (The neurotic, controlling Mary Richards character, had the camera kept rolling, would have been hit by a slow Buick while trying to retrieve the hat. But that's not important right now.) Decades later, the focus moved from the hat to the shoes, with an equally emaciated Carrie Bradshaw conquering New York with her friends, just as Mary had chipped away in Minneapolis with her girlfriends.
In between we've had Murphy Brown, and the girls from Friends, participate in the torch relay of something we all recognise, with each passing generation. Groups of close women, making sense of their place in … this.
Creator and star Lena Dunham's huge splash with Girls enjoys our attention, not simply because of her "shocking" material or ability to gather this generation's perverse but recognisable girl group. The neuroses and the quest for insight are the unchanged link. But Dunham's Hannah has been stunningly courageous. This girl is overweight, lost, tattooed, a sexual victim and predator, a good friend and a lousy one. She's a mess in an ugly dress, that's often around her shoulders while we watch her having awkward sex.
She doesn't have great best friends in the mode of Charlotte or Rhoda. With girlfriends like Hannah's, nobody needs enemies. It was always going to be a stretch to expect a wide audience to care about a pack of selfish 24-year-old hipsters living in Brooklyn. But as series three pinballed back onto the screen this week (Showcase, Monday, 7.30pm), I was surprised how much I had missed those nutters. We find Jessa, nasty as ever, pulling wings off addicted patients in group therapy; her best friend in rehab is a chain-smoking Richard E. Grant. Suddenly reminded of Ben Mendelsohn's stellar performance as Jessa's messy dad last year, and the surprising use of the usually avuncular Chris O'Dowd, the cleverness of Dunham's casting (with a bit of extra pull from Judd Apatow) is obvious. Who wouldn't want a guest spot on Girls?
Already Jenna Lyons, the creative director of J. Crew, has popped up in a cameo. Victoria Beckham is rumoured to be making a visit. Richard E. Grant's manic visage is a perfect fit for Lena Dunham's brand. As HBO released the first two episodes of this new series to be viewed on YouTube in the US just 12 hours after the broadcast, it could be argued that Girls is less of a sitcom and more of a social phenomenon. The sitcom part is easy to scoot around. Girls isn't funny. It's confronting and peculiar, and some of the sex scenes, or discussions about sex, will engender a nervous chortle. But there are no jokes. There's no buttoned couch taking centre stage at Central Perk, and there's certainly no Chandler or Joey.
With more shows, such as Orange Is the New Black, taking a lead from Dunham's rude courage, we can expect more rough, ripe, ribald women finding new ways to show us how far we've come. Girls is possibly raising and lowering the bar at the same time. We may need decades of perspective before we find our rightful place between the skinny bitch with the ciggies and the fat chick with the tatts.