Being Hannah Horvath: How Seriously Should We Take Girls?
By Leslie Maxwell
On “Females Only,” Sunday’s season three premiere of Girls, Hannah Horvath’s live-in boyfriend, Adam, doesn’t want to see her friends, who are coming over for dinner in an hour. He complains that they are uninteresting. “I’m not interested in anything they have to say,” Hannah says to him in rebuttal. “That’s not the point of friendship.”
At this, I laughed. The line is funny, and it’s tongue-in-cheek. After all, we hope our friends are interested in what we have to say and vice versa.
At this, I also cringed, wondering how some young women would hear this statement. Would they know that, though Hannah (played by series creator Lena Dunham) was serious when she said that, the show was not?
For a while now, I’ve had a nagging feeling that there are young women out there not only identifying with but also emulating the lives of Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa, the main characters on Girls.
A 34-year-old woman, I watch and adore the show. It smartly captures a very specific time of life—the mistakes we make in our 20s, the way we feel as if we’ve accomplished nothing and that time is running out to get anything done, the way that everything feels fraught and weighty.
I also teach college, and I imagine young women like my students watching Girls, and I worry that they might not know that the events of the show are tongue-in-cheek. I imagine them reading BuzzFeed articles such as “The 23 Most Relatable Hannah Quotes from ‘Girls’” and “12 Reasons Hannah Horvath Is Just Like Us” and believing them.
I don’t want to suggest that young women don’t see the humor and sadness and tongue-in-cheek-ness of the show. There are plenty of young women out there who aren’t aspiring to the lives of these characters.
Yet if this show had been on when I was 21, I can imagine myself reading these pieces and hanging onto the show’s dialogue like a how-to guide. A quick look at Instagram (where I follow both Dunham and Girls) suggests that there are young women doing that. Under photos of Hannah and her friends, you can find comments such as, “this is so us”; “feels like I’m there everyday [sic] in my 20s”; “This is me”; “me after I leave work everyday [sic]”; “This is my WHOLE LIFE”; and “further proof I’m h.h. [Hannah Horvath].”
Partly, these comments demonstrate that it is human nature to want to identify with other people. I wouldn’t want to quash that desire in anyone, so I don’t fault any young woman for wanting to identify herself as Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, or Shoshanna.
When I was in college, my friends and I watched reruns of The Golden Girls on Lifetime and identified ourselves as Rose, Blanche, Dorothy, or Sophia. Yet there was something more playful to it than “This is my WHOLE LIFE.” There was no chance we were planning to move to Miami and age prematurely to emulate these characters.
With Girls, on the other hand, I have visions of young women graduating from college, moving to Brooklyn, and cultivating a life for the sake of the drama it produces, the drama they’ve seen on Girls: finding some questionably motivated guy to sleep with, settling or expecting too much (in jobs, friends, or significant others), honing an anxiety disorder, dating people who put them down, and putting themselves down and allowing friends to do the same.
I know why a young woman might try to live this kind of life—or to imagine it for herself. It seems romantic and bohemian (I thought so, too, in my 20s)—the struggle to pay rent, to find oneself, to find a job we think is worthy of the person we see ourselves as, to be heartbroken, to have a life that seems like a Morrissey (or maybe a Liz Phair) song.
The problem here is not living this kind of life. The problem isn’t in identifying with the characters. The problem is in the trying, in ginning up drama for the sake of drama. There’s no need to force the mistakes. It’s the real drama, the kind that’s unforced and unplanned, the kind that comes out of nowhere, that makes us grow.
In our 20s, my friends and I: Dated jerks. Took a long time to realize they were jerks. Dated non-jerks that we didn’t really like. Some of us got married and then divorced. Some of us couldn’t wait to settle down and be “adults.” Others of us never wanted to grow up. We broke up with people we regretted breaking up with. We got back together with people we regretted breaking up with. We broke up with them again. Some of us had careers mapped out and couldn’t advance fast enough. Some of us worked at bookshops or restaurants or copy shops. And I feel more than a twinge of embarrassment when I think back to how self-absorbed I was in my early 20s.
But this is always the crux of being young. To paraphrase Hannah: In our 20s, we are busy trying to become the people we think we are supposed to be. And we are also terrified that we won’t become that person, and so we construct the person we think we should be.
It’s not that I think Girls is cautionary. It’s not. It’s, in many ways, and through all its exaggerations, real—and so it’s often sad and often funny and occasionally completely heartbreaking. But what it’s not is aspirational. If they watch the show, I hope that the women I teach see that. Maybe, though, that’s just another mistake they’ll have to make. Because that’s what happens in life, with or without Girls. I just hope they don’t make the mistake of smoking crack, as Shoshanna did in season one, thinking the pipe was a marijuana pipe. That’s a mistake better left unmade.
Leslie Maxwell holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. Her writing is forthcoming in The Fourth River, has appeared in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), and has been a finalist for Cream City Review‘s David B. Saunders Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She lives, teaches, and writes in Durham, N.C.