We forgive Walter White lies, murders—everything. But viewers won’t forgive a 20-something self-absorbed female protagonist whose greatest crime is … being irritating.
Girls returned to HBO last Sunday to finally answer last season’s cliffhanger question of whether this show was going to morph into a rom-com with a big old happy ending. Thankfully, we learned the answer is no, or there’d be no point in watching the neurotic, narcissistic band of misfits led by Hannah Horvath. The whole point of Hannah Horvath as a character is her struggles. Her unglamorous, embarrassing, sometimes downright horrifying struggles.
Which image from Girls first comes to mind at the mention of Hannah’s horrifying struggles? The Q-tip stuck in her ear? That time she got high and wore only a fishnet tank top at a club? Any of her number of humiliating sex scenes, or, or …?
If we love watching Girls, it’s because we can bear cringing while watching Hannah’s spectacular failures, maybe even revel in them because we hate Hannah on some level. For some of us, that means empathizing, remembering and loathing our own 20-something selves for the almost constant fuckery that the decade tends to bring out in us. (I personally got physically ill when I embarked on what I thought would be a “fun” project of reading my old journals from my 20s.)
Other viewers simply hate-watch. Type “Hannah Horvath is” into the Google search box, and the auto-complete options will tell you everything:
Let’s examine these a little more closely. Hannah is fairly amoral and self-centered, the quintessential early-20s specimen. (Science tells us that even though 20-somethings look and try to act like “adults,” the moral centers of their brains are actually still developing.) She is not conventionally beautiful—see her sometime-BFF Marnie for comparison—and she is most certainly annoying at times. “Gross” gets closer to the real truths she reveals in us: Maybe those who type that are thinking of the Q-tip episode, but my guess is that it’s also a reference to her prodigious nakedness, her insistence on hitting us constantly with her sexuality while refusing to be “sexy.” Remember how outraged everyone was when Hannah got to sleep with a dish like Patrick Wilson? (Jealous much?) Or how everyone continues to freak out about her daring to be naked while not having a perfect body? No one’s writing think pieces about Jason Segel’s and Will Ferrell’s insistence on showing us their less-than-Adonis bodies.
There’s a lot to hate when it comes to Hannah, but there’s also a clear reason we have such strong feelings about her: Every reason we have to hate her reflects something about ourselves—as individuals and a society. That is pretty annoying.
By creating and playing Hannah Horvath with such fearlessness, Lena Dunham gives us some pretty serious (if also seriously entertaining) art. We have been living in a veritable Golden Age of Anti-heroes and, yet there is quite a double standard at play. Look at how easily we forgive the murderous Tony Soprano and Walter White, and the lying, cheating Don Draper? Hannah hasn’t come close to any of these things. Her worst crime is being irritating. (Okay, there was the time she pushed a recovering addict off the wagon. That was pretty awful.)
But as long as white men have been our protagonists—which is to say, always—they’ve been allowed to do anything. Women are finally entering the pictures, literally, with vehicles built around them. They are making strides as heroines now (yay, Hunger Games!), but not to the point where they’re allowed to actually play full-on anti-heroines.
We’ve had a few true anti-heroines on TV, like Weeds’ horrific, drug-dealing mom, Nancy Botwin, or Damages’ calculating Patty Hewes. Alyssa Rosenberg posited, back in June, in an essay for Slate, that we don’t need a “female Tony Soprano” as much as we need shows that dismantle notions of femininity in the same way our anti-heroes dissect ideas about masculinity.
I posit that Girls is that show, maybe the first show to truly do that (even if the Slate writer disagrees). Hannah may be “the worst,” as the Internet claims, but she does have some shiny redeeming qualities that help many smart women—and men—relate to her, or at least understand why she’d have any friends. She’s vulnerable and witty and self-aware. She’s a young, female Woody Allen (speaking of white men we love who have done far worse things than Hannah …). Typical exchange:
Jessa: “Your boyfriend should kill himself. You deserve it.”
Hannah: “Well, thank you. But you’re just saying that because you love me.”
Many of us who watch Girls consider ourselves intelligent, and maybe even a little funny. A lot of us already went through our 20s, which makes our viewership particularly interesting. Several of my friends told me they hated Girls when it first started, then suddenly, magically grew to like it a few episodes in. The pilot was strong, so I don’t think they disliked the material per se. I believe they had to get used to the shock of seeing their worst decade reflected back at them. I’m a sadist, so I liked it from the beginning for exactly that reason.
Presuming Girls eventually ends on at least a somewhat hopeful note, it’s basically a long-game “It Gets Better” video for everyone currently experiencing the mass confusion that is that post-college time when you think you know everything, actually know nothing, and have no resources to assuage your constant stream of mistakes. It’s always baffled me that TV shows have tended to focus on people much closer to 30 than 20, because the struggles near 20 are so much rawer and more real. Of course, that’s why—“raw,” “real” stories about women don’t tend to sell products, so it makes sense that HBO would be the network to finally do it right.
The fact is, anyone who grew up like Hannah—middle-class or suburban or white or female—is or has been Hannah at some point. BuzzFeed has a whole list of GIFs to prove it. (And is there any more authoritative evidence?) But unlike other young TV protagonists—say, the kids from The O.C. or any number of teen dramas, or the throwback narrator of The Wonder Years—we prefer to edit that out of our collective memory.
That BuzzFeed list of Hannah’s quotes actually charts a pretty extraordinary journey, from “I am busy trying to become who I am” to “I hate everyone who loves me.” The good news for Hannah: Not many people out there seem to.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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