Sure, HBO’s breakout hit is about characters, relationships, and transitioning into adulthood, but it’s about something else: the writing life.
There is a scene in the penultimate episode of Girls Season Three: Happily Whatever After that flirts with a searing satirical account of a writer’s struggle to preserve her own voice. Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) is a few weeks into her job as a content-ad writer at GQ magazine: a position that, even for an aspiring novelist, is a real coup. And yet, Hannah is deeply unsatisfied. Life at GQ has allowed Hannah to hang out with Patty Lupone and to pay $2,200 a month rent for a quiet two-bedroom apartment on one of the nicest blocks in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In a fit of good fortune, Hannah also has time to go on a beach house vacation; spend time badgering her beau for being too involved in his first Broadway acting gig; and maybe every so often, to write.Still, fearing that she’s doomed to a fate of corporate induced unoriginality, Hannah interrupts an ad conference meeting with a simpering tirade. To paraphrase: none of her creatively constipated cookie cutter colleagues are “authentic” writers, only she. Hannah Horvath—the self-proclaimed 25 year-old voice of her generation—declares that she feels oppressed by GQ‘s soulless “factory of puns;” she desires to ride life’s daily roller coaster with a stop over in Paris instead.
What follows touches on a beautiful denouement: the stuff of great writing on writing. Janice (Jenna Lyons)—Hannah’s jaunty and up to this point gracious boss—interrupts Hannah’s self-righteous blaze with a cool, crisp “you’re fired!”
As Hannah continues to rant upon leaving the conference room, Janice closes her eyes and flashes a grin that touches the edges of her designer horn rim glasses. It’s a feeling of satisfaction the audience is meant to share. Authentic Hannah can’t accept a job with decent people, a nice paycheck and time to spare, then fine: go write on that recession plagued rollercoaster and good luck reaching Paris on it.
The scene portends that a writer’s ruthless choices leadIs to hardscrabble consequences. But thus far in 32 episodes of “Girls,” the totality of Hannah’s choices have been compressed into evanescent moments and hash tag baiting dialogue. Whether Hannah is working at Cafe Grumpy or unemployed, whether she fails to show any personal or artistic growth, her highly desirable apartment and well-regarded writing Just Happens. And thus, at the end of Season 3, Hannah – just once published for a blog account on a small media site and hardly ever seen writing – has been accepted to the world famous University of Iowa MFA program in creative writing.
Based on a Salon.com interview with Iowa Writer’s Workshop director Lan Samantha Chang, the program routinely accepts around 2% of its applicants. Moreover, the U of Iowa’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences generalized tuition breakdown prices a two year out-of-state residency at $80,000. Hannah is not from Iowa. She’s jobless. And yet, when she calls her parents at their sprawling Michigan home to share the news, the Horvaths giddily chant “We’ll figure it out!” Dad even does a little celebration dance.
Indeed, Hannah’s rollercoaster has relatively tiny troughs and long, endless crests.
Girls is a massive cultural barometer that has inundated media with think essays, social media blogs, twitter debates, and Lena Dunham magazine covers. It’s at the forefront of culture’s acceptance of TV as a thriving form of film and intelligent social commentary.
In this regard, let me be clear: I don’t care if Hannah doesn’t have an hourglass or lithe figure; I don’t care if she is continually wearing clothes one size too small or threadbare. I hold no judgments over Hannah’s tumultuous romantic life or how she treats her friendship with the serially home-wrecking, party-crashing Marnie Michaels (a brilliant Allison Williams).
What I stubbornly care about is something else. If Hannah has potential to be a lasting “voice of her generation,” it’s through her organic character development as a writer who suffers more lasting consequences for her actions, learns from them, and actually carves out the time to write about them. It’s about an audience seeing her balance 10,000 pages worth of random experiences with a few more on thoughtful reflection. Otherwise, Hannah’s longevity may last no longer than that last Tuesday morning tweet about her following her last episode.
Granted, my desire for a richer Horvarhian character arc is possibly selfish if not impatient. As a freelance writer, I want to see more iconic characters reflect both gender-based and gender-neutral struggles in a viciously competitive, exploitative profession. By way of more skillful satire, I want to see Hannah make difficult decisions for the sake of her writing and for those decisions to mean something. Maybe Hannah struggles to find a $1,000 a month studio, takes a back-breaking 12 hour a day job, or has to deal with less sleep at night to write.
Because even with a 9 to 5 job (with an additional hour commute each way) and a supportive relationship, finding the time to write five times a week is hard work. It’s also necessary to maintain zoned into creative material, continue to build one’s craft and voice, and to continually stay in touch with other writers and editors who may help navigate through the writing industry’s exponentially vast, craggy terrain. Decisions to preserve one’s voice as a writer means sacrificing time and luxury. When I didn’t in my 20s and early 30s, I found myself left with undeveloped ideas, hours lost writing and editing, and an MFA acceptance letter without a the requisite scholarship I needed to afford the program (unlike Hannah, i don’t have endless coffers). As with many writers, I endured the consequences of my slipshod approach to writing: the chronic dissatisfaction of being unpublished, continual rejection, the constant struggle to put a paragraph together that just feels right. I’m learning. Over the last few months, I’ve woken up at 6am so I can have an hour write in my apartment before leaving for the train. I read and study essays to and from work. After what has already been a 14 hour day, when I’m usually dead tired and tempted to lie on the couch and watch basketball, I take another hour to send a pitch or two, edit my writing, maybe take some notes.
I’ve done workshops with other writers, including women in their mid-20s with grueling full time jobs who are talented, creatively resolute, and necessarily wise beyond their years in their discipline to cultivate their writing away from the office. We need to seem more of them represented as our generational voices.
But I digress. Onward to Girls, Season 4 we go. Maybe Hannah’s parents break it to her that “we’ll figure it out” doesn’t mean they will saddle her debt to head to Iowa. Maybe Hannah can’t so easily pay for her apartment this year and she realizes she has to really work and write make it. This time, it would be nice to see Hannah’s rollercoaster dip into the satirical jaws of truth longer than a scene here or there, and for Hannah to grow from the ride.
Then again, maybe I need to listen to what my friends have to say on Girls: cultural barometer or not, they tell me, it’s just a show.