‘Girls’ Tells the Ugly Truth About its Characters; Hannah’s Writing Career is No Exception

It’s our problem if we can’t see the distinction between Hannah Horvath and Lena Dunham.

Last night’s sixth-season premiere of Girls begins with a mostly wordless sequence centered on Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) first big article — a New York Times “Modern Love” column titled, “Losing My Best Friend to My Ex-Boyfriend.” Based on her entry to the storytelling showcase the Moth in the Season 5 finale, the article is basically a summary of the previous season, which culminates with Hannah’s discovery that her ex-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) and best friend, Jessa (Jemima Kirke), are in a relationship.

We see Hannah type out the words on her laptop, smiling to herself; we see Hannah’s friends and family chuckling and grinning as they read the published piece (except Adam, who looks anxious as he scans the article and offers it to Jessa, who declines); and we see Hannah walk triumphantly down a New York street with a stack of newspapers under her arm.

When I first watched this, I was all ready to trot out one of my favorite arguments: That women writers in popular culture are often the subjects of their work, and that this trend propagates a skewed picture of what it means to have a career in writing. As if a writing career is about coming to terms with your messy personal life, or making your friends and family smile and nod as they read your wise words; as if it’s just a big “fuck you” to everyone who said you couldn’t do it.

But Girls is more self-aware than some its critics give it credit for. The show is often caricatured as a clueless farce about over-privileged white girls, and there’s definitely truth in that. But at its core, Girls is deeply committed to its characters, no matter how reprehensible their behavior. It’s more interested in telling the ugly truth about who these people are than catering to the viewer’s fantasies of how they’d like them to be. Hannah’s writing career is no exception.

For many (most?) writers, the “fuck you” aspect — the feeling that you’re doing the thing you told everyone you wanted to do (it keeps you warm when you’re trying to save money on your heating bill) — is not incidental to the attraction of a writing career. It’s a much bigger part of the equation, I suspect, for a character like Hannah. As she tells the editor of Slag Mag (lol), played by Chelsea Peretti, “My persona’s very witty and narcissistic.” The editor admits she’s more interesting in Hannah’s “look” than her writing skills, and promptly sends her to report on a surf club in Montauk.

On a narrative level, it makes sense for a TV show about a writer to use the writer’s life as fodder for her work. It makes even more sense that this would happen to Hannah Horvath, a character who over the course of five seasons has amply demonstrated her unabashed self-involvement. “I really need you to give me an excuse why I can’t surf,” she tells a nurse at the Montauk resort where she’s reporting. “What if the piece was about how I went to the beach, hated it, went back inside, and never came out? Could that be an interesting angle?”

Of course Hannah turns the assignment into a self-indulgent quest for personal fulfillment; of course she sleeps with the surf instructor, played by Riz Ahmed (and of course his name is Paul-Louis). Of course she starts to really fall for him. But I think it’s a mistake to use this plot as just another example of a fictional female writer who sleeps with her sources, or who seems to lack the imagination or journalistic ambition to sell a story that isn’t about herself. Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), for example, wrote a column about her sex life; in the recent Gilmore Girls revival, Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) — an aspiring journalist throughout the show’s original seven-season run — opts to abandon that career to write a memoir based on her and her mother’s lives. Even Jane the Virgin’s Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), a would-be romance novelist, bases her first book on her juicy family drama.

But the case of Girls feels different, largely because of the long-running conflation of Lena Dunham and her character. Despite the glaringly obvious — that someone as lazy and entitled as Hannah would never get her shit together to create a hit comedy for HBO at age 25 — critics and fans alike have struggled to separate the creator from her creation. Hannah’s impulse to turn every assignment into an opportunity for self-fulfillment makes perfect sense. It may play right into hands of the show’s fiercest critics, but Girls DGAF.

It’s our problem if we can’t see the distinction between Hannah Horvath and Lena Dunham. As much as we might call out the show or Dunham herself for propagating this or that wrong idea about feminism or women or New Yorkers — and as much as Girls likes to comment on the controversies that swirl around the show — its ultimate loyalty is not to the fans but the characters, and it is just not interested in making them more palatable for us.

People suck. Human women are flawed. In comedy, when men misbehave, nothing else matters but that it’s funny. The same is not true for women; they have to be funny while remaining appealing to a male audience and sensitive to a female audience that has grown increasingly restive in the face of an industry that is still dominated by white men. That’s why Girls‘ insistence on showing its characters as they are, and not as some of us might like them to be, feels so radical. It would be nice if last night’s season premiere opened with the publication of the Great American Novel by Hannah Horvath. But that would be a lie.