image courtesy of Business Insider
Lena! I love you, but how could you do this? You weren’t just a voice of a generation; you actually were the voice of your generation. You had one shot to go out with a blaze of glory, one shot to really stick it to the man, one shot to nail home a message so relevant, so important, so close to our hearts, and yet in the end, all we got was a lousy Judd Apatow ending. You were the golden one, the one with the megaphone on the platform, the shooting star in the dark night sky and because of that, we were rooting for you. Well, not everyone was. But I was. As a woman, a millennial, a creative, and a supporter of so many of your causes, I gotta say I feel a little let down on this one.
When the show Girls started, I was over the moon. As a student loan debt-laden 28-year-old multicultural American woman who’d spent the bulk of her formative years in overcrowded urban environments, pursuing a career that would lead to a series of dead-end internships and jobs never with benefits, there was finally a show that was going to portray the problems of myself and so many of my friends with candor.
We’d been born into the middle class. We’d worked hard in our youths on the promise of a university education and a “good job.” We’d gotten those university degrees and some of us even grad degrees, oftentimes overseas, and we were ready to move on with our professional lives. Except for one minor problem: The. Economy.
It was the late 2000s, and even if you were an overly liberal arts-educated, ambitious, hungry young professional, you were likely just scraping by, probably as a Starbucks barista with a Ph.D. in English literature. If you had anything to say about it, of course, the motto on the street was, “Just be happy you have a job.” Home ownership was completely out of the picture as we were living in an impossibly expensive and skyrocketing real estate market. Talking about family formation was like talking about settling Jupiter, so insanely off the radar because of our inability to even financially provide for our own basic needs. And so here we were, stuck between a can’t-move-home-to-Mom-and-Dad rock and a can’t-afford-to-live-in-the-city-but-refuse-to-give-up hard place. In other words, we were in millennial purgatory.
That’s when Hannah Horvath arrived on the scene. In her first appearance, she was cut off financially by her parents, told her boss that she couldn’t go on working for free at her internship, got fired because of it, had awkward and therefore totally raw and believable doggy-style sex with Adam, discussed the possibility of working at a McDonald’s in desperation with an emotionally detached Ray, drank opium tea, staged a drug-induced collapse in her parents’ hotel room, and stole $20 in housekeeping tips all before walking back out onto a hustling, bustling Manhattan street scene. The message was loud and clear. Goodbye, Carrie Bradshaw and your Manolo Blahnik-hoarding First World problems! Hannah Horvath, her #girlsquad, and their millennial problems are the new belles of this New York City ball.
As Hannah’s character developed (or should I say unraveled?) further, many of the circumstances she and her friends found themselves in were relatable: apartment hunting, job switching, struggling to find meaning and stability in relationships, the search for self and one’s true essence, the desire to find recognition in one’s creative pursuits, and the need to compartmentalize parental concerns all the while were just the baseline of relatability. That all of this would take place in a world inhabited by iPhone-wielding, hyper-digitally connected yet chronically interpersonally disconnected 20-something women in the city was new, fresh, and quite simply incredibly incredibly exciting.
When Marnie broke down the hierarchy of modern communication to Hannah while on a stroll together with the simple statement, “The totem of chat. Now, the lowest, that would be Facebook, followed by Gchat, then texting, then email, then phone. Face to face is of course ideal, but it’s not of this time,” I knew this was the real deal. These girls had just, in a ten-second HBO series sound bite, captured the cultural zeitgeist. How. Meta.
Meanwhile, back in real life, dating had become a strange objectifying commercial paradox of too many options on a swipe-left-or-swipe-right Tinder app portal, where individuals got ghosted for the most trivial of text-rendered misunderstandings. Social life had been relegated to scattered text conversations between friends in disparate places too busy working through various life crises to actually sit down and break gluten-free bread together. And Facebook updates were the normalized way of “keeping in touch” with so-called “friends,” not so much people you’d turn to for real emotional support but merely people you’d share your life highlights reel with and who’d do the same for you, mutually understood. We were firmly entrenched in an era of grasping for connection, however fleeting it might be, and it was no wonder that I wanted Hannah and her gaggle of oddly-fitted yet hilarious hipster girl friends to deliver.
What I got instead was a group of unbelievably selfish, toxic, volatile, and morose men and women. They held onto grudges unrelentingly. They screamed at each other mercilessly. They turned the gun on one another unflinchingly. And worst of all, they acted so erratically in the face of adversity of all varieties that absolutely nobody could take them seriously. Not even a fellow millennial. See, where Lena Dunham got it wrong, perhaps, is that she fed into an already crushingly prevalent generational stereotype: that millennials are lazy, entitled, think they don’t have to work, only care about their own precious experience, couldn’t care less about helping others, and are all and all doomed to fail their way through life.
I couldn’t have found this ubiquitous aspect of the show to be a further departure from my own lived experience. I’d found myself and almost my entire network of similarly-aged friends to be exceptionally hard-working, opportunity-seeking, loyal to friends, oftentimes selfless, in need of authentic connection, and concerned with the broader environmental, social, economic, and political ramifications of themselves as individuals, as well as the corporations they would or would not work for. Yes, that’s right, my millennial friends were thoughtful, intelligent, educated, globally-minded, and culturally sensitive but also so completely and utterly screwed by the difficult circumstances presented by a post-9/11 America and its drowning economy that they could only turn to one another and in some cases, their parents, for support as they laughed and cried their way through it. Sharing inspirational philosophical quotes we’d come across on Instagram, breathing deeply through donation-based yoga classes, or taking on so much low-paid part-time gig economy freelance work that we didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to process the breadth and depth of our challenges — these were the only currencies we had to exchange between each other.
Nevertheless, Girls was still the go-to show for the presentation of young people’s issues. Though disproportionately self-induced by the characters themselves, we watched, or in modern parlance, we hate-watched Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, Shosh, Adam, Ray, and the others week to week on our Macbooks in hopes that we could find some semblance of our own experiences reflected back at us.
So when it was time for the series finale, I was ready for Hannah to make her big, bold, third-wave-feminist screw-you-all-and-your-societal-expectations move. And by that, I don’t mean a move to upstate New York.
Was it really necessary for Hannah to be “saved” by a baby in the end? Did we really need to put out the message in the Trumpian nightmare of our time that liberal-minded, free-spirited feminist women who live by their own dictates are selfish, out of control, and in need of cleaning up their act, mainly accomplished by having a baby and living in obscurity? What message of hope does it provide to aspiring young urban creatives that Hannah essentially gave up to take a job she wasn’t passionate about in a place she didn’t even seek out for herself?
After years and years and years of watching woman after woman after woman sacrifice themselves, their bodies, their ambitions, and their callings in the name of procreation, I’m disappointed that Girls turned out to be just another vessel for ultimately telling young women that they, too, can end up like Hannah Horvath if they have an unwanted pregnancy interrupt their previously “groovy” lifestyle (as her mother once put it): abandoned by a careless baby daddy, overwhelmed, confused, angry, settling for second-best in their careers, leaving behind their dearest friends and a city that made their heart sing for an uninspired existence in a rural location, all for the sake of getting a house and benefits. No. Just. No.
We, as the third wave of women, deserved better than this ending. And so, as I shaped my own life to be what I wanted it to be in a major U.S. city as a creative female professional amidst trying economic times, I propose a new ending for Hannah Horvath that goes a little like this: Hannah decides to keep her baby still. She stays in her New York City apartment with Elijah because as he put it, they’d decided “to suffer and be miserable in this godforsaken rathole together.” Hannah continues to freelance write and look for a stable work situation with benefits during her pregnancy. Her economic status is indeed precarious, but she’s living in the city, as she always wanted to do, making it work one way or another. Elijah and Hannah’s other friends come through the apartment as if it’s a revolving door, meaning a gang of unreliably reliable caretaking aunties and uncles are always in Hannah’s midst. She brings her baby to parties where opium tea is still being consumed by adults, but she opts out of the opium, earmuffs baby Grover when conversation turns rough, and brings him to shake a leg with a most sexy Aunt Jessa wildly letting loose on the dance floor. Hannah continues to be raw and unhinged but with a baby in tow, she prioritizes more than ever the loyalty shared among good friends, living in a location with creative stimulation, and deciding how she herself wants to parent her child in one of the most awe-inspiring and cosmopolitan cities in the world. This is the Hannah Horvath I want to know, the one I think is of my generation, the one who represents all the pro-Planned Parenthood, Hillary-supporting female empowerment rhetoric that Lena Dunham has put forth and stands by.
To Lena, I have only one request: that you acknowledge another message could come from here and that you keep working to deliver that message. Is that two requests? The ever-rebellious restaurateur and author Eddie Huang provides a strong example. After writing the memoir “Fresh off the Boat” about his family’s Asian-American immigrant experience, he felt offended by network TV’s adaptation and interpretation of his story. Initially seeing the show as a counterproductive yellowface representation of himself, his parents, siblings, and an entire ethnic community, he ultimately chose to view the show as a conversation starter.
So thank you, Lena, for all of your contributions to the cause of the young millennial woman, and for starting the conversation. May we keep pushing the envelope in the name of all that is honest, vulnerable, challenging to outdated moralistic American family values, and encouraging of lifestyles that typically get the stamp of disapproval in an increasingly dark and threatening modern America to women, minorities, LGBT community members, and young people alike.