A recent episode of the HBO television show Girls threw audience members into a frenzy. Specifically, it threw audience members affiliated with academia into a frenzy. The cause of the uproar? At the end of the sixth and final season, Hannah Horvath (the character played by Lena Dunham) receives what appears to be a cushy academic job (cushy=with benefits and supplying enough rent to afford a house) despite not having adjunct teaching experience or a terminal degree. Beyond this, she receives the job on the basis of one interview with the department chair. Articles similar in sentiment to this one spread across the internet, declaring, quite simply: “Hannah on ‘Girls’ Could Not Have Gotten That Job.”
In that article, Kathryn VanArendonk emphasizes that “That Job” is not just unlikely, “it would almost never happen. And even if it did, the future Hannah’s looking at is quite different than what many of the show’s viewers (or the show itself) may be envisioning.” She goes on to explain that she will spare readers “a full accounting of adjunctification, of yearlong contracts for visiting professorships that turn into years of peripatetic life, or the hiring rate for Ph.Ds,” as well as avoiding a conversation about “the decision-making process that goes into hiring new faculty members, or the expensive, exhausting, years-long interview process that might lead to an on-campus interview if you’re lucky.” VanArendonk stresses that even if Hannah had maybe gotten a job as an adjunct, “it would never in a million years give her health care, and would likely only cover a small portion of her living expenses.”
Similarly in tone, but long before Hannah received the aforementioned job offer, The Huffington Post published up charts and graphs proving that the girls on Girls COULD NOT AFFORD THEIR LIFESTYLES. Lily Karlin, in an article entitled “In Real Life, The ‘Girls’ Could Not Afford Their New York Lifestyles,” treats the issue as a shocking and hard-hitting exposé. Using data based on real-life estimates for the salaries, rent costs, and expenses each character would have, Karlin demonstrates that the girls would either have massive debt or, at best, be barely able to stay afloat.
The energy directed at exposing the implausibility of a fictitious show on a medium prone to giving us zombies, vampires, and part-time writers with massive collections of expensive shoes, feels odd and misplaced. So from where does this criticism and vitriol come?
Part of the problem is that the gimmick of Girls is its supposed realism. After all, the girls have “real bodies” (aka not the stereotypical Hollywood size zero) and eat “real food” (aka not always healthy or in moderate amounts) and have “real sex” (aka not always flattering and, in fact, often awkward). Therefore, the assumption is that this realism must extend to everything on the show. If Hannah Horvath and her pals are meant to represent REAL MILLENNIALS dealing with REAL MILLENNIAL THINGS, how dare the show take liberties with plot elements such as income and job prospects?
However, this demand reminds us that we need to re-assess our fixation on representation in mass-media entertainment. For instance, contemporary feminist theory returns over and over to current depictions of women in mass media as both examples of what to extoll and what to condemn, treating them as if flesh-and-blood people. More often than not, these characters are vilified for their superficiality and one-dimensionality, for being overtly sexual and personality-free, analyzed as barometers of what is going on in the “real” world, the roles of fantasy, nightmare, and metaphor overlooked.
In other schools of thought, like those advocated by Marshall McLuhan, the emphasis is placed on the medium rather than the message, looking not so much on what the characters are saying but on how they are presented. However, true to his stand that all media are extensions or externalizations of the human body, McLuhan did not worry about how women were represented on television. He was more concerned that exposure to television itself was depriving women (and men) of the ability to think detachedly, critically, and independently—eventually leading to crises of humanity far worse than sexism or misogyny.
The desire for accurate and realistic representation, this need to find one’s self and one’s experiences on screen, can be seen as a digital re-imagination of the Greek Narcissus complex, a sad tale from Greek mythology of a hunter who fell in love with his own reflection, not realizing that it was only an image. There are several variations of this tale but the crucial similarity between them revolves around the problematic inability to distinguish image from reality.
When people stare at mirrors all day, we refer to them as vain, narcissistic and self-indulgent. Why then, as well-meaning scholars and committed audience members, do we indulge ourselves and each other in this cultural movement that seems to be about turning screens (computer, television, and film) into mirrors? We should change our aesthetic priorities so that we are entertained by difference, so that we appreciate narratives that are fundamentally different than our lives off screen rather than holding them to standards of accuracy and plausibility.
Much as we accept the zombies on The Walking Dead, we should accept the implausibility of Hannah’s new job as a plot point meant to act as a device within her narrative arc. It is a metaphor, a tool, used to propel Hannah into a different place in her life, used to force her character to evolve in specific ways. It is not intended as an accurate portrayal of either the academic job market or of a twenty-something’s life choices.
Lena Dunham’s Hannah is not real, and she is not meant to be. She is a “real” (in quotes) woman in so much as she is messy, sloppy, irresponsible, self-destructive, and un-resolved. In other words, she is “real” in so much as she as different from most female leads on contemporary television whose makeup is perfect and closets unlimited. If she inspires, it is because she (like Joan Rivers, Madonna, Sandra Bernhard, Oprah) dares to reveal for our entertainment and education.
However, Horvath is not a role model of what to be. She is a role model of what to work one’s way through on the way to something more adult and fully realized. One of the main story arcs of the show is the way Hannah fumbles her way towards her dream of becoming a writer, at the expense of paying her rent, and even at the expense of her relationships. Hannah makes many mistakes—personal and professional—and these mistakes, much like her fashion choices and body size, make her a marked contrast to the stereotype of the glamorous and successful New York woman, à la Carrie Bradshaw. But she, much like Lena Dunham, forges ahead resolutely, despite the frequent public condemnation not only of her style choices but of her irregular figure. Media outlets routinely bash Dunham/Horvath for being “overweight” and “too confident,” a reminder that women over a size four should think twice before removing their clothes.
Contemporary depictions of femininity, especially when not conventionally flattering, are often problematic. Some may praise blunt and explicit conversations about sex, like those on Girls or on the earlier Sex and the City, as aspects of being a modern, having-it-all woman, but still others see Hannah’s immature, yet voracious, sexuality as an example of sexual empowerment gone wrong, demonstrating the complexity and vagueness of general understandings of postfeminist discourse. How much sex(uality) is too much? How much sex(uality) is real? And is that realness unpleasant and overly graphic or deliciously provocative and edgy?
Perhaps the larger question to ask is whether we really want to be represented by media at all, if that simply pacifies us (if we like what we see) or infuriates us (if we do not)?
Dunham may have broken ground with her televised depictions of “unflattering reality,” and Girls may have garnered critical acclaim for its rejection of the rose-tinted glasses so common to entertainment, but her show was never meant to be a documentary. The characters may be loosely based on real people (although there is no way to know for sure), their experiences may be based on real situations (although we can only project assumptions based on our own experiences), but the show never claimed to be real.While the beauty of Girls (at least for me) comes from those moments of apparent authenticity that intermittently surface within the constructed narrative arcs, the show is not a mirror, much as any woman on television is not a mirror for myself. Girls may have taken us further than other shows of its ilk into the awkward and unflattering moments that come with being a lost twenty-something in the big city, but it was never intended to be anything other than entertainment. The demand that media represent us accurately is a dangerous and misplaced one.
Arguably, it might be better to recognize entertainment as a tool to allow our fantasies to come to life, the good and the bad ones, in a safe way. We can play out the What If’s. We can see how other people (not ourselves) feel and act. We can start to wonder why things get produced the way they do—What are the actors, directors, producers thinking? Who and what is driving them?—without trying to find ourselves in the mix. Or, we can just suspend disbelief and escape.