When Hannah Horvath declared in the “Girls” pilot in 2012 that “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation,” the line became instantly iconic — and a bit of accidental misdirection that has guided how the show has been received in the six seasons since. The least-charitable reading of that scene suggested that series creator and star Lena Dunham was anointing herself the spokeswoman for all millennial woman, using her narrow experience as a stand-in for millions of young women in very different circumstances. On the level of the episode, that interpretation was cinematically illiterate, ignoring that Hannah’s desperate attempt to get her parents to keep paying her rent was obviously intended to be ridiculous and grandstanding. And in a larger sense, those scoffing at the ambitions they attributed to Dunham missed the point of the entire show. As much as modern sexual mores or the fate of college friendships, the subject of “Girls,” which comes to an end on Sunday, was what it takes to become “a voice of a generation” and whether it’s even worth the effort.
The professional jungle Hannah has spent six years hacking her way through is a downright savage portrait of the journalism and publishing industry. She’s tried to make a living freelancing about misadventures, such as doing cocaine, that eat up her $200 freelance fees (a figure that between 2013, when the cocaine episode aired, and 2017 probably would have fallen to $50). When Hannah lands a job writing advertorial content at GQ in the show’s third season, she discovers that her colleagues have won prominent writing awards and been published in places such as the New Yorker and n+1, rather than being the slacker sellouts she imagined them to be. The trajectory Hannah expected would be hers has vanished: Writing sponsored content and coming up with fake trends is the available destination for literary hopefuls.
Few people Hannah encounters seem to care about the actual quality of writing, just how quickly it can be churned out and monetized. When she lands an e-book deal, her editor David (John Cameron Mitchell) tells her that she “did something that writers find really hard to do: You found a voice,” but he also wants her to turn around her entire manuscript in a month. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Hannah’s fellow students do care about writing, they’ve also been quick to slot themselves into marketable niches such as “tragically hip Gaysian” and wannabe John Updike. “Iowa is a specific place, for a very specific kind of writer,” the director of the program (Myra Lucretia Taylor) tells Hannah. Actually, it’s a place for several specific types of writer; Hannah just doesn’t happen to be one of those types, and it’s not necessarily clear why she should try to become one.
In “Girls,” as in real life, female writers face a particular pressure to turn themselves into product, cannibalizing their experiences. “She’s so lucky,” Hannah observes of her college friend Tally Schifrin (Jenny Slate), a successful writer, during the show’s first season. “Her boyfriend up and killed himself,” giving Tally the material she used to launch her career. The sixth season of the show begins with an editor (Chelsea Peretti) hiring Hannah for a piece about a women’s surfing camp not on the strength of Hannah’s writing, but on “your look and your vibe, your whole thing, the thing that is you.”
After David dies unexpectedly, Hannah is in particular trouble when his publishing company decides not only to not release the book, but also to sit on the copyright. If Hannah were a reporter or a critic, she could go out and write another book. But because she’s a memoirist, she can’t go out and live another life to replace the experiences that she turned into her manuscript. In Iowa, she’s left trying to scrape a story out of a failed attempt to resist buying Thin Mints from a troop of Girl Scouts.
Despite Hannah’s show-defining pronouncement, “Girls” has long been skeptical about how desirable “voice of a generation” status actually is, especially for women. Hannah may be jealous of women like Tally or Mimi-Rose Howard (Gillian Jacobs), an installation artist who begins dating Hannah’s boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) while Hannah is away at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But they also seem caught up in a cycle of accomplishment that’s more emotionally draining and creatively enervating than it is satisfying.
“Do you know I Google myself every day? That’s so gross, but I do, and I just want to see if, like, Gawker or whoever they are has written some snarky thing about how much of a hack I am, or if even just like there’s a pretty picture of me in the Financial Times roundup of books of the year. I need to see how other people see me because it’s the only way that I can see myself,” Tally told Hannah miserably in the penultimate episode of the fifth season. “I wake up every morning and I think, well, okay, what would Tally Schifrin do? Tally Schifrin is not even me now, she’s just like this thing that I’ve created. She’s a monster that I’ve made and that I have to feed. And she feeds on praise and controversy and it’s exhausting and boring at once.”
The shallowest critics of “Girls” have tended to make the lazy assumption that Hannah is an avatar for Dunham herself. But Tally’s lament actually sounds a lot more like what Dunham might have experienced when so many people assumed that she was anointing herself the High Priestess of Millennial Women: an exhaustion and boredom that was nonetheless addictive.
And so it’s notable that success for Hannah on the final season of “Girls” largely hasn’t looked like Mimi-Rose’s acclaim, or Tally’s book party, or whatever she might have imagined those victories felt like. She’s not writing a flashy, disposable e-book, or achieving Iowa-style literary acclaim. Instead, she’s used a successful Modern Love essay to leverage a steady series of interesting assignments, and she’s working steadfastly and seriously to get them done. After her burnout and disillusionment in Iowa, Hannah has discovered that writing is something you do, every day, even when you don’t feel like it, rather than a state of being. As Susan Sarandon’s character said of baseball in “Bull Durham,” writing “may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.”