There are two episodes left to go in season five of Girls, but it’s already built a weirdly doubled legacy — on the one hand, the fifth installment has been an exceptionally strong one for its collection of lost, floundering 20-somethings. The other side of that renaissance, though, is a vivid return of the specter that has always haunted this show — a deep, visceral loathing for Girls’ protagonist, Hannah Horvath.
This has dogged Girls from the very beginning. After the first season, you could find pieces like Alison Willmore’s “‘Girls’ and the Question of Likeability,” which tries to temper the anti-Hannah voices by admitting that while “Hannah’s an oblivious fuck-up,” she’s hopefully “fumbling her way toward some kind of hard-earned, realistic life lesson.” By the end of season three, Erin Whitney wrote, “it’s safe to say that Hannah Horvath … is one of the most disliked characters on television, and that’s including all the villains, anti-heroes, and sociopaths.” In the run-up to season four, Hannah was included in The Atlantic’s #ActualWorst bracket, with Gillian White writing about Hannah’s “staggering level of self-absorption.” (Hannah lost her bid for #ActualWorst to Hannibal Lecter.)
Now, as the fifth season begins to wrap up, the Hannah Horvath drumbeats are sounding once again. So what is it, precisely, that drives such fervent hatred for this character, and how does it color our larger experience of Girls?
Until season five, the moment in Hannah’s life that inspired the most frustration and rage was a mid-season four story in which Hannah’s editor dies, and she responds to his sudden death with complete myopia. Rather than grief for the loss of her mentor, or even simple, blank shock, Hannah quickly shifts into self-preservation, using his funeral as an opportunity to quiz his widow about possible new publishers for her book. It’s a moment so loathsome, it inspired this conversation between Matt Zoller Seitz and Alyssa Rosenberg, in which Seitz describes Hannah’s “most debilitating flaw” as “her inability to get outside herself … professionally as well as personally.”
Throughout Girls’ run, this is the returning indictment of Hannah Horvath — her utter and complete self-absorption. It’s there in the pilot as she takes the tip her parents leave for their hotel housekeeper, it’s there as she interrupts Patti LuPone’s recording session to get some quotes for an article, and it’s all over season five, as she spreads her legs in front of her boss to avoid trouble, and later forces Ray into a blow job he explicitly does not want, thereby crashing his coffee truck. She has no boundaries. Her image of herself spills all over the world she views, transforming every problem and every success into a Hannah Horvath–shaped development. She is every hammer, and also every nail.
There are important ways to read our intense distaste for Hannah that put her in wider culture contexts. Why is it, for example, that we find Hannah’s solipsism so powerfully detestable, but we find similar traits in a figure like Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm character to be comedic? Could it be because we consider male self-absorption to be quirky and expected, while those same traits in women are monstrous? Or, how much is our Hannah-hatred a dislike of her, and how much of it is symptomatic of bigger cultural discussions of millennials and narcissism? (This example cuts both ways — we hate Hannah for representing a cohort of millennial narcissists, and we hate her for misrepresenting that same group).
We want so badly to see these characters grow, and to become functional, happy, confident, and thoughtful people. We want this in part because we identify with the characters we see in fiction, and it’s painful to watch them fail. But we also want this for her, because in constantly failing to meet our expectations for adulthood and growth, she regularly fails our cultural, societal requirement of what a successful person looks like. And she does this regardless of whether the standard you hold her to is based on the way women should act, or the way young people should act, or the way Brooklynites should act. Hannah never plays along with what we want her to be.
Beyond that cultural framework, though, there’s another way to consider Hannah’s strangely potent impact on her audience: as a character on a TV show. She is, after all, not a real person, and not a direct extension of her creator, much though that conflation seems to plague her critics. She’s a construction, made for the express purpose of being viewed by others, and so it’s especially befuddling that she’s so constantly bad at pleasing us.
Simply put, we’re not used to this type of character construction on television. It is incredibly frustrating, unfamiliar, and bizarre to watch a show persistently flout its audience’s expectations and desires for a character. What could it be doing? Why make its characters, particularly Hannah, so resolutely and exasperatingly unappealing? Surely it’s not because Girls’ creators can’t figure out how to make Hannah better. As Jen Doll writes in “‘Girls’: How Can Good TV Feel So Bad?,” “I know Dunham is not Hannah, and Hannah is not Dunham, but how can Hannah be so stupid if Dunham is so deft?”
I do not know the answer to that question. I certainly do not presume to understand exactly what Dunham’s motivations are in presenting us with Thoroughly Awful Hannah. But I do know that in so firmly resisting any growth for Hannah, Girls also resists our expectations of what a television show should be. Outside of the most frozen-in-amber TV sitcoms, where characters are allowed to achieve a stasis that borders on petrifaction, we expect our serialized TV characters to grow and change. We want to see them transform, whether it be in the arc of Maura’s literal, physical transformations in Transparent, Walter White’s slowly devolving sociopathy in Breaking Bad, or, heck, even pick your favorite Real Housewife, who cycles through villainy and redemption.
TV, which by its most basic structure implies progression and development, has taught us to look at Hannah’s story and search for change. Instead, at least up until this point in season five, we are routinely denied that pleasure.
It’s possible this is a political statement about a young woman steadfastly refusing to conform to our requirements for satisfaction, be they in the shape of her character’s progression or her TV show’s arc. It’s also possible that in the next few episodes, or as the series moves into conclusion mode during season six, all of this stonewalling will be undone as Hannah slowly wakens to a new understanding of herself as a small piece of a bigger world. But at the moment, we’re stuck with Hannah: selfish, infuriating, disgusting, and utterly unconcerned with your approval.