reality check

Hannah on Girls Could Not Have Gotten That Job

Hannah gets a dream job. Photo: HBO

On the penultimate episode of Girls, the question of Hannah’s future economic stability gets a surprisingly sudden, helpful, encouraging answer: She gets a job. “Goodbye Tour” doesn’t give us many details about the job — it’s at some kind of higher-ed campus in upstate New York. It feels small and liberal artsy, although it could be a SUNY or a community college. Hannah’s position is to teach “the internet,” something her interviewer tells her she knows the kids need these days, and apparently Hannah’s writing career has taken off sufficiently that she can be considered a “hot shot.” She’ll have 100 students, and she’ll teach them in seminars of about 25. The job, she later tells Elijah, comes with benefits.

This job is impossible. It’s 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.

It’s not particularly fun or interesting to get mired down in the minutiae and agony of the academic job market, so I will spare you 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. I won’t get into 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. Nor will I go into detail on the idea that Hannah could, maybe get a job as an adjunct, but that it would never in a million years give her health care, and would likely only cover a small portion of her living expenses. There are plenty of other places to go to read those horror stories, or you can browse the academic job Wiki for them.

But I will tell you this — based on her resume, Hannah is about as likely to have gotten a job teaching writing that would pay her enough to live in a house, give her health insurance that would cover her child, and also provide sufficient support so that she could afford child care, as I am to sprout wings and take to the skies. And as if the hiring itself weren’t unrealistic enough, teaching students about “the internet” is an entire discipline already. As Amanda Ann Klein, a professor at East Carolina University, points out, there are actually multiple disciplines that would already be teaching that curriculum, including “digital humanities, new media, communications, technical and professional communications.” There’s no way Hannah’s online writing alone would be enough to land her that job; Klein goes on to note that while popular online criticism is a highly worthwhile mode of scholarship, most traditional English departments give “zero fucks” about writing for “the internet.”

So here’s the real question: How much does that matter?

Girls has always had a fraught relationship with realism. It’s been a fundamental part of both the show and the critical response to it — is the series trying to argue that this is what millennial life is really like? It’s a show that’s laudably and unusually grounded in elements of realism you don’t often see on TV, especially stuff to do with women’s bodies, with how it feels to break up with someone, with the kinds of jobs someone might have in her mid-20s, with the food people would actually eat, with what sex might actually look like between two people who feel awkward with one another. Its realism is physical, bodily, fleshy. Notably and disappointingly, it’s failed to spend any time with the bodily realities of Hannah’s pregnancy. Still, its best, most memorable storytelling has always circled around issues that connect and probe the relationship between the female body and the self: Hannah’s writing is all about gritty physical realities; her season two OCD was a physical manifestation of something going haywire in her head. It’s a realism born out of conceiving of women as both bodies and minds.

It is not a realism that’s grounded in economic or social reality. There’ve been complaints about Hannah’s apartment. How could she pay for it? Where does the rent come from? How did Hannah get that job at GQ? There’ve been similar questions about all of the characters, about their jobs and wardrobes and living arrangements. There are important, serious questions about the way the show whitewashes the world, and the way it’s (clumsily) tried to swing the pendulum in the other direction. So how much does it matter that the show has added this additional element of surreality to its roster of unlikelihoods? Does it really alter the way we think about the show? Is there anything that actually changes about how we think about Girls, knowing that Hannah was somehow able to get hired for a life-altering, circumstance-rescuing position that even within the world of the show is at least half parody? (Did I mention that her job is to teach “the internet”?)

Probably not. For one, the utter impossibility of this position is not going to be apparent to many viewers, much as the absurdity of Hannah’s rent situation would be invisible to anyone not trying to actually live in Brooklyn. Other than the (furious) academics who watched this week’s episode and are sputtering with indignation, it probably will not impact many viewers’ sense of the show. The most damage this plot is likely to do is continue to romanticize academia on TV, something Girls is contributing to but hardly solely responsible for. It’s something that no doubt adds to our broader cultural misunderstanding of exactly what academic labor looks like (a topic Klein has written about eloquently), and will probably lead to at least a few more young aspiring writers to wrongly think that they can just find some college job upstate if things don’t work out for them in the city. If you have a moment, spare a generous thought for those real-life young people. Things are going to get disappointing for them.

In other words, question of Hannah’s job probably doesn’t matter that much in considering the show as a whole. What’s a little more unreality heaped onto the pile? But it does betray something fundamentally at odds about what the show is and has always aspired to be about. In prioritizing the story of who Hannah is and what adulthood could look like for her, and in working hard to capture a portrait of a complex, flawed, talented but not brilliant, thoughtful and mostly (…okay, occasionally) well-meaning human woman, Girls sacrifices something about the reality of the world around her. Hannah’s humanity exists most clearly when set against a patently improbable world, full of parody and magically convenient job opportunities and caricatures of literary figures.

Here are the most painfully self-centered things Hannah has said.

It tells us something about how we build stories. In our desire to see Girls have some satisfying arc, or to watch Hannah succeed and fail against an interesting backdrop, something has to be false — Hannah can be real, or the world can be real, but apparently not both.

I’m fascinated to see how the final episode twists or confirms the magic of Hannah’s career, and how it will add in the additionally complex element of her impending motherhood to that possibly fantastical mixture. I’m curious about whether the series will ultimately end as a fairy tale or some depressing realism, or something more complicated in between. But whatever the case, the mere existence of this job has given Hannah’s life a decided turn toward the unreal.

Hannah on Girls Could Not Have Gotten That Job