The “Girls” Finale is a Financial Fantasy
The writing career capable of supporting single motherhood isn’t Hannah Horvath’s — it’s Lena Dunham’s.
I spent my Girls years watching Sex and the City, and my Sex and the City years watching Girls. I hope my thirties will culminate the way Hannah’s twenties just did — in motherhood, preferably biological, preferably shared. But the financial unreality of the Girls finale is, to use a word you only learn in the classrooms of the kind of college where Hannah Horvath will now improbably teach — problematic.
Hannah Horvath is not just “difficult” or “unlikable” or “flawed” or “complex” or “thought-provoking.” Hannah Horvath, as we have left her, breastfeeding under the eaves of her lovely house, is an economic impossibility.
The writing career that supports single motherhood at twenty-seven (or thirty-seven) is not Hannah Horvath’s. It is Lena Dunham’s.
Despite the constant descriptions of Girls as “brutally honest,” I always found Sex and the City to be the more emotionally true of the two shows. I have a handful of peers from college — also female, also white — with whom I shared my Brooklyn twenties. We were never as cruel to one another as the Girls girls routinely are. Our relationship far more resembled the Sex and the City foursome’s bond of love and mutual support than the Girls’s frequent backbiting, betrayal, and borderline sociopathy.
Another far more believable aspect of Sex and the City was that the women on the show actually liked sex — a lot. Sex on Girls was more often a power play, or a curiosity to be endured, than a pleasure to be embodied, experienced, or enjoyed.
When it comes to motherhood, especially single motherhood, Sex and the City gets it right yet again. Especially among privileged white women, a single mother looks much more like Miranda Hobbes, a thirtysomething corporate lawyer, than Hannah Horvath, a twentysomething freelance writer.
It might be possible to pay for childcare on a corporate lawyer’s salary. It is not possible to pay for the childcare required to write an essay with the wage the average essay pays.
Case in point: I respect the publication in which this essay appears. I read it regularly. I am happy to be published in it and happier still to be paid whatsoever. But if I had a child, the payment for this article would not cover the cost of the babysitting I would have required for the hours it has taken me to write it.
Single motherhood for a functioning artist whose work is not lucrative or even financially sustainable is not a math problem. It is a riddle, or a paradox — much as femininity was once described.
Neither Lena Dunham, nor her avatar and creation, Hannah Horvath, ever promised to speak for all of us. “I might be a voice, of a generation,” Hannah says in the pilot episode.
Lena Dunham, therefore, speaks for Lena Dunham. Still, her singular voice has been amplified by a combination of fortunate birth (her wealthy artist parents fronted her tens of thousands of dollars to help her make her first feature film) and further good fortune (that feature film caught the attention of Judd Apatow, who helped her package her show for HBO, and became its executive producer).
Dunham has never been a struggling artist. She has played one on TV. This may be one reason that Girls is not remotely realistic about the earnings of a freelance writer — no one involved in the making of the show has ever been, or even bothered to talk to, one. The real Dunham has published frequently in the New Yorker, and got a multimillion-dollar book deal in her mid-twenties. Still, she imagines a different existence.
In the episode in which Hannah decides to have the baby, we see her type on her computer a list of reasons not to do it, among them the fact that she earns “$24K” a year.” I publish with a frequency similar to Hannah’s, in similar publications. I would be thrilled to earn twenty-four thousand dollars a year from my writing, but I earn barely a tenth of that. Like most writers, I support my writing by doing another job. (Over 90% of my income comes from a tutoring business I have run since I was twenty-one.)
I have seen my earnings grow from writing, in fits and starts. I can see ways — a book, a column — they could yet grow more. I remain both faithful and hopeful that I will find more ways to make writing a larger source of my income, and more importantly, a bigger part of my daily life. I remain fearful that motherhood — especially single motherhood — would dash all of those hopes with the finality of a perfectly-written last line.
For those uninitiated into the realities of the New York rental real estate market, there is no way that Hannah’s apartment rents for less than $2,500 a month. For the sake of argument, let’s say that due to an illegal sublease or rent control, the rent is $2,000, and she pays half. That’s half her annual income on rent. What about her cell phone bill, student loan payments, food, psychiatric meds? Hannah breezily remarked that maybe she would take a job as a college professor because right now, she “doesn’t have health insurance.” Then who pays for the medication she takes for the seemingly serious mental illness she endured in Season 2? Who paid for the trip to the women’s health clinic where she found out the baby was a boy?
The way Girls solves the problem of health insurance is by having Hannah, in the penultimate episode, ride a Metro-North train to an unnamed upstate New York college (Sarah Lawrence? Vassar? SUNY New Paltz? Bard?) where she is offered a job, with benefits, as a writing professor who will teach students about writing on the internet. While digital media studies courses do exist at some colleges, the chances of a writer with no published books and no MFA (the “terminal degree”) being offered any position, even one as an adjunct (which would carry no benefits), let alone a job with benefits is absolutely zero.
There are rare twenty-eight-year-olds who teach on university faculty. They have two things Hannah does not: a published book and a terminal degree.
But maybe the joys of late-twenties parenthood are just a cornerstone of the Apatow universe. Apatow himself was a parent by thirty, a situation dramatized in his film Knocked Up, which also presents parenthood as a solution to pointless youthful folly, a theme repeated throughout Apatow’s work.
Meghan Daum, writing in the New Yorker, pointed out that the subsequent Apatow movie This Is Forty did not portray the realistic existence of many forty-year-olds except that of a millionaire Hollywood producer. Daum does the math and concludes that for the film’s main characters to a have a thirteen-year-old at forty, they must have become parents, like Hannah, at twenty-seven.
“You don’t see that very often in people with three million dollar houses, unconventional careers and no trust funds,” observes Daum. “This isn’t forty,” she later concludes. “It’s more like fifty — for the one per cent.”
The same can be said of the Girls ending — itself Apatow’s creation. This — single motherhood, a secure job with health insurance, an enormous house — isn’t twenty-seven. It’s more like forty — for a lucky few.
When I was a twenty-seven-year-old in Brooklyn, none of my artist peers, single or married, writer, musician, photographer, filmmaker, painter, or dancer, would have considered having a child. Those that became parents waited until their late thirties or even forties to do so, walking the tenuous balance between their artistic and biological drives.
Most ironically, for Hollywood producers and their handpicked showrunner protégés, extreme wealth affords them the opportunity to portray in their art a struggle that they do not know in life. The production values are high. The light on Hannah’s face as she brilliantly, wordlessly portrays a series of complex emotions in the closing shot is perfect. The bouncing of a rent check wouldn’t add much to the scene.
The real Lena Dunham does seem aware that single motherhood at any age poses real and potentially prohibitive financial obstacles. She appeared as a guest on the excellent radical empathy podcast Dear Sugar, in a special episode — the first of a three-part series — addressing the anxiety of being single, particularly around the question of childbearing. Despite being in her twenties and partnered, Dunham was invited to address the complexities of being in one’s thirties and single.
“Yes, women can have children on their own,” she said. “But it involves a certain kind of support, and a certain kind of financial stability and…just going to a sperm bank and getting yourself pregnant is expensive. All of it puts a price on motherhood that doesn’t exist if you’re doing it in ‘the traditional way.’”
Dunham goes on to point out that while mothering “by yourself with a supportive network” is preferable to mothering within the confines of an unfulfilling and unconnected relationship, while also allowing that parenting by yourself may be “a great option, but it’s also not a feasible option for so many working women now.” She then says, several times, that it’s just really “complicated.”
The beauty of art is that while it addresses the complexities that plague us in real life, it also allows us to create a universe apart from them. This essay, which will come in at a hopefully readable 1,800 words, is being writ in a document containing nearly 5,000 — tangents, confessions, digressions, and condemnations that would greatly complicate the argument. I can remove complications on the page in a way I can’t in real life.
When you write, produce, and run your own show, you can make anything a feasible option. You can oversimplify. You can have a single, pregnant woman with a poverty-line salary ride a Metro-North train to health insurance on the tenure track, then install her in a house she could never afford to rent.
Being a woman — or an artist, or a mother — is complicated. Millennia of struggle have gifted the women of this millennium the chance to do more of what we want. But nature will never grant us the freedom to do whatever we want. No movement or struggle or book or march can alter the fundamental facts of our biological reality. And so the gift of our freedom includes the experience of feeling our competing desires — sexual exploration, independence, equality, intimacy, partnership, freedom, artistic struggle, professional success — collide painfully with the wall of our undeniable biology.
We don’t run the world. We still fight to run our wombs. But Dunham, the showrunner, did run the show.
It was her world. We just watched it on TV.