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Girls’ Hannah - Why the millennial antihero was so hated

When Girls premiered in 2012, the show inspired a deluge of conversation - critics raved about the show, but a backlash soon grew. Perhaps the most controversial, hated – and misunderstood – part of the buzz around Girls was star and creator Lena Dunham’s main character, Hannah Horvath. So why did the ultimate Annoying Millennial-Antihero inspire so much hate – and did her struggles end up being more weirdly relatable than most want to admit?

TRANSCRIPT

Hannah on Girls was widely deemed one of the most annoying TV characters of the 2010s – but was she just misunderstood? When Girls premiered in 2012, the show inspired a deluge of conversation. Critics raved about the show’s portrayal of the “murk of post-adolescence,” how it made “viewers uncomfortable while preferring a new (sharp, slightly bitter) flavor of introspective female comedy” or how it honestly looked at serious topics TV rarely covered.

Hanna Horvath: “I dont really think you would understand any of my problems because you seem like you have a tremendous amount of willpower and general togetherness.” - Girls 2x08

But a backlash soon grew – Mother Jones called Girls an “unstoppably irritating” show about an “unsympathetic victim of First World Problems.” Perhaps the most controversial, hated – and misunderstood – part of the buzz around Girls was star and creator Lena Dunham’s main character, Hannah Horvath.

So why did Hannah strike such a nerve? Girls aired at a time when the figure of the “annoying millennial” was coming into our cultural consciousness. Hannah was a comic avatar of millennial haplessness – she was supposed to be the butt of the joke. But many missed that Girls was trying to explore these generational topics, often through being hard on Hannah. So why did the ultimate Annoying Millennial-Antihero inspire so much hate – and did her struggles end up being more weirdly relatable than most want to admit?

The Voice of a Generation

It’s the most infamous line in the entirety of Girls, and it comes in the very first episode.

Hannah Horvath: “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation.” - Girls 1x01

Early discussion of Girls frequently centered on this line – which was actually making fun of Hannah’s inflated sense of self-importance. But many viewers interpreted it in earnest as creator Lena Dunham herself claiming unsarcastically to be the voice of her generation, and suggesting that Hannah’s extremely minor problems were supposed to be riveting to the audience. And as the show went on, internet reactions to Hannah still wasted no time in assuming that Dunham was just as self-involved or out of touch as her character. This misinterpretation fits into a larger trend, where art made by women is viewed as solely autobiographical.

Girls premiered during an era rife with auteur-driven comedy series, in which the main writer and producer also starred, often as a thinly veiled version of themselves, in shows like Louie, Broad City, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. And to an extent, it made sense to see Girls as semi-autobiographical: Dunham has said she was writing in part about her experiences and herself. But it’s crucial not to lose sight of the tone of Dunham’s writing about herself. Girls was clearly a satire, which wrung comedy out of the awkward antics, entitled privilege and self-absorption of the characters.

Hannah Horvath: “You know what, I haven’t been offered a beverage so I think I’m going to get myself one.” - Girls 6x03

If Hannah is a version of Dunham, she’s a self-parody, constantly leaning into the most obnoxious parts of her identity. Many, if not most of the other characters are constantly pointing out Hannah’s shortcomings in a way that often borders on cruel. And Hannah’s issues—with her body, her career, her sense of self—are often treated as a joke when she articulates them, suggesting that it’s ridiculous to care or feel sorry for herself as much as she does.

As Grantland’s Andy Greenwald wrote, “One of the things that impresses about Dunham, both the actress and the writer, is how hard she is on herself.”

Hannah Horvath: “No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself, okay? So any mean thing someone’s gonna think of to say about me, I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour!” - Girls 1x09

Yet as Willa Paskin put it in Slate, “This is at the heart of most misunderstandings about the show, the idea that in portraying selfish, grotesque, privileged behavior, the show is co-signing said behavior, instead of lampooning it.” A surprising number of interviews and articles even obsessed negatively about Dunham’s nudity on the show; instead of caring what the show was saying about the character’s attitude to her body, they seemed shocked or offended by realistic scenes featuring a body that wasn’t Hollywood thin.

Girls wasn’t trying to make you like its characters. Nonetheless, many people struggled with the show because of strong feelings of dislike for Hannah and the others. Much of this dislike for Hannah stemmed from audiences disdain for Dunham herself, who’s been mired in controversies throughout her career.

The same failure to separate the creation from the creator was at work in how Girls played into millennial conversations. The show came to be the premiere cultural example of the trope depicting millennials as fundamentally irritating, hypersensitive and self-important.

Hannah Horvath: “I think I just feel how everyone feels—which is I have three or four really great folk albums in me.” - Girls 2x04

But public perception of the show ignored that Dunham herself was a millennial, and that the comedy of Girls came from the writers introspecting, and interrogating the failings of their own generation.

Hannah was really a millennial antihero, one who embodied the flaws of her peers, and encountered them in others — so, ironically, Hannah accidentally did become a voice of her generation, though not necessarily in the way the character would have wanted to.

By the end of the series, Hannah herself wants to grow out of all of the most heavily-caricatured aspects of her personality and escape the annoying millennial trope.

Hannah Horvath: “At the end of the day, that would just be me fulfilling all of their expectations of me. And I would love to surprise someone sometime.” - Girls 5x09

But the aspects of herself and her generation that she couldn’t escape may be what ended up making her sneakily relatable.

2010s Antihero - A Story of Millennial Loss

Like another iconic TV antihero, Hannah has lost the ability to live the life she was promised. Hannah is dealing with trying to build a life for herself in the wake of the financial crisis, and slowly understanding that her dream of becoming a writer is just that: a dream. Instead, Hannah bounced around through a series of unfulfilling jobs, and discovered that in the millennial economy, to quote The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, “Writing sponsored content and coming up with fake trends is the available destination for literary hopefuls.”

Outside of her career, Hannah has basically accepted that a traditional, picturesque family life isn’t in the cards. In one infamous episode in the show’s second season, Hannah spends a weekend with an attractive doctor played by Patrick Wilson, a plot seemingly designed to raise questions about standards of attractiveness and what people “should” want out of life.

Hannah Horvath: “Please don’t tell anyone this, but… I want to be happy.” - Girls 2x05

The very idea of wanting to be happy is fundamentally embarrassing to Hannah – in part because she feels a “normal” nice-looking life isn’t possible for her. And the tragic note the episode ends on is that Wilson’s character abandons Hannah the morning after she confesses these feelings; he’s evidently uninterested in fulfilling her hidden desires, thus confirming her fears that this life isn’t available to her.

Underneath all the off-putting aspects of Hannah, there’s something about her losses and failures that are fundamentally relatable, as much as we might not want to admit it. Her self-loathing, body image issues, and sense of purposelessness are exaggerated, but they’re still recognizable to plenty of viewers who may have had those same thoughts and struggled to find direction in their youth.

Hannah Horvath: “I’m planning on writing an article that exposes all my vulnerabilities to the entire internet.” - Girls 2x03

When Hannah vocalizes everything that pops into her head, many of us have suffered in silence, and may feel even more embarrassed to hear Hannah express our own insecurities out loud. However much they may have disliked her and not experienced her particular background, millions of people watching then (and now) have dealt with versions of the same problems. And Dunham managed to weave humor and pain together to give voice to this sense of loss. So perhaps what was most difficult to watch about Hannah was how much many of us could relate to her at times, precisely when we didn’t want to.

Hannah Horvath: “I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time and thinks I’m the best person in the world and wants to have sex with only me.” - Girls 1x04

The Mother Of All Endings

For most of Girls, Hannah is just that: a girl, who is unable to grow up. But the end of the series explores whether it will leave her as a woman, through one of the biggest possible topics facing a young adult female: motherhood. Hannah’s unexpected pregnancy at the end of the series became a stand-in for broader debates about what it meant to be a “feminist” woman, and how the constantly-infantilized millennial woman would deal with getting older. Hannah decides to keep the baby, a decision she initially makes just to buck expectations coming from the same doctor she had a fling with back in the second season.

Hannah Horvath: “What makes you think I want an abortion?” - Girls 6x04

This is an example of Hannah managing to surprise herself while still acting in character. Even if she isn’t going to have a traditional family in the way she was raised to expect, she decides to create one in the same messy, impulsive way she’s approached the rest of her life—and she accepts help from the flawed friends who have been the focus of the rest of the series.

As the quintessential immature millennial, Hannah ends the series in some ways seeming different, like she’s getting an “adult life,” and in some ways just acting like the same old chaotic, hasty, self-involved symbol of generational arrested development.

Hannah Horvath: “Because I made a very intense choice to take this on all by myself, okay? Mom, I buckle my bra every day, okay? But just do it for a second.” - Girls 6x10

Critics were divided between those who thought the responsibility of pregnancy was an effective way to snap Hannah out of her extended post-adolescence, and those who thought it would have made more sense narratively for her to get an abortion. But there wasn’t necessarily a “right” answer for Hannah (or for anyone in her position), and it makes sense that in many respects she remains the same person, even as she gets older and undergoes a dramatic life change. Hannah’s millennial anxieties and insecurities come back, but transition to being about parenting – foreshadowing today’s cultural focus on the “elder millennial” and what kind of parents millennials are turning out to be.

Hannah Horvath: “I’m a quitter. So what if that’s the kind of man I raise? What if that’s the only kind of man I can raise?” - Girls 6x10

By bonding with her own mother over their shared experience of parenting, Hannah discovers that there are some timeless things that you can only feel through connection, getting outside of yourself, and going along to whatever surprising places your life’s journey takes you.

In the end, Dunham suggests that Hannah’s issues aren’t just generational—they’re human. Ultimately, Hannah Horvath isn’t Lena Dunham. Instead, she functions as a funhouse mirror that reflects and exaggerates fundamentally relatable, human problems.

Ten years after Girls first premiered, it’s not hard to see Hannahs wherever you look—the economy is even more precarious, and mental health issues are at all-time highs, especially with young people. But Hannah also provides hope to find a way out of those issues, through her family. The culture might want to forget about Girls, but Hannah is still with us.

Hannah Horvath: “It can be pretty hard to have observations about other people when you’re only thinking about yourself. I would know.” - Girls 6x02

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