Hannah Horvath and I have a lot in common. We write, we’re white, our parents are academics, and we’re damn good at Tweeting. We’re also both insecure, in the kind of way that we hate talking about it with our actual voices but love talking about it with our self-deprecating writer’s voices. Like Hannah, I put on a brave front and most of the time seal my neuroses behind a witty and charming exterior, but like Hannah, I get weird when they leak out. In Hannah’s awkward, fumbling pseudo-victories over her personal cabal of anxieties, I have found not only a character I can connect with, but one I can look up to: a version of modern womanhood that seems genuine.
This summer, Anne Marie Slaughter wrote a piece about—say it with me—women and having it all. The piece itself calls attention to a lot of issues in the construction of American society, but the central premise, as many have pointed out, is flawed: whether male or female, no one can “have it all.” The struggle to “have” (as if it is possible to own) “it” (as if “it” is a singular state of being that can be reached in its entirety) “all” (as if that somehow makes whatever “it” is more specific) is the struggle behind most literature, wars, debates, political careers, and reality television stints: no one’s figured it out.
However unrealistic, the idea persists, and maybe what we mean isn’t “having it all” but “being happy,” which is confusing to us and has been for millennia, so we go for what we think being happy means. If you go by Anne Marie Slaughter’s definition, it means a successful career and perfect family life, even though judging by her decision to leave the State Department, she understands that her personal happiness is created by spending time with her family. I don’t think this is a gendered decision at all—I think most people would truly be happier if they could let go of their ambition and find a comfortable lifestyle that enabled them to spend most of their time with the people they love most.
But as for me, right now, I don’t want to spend time with my children. I don’t want children. I don’t want a husband. My version of having it all would be a passion that pays well, a loving boyfriend, badass friends, a great wardrobe, and a killer bod. And what speaks more directly to my struggle to have it all as an almost-twenty-year-old is Girls.
Hannah Horvath, like me, wants it all. She wants to live in New York; be “the voice of her generation, or at least a voice of a generation;” date weird, artistic guys; have weird, artistic sex; be very droll with her friends, and take some drugs. Maybe, in a more distilled reading, her struggle is the archetypal struggle of the “modern woman” in the most technical definition of the term: the woman who, currently, in this moment of time that is now happening, is becoming herself. The woman whose expensive liberal arts education came as a matter of course, who was raised without having to fight for anything besides her own self-esteem, whose neuroses are charming and not debilitating, and who understands the value of being both smart and attractive.
As watchers of the show know, Hannah’s not doing so well with her agenda, but it’s the first season and I’ll give her some time. What she is doing well, though, is manifesting the struggle to achieve the post-adolescent version of having it all, of which I too am poised on the cusp. I don’t want to be rich when I grow up, but I do want to be rich enough that I can eat sushi and drink cocktails and afford an iPhone. I would like to live in a big city and not with my parents, I would like to take taxis to really cool parties, I would like to have health insurance and biodegradable tote bags. And I want to look good. Really, really good. I want to be thin, but in a way that shows I can afford a gym membership, and stylish in a way that shows I’m classy, cool, and blessed with regular access to a shower.
More than all of that, however, I want to be a person I want to be, so I want to write; ideally poetry but I’ll take what I can get, and I want to be dating interesting and attractive and intelligent men, so I have to be the kind of girl interesting and attractive and intelligent men want to date, which—I am just beginning to realize—means I have to be interesting and attractive and intelligent. I think this is the core of what I think having it all is. I also think that if I ever think I am the aforementioned things, I will have become exactly the type of girl only intolerable men want to date.
Perhaps the most important thing Girls does for me is show how a funny, smart girl can get by—and be happy—without having it all. Hannah is not rich and she’s not the kind of pretty that MTV has made me think I should be. She doesn’t have a job, her boyfriend is simultaneously adorable and terrifying, and the four main female characters aren’t even all friends the way that Sex and the City has taught us to be, connected by shoes and sex.
On some level, this is a TV show, and perhaps not the most legitimate of responses to Slaughter’s more intellectual argument. On another level, it is a show that has tried, in Dunham’s own words, to be “super-specific to [her] experience” of what it is to be—as the title suggests—a girl. If Hannah Horvath is the modern woman I will be in three or four years, she is the opposite of what Slaughter writes about. Hannah Horvath doesn’t have it all, but the more I watch her the more I realize she doesn’t really want to. Maybe my post-post-post women’s liberation generation no longer needs to prove our selves to be equal to men, maybe—like Hannah shouts in an episode—it’s okay if we just want to wear cute dresses and go to the movies, and maybe it’s okay if we quit unfulfilling jobs that make us unhappy and date boys our friends think are strange. If having it all is about finding a way to a unique and personalized happiness—not Slaughter’s definition of material success and a societally-condoned personal life, and not my definition culled from years of reading women’s magazines and watching Sex and the City—then I think Hannah has it right. And I think that, as a generation raised free of most of the injustices and slights our mothers and grandmothers had to fight, a generation fed on more nuanced ideas of what equality is, what sexism is, and what success is, us girls might turn out fine.