Collaborative platform on arts, literature, and thought
by Robert Blakslee
I’m late to the game, admittedly, but I’ve recently been watching “Girls,” and thinking about why I dislike Marnie so much, why I relate to Hannah, and why these types of characters – Hannah strikes me as very similar to Piper from “Orange is the New Black” – are recurring these days. What makes Hannah and Piper ‘bad people’ in the respective universes of their shows is that they manage to ‘make everything about themselves.’ What makes Marnie so unlikeable is that she is inauthentic. Part of the reason that I like at least the first seasons of each of these shows is that through these characters they seem to explore problems of empathy and of authenticity, which seem to be of great importance to us. In this essay, I’ll focus on Hannah, and try to explain her selfishness as a warped attempt at empathy.
There is an episode in the second season of “Girls” in which Hannah meets and seduces an older, successful man over a garbage-bin incident. She had lost the key to the dumpster at the coffee shop where she worked, and had begun to throw coffee shop refuse in this neighbor’s bins. They meet when he makes an appearance at the coffee shop to complain about its use of his barrels. Hannah and this gentleman spend a lovely day together, and at the end of it Hannah opens up to him and tells him that she, in her efforts to be a writer, has been purposefully seeking out and living strange experiences “for other people.” She does things “for the story,” so that others might read what she writes and be where she has been. The assumption here seems to be that the relationship between reader and writer is one of empathy. The writer lives and writes so that she can be related to; the reader reads in order to relate to that writer.
Hannah, in explaining all of this to her new friend, seems to see herself qua writer not as some self-analyst that will be related to. In that case the burden would be on the reader to empathize with the writer. She rather sees herself as an emptiness, a vessel attempting to live according to the tastes and interests of an imagined reader, and she finds this draining. Hannah is weeping as she confesses this to her friend. Part of the problem seems to be that Hannah hasn’t fleshed out what exactly the tastes and interests of her imagined reader are, and where exactly the line might be drawn between those tastes and interests and her own. That line would allow her to distinguish between Hannah the individual and Hannah the writer. I am going to try to explain the problem of Hannah’s “self-obsession” as an attempt to make herself, qua writer, relevant to others, and try to understand how she manages to lose herself in the process. I want to imagine Hannah’s ‘writer’s life’ as an attempt at an empathic relationship with a reader who hasn’t been thoroughly imagined.
In school, where we learned to read books, our teachers, in the losing battle to get many of us to read, chose works that were ‘relevant’ to us, and showed us how to see that they were relevant. So that when we left school, those of us who enjoyed a book oftentimes did so because of the way that we ‘related’ to a certain character, by which I mean that we recognized the ways in which that character was like us. We were never so interested in the characters that weren’t like us; those characters we dismissed, and were allowed to dismiss, as ‘unrelatable.’ But why should an experience, even the experience of a fictional character, be dismissed because it doesn’t relate to my experience, or because I don’t find it interesting according to the standards that I’ve brought to bear on the matter? Shouldn’t I try to understand that character and its motives before I’m able to dismiss it, and then on more substantial grounds? Wouldn’t it be a more valuable use of my time to try to translate myself to the world of that character’s experience and understand it according to its own standards before I try to reduce it to mine? I think so, but that is a skill, or imaginative exercise, that we do not learn in school.
Bringing these thoughts to bear on “Girls,” the idea is that Hannah in envisioning herself as a writer must envision herself as someone to whom readers will relate. Hannah’s readers must be able to see themselves in her, or at least in what she writes, such that in order for Hannah to be relevant she will have to be her reader. However, Hannah’s reader, the reader that she will imagine, will inevitably be that girl who recognized her own stubbornness in Lizzy Bennet’s, her own vulnerability in JaneEyre’s, her own boldness in Cathy Earnshaw’s. In other words, her imagined reader will inevitably be she herself. And so her attempt to relate her experience to another will be confounded. She will confusedly be attempting to examine her own experiences from and for the perspective of a displaced self, and will relate to others by grasping what it is of them that she can already explain.
In the effort to imagine this reader, this person for whom Hannah sees herself as having sacrificed her autonomy, she has only created an ‘other’ self. So while to Hannah the courses of action upon which she embarks seem selfless, those of a noble writer living another harrowing, interesting experience so that she might write about it for her imagined reader, her friends see her as having done these things only for herself. Which, in essence, is what she has unconsciously done. It is only that for Hannah, that self has been ‘othered,’ such that it isn’t living (enjoying, being in the moment of) these experiences, but is analyzing and judging them as they occur, the way a reader might judge a novel as it unfolds.