It’s a strange thing to assert that by depicting a woman who loves her own child a television show is reaching “disconcertingly conservative” conclusions. It’s an even stranger thing when that show is HBO’s Girls. After spending a season deconstructing the show (much to the chagrin of my husband who’d rather watch anything, anything but Lena Dunham’s incessant whining) I reached a number of conclusions regarding the broader feminist ethos espoused by the bohemian hit. At its core the show endorsed a narcissistic worldview, predictably reflective of the show’s creator and writer Lena Dunham. Which is why I found the series finale featuring her character, Hannah, choosing to bond with her child and embrace her role as a mother particularly shocking. Apparently, so did many an old school feminist.
When the Jewish Women’s Archive tweeted out a link to New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum’s take on the show’s end I replied, “If it is conservative to love your baby, what does that mean for liberals?” Obviously unmoved by the show’s dramatic shift and rather oblivious to Nussbaum’s verbiage, the JWA responded,
Hm, not sure it's conservative to love your baby, but rather that it's conservative to show motherhood as the only way a woman can mature.
— Jewish Women's Archive (@jwaonline) April 19, 2017
Lest we get stuck in the rut of second wave feminism’s ennui, let’s examine Nussbaum’s critique in terms of parenting in a post-industrial age, one in which an increasing number of Millennials (women and men) are prioritizing family over career. Nussbaum writes:
By the series’ end, Hannah had made headway in her career, but the show’s themes had shifted. Her creativity no longer felt important or central; her immaturity did. The finale was a story about someone childish, finally forcing herself to grow up by loving her own child.
It was a disconcertingly conservative conclusion, and I say that as both a mother and a writer. …I didn’t begrudge Hannah getting pregnant; I fully bought that she’d have the baby, out of a pugnacious contrarianism. But it was surprisingly hard for me to watch that become her turning point, or to hear her argue that mothering is what a mother is, that her adventures are over for good.
Why is it so hard to believe that a woman would grant her child precedence over her career? Moreover, why is it so unbelievable that a woman might look at her child and believe she’s embarking on a new adventure instead of merely resigning herself to old age?
Let’s counter some dead myths, shall we? Cougars have killed the matron myth that women over 40 are dried up. Tiny homes and urban renewal are both sounding Stepford suburbia’s death knell. Technology has empowered the worker over the boss when it comes to alternative work schedules that suit caretaking. A slew of baby products has made the once unbearable flying, hiking and even simply road-tripping with children a conquerable task. The only people still caught up in the belief that women are giving up excitement and fulfillment are the ones haunted by the Ghost of Feminists Past.
Whether Dunham herself has caught up with the times remains to be seen. As for now, we can at least find satisfaction in the fact that she ended Girls on a high note, one far more in touch with reality than the narcissistic—and outmoded—meanderings of seasons past. For Nussbaum, the finale was a “let down” because it contradicted the initial premise that Hannah was a “train wreck who spun her humiliation into material.” Ironically, then, even Nussbaum couldn’t deny the truth that Millennial parents have come to accept, much to the chagrin of their second-wave forebears: Motherhood is at odds with humiliation, not the acceptance of it.