As I was watching the latest episode of “Girls” I couldn’t help but assume viewers all across the country were engaged in a collective slow clap. For the first time in five years, the characters start to say what the audience is thinking. The two most poignant examples are a paramount “GROW UP!” from Jessa to Shosh, and Hannah says to Marnie, “It can be pretty hard to have observations about other people when you’re only thinking about yourself. I would know.”
The creators made a fun and effective exploration into a genre-style episode that mirrored a horror film. Hannah follows Marnie and Desi on a trip to Poughkeepsie because the ex-spouses are sleeping together but they don’t want Marnie’s steady boyfriend, Ray, to find out. Hannah tags along so Ray won’t be suspicious. Super romantic.
During their gallivant, Marnie discovers that Desi is addicted to Oxy—a plot twist that is surprising until one pauses to think about it. Desi has become more disheveled throughout his time on the show, amounting to what Hannah describes as looking “like someone in the pacific northwest knit a man.” His despair remained unnoticed amid the girls’ drama. When Marnie destroys Desi’s drugs, he has a psychotic breakdown, leaving the girls horrified and trapped inside while he punches through windows.
Back in the city, Shosh invites Elijah to a women’s professional mixer (WEMUN: Women Entrepreneurs Meet Up Now) organized by her ex best friends. As per usual with “networking” (whatever that means!) events, everyone pretends to be more interesting than they are. Except, of course, Jessa, who invites herself against Shosh’s wishes because she is desperate for female friendship after her feud with Hannah.
Once Shosh is deemed professionally uninteresting by her former friends, Jessa and Shosh break down and lash out, each indignant to the other’s blatant selfishness and immaturity while respectively unable to see their own. The moment Jessa storms away telling Shosh to grow up feels like the first moment when either character is able to see themselves with clear eyes. Jessa’s choice to lose a best friend by dating Adam, and Shosh’s incessant need to appear accomplished, bubble up in a single moment of collective self-loathing. But not the usual, attention-seeking kind; rather the kind that leads each girl to walk away in bitter, contemplative silence for perhaps the first time in their adult lives.
Marnie and Hannah have a similar moment: crying on the floor, glass and broken pills all around them, Desi screaming and banging on the front door, they lament what viewers have wanted them to realize for so long. “We don’t know anything, do we?” But there is something newly minted on Hannah’s outlook that facilitates a fresh response: empathy.
In previous seasons, Hannah would never have forgone her writing obligations and sat so patiently in such a ridiculous situation while Marnie weeps. But she does now. And when she declares that Marnie needs to start thinking of others, she doesn’t embody the same self-righteous demeanor we’ve seen her hold for so long. Instead she caveats her declaration with the meek, “I would know.”
While Hannah’s effort is commendable it raises questions about Lena Dunham’s notion of empathy. Hannah implies that her experience is itself the only thing which qualifies her to understand, and therefore advise, Marnie’s similar attitude.
The moment, for me, brings back haunting memories of a few months ago when Lena Dunham said on her podcast that she wishes she’d had an abortion. She later clarified that she was trying to express her wish to truly understand the difficulty of having an abortion so she could empathize with and support women who had—instead of just gesturing. The implication being that one cannot empathize at all unless they’ve had an abortion themselves.
Among the myriad of problems with that line of thinking (which the internet has already pointed out), fundamental to this assertion (and to Hannah’s newfound compassion) is a misunderstanding of the nature of empathy. Dunham assumes that the only way to authentically understand the experience of another person is by having a similar experience oneself. This implicit claim calls to mind the work of philosopher (and Catholic Saint) Edith Stein, specifically her work On the Problem of Empathy. Stein questions whether individuals are incarcerated by their own experience or if they have the capacity to reach outside themselves and comprehend the experience of others.
Her dissertation came after a year of working as a Red Cross aid in a military hospital where she concluded that “ knowledge of someone else’s pain is direct knowledge; […] We know they have a mind like ours because we know that we think, feel, decide, suffer, rejoice, etc. We recognize that the other person has such experiences as well because our ego is in some sense interchangeable with theirs” (McLeod). In other words, people have the ability to recognize the pain of others as if it were an experience of their own.
Dunham, by making such statements about abortion or constructing characters like Hannah, falls prey to a common modern philosophical misconception of how humans experience each other and the world around us. While it’s great that Hannah is now able to genuinely notice her own arrogance, she stills constricts herself with her own naturally limited experience. As Hannah becomes more of an adult, will she only be able to empathize with people to which she is similar? If so, this seems quite a narrow sliver of the world, and a problematic way to move about it. I hope to see her horizons continue to widen.