pregnancy on tv

The Girls Pregnancy Plotline Says More About Us Than It Does About Hannah Horvath

Lena Dunham on Girls. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

On the past two episodes of Girls, Hannah has gradually broken the news about her pregnancy to the important people in her life, and everyone has an opinion. Her mother gets high on weed gummies and declares, “Every time I look at your baby I will see my own death.” Elijah throws a fit and tells Hannah she’ll be a terrible mother. Marnie is “into it,” until she finds out Hannah’s not going to tell the father, then decides it’s “fucking insane.”

Watching these episodes, it’s easy to feel similarly judgmental — about Hannah, but also about the show itself. What did the pregnancy mean? What would Hannah’s choices say about the version of feminism the show represented? (If she kept the baby, would it be a conventional happy ending à la Apatow?) Perhaps there’s no right answer, and no matter how it plays out, Girls will probably be criticized. But by introducing a pregnancy plotline — a device that’s simultaneously sitcom-familiar and overtly political — the show seems to be deliberately inviting viewers to do exactly what they’ve been inclined to do all along: to project their own politics and agendas onto Hannah and company.

The pregnancy implicates us as viewers, forcing us to examine our own biases and preconceptions about what it means for a woman like Hannah to choose to become a mother. And just as Marnie and Elijah’s reactions say more about them than they do about Hannah, our responses say more about us as viewers than they do about Girls. It’s a neat trick, for a show that’s often seemed encumbered by the baggage that others have piled onto it. Here, Girls is doing what it’s lately done best and most intelligently: engaging on a meta level with the conversation it inspires.

Since its first season, Girls has been the most think-pieced-about show on TV, with everyone clamoring to offer a verdict on what the show says about The State Of Millennial Women Today. Young women are a reliable source of cultural panic, and few shows have offered such fertile ground for these deeply held anxieties and value judgments. While Dunham has said repeatedly that she is not Hannah Horvath, our reception of the show has always been inextricable from the noise surrounding Dunham as public figure. More than those of most fictions, Girls’ progressive critics have demanded the show reflect a certain set of liberal feminist values and criticized it when it didn’t; we’ll demand the same of Hannah’s pregnancy, because we’re still more comfortable seeing women as universal types rather than distinct individuals. As Manohla Dargis said in a piece about bodies on the show (and which could easily be applied to the pregnancy storyline): “Hannah is finally a rebuke to universal ideas about women. Hannah is a woman, not all women. Hers is a female body, not the female body.”

Throughout the show’s run — and particularly in its final season — Dunham and the show’s writers have shown an awareness of how our experience of the show is inevitably shaped by the media churn that surrounds it. Every time the show depicts a naked body or a scene of raw, ugly sex, Dunham and the show’s writers are implicitly responding to criticism of all the naked bodies and ugly sex that came before. This season’s third episode, where Dunham meets with an older male writer accused of sexually assaulting college students, smartly circumvents the inevitable influx of Girls think pieces by literally being a Girls think piece, a dialectical interrogation of issues that have dogged the show from the start. This season has even seen a plotline in which Adam and Jessa film a movie about Adam and Hannah, complete with a doppelgänger version of Hannah — it feels like a commentary on what it means to portray a version of oneself on TV, one distorted fun-house-mirror version of Dunham folded inside another.

For a show whose politics have been under constant scrutiny, it’s fitting that Dunham would choose to explore pregnancy, maybe the most overscrutinized experience of a woman’s life, in its final episodes. “It’s almost an interesting litmus test for where people feel they are in their lives, or what they think is appropriate. It’s interesting to see that keeping a baby is as politicized in many ways, in liberal communities, as aborting a baby. It brings up interesting debates,” Dunham has told Vanity Fair. (She’s no stranger to this sort of controversy; just a few months ago, she had to apologize for glibly saying that “she wished” she had had an abortion.)

By exploring these questions, Dunham is thrusting us into the quagmire of judgment all women face when it comes to making decisions about their bodies, much in the way that Hannah’s friends and family all clamor for involvement in Hannah’s choice. No matter what Hannah decides to do, in forcing us to grapple with her decision-making process, the show itself stands as a provocative test of what it really means to be pro-choice: To accept that the choice is Hannah’s and Hannah’s alone, and to recognize that Girls is just one woman’s story — no matter how much we disagree with the way it’s told.

What the Girls Pregnancy Plotline Says About Its Viewers