Someone calls me Liz at least once a week, probably more. It’s a fine name, but it’s not my name, my name is Elizabeth, and the list of people that are allowed to call me anything else is extremely limited (it’s really just my sister, who mostly calls me Lizzie).
I find it infuriating when, for example, I answer a phone call with “This is Elizabeth,” and the person I’m talking to turns around immediately with a “Hi, Liz.” It tells me they’re not listening to me, and that they don’t have much respect for me. There are always people who don’t, or won’t, hear it when I correct them.
I kept thinking about this watching last night’s Girls, in which Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) spends a couple of days in the company of an attractive older man named Joshua (Patrick Wilson), a man she keeps calling Josh. Her inability to not call him by a nickname he clearly dislikes–he corrects her every time, his patience dwindling with the repeated mistake–is only one example of the way’s Hannah doesn’t listen to him over their time together, but it’s the one that resonated for me. It’s perhaps excusable that a Michigander who went to college in Ohio and lives in New York would confuse San Francisco for San Diego, or that Hannah would struggle to understand the difference between a divorce and a separation. It’s less excusable to repeatedly, almost insistently, call someone by the wrong name.
Hannah is not a character with much of a filter, it’s part of the reason I so often refer to her as my worst self. Things I might think and not say gallop out of Hannah’s mouth like they’re being chased. And over and over again, since the series began, we have watched Hannah trip herself up just by saying too much and going too far. It’s how she screwed up a job interview in season 1, and how she drove a wedge into her relationship with Marnie. In the second episode this season, Sandy ended things when Hannah pushed him too far, and last night Joshua shut down when Hannah broke down.
Hannah’s break down comes after she passes out in Joshua’s fancy steam room/shower. She comes to in his arms, wrapped in his bathrobe, warm and dry and safe, and the way she loses control of her emotions in that moment is unsurprising. Through her tears, she gives Joshua a speech about how all she wants is to be happy, but how her own attempts to have as many experiences as possible–for her writing–keep getting in the way.
In some ways Hannah’s speech is a demonstration of Hannah at her most self-aware. We’ve seen her trying to force experiences for the sake of the story before, whether she was propositioning her boss last season or trying cocaine a couple of weeks ago. What Hannah doesn’t seem to realize is that she’s too busy projecting her own expectations onto the world to see what’s actually going on around her. She should be an experiential sponge, but she’s got a shell up, and everything rolls right off of it. She never quite manages to learn anything.
In Joshua, Hannah sees a real adult, someone who has his life together. After all, he has a house so nice she didn’t think it could exist in her neighborhood, he buys steak to make for himself, not just guests. He has spare towels and fresh fruit. He reads the newspaper and complains about the rowdy kids next door. Hannah notices the outward trappings of a person who has their life together. What she doesn’t notice is that Joshua is more than just those outward trappings–that he’s sad about his wife’s departure, lonely in a neighborhood where he feels old and out of place, angry enough that someone at Grumpy’s has been usurping his garbage cans that he lashes out at Ray in the episode’s opening. When Joshua does try to open up to Hannah, she blows him off, but she also complains that he hasn’t told her anything about himself.
Last night’s Girls took a step back from the overall narrative arc of the show to spend some time focusing on who Hannah is, what Hannah wants, and how Hannah sees both herself and the world. I don’t know that Hannah necessarily came out of the episode looking any better or worse than she did going into it–neither the charactor, nor Lena Dunham, is going to win over any of their detractors with an episode like this–or that she learned anything from the experience (she clearly didn’t learn Joshua’s name), but she did come out of it a sharper character, her edges more clearly defined.