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From Hannah Horvath to Rory Gilmore: the problem with women writers on TV

Aspiring women writers attempt to make it in professional journalism, but only find success and satisfaction in writing about their personal lives.

The new season of Girls opens with the tapping of keys. Hannah is writing, at speed. She opens an email: We would be thrilled to publish your piece. A montage begins of Hannah’s friends and family reading her Modern Love column in The New York Times. “Hannah’s in print!” her friend Marnie shouts.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life begins with Rory’s recent New Yorker piece hanging in the air. “Ah! There she is, the New Yorker writer!” her mother’s partner Luke says to her when they are first reunited on screen. “Super proud!”

“It was just one Talk of the Town piece,” she insists.

Hannah and Rory are just two young women on TV who have recently made the jump from “aspiring” writer to writer. But they have more in common than just that. Hannah and Rory are two aspiring writers who have struggled with professional journalism, but who find success and satisfaction in writing about their personal lives.

Hannah struggles with writer’s block and deadlines throughout Girls’s five seasons. When she lands a writing job at GQ (for sponsored content, but still), she is surrounded by colleagues who’ve been published in prestigious New York publications. (“Joe had a talk piece in the New Yorker!”), but still sees herself as superior due to her literary ambitions, and fails to perform well in her job as a result.

When Rory gets a writing assignment from GQ, she fails to take it seriously, is antisocial and reluctant to interview anyone, falls asleep on the job, and sleeps with a subject.

Rory repeatedly rejects an interview offer from a website SandeeSays because it’s “a few steps below […] the New Yorker, or GQ,” and when she eventually turns up, she assumes she is so overqualified that she already has the job, and fails to prepare properly for it. When she is rejected outright, she shouts at her interviewer for misleading her and wasting her time.

When Hannah gets a writing assignment from a similar website (here called Slag Mag), she fails to take it seriously, is antisocial and reluctant to interview anyone, tries to hide in her hotel room, and (yep!) sleeps with a subject. “I’m a writer writing about surfing,” Hannah says, “But what if the piece was about how I went out to the beach, hated it, went back inside, and never came out. Could that be an interesting angle?”

Despite this, Hannah and Rory are very calm about the lack of financial reward such an lax approach to writing professionally might bring them, sporting the relaxed attitudes that only privilege can bring. “I feel like this is my time to be rootless and just see where life takes me, and travel wherever there’s a story to write,” says Rory offhandedly.

So both characters end up stuck in a rut with their writing, both convinced they have bigger and better stories to tell than the ones their editors foist on them, but both surprisingly unmotivated. Until it happens: the realisation that the story they need to tell is the one we’ve seen playing out on screen the whole time: Hannah’s experience of being betrayed by her ex-boyfriend and her best friend, and Rory’s unusually close relationship with her mother.

Female characters are often pictured as writing their own lives, in real time. Some of cinema’s most recognisable young female characters are diarists: Bridget Jones, Heathers’ Veronica, Amy in Gone Girl. It’s a trope of young adult film and TV: from the The Princess Diaries to My Mad Fat Diary to As Told by Ginger. But these retrospective “I should write about this!” reveals, as in the final episodes of Roseanne, function differently.

It’s not a new trope. That final act - when it becomes apparent that our protagonist might also be our narrator - has repeatedly appeared on screen. Neither is it one that is always gendered: it happens in The Dick Van Dyke Show, Back to the Future, Stand By Me, The Outsiders. And, of course, that classic of masculine cinema, Elf. It’s a final line reveal in two Roald Dahl books: James and the Giant Peach and The BFG.

But the male protagonists here are rarely defined by their writing ambitions, or even seen as writers at all until the final moments. Compare that with Hannah and Rory, whose entire identities are based on their desires to write, something they are incapable of doing without writing autobiographically.

While their journalistic and creative writing pursuits are repeatedly framed as difficult, both Hannah and Rory find this kind of personal writing a breeze. “I sat down and it just came out. Flew out,” says Rory of her memoir about her mother. “It’s like this story has been sitting in my brain for years, taking up space. Nothing I’ve written has been this easy.” Hannah’s Modern Love article is based on a Moth story she wrote less than an hour before she performed.

Of course, Sex and the City is in part to blame for the prevalence of this kind of women writer on TV – each episode saw Carrie finally write her sex column by simply glancing at her own relationships and the relationships of her friends.

But this is a trope we see over and over again in cinema, too. In Never Been Kissed (1999), Drew Barrymore’s Chicago Sun-Times reporter goes undercover at a school, falls for the teacher, and finds success with her writing when she writes about her personal feelings for him. The film adaptation of Little Women (1994) departs from the book when it reveals that Jo becomes a successful writer because she writes about her sisters. Down with Love (2003) sees Renée Zellweger as a feminist writer who meets a sexist man, marry him, and write a book about it, one that’s intended to end the battle of the sexes.

There’s nothing wrong with personal writing – it is no less serious (or indeed less masculine) than journalistic reporting or fiction writing. But the idea that women writers struggle imaginatively or practically with the demands of other forms of writing reflects and promotes sexist ideas about literature, devaluing both women writers and memoir as a genre.

There are some more hopeful portrayals. Jane in Jane the Virgin is a wonderful example of a dedicated creative writer (even if her personal life has a greater influence on her work in later seasons), while Julie in Difficult People is simultaneously wry about the literary worth of her career as a TV recapper and serious about it. Doll & Em even explores a creative writing partnership between two women.

But characters like Hannah and Rory might suggest that while men can be inspired literary geniuses, women can at best hope to record their lives with elegance. And while TV shows about male writers – from You’re the Worst to The Affair to Bored to Death – see their lives as defined by creativity, Girls and Gilmore Girls see their protagonists’ creativity as defined by their lives.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game