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Ethical Musings: Death in HBO's Girls

Since its debut in 2012, HBO’s hit series Girls has straddled all sorts of ethical lines about friendship, race, class and femininity.
by khepler Jul 16, 2015
Contributors: Kimberly Ann Harris

 Girls' Hannah in Graveyard 

Since its debut in 2012, HBO’s hit series Girls has straddled all sorts of ethical lines about friendship, race, class and femininity.

Hannah Horvath, along with her three friends Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and the show details aspects of their lives. Hannah is an aspiring writer. This dream motivates her to move to New York City from East Lansing, MI (the home of Michigan State University) much in the same way Carrie Bradshaw does in the famous series Sex and the City.

In the first two seasons, Hannah (the main protagonist) struggled to find and keep employment, although at times she appeared to be uninterested in employment. This season, she finds an editor and he becomes her champion and gives her a chance to write an e-book . She begins to believe that her dream of becoming a writer can be realized. In the current episode, Hannah learns that her editor has died. Rather than displaying grief about the death of her editor, Hannah is more concerned about what will happen to her e-book. While Hannah did not know her editor very well, he played a key role in her life and helped her realize her dream of writing a book. Hannah’s outward indifference toward the death of her editor concerns the people around her. Adam, Hannah’s partner, is convinced that Hannah’s drive to write her book and “pay rent” is more important to her, than the death of her loved ones.

Is it ethically acceptable if Hannah replies “I feel nothing”, when she is asked how she feels about the death of her editor?

In continuing to think about death as an ethically relevant issue, the death of Hannah’s editor motivates other characters to think about people who have died in their lives. Jessa (the free spirited, bohemian, once divorced and recovering drug addict friend) recalls the death of her childhood best friend. Jessa learns that her childhood friend whom she thought was dead had indeed faked her death. We learn that she pretended to be dead, because she had a drug addiction. Jessa, due to her own issues, was an enabler to her friend. Jessa is appalled after finding her friend is alive and doing very well, namely because she grieved over the friend’s death. Jessa did what she was supposed to do. Jessa empathized.

The reality is people we know die. People we do not know die around us regularly and sometimes they have no significant roles in our lives. This episode reveals two issues. The first is that Hannah is meant to feel guilty about being more concerned about writing her book , than the death of her editor. Shaming women for being more career orientated is a common practice. This episode gives a unique spin on this issue. The second is a question that I am not sure I have any adequate responses to: is there one ethically acceptable way to recognize the death of a person? Some people pour out liquor on grave sites, some wear black clothing for a period of time and some throw parties in honor of the deceased. In each of these displays of recognition, there is an expectation that we show empathy or “human compassion” toward the deceased. Are displays of empathy the only ethically acceptable way to recognize the death of a person?