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What We Talk About When We Talk About Lena Dunham | The Nation

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Michelle Dean

Culture and the arts in America, sliced and diced.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Lena Dunham

It will perhaps come as no surprise to hear that one of the fastest-selling tickets at the New Yorker festival this past weekend, was a conversation with the filmmaker/HBO-showrunner/insane-book-deal-scorer Lena Dunham. She came to speak to the magazine’s television critic (and avowed Dunham fan) Emily Nussbaum about her show, and also, about ten minutes into an hour-and-a-half event, about criticism of the show. “You know, I’ve been in therapy since I was 7,” Dunham said, “so I think I thought I’d…fully cornered the market on self-criticality.”

Famous last words. You and I both know that if your hackles are going up (“Therapy, at 7? How very Manhattan”) and your heart has picked up speed, you are not alone. This happens every time Dunham comes up in the media, which is…  disturbingly often. The show is on hiatus, but her mere pursuit of the Book Deal Grail has occasioned a renewed avalanche of “think pieces” (a horrific phrase, if you ask me) with titles like “10 Reasons We Won't Participate in the Lena Dunham Backlash” and “Why Lena Dunham's Book Is Worth $3.5 Million.” I am aware that I am, right now, delivering you such a think piece. But I flatter myself that it’s different because I believe that the best moments of Girls border on brilliance and that the flattery of the series, and to an extent of Dunham too, in an eagerness to avoid certain double standards imposed on successful women, conceals some not-inconsequential faults.

In fact, virtually all discussion of Dunham or Girls occurs at the kind of top volume that in any other context would make you switch the dial. I love it! shouts one side. I hate it! shouts the other. The only kind of claim available is a sweeping one. In part the culprit is the current ascendance of the fandom mode of cultural criticism, in which a writer has a stark choice: either Be A Fan or Be A Hater. Fans sacrifice their critical consciousness in favor of doing what Nussbaum once called “going native”; Haters regard any vague sign of praise as apologism for the subject’s faults. Loyalty is the new key to aesthetic evaluation. It has the benefit of certainty. So when I say that I find the series’s use of Apatowian sight gags defuses the wonderful emotional ambiguity and awkwardness that is Dunham’s strength, that is “haterade.”

It’s delightful, really. Who among us did not long for the tone of partisan politics to infect every other aspect of the culture?

Furthering the referendum-feel of it all is the fact that there are, really, two things we are talking about when we talk about Lena Dunham. One is the actual person who lives in the world and and eats dinner and goes to therapy and also, rather more often than seems warranted for someone who has been eloquently criticized on her treatment of racial issues, makes culturally insensitive comments on Twitter. The other, only lightly dependent on the first, is a sort of empty vessel into which everyone pours their hopes and dreams (as well as their fears and nightmares) for America, and in particular for America’s young white women.

By “everyone,” of course, I mean everyone who shares Dunham’s demographic, a great many of whom happen to be the critics and journalists who have made cultural lemonade from a show with so-so ratings, even for cable. (The gross audience of Girls, which includes DVR and online viewings, is at about 4.1 millionGame of Thrones has about 10.4, by contrast.) Whenever one sees a flat-out defense of Dunham from a person of color or a feminist it’s worth remembering they’re influence by their professional status, too.

The issue here is not necessarily astronomical sums of money from birth, though Dunham has certainly pole-vaulted herself in there of late and a recent interview quotes Jemima Kirke as saying that Dunham made her first feature, Tiny Furniture, was made with “her [Dunham’s] parents’ money.” The word “nepotism” gets thrown around, and even disputed, although its use doesn’t much bother me. Though I’ve yet to hear of some precise connection Dunham pulled, I’m sure somewhere there is one. This is, after all, New York.

But in truth the accusations that Dunham is “rich” and “connected” speak to a much deeper class frustration than her fellow travelers in the media are perhaps able to articulate. What most journalists (though not all) share with Dunham is a certain kind of cultural capital that is not less powerful for all the tenuous grip it gives you on money. If your parents are working artists, as Dunham’s are, if the people around you make a living at it, the amount of the living is not as important as the fact that it is an achievable “dream” for you. Left without examples, having to derive your models from the pages of glossy, lying magazines rather than the people you’ve always been around, your horizon does have a way of narrowing itself. Having the kind of “confidence” that Dunham is often praised for is harder to develop, not to mention something one develops during the exhausted, harried off-hours.

If we want to talk about what it is to be born on third and think you’ve hit a triple, that’s the real essence of it: knowing that there is a world in which you write books, make movies, write television shows, and people pay you to do it. The great lie of America, it’s always seemed to me (as a Canadian), lies in the frequent avowal that it’s a place anyone can do anything they set their mind to. People repeat that over and over, of course, but in the manner of one repeating a self-help mantra rather than any serious conviction. If America is a land of greater opportunity than others, it is far from one where talent and drive are enough. The curtains don’t fall at equal speed on the dreams of say, a white guy at Princeton and those of a Hispanic domestic worker in Los Angeles.

This kind of thing is not just lost on the quick-at-the-keyboard folk who love to love and hate her; it is lost on Dunham too. Asked by Nussbaum to comment on the criticism that Girls missed the mark on class and race issues, and how it had affected her, Dunham wandered and stuttered and wandered her way apologetically through observations that were nearly universally about her own feelings. She only answered half the question, and not the important part. Admitting cursorily that she could not argue with the diversity charges (though also saying they were not really discussed with the staff or even with a new black cast member, Donald Glover), she called the privileged ones more “upsetting”: “I have plenty of counter-arguments to that, but it’s not elegant to share them. Like, it’s not classy to go on Twitter and be like, you know, say like, ‘I had to have summer jobs since I was twelve!’ ”

“Elegant” and “classy” are interesting terms in this context. Even if the claim of having to work summers is true—and like so many trademark Dunham moments, it hung in the air as an ambiguity, perhaps mocking herself and perhaps just being herself—it is still a far cry from the lives of many people who have to work through the school year, whose parents are too sick to earn, and so on down the ladder. It’s also clear that she comes from a world where having to hold a summer job is a sign of lower finances than her peers. What I’m saying is it’s the substance, not the appearance, of the remark that’s the problem.

Here’s another small bit of evidence: in the spring there was a notorious incident in which a Girls writer (and sometime guest star), Lesley Arfin, “defended” the show from racial insensitivity by way of a flat-out racist tweet. (Oops.) In her festival appearance Dunham spoke about it at length, calling the tweet “upsetting,” but noted that Arfin had “moved on to other projects” by then because the show was in production and the writing staff had already been dismissed. Dunham also hinted that she would address the problem “managerially,” which leaves open the question of whether she’d hire Arfin to work for the next season. (For whatever reason, Nussbaum didn’t ask Dunham to clarify that precise point.) The answer, in other words, was more careful presentation than anything else.

As I watched Dunham (full disclosure: I didn’t attend but watched online because it was cheaper), I kept thinking of an observation Zadie Smith made a couple of years ago in The New York Review of Books: “For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the eighties and nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.” As Dunham increasingly turns towards mogul-hood—her new book will be very much pegged to her “brand”—it’s hard to see how she will slip out of that conundrum, because a mogul must above all be liked, at the expense of other goals. That’s not even speaking of the difficulty involved in taking the specific experience of being a Brooklyn WASP of a “girl,” and making that standard feel inclusive and appropriately reflective in a time of a serious wealth and career expectations gap. But then, the confidence has never been the question, has it? Ambition, she has.

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