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.