The desperate quest to make Lena Dunham relevant
I am bitter about being the target audience for Girls (NYU-educated WASP, with that dishwater-blonde hipster pageboy and everything), generally because I think I deserve a better show. I watched Girls because of target-audience consciousness and found it to be like trudging through oatmeal: I watched the pilot on a plane and kept poking my mother in the ribs while she tried to sleep. “Mom, this show is so DULL. Mom, this show is getting so much press and it’s A TOOTHLESS SEA OF BEIGE. MOOOOOM, okay, no wait, she’s having terrible sex, go back to sleep for a while. God, I wish I could sleep on planes.”
My point about being the target audience, though: I’ve followed the coverage of the show, pissily. I’ve glared at the posters in the subway station back when all that was being shown in the media was blanket adoration, thinking you say you are For Me and instead you are a pile of toenails. I’ve subsequently tracked the racial representation debate. (My god, Lena! Do you know how hard it is to keep a group of friends that lily-white in the city? It’s fucking difficult to keep your life homogeneous, babe: you have to actively work at it.) And now I’m following the third layer of response now: the “backlash to the backlash”.
Today we’ve got this Huffington Post article about HuffPo Women’s high-hatted refusal to “participate in the backlash against Lena Dunham”, which, gosh, isn’t it a bit shit that “actually critical media criticism” automatically amounts to a “backlash” (such success-story Fuck The Haters vocabulary bait to start out with)? The article goes on to laud Dunham as feminist figure and hero, and I started bleeding internally by point two: “She’s not paralyzed by her own ambition.” Thank you, HuffPo! Thank you for letting me know that all the women who haven’t achieved media representation like our Lena weren’t actually wronged or marginalized. They were just paralyzed. Too scared to go after the things they wanted. You know how stressful it is, being a woman that wants things. Leaves most dames quaking in their boots. Thank goodness we’ve got a model of fearlessness for the first time in the entire history of media, amiright.
Hardly. Girls wouldn’t exist without a litany of predecessors. (On the plane, I literally watched the pilot back to back with an episode of Sex & the City and tried not to laugh out loud. Sad fact: SATC comes off better TV, even as irrevocably dated as it is. At least their wardrobes have color.) Pretending it’s doing a single thing new and noteworthy is in fact what’s made the media surrounding it so toxic.
Girls is a mediocre show that wouldn’t be getting as much press as it’s been getting if Dunham wasn’t so young and so self-aggrandizing. (If you have to literally write in your first episode I’m the voice of my generation, like a viewer FYI, I DO NOT THINK THAT YOU ARE.) That’s it, in terms of show qua show. Girls is harmless—in a vacuum. When I was watching Girls, I wasn’t thinking “this is whiter than most of TV” or “these girls are antifeminist” or “these girls are feminist” or anything particularly political at all. I was thinking “this is like watching pieces of toast model the Urban Outfitters catalogue and I wish it would stop.” It’s not a good show, but it’s simply not enough to merit extreme reactions one way or the other. (Is this the part where I admit to watching multiple episodes on Youtube, badly subtitled in French? I did! I wanted to yell on the internet in an informed manner, and a small wicked doubting part of me was going: what if you LIKE it? I didn’t. I also didn’t hate it. Watching it was like trying to eat when you have a cold, when everything tastes a little like mucus and a little like sand and mostly like nothing at all. You come away thinking nothing so much as but, why.) The harm is generated from without. Because Girls doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Nothing does.
The problem starts with Dunham herself, and the writing staff. I don’t feel the need to elaborate on Lena Dunham’s propensity toward making an ass out of herself when she’s managed to do it consistently in every one of her interviews ever since people started saying “hey honey, I don’t see my generation in your claim”—Google any of them. I don’t really need to go into why Girls writer Lesley Arfin calling her shit “Obama in the white house” is not just foul but also pretty indicative of why a good chunk of thinking media consumers have stopped wanting to be generationally represented by these white girls. Trust me, you can find examples of the Girls girls’ privileged assery all over: they all have twitters, knock yourself out.
What I want to talk about is the rallying cry behind Lena Dunham. The HuffPo Women’s self-satisfied presentation of being above the Just-Jealous Lena-Hating Rabble. The Caitlin “How To Be A Woman” Moran interview followed up by Moran’s “I don’t give a shit”s to the racial question. The uprising of privileged, fiercely self-declared feminists to back up their girl—that’s the thing that’s toxic, most of all. The language you get out of that: how should one be a woman, then, Moran? A: Dunham or GTFO.
Huffington Post, in praising Lena Dunham, indicts pretty much every woman that isn’t Lena Dunham. The article’s very much not alone: Girls-defensive media has responded to accusations of erasure by erasing its accusers outright from the realm of feminism. HuffPo’s smug we-understand shoulderpatting—”there are plenty of complicated external reasons we don’t always fight to see our ideas realized,” they write ever-so-kindly, “but when a young woman does, that is something to celebrate”—manages to neatly block out a good swath of history as well as most of the present. Saying Lena Dunham’s broken a glass ceiling that Mary Tyler Moore was tap-dancing on half a century ago is unbelievably disingenuous; saying that everyone who doesn’t have a show (including, one presumes, all the upset underrepresenteds complaining about Dunham’s generational masterwork) simply didn’t want it enough is borderline Reaganesque. Trickle-down self-esteem economics: Dunham’s access to the top is supposed to be good enough for everyone below.
Because, look at the Dunham model and tell me she’s not working from the top. White, well-to-do, parental background in the arts, friends with parental backgrounds in the arts. (This hilariously disingenuous article argues that it doesn’t count as “nepotism” because all her fame-scion castmates were her friends first, like, fuck you, are YOU friends with David Mamet’s daughter?) The party line here is “women supporting women”, but how many women fit this bill? Tell me again about the hurdles Dunham had to jump over. Tell me again, again.
We do need more women in the media, more women writing about women for women. There is a huge amount of ground waiting to be broken in the industry, and a horrifying number of chauvinistic infrastructures that make that difficult. (Hiya.) Dunham is in the absolute least challenging position to enter the industry, however, and using her as a model either of accessibility or of trailblazing has led to a line of rhetoric that diminishes everyone else out there. She “did the most with the most”, HuffPo says as a kind of virtue. All right. Where does that leave the rest of the world? She can’t be the platonic female media ideal she’s being lauded as without leaving everyone else overtly out on their ass. The Dunham System doesn’t work as a system. Lena Dunham broke ground only for women like Lena Dunham, and therefore the fierce defense of Lena Dunham blocks out room for any woman who is not like Lena Dunham. This makes for a very gray history, a fairly gloomy future, and a present pretending to be much smaller than it is.
Caitlin Moran spat back at Dunham detractors on twitter: why don’t you ask Charlotte Bronte why Jane Eyre didn’t have any black people in it? Answer: you know your history, Moran, don’t be dull just to make Dunham look brighter. (If we have to dim ourselves down to make Dunham look good, I don’t think we should be trying that hard to make her look good.) They couldn’t tweet her, for one. Now—especially with social media opening up social justice discussions to a broader audience—culture makes consciousness unavoidable. The internet’s not a harmonious melting pot, and God knows it’s not a guarantee that intelligent discussion is always taking place, but people are talking about minority representation, talking about it vociferously enough in smaller media spaces that the discussions bleed into the larger ones. The shift this makes isn’t a physical one; it’s mental. There are still plenty of places that aren’t all that diverse, but we conceptualize them differently: majority ≠ default. When there’s a vocal minority, you end up codifying the majority. I come from a town in Massachusetts. It’s a really, really white town. And I conceptualized it—despite having had no greater spectrum of diversity of my life until I left and came to New York—as a really white town. And New York, notably, is not homogeneous. You could do Sex & the City in the nineties, unchecked, because no one was talking about this. You cannot give the SATC model to four symmetrical twentysomethings in the present day and pretend nothing’s changed.
The self-declared-feminist rallying cries that back Dunham up with relentless prescriptivism regarding what women are worth defending—they’re upsetting not least because they’re so strikingly dated, so passionately unwilling to look forward. To pretend not just that there’s no nonDunhammy presence in New York worth the “voice of a generation” talking about, but that there’s no discourse of representation in media, period, is inaccurate. It’s exactly the wrong generation for that.