In Defense of Lena Dunham

Okay, stop. Everybody…stop. The backlash has gone on long enough. In fact, it’s gone on longer than Girls has. And, really, it needs to stop.

For me, Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture effectively ruined all other portrayals of Upper Middle Class White Angst . You can call them Woody Allen movies, Nora Ephron movies, Wes Anderson movies, all movies made, may I say, for and about people like myself. No other movie was as ruthlessly honest about the privileges and the cluelessness of the favored class. No other movie made me wonder how we can give so much to children—and let them grow so little. The people in that film were clever, well educated, well meaning, but stunted, aristocratic, and directionless. You could see them standing behind Marie Antoinette at the guillotine.

The penultimate scene where the heroine—a word you have to use ironically here—ditches her college friend who represents independence and self-sufficiency to choose the path of eternal adolescence is brutal. I felt like Dunham was saying, You think she’s spoiled, ridiculous, and cowardly? Yep, she is. And I’m not going to flatter any of us by saying she’ll change.

So now Dunham has brought us Girls. Immediately, some columnist demanded to know why they were not Women. Because they’re not, that’s the point. Amidst all the praise—which was overboard and probably created as many problems for Dunham as opportunities—were complaints that the characters were privileged. Clueless. Immature. Obsessed with issues most of us either cannot afford or solved long ago.

Um, yes. But you know, I never really related to Tony Soprano or Carrie Bradshaw either.

Now the complaint is that Girls is not diverse. Someone told me that Lena Dunham made the asinine comment that since the film Precious did not represent her, why should her show represent African American women? For the record, she did not sat this. Unfortunately, Lesley Arfin, a writer for the show, did. And I really wish she hadn’t. It will affect how I watch the show. It’s one thing to depict clueless people. It’s another to actually be clueless—and yeah, kind of racist—under the guise of aggrieved snark.

Many people point to the first scene of Girls where the parents cut off their daughter’s money spigot after supporting her for two years. Hannah is horrified. This is submitted as evidence that Dunham is hopelessly entitled. No, she just understands people who are. That’s why she started the series with that scene. To show us who Hannah is now, where she needs to go, and what stands in her way.

We don’t like stories of privilege? Strike F. Scott Fitzgerald and Noel Coward from the list!

I remain convinced that Dunham gets it. If her characters knew people who were not like them, they would not exist in a bubble. And the bubble, like the city in Sex and the City, is a character in the show. Their privilege is part of the point. HBO shows are traditionally about insular groups. The Sopranos were the mafia. Sex and the City, vapid and unreal gals on the loose in NYC. Game of Thrones, grungy medieval types who whack one another with swords and have a lot of sex. David Simon of The Wire and Treme is one of the very few to break this mold.

Not everyone can be David Simon. I don’t know how compelling Dunham can make her privileged little people over time. But she’s smart. And funny. And astute. And I want her to have the chance to try.

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7 thoughts on “In Defense of Lena Dunham

  1. Tom Craughwell says:

    I’m not sure if this is what you were going for, but you’ve just persuaded me not to watch this.

  2. It’s fine not to want to watch it. Or not like it. But don’t dislike it for sins committed by many other popular shows that haven’t been subjected to nearly the same level criticism when their third episode hasn’t even aired.

  3. Tom Craughwell says:

    Deal!

  4. Tom Craughwell says:

    PS Started reading The Girl last night. Loving it.

  5. You certainly know how to end an argument! 🙂

  6. Sascha Segan says:

    Mariah, I think one of the problems here is that Dunham’s style of art purposefully confuses herself with her characters (for instance, in the casting of Tiny Furniture) and so people sometimes read it as naive autobiography rather than self-aware commentary. Leontine and I were discussing the difference between Dunham’s work and “30 Rock,” and it’s that “30 Rock” is constantly telling us through its over-the-top-ness that the Tiny Fey and Tracy Morgan characters are inspired by elements in their creators’ lives, but could not possibly be real people. Lena Dunham’s naturalism removes that signal, so when her character on Girls says she’s “a voice of a generation,” it’s too easy for viewers to see that as Lena Dunham’s self-statement rather than what it is, which is a humorous expression of the *character’s* naivete.

    • I think that’s very true. I also think people assume a 25 year old can’t be that self-aware. I was comparing it to Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David as Larry David is over the top in the same way and also fairly unlikable in his narcissism. And yet people like him. I like him. But I feel he makes a deal with the audience: You are going to be watching a pretty awful guy who redeemed by his ability to make you laugh at all the trouble he gets himself into. I’m hoping audiences will strike that same deal with Dunham.

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