Call It What It Is: The Hatred Directed At Lena Dunham Is Petty, Childish Bullshit
Lena Dunham. Ah, Lena Dunham. Filmmaker, actress, writer. Subject of so much derision you'd think she spent her days throwing cats into airplane engines. When a new episode of Girls premieres, or we learn that Random House agrees to shell out $3.5 million for her first book, the internet goes apeshit. We're met with vociferous cries of:
- Her show is dumb.
- The characters are terrible.
- She's entitled.
- She's ugly.
As with anything, there are legitimate criticisms that can be leveled at Girls, just as there will be legitimate criticisms leveled at her upcoming book. That's the nature of art (or else, what would critics and bloggers do with themselves all day?).
But it really seems like a lot of the hatred directed toward Dunham is coded language for: Why does this 26-year-old have a book deal and a hit show AND I DON'T?!
Cards on the table: I'm a fan of Girls. And I tend to not be a fan of most things set in contemporary New York City, because they're almost always wish-fulfillment fantasies written by people who've never been here (I twitch every time someone pulls up to a bar or business and gets a parking spot right out front).
And I'm a fan of Dunham. I'll read her book. More than that, I respect her. She's four years younger than me and she's doing quite well in areas where I would like to do quite well. She makes me work harder.
But you know what? It's frustrating to listen to people bash her when it's driven by a need for attention or self-validation. It's indicative of the worst fucking quality shared by (some, not all) writers—that seething pit of jealousy that makes you hate anyone who's accomplished something, because it wasn't you who accomplished it.
So, since no one's really yelled at me in a while, and I'm a glutton for punishment (though always praying for intelligent conversation), I wanted to go through the areas where Dunham is criticized, and talk about why I think they're unfair, unfounded, or just generally bullshit.
Her success is due to nepotism!
Dunham's father, Carroll Dunham, is a painter. Her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a photographer and designer. I may not be the hippest person ever, but I'm maybe a little bit hip (I listen to No Doubt!). And I have never heard of either of these people.
Just because your parents are "famous" doesn't mean you're going to be famous. Want proof? Meet Chet Haze. He's an aspiring rapper whose real name is Chester Hanks. His father is Tom Hanks. Despite the fact that his father is one of the most famous movie stars in the world, he does not have a platinum record. In fact, Chet isn't really taken very seriously as a rapper (nor should he be, because, ugh).
We live in a country—and especially in an era—when it's common for people to get ahead because they have an inside track. And of course it sucks to watch that. Look at Kim Kardashian. Daughter of a Z-list celebrity, she fakes outrage over a porn tape that, by all accounts, she released herself, and somehow builds an empire on it. That's a shitty way to get famous.
But to lump Dunham and Kardashian into the same category is the height of bullshit. Did Dunham have a greater degree of entrée into the entertainment industry, compared to most people? Yes, absolutely. Anyone who has that kind of entrée is a fool if they don't capitalize on it, and a liar if they say they didn't.
But from the bombs lobbed at her, you'd think HBO sent her parents a fruit basket on the day she was born with a note saying: Have her call us in 26 years so we can give her a show.
Put aside your feelings about what she does. You can't say she didn't put in the hours.
When her deal with Random House went through, Twitter was a scary place to be. People were angry. Effigy-burning angry. And the thing that really struck me is how many people were outraged that Dunham was "demanding" that kind of money for her book. Like it was her fault.
Here's how people seem to imagine the conversation went between Dunham and her agent:
Lena Dunham: Hey literary agent, I demand that you get three million dollars for my book. Now send in someone for me to use as a footrest and do not make eye contact with me.
Literary agent: Yes, your highness.
Here's how that conversation probably actually went:
Literary agent: So, just like every other literary agent in the history of the world, I am tasked with getting the best deal possible. Because you are a popular celebrity, that could very well result in a bidding war that'll drive up the price for your manuscript. This is a good thing, because as Americans, it is not a bad thing to want to earn money from things.
Lena Dunham: Cool!
It's easy to look at a $3.5 million signing bonus and feel bummed—after all, who wouldn't want that kind of scratch? But to lay blame at Dunham's feet, that she somehow did something wrong or untoward by being offered this contract, is petty.
Blame Random House. They didn't have to pay it. Blame all the people who will probably buy it, for perpetuating a cycle.
And don't pretend like if Random House came knocking with that kind of offer, you wouldn't jump at it.
Her show is racist!
Girls was criticized in its first season for not featuring any minority characters in the principal cast. For the purpose of this conversation, it's worth noting that in the most recent census (2010), New York City registered a population that was 44.6 percent white, 25.1 percent black, 27.5 percent Hispanic, and 11.8 percent Asian.
On the same day I read a "think-piece" about how Dunham and her staff are a bunch of racists, I went to a party in Greenpoint (a very hip neighborhood in Brooklyn, because again, I am a little bit hip). There were approximately 30 people at it, and the racial breakdown of the party was approximately: 99 percent white, 1 percent black, 1 percent Asian.
Mind you, this was not a Klan rally. But it was a good example of the fact that New Yorkers can be clique-y, just like anyone who lives anywhere else. There's not some magical quota we seek to fill. ("Guys, there aren't any black people out with us tonight, someone call Seth!") There isn't some edict that, in the enlightened liberal bastion of New York City, our social gatherings must accurately reflect the racial breakdown of the city.
As soon as the race card got played, there was no way for Dunham to win. When Donald Glover showed up as a black Republican, instead of being an interesting role for a funny and talented person, adding a black person in a featured guest spot was deemed RACISM (according to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, at least).
Shortly after the show was first accused of being a breath away from endorsing separate water fountains, one of the writers (Lesley Arfin) tweeted the following:
"What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME."
She then had to delete the tweet because the internet lost its collective shit (losing its collective shit is where the internet shines).
Was it the most articulate response to the controversy? Maybe not. But I get her point. I really do. The show is about a bunch of entitled white kids from well-to-do families. They live in a hipster bubble in Trendy White People Brooklyn. They all probably went to college together and they're from suburban towns. It's not outside the realm of possibility that their main social circle would be predominantly white.
Racism is a very real and troubling thing. Especially when people think that just because we have a black president that it's effectively over; it's not. But there are real battles to fight in the name of equality, and why does this have to be one of them? Especially when there are people like this in the world?
I think the people who get upset about racism in Girls are, mostly, the same kind of people who quickly and forcefully point out that they have black or gay friends. It's finger-wagging, pearl-clutching, politically-correct nonsense.
Her show isn't even that good!
This is an area where I'm willing to have an intelligent conversation about the quality of the writing/acting/direction/craft service. Personally, I enjoy the show, and I like the exploration of the mid-20s mindset. It's a time in your life when you're a big kid trying very hard at being an adult. There's a wealth of stories there.
There are some criticisms leveled at the show, though, that make me think people don't actually understand it. That, or they've bought so hard into their own hatred that they can't watch it with a real critical eye.
Exhibit one: This line of dialogue, delivered by Dunham in the first episode:
I may be the voice of my generation... or at least a voice, of a generation.
Perfect! It's clever writing because it reveals so much about the character in one sentence. But so many people mocked her for it, interpreting the line as a feeling Dunham actually believes about herself; that she's declaring herself the voice of a generation (when we all know it's James Franco).
Then there's the criticism that all the characters are too unlikable.
Isn't that sort of the point? How many people in their 20s are graceful, fully-formed people? The indecision, the pettiness, the immaturity—the show is a warts-and-all look at growing up. I really think a lot people don't like it because it hits a little too close to home, dredging up their own uncomfortable and embarrassing experiences (which, really, should make you respect the writing even more).
This, too, by the way, from the generation that worships at the altars of characters like Walter White and Don Draper, men who do very bad things to the people around them. Their portrayal is realistic... yet a bunch of kids trying to find themselves in contemporary New York City is too hard to grasp?
She's not even pretty!
Why are you watching Girls instead of Tosh.0? Also, you're a dick.
Let's learn to love each other
Ultimately, I really do believe that the hatred for Dunham is driven by feelings of jealousy—that someone so young can be doing well while you're toiling away in your cubicle/home office/coal mine. This feeling is especially prevalent among (some, not all) writers. Because why work on your own stuff when you could go on Twitter and complain about someone else's stuff?
I'm not going to claim to be innocent here. I have hated—hard—on books like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, stuff that's mainstream but, to my mind, not worth any sort of acclaim. I'm making a real effort to be better about this. The time I spend complaining is time I could be spending making my work as strong as it could possibly be.
Will I make the sly joke every now and again? Maybe, sure. It's in my nature. But I'm not going to work myself into a tizzy just because someone else is successful. Especially when someone is clearly working hard to deliver on a vision.
Again, Dunham's work should be viewed through a critical eye, just like we view anything through a critical eye. But I charge that she is legitimately talented, even if her work isn't your cup of proverbial tea. Instead of bashing her, maybe ask why you're doing it, and focus that energy into something more positive.
Live and let live, fellow writers. Stop the hate and go write.
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