In 1977, punk rocker Richard Hell posed a question: Who Says It’s Good to Be Alive? In the case of Lena Dunham, her critics, it seems, question not just her art—from Tiny Furniture to Girls to her recent memoir Not That Kind of Girl—but whether it’s Good for Her to be Alive And Talking About It.
In certain circles (upper middle class urbanites with HBO?), Lena Dunham is as polarizing a popular figure as Hillary Clinton. Dunham’s supporters have argued that, like Clinton, she is vilified because she is a successful woman. But Dunham is equally bashed for her natural-born socioeconomic privilege that she doesn’t bother to mask.
Many an article, by many an upper middle class, white, memoir-reading, HBO-watching author like myself, has been written on Dunham, either to rag or rave. I’m less interested in whether having Top Whatever lists in her memoir makes Dunham an immature writer, or whether Dunham’s exhibition of her body on Girls is productively or problematically provocative (or both), or even in how Dunham has handled the subject of the now infamous Barry and her sexual assault, both in her book and in the public forum. I definitely don’t give a shit, as one National Review author does, if she knows the difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated” (his article is titled “Pathetic Privilege”—yeah, no kidding). What I am interested in is this: is it okay, in American culture, to be a public figure and not lie about your privilege? Is it Good for Lena Dunham to tell us the story of her life, or is she simply too unfiltered to be tolerated?
Lena Dunham is shamed for her wealthy upbringing. Unhappily for Dunham, Gawker got a hold of her book proposal for Not That Kind of Girl, and staff writer John Cook picked out passages to ridicule individually. He selects the sentence, “When I got to college I suddenly had the sense that my upbringing hadn’t been very ‘real…’” and comments: “The quoted sentence demonstrates a self awareness on Dunham’s part that…[she] was raised in exquisite privilege.” I’m confused, is Cook suggesting that it would be more appropriate for Dunham to be unaware of her exquisitely privileged upbringing? Kevin D. Williamson of The New Republic was also asked to review Dunham’s book (a little like asking a cat to review a mouse, or a Slytherin to review a Gryffindor) and chose to begin his piece thus:
“Lena Dunham is fond of lists. Here is a list of things in Lena Dunham’s life that does not strike Lena Dunham as being unusual: growing up in a 6.25 million Tribeca apartment; attending a selection of elite private schools; renting a home in the Hollywood Hills well before having anything quite resembling a job and complaining that the home is insufficiently ‘chic’; the habitual education of the men in her family at Andover…being referred to a homework therapist…visits to child psychologists three times a week…”
Note the implication on Williamson’s part that had Dunham been aware that her upbringing was “unusual” or uniquely privileged, she would have had the good grace not to write about it, for God’s sake. In a third review of Dunham’s memoir, one A.V. Club author simply marvels: “She is a starving artist who never had to starve.” Cue the baby wailing. While some observers of Dunham, like Williamson, are disgusted (nauseated, if you will) on principle by the spoils Dunham has had, from the connection to old money networks like Andover’s and the childhood therapy, to the intellectual parents and the moneyed coastal zip codes, others are simply envious and also a little paralyzed. Unfairness, like Lena Dunham’s inborn luck, can breed inertia as much as rage among the less advantaged.
I think there’s something unconscious about our A.V. Club friend’s choice of words here—“never had to.” We’re accustomed to rags to riches stories in America. We love ‘em. Politicians know it: that’s why they always say “folks,” have beer summits, go hunting and wear ill-advised camouflage vests (*cough, John Kerry, cough*) during campaign season. You have to be regular before you get yours. Why? Because heroes who, to borrow an expression, start from the bottom, are easier to swallow. This has been manifest in American life for a long time, ever since regular people started having more a political and cultural voice.
It was in 1840, shortly after property taxes were removed and the majority of white men could vote, that two political strategists conceived of a way to ensure the election of their candidate for president. These men worked for William Henry Harrison and one was a cartoonist. They decided to pitch Harrison, who was very wealthy, as an Average Joe. The cartoonist drew a log cabin and they sold the image of Harrison as a hard cider-drinking, cabin-dwelling hick to the public. They hired a very charismatic blacksmith to go around the country making stump speeches to crowds of working class men, selling this image of Harrison as the working man’s ally.
The strategy worked: Harrison won the election and today history textbooks refer to it as the Log Cabin Campaign. I use Harrison as an example of Americans loving the underdog story not just because it was 175 years ago and demonstrates the entrenched nature of this cultural narrative, but because it was a lie. Look, everybody knows that most people who make it big don’t grow up in proverbial log cabins, cut off from the halls of power; if talent was the primary currency our culture would look very different. But we love the lie—vote for it, invest our money and our faith in it—because it inspires us.
Lena Dunham will not lie for us. She will not hide her privilege and I definitely don’t think it’s because she wants to be resented, or even because she wants to create a dialogue around class and socioeconomics. At least, I haven’t seen any evidence that she wants that dialogue right now. It’s not her subject. I think Lena Dunham won’t try to mask her upbringing any more than she won’t try to mask her figure, which so many people have remarked is unappealing, because she can’t.
In an interview with Terry Gross from late September, Dunham said: “I think there were times in my life where anything anyone suggested to me I was open to. And that’s not a secret because that’s what sort of the show is about…a young woman who thinks that she will make herself more appealing to people around her by being completely flexible…sort of a cornerstone of this [Hannah] character…[is] this deep, deep resentment about not being heard and not being seen.”
Of course, Hannah, Dunham’s character on Girls, is not strictly Dunham herself, but Dunham has said that her writing begins with “the emotional truth.” If Dunham shares Hannah’s resentment about not being heard or seen, that explains a lot. It explains why Dunham fights the urge to people-please, not for, or not just for, the sake of art but because on a fundamental level, she is compulsively driven to expose herself. It’s not an oblivious rich person thing, this straightforwardness about her spoils, it’s a Lena Dunham thing. Her audience will feel what they will about her privilege and her body and all the rest, and she cares about their judgement…but there’s nothing for it.
Now, can Lena Dunham be held accountable for the ways that her privilege has influenced her art? For example, the near invisibility of racial diversity on Girls. Has her life been so whitewashed that the show is actually an accurate representation of her experience? I’d say, given the whitewashed worlds of Manhattan private schools and Oberlin and cafes in gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn, yes, it probably has been. Would it hurt to diversify the show, even falsely? It would undoubtedly be a social good to do so. Finding the lack of diversity on Girls distasteful is absolutely more valid, in my opinion, than finding Lena Dunham’s weight or her moneyed background distasteful. But I can’t help but think that the complaints sound the same. Jesus, Lena Dunham, if you’re going to be on TV and not be skinny at least have the decency to cover up; if you’re going to be famous at least pretend your world isn’t so white; if you’re going to be born into the upper echelon of society at least have the decency to hide it somehow and pretend that you’re normal.
In the second episode of this season’s Girls, the aptly titled “Triggering,” Dunham’s character Hannah argues: “There’s no such thing as too much information. This is the information age. We’re all just here to express ourselves.” When we christen someone the Voice of a Generation, as many have christened Dunham, we are asking them for information about ourselves and our culture: Who are we? It’s understandable that when Dunham’s portrayal of herself and her world isn’t tailored to our expectations, that we would become triggered, angry, uncomfortable and disheartened. But maybe we need to look at Lena Dunham’s unfiltered-ness as a gift; an opportunity to look at why the information she gives us (without even meaning to, maybe), especially about the great socioeconomic and racial inequalities in our culture, makes us uncomfortable. Instead of harping on about Lena Dunham’s privileged upbringing—because it’s so futile, so lazy and reactive, a tragically easy mark—let’s figure out how to make our country a more equal place. Don’t get mad, get even, and leave Lena Dunham out of it.