Okay guys, sit down. Pour yourself a tall glass of whatever booze you can salvage from the kitchen cupboards (mine is a dusty bottle of red I’ve been avoiding because red wine reminds of the time I threw up in my bedroom and tried to drunkenly vacuum it up with a Henry Hoover) and let’s have a chat.
If reading that name makes you do a little pom-pom cheer deep in the dark, unchartered depths of your brain, then welcome to the club, sister. If even just seeing ‘Lena’ fills you with the sort of venomous hate reflux akin to that red wine puke which stank out and eventually destroyed that poor little Henry Hoover (R.I.P) I mentioned above then stick with me. Either way, I think we’re all at fault.
Regular readers will already know that we hold a soft spot for Lena Dunham’s show Girls, and that deep, sweaty palmed love we hold for it isn’t showing any signs of dying off any time soon. I’m happy that Girls exists. I love how atrocious all the female characters are. How true to life many of the anecdotes can be – how close to the bone it can get in offering up complex characters who are flawed to their very core that we can also, horrifically, relate to. The show can be heartbreaking, hilarious, prosaic and cathartic and when it takes risks, it does it unapologetically. It’s a show which is intended to polarise and it has a unique way of getting under people’s skin.
But that’s not to say that I don’t recognise the shows problems with diversity and it’s failure time and again to directly address the issue head on. For a show which is so blatantly full of auto-biographical narrative, it feels bizarre that Dunham wouldn’t want to address the part of her life which is full of accusations of racism and her failure to deliver against that within the narrative of her own show.
Girls is undeniably a narrative of privilege, but where I think a lot of the show’s detractors get it wrong is that it doesn’t celebrate that fact. In fact, it does completely the opposite, denouncing these characters time and again for their outrageous sense of entitlement and their vacuously limited scope of the World which sees them experiencing life only for their own shallow validations.
Whilst TV is certainly (and slowly) progressing in the right direction towards delivering more interesting female and non-white narratives, it’s still not nearly enough. It’d also be ignorant to hold Lena Dunham responsible for the things that our culture simultaneously is: for neglecting non-white representations in television or for championing some groundbreaking feminist vision within pop culture. She’s done neither of those things on her own.
Dunham was all of 24 years old when Girls was picked up by HBO. You know what I was doing when I was 24? Hoovering vomit up from my bedroom floor. Whilst there’s no doubt that she’s obviously talented and hard working, she’s also been incredibly lucky. The problems a show like Girls faces in its many issues, including race, need to be held accountable by the entire entertainment industry as a whole.
Dunham has a lot of people to answer to. A lot of people who, at the end of the day, fund her show and pay her wage. Likely, these are a great deal of white, middle aged men with very set views on the industry to boot. Do Dunham’s legions of haters really think that a woman in her twenties is powerful enough to stand up to these people and convince them of ideas which they think they know better about? I have a hard enough time convincing my boss that I should get a day off next week, never mind eliminating racist ‘banter’ from the office. And I probably earn in a year what Dunham makes in a month.
But enough about Girls. What I really want to talk about is ‘Not That Kind of Girl’. If you haven’t read the book and you’re a fan of Dunham’s, then my advice to you is not to bother. It’s a train wreck. A cash in. It’s a book that feels so rushed by the publisher in releasing it in time to hit the peak of Dunham’s Zeitgeist that it comes off feeling hollow and cynical. The whole thing reading like one massive uninspired private joke between everyone who knows her and leaving nothing for the rest of us.
It’s a clusterfuck of editorial misfires, with anecdotes feeling spliced up and collaged over entire chapters like that friend you have who keeps retelling the same ‘funny story’ over and over again because they’ve forgotten the first few hundred times that they’ve told you it previously.
It’s not surprising the amount of vitriol Dunham has received for the book, and I say this as a woman who so sorely wants to be a fan of hers but is repeatedly disappointed by her. She handles subversive material with all the care of a toddler in a lion’s den. Risky anecdotes which much more experienced writers would spend years crafting to get right have obviously been hashed out in a matter of months and put to print with all the nonchalant care of a student who hands in an end of year essay that she only started writing the night before.
A chapter in the book which describes her curiously investigating her baby sister’s vagina has earned her multitudes of hatred online and opened up very well deserved debates which ask whether we’d accept this from a male writer and if not, why is it acceptable from her? Where the real clumsiness of this anecdote comes into play is a later story in which she describes trying to win all of her little sister’s attention and affections with all the skills of a ‘sexual predator’:
“…anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying …”
Jesus fucking Christ.
In my heart of hearts I don’t think that Dunham sexually abused her little sister (because there’s so much in the book which reads like poor attempts at comedic hyperbole that I’ve simply slung it into that shit heap), but more that her writing isn’t yet good enough to tackle such sensitive issues within a ‘comedic’ format without sounding like she did. There are very few twenty year old writers who can do that and pull it off without sounding like a monster.
There’s a vital segment at the start of the book which I think is crucial to remember – not just for Dunham’s work, but for all non-fiction as a whole – in which she labels herself an ‘unreliable narrator’. All writing distorts reality. All non-fiction has to be accepted as a version of a past reality which has been distressed by time, by the cherry pickings of memory and by the comedic, dramatic and horrifying tools of exaggeration which we use to embellish a lived narrative in order to make a story truly pop.
But how any editor in their right mind read that extract and thought ‘This is great! So funny! So subversive!’ without considering the possible dark implications of it, is frankly insane. Either they wanted the controversy to help publicity (likely) or they were simply too busy picking out $800 pant suits for the book launch party on net-a-porter.com that they simply weren’t even paying attention to the first, second or final drafts (also likely).
But, like, maybe this is the wine talking but I guess what I’m saying is: Lovers – we’re right for loving her and Haters – we’re right for hating her. And isn’t that exactly the sort of complex woman we strive to see in entertainment anyway? Dismiss that and we’ll be back to watching the same cardboard cookie-cutter women performing in the same stilted narrative about the same one dimensional female that we’ve been force fed since forever. Debate is a wonderful thing. Whilst Dunham infuriates me, she also delights me in that there’s always a constructive debate developed off the back of one of her many fuck ups, narratives or characters.
I won’t lie, I want Dunham to do well. I also can’t be the only young female writer who enjoys her work and thinks ‘Fuck, bitch stole my anecdote!’ or seethes with jealously when she’s handed million dollar publishing contracts on a silver platter whilst we’re negotiating any sort of payment for a 2’000 word article published in return for that despairing acclaim of ones ‘portfolio’. But to do that she needs to stop being a celebrity. She needs to shut down her twitter and instagram and let her work speak for itself.
Simply, I’m beginning to resent Lena Dunham: the woman hanging out with Taylor Swift in expensive looking clothing at crappy looking parties and making ill-thought out, stupid and often ignorant remarks over social networking because she’s getting in the way of Lena Dunham: the smart, encouraging and daring artist who reminded TV that young women can be just as repugnant, fucked up, terrified, clueless and fascinating as their male counterparts have been for decades.
For the rest of us it’s worth remembering that Dunham is capable of mistakes. That for every Facebook status we’ve made or will make in our twenties or thirties that’s ignited an unwanted hurl of abuse our way or a never ending debate, Dunham has the pressure of an entire media on her back. If for nothing else, you have to respect Dunham for her daring: she has never settled for the easy narrative, nor has she allowed for the unbalanced degree of hatred that’s aimed her way to dictate who she is or what she writes about.
But she needs someone – as we all do – to check her shit for her and occasionally offer her some constructive home truths. Nobody is so smart or talented that they don’t need one or multitudes of people to provide unbiased, painfully honest feedback on their life and their work.
For the love of fuck, Lena – and I’m saying this with love – stop surrounding yourself with people who praise your asshole for shitting out bouquets of roses. As JK Simmons rightly pointed out in phenomenal ‘drumming-as-nightmare-fuel’ masterpiece Whiplash: Good Job are the two worst words in the English language. And maybe that’s what Dunham needs – a JK Simmons figure to launch entire drum kits (or the equivalent – vintage typewriters and Macbook Pros?) at her head any time she starts believing her own hype.