In October, I wrote a post called “I Don’t Like Lena Dunham, and You Can’t Make Me,” in response to an obnoxious article on The Huffington Post that claimed that people who didn’t like Lena Dunham were jus jellus of her success.
Yet, despite my dislike of Lena Dunham and my ambivalence towards her show, I still watched the first two episodes of season two of Girls, because Girls has such a strong cultural presence that I feel obligated to watch it and keep tabs on the show’s storylines. (I also really like Shoshanna/Zosia Mamet.) I paid close attention to the scenes with Donald Glover as Sandy, Hannah’s temporary love interest.
Donald Glover’s character was supposed to be evidence that the show had resolved its race and diversity problem. Sandy was black, and also a Republican. (I waited for the show to make a joke about Sandy’s blackness and Republican-ness, and then I realized that Sandy being black and Republican was the joke.) At some point, Hannah picked a fight with Sandy, where she lectured him about the incarceration rates of American black men, quoted Missy Elliot and then pretended not to, and then asked him if he still wanted to have sex after their fight.
The scene was funny. Sandy criticized Hannah for her privilege and for dating a black guy as part of her self-absorbed hipster phase in life. When Hannah asked Sandy if he still wanted to have sex, I laughed out loud, because it was a gloriously naive and clueless question, and Lena Dunham’s line delivery was perfect.
Yet the scene still left a bad taste in my mouth. Sandy never came across as a real character to me, just a trope that can make white hipsters feel good about themselves (haha, he’s black BUT he’s a Republican, har dee har har). He was played by an engaging actor and genuinely funny human being (Donald Glover is Troy on Community and he wrote for 30 Rock, people!) but he wasn’t a character. He existed for only one reason: for Lena Dunham & co. to respond to criticisms that their show is racist. Sandy was more mature than the other twenty-something characters and he gave Hannah some brutal criticism of her racism, but he had no apparent flaws or even personality, despite being played by Donald Glover.
I watched this episode and planned to write a review of Girls, a review where I would say something along the lines of, “Nice try, but thanks for playing, Lena Dunham and company.” Because while this episode of Girls was far more self-aware of its flaws than other whitewashed, New York City-set shows like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, or Sex and the City, it still Didn’t Get It.
But before I could write that review, my copy of the latest Entertainment Weekly came in the mail, and lo and behold, Lena Dunham was on the cover. The magazine cover promised to tell us “how Lena Dunham became the voice of a generation.”
Then it finally hit me: my problem with Lena Dunham has little to do with Lena Dunham herself. My problem with Lena Dunham is really my problem with The Media.
On the very first episode of Girls, Hannah told her parents, “I’m the voice of a generation! Or of a generation…somewhere…” It was meant to be a joke, a sign that our protagonist is extraordinarily self-absorbed, convinced of her own importance to the world, and wildly misguided.
Yet The Media decided that Lena Dunham was declaring herself to be the voice of OUR generation. Girls was THE SHOW that portrayed twenty-somethings who live in Brooklyn.
I am a white twenty-something. I used to live not only in the same borough as the Girls characters, but in the same neighborhood. Several locations on Girls episodes are locations I recognize from personal experience.
Many people in the most hipster-ish section of Brooklyn are as self-absorbed as the characters on Girls. But many of them are not. Many of them work humiliating shifts for minimum wage in third-rate restaurants so they can afford to pursue their art in their free time. Many of them balance two jobs and side gigs to pay their rent and hope for a more rewarding future.
Sometimes they are selfish and narcissistic, but they have their good qualities. They can be politically conscious and reliable friends even while being pretentious.
The characters on Girls are not like this. They are selfish and narcissistic 95% of the time, and they are terrible friends to each other. Hannah doesn’t even know how to break down a cardboard box. They have no interest in working hard. When people compared Girls to Sex and the City, I said, “It’s not the same show. Most of the characters on Sex and the City had jobs.”
In short, Girls has a fairly negative opinion about twenty-somethings who live in New York. Girls portrays people in their twenties as entirely self-absorbed and whiny.
This stereotype of the lazy twenty-something does not sit well with me in a world where 50% of college graduates are unemployed or under-employed, where almost everyone in my peer group is working off debt and/or struggling to find a job, any job, even after working diligently through college and graduate school.
But maybe Lena Dunham isn’t trying to write a show about all twenty-somethings, or even most twenty-somethings. Maybe Lena Dunham is writing about a very specific group of people. Maybe her twenty-something characters are not obnoxious because she believes all twenty-somethings are obnoxious, but because she enjoys writing about the foibles of obnoxious people who happen to be in her age group.
And maybe the fact that The Media has anointed Lena Dunham as The Voice Of A Generation isn’t Lena Dunham’s fault at all, but another example of sexism in our society. Lena Dunham is a woman, and therefore she must be speaking for ALL women.
I still have issues with Girls, even aside from its white-centric self-absorption. I think we’re supposed to find the characters obnoxious and sympathetic in equal measure, and I can only manage an 80:20 obnoxious:sympathetic ratio (except with Shoshanna, who is just so endearing and silly, omg, I love her). Sometimes I think it’s very funny (the episode where they went to that terrible party in Bushwick), and other times I think it’s not nearly as smart as it wants to be (the episodes that dealt with Hannah’s handsy groping boss).
I also have mixed feelings about Dunham herself. I have issues with her comments about race and privilege, and I also admire her for challenging our society’s expectations about bodies and body image. I think she’s a pretty good writer who is not The Best Writer Ever.
But even though I still don’t love Girls the way I’m supposed to, I can no longer dislike Lena Dunham herself. She didn’t ask to be anointed as The Voice Of A Generation. The fact that The Media looks at Girls as a portrayal of “What Women Are Really Like” and “What Twenty-Somethings Are Really Like” is not Lena Dunham’s fault.
If The Media didn’t place such importance on Girls, Girls would just be another show that I sometimes enjoy and sometimes find annoying, a flawed program that has its good points and bad points.
Because I’ve read so much media on Girls, I can no longer separate the show from the commentary on the show. For me, the show is permanently tainted by association with The Media’s coverage. But Lena Dunham herself? She’s okay. She’s not a saint and she’s not a monster. She’s a human being and artist who deserves to be criticized for her flaws, but does not deserve to be criticized for falling short of our collective expectations for A Woman In Hollywood – because she’s not speaking for all of us, even if her show is called Girls.