THE LENA DUNHAM PROBLEM

I don't care about Lena Dunham. I certainly was not in the intended audience for her most popular show, "Girls", and her political opinions are as valuable to me as any other celebrity's. I do think, however, that the phenomenon of Lena Dunham says a lot about the fundamental problems with media in the 21st Century.

Dunking on Dunham is too easy at this point, which is why Allison Davis's new profile of Dunham is palatable reading. She makes an effort to avoid taking the easy route and just bashing the hell out of an easy target, yet she does not avoid giving criticism (listing in excruciating long-form detail all the "whoopsies" the famously clueless and tone-deaf Dunham has had to apologize for) where due. The short version of the piece: Lena Dunham's life seems incredibly sad and it's not entirely clear why anyone, even a New York Social Scene oriented publication, is still talking to or about her.

What is so interesting to me is that Dunham's rise via "Girls" was largely due to the similarity between her and many of the journalists who adored her show when it came out. As products of the same Prep-and-Boarding school East Coast elite club, it was a happy coincidence that the kind of bourgeois, privileged navel-gazing that "Girls" engaged in was highly relatable to the kind of people who were Culture Journalists in the aughts. As journalism stopped paying (except in "exposure") it became a hobby career for the financially independent twenty-somethings, fresh out of Columbia or Smith, who fancied themselves tastemakers.

Because more than enough rich young adults with trust funds were eager to write for Vogue and Rolling Stone and the like, culture journalism led the way in transitioning from professional, paid journalists to a mob of interns and $100-per freelance contributors. Why pay someone when hundreds of 22-26 year olds with good writing skills, fresh out of college, will do it just for the bragging rights?

And so the small, non-diverse, insular group of people that wrote about things like hip new HBO series became the exact demographic that "Girls" would really speak to. It was a show for people, largely but not exclusively women, who could really identify with characters whose biggest problem in life was not liking any of the people they dated. Yes, the show covered issues deeper than that but it is hard to ignore the extent to which it was written by, aimed at, and depicted very privileged twentysomethings with no financial concerns.

And who could appreciate such a show except people who came from the same world, the people who live horrendously expensive lifestyles in Brooklyn and the lower East Side despite having no discernible source of income? It was the perfect overlap. Dunham probably never intended to do so, but she created the perfect show for people like herself…just as those people were becoming the dominant and sometimes only voices in journalism about the media and entertainment.

That, to me, is vastly more interesting to talk about than the endless string of Own Goals and foot-shootings that seem to be Dunham's entire career these days. Nobody associates her name with any specific piece of work anymore; she has become simply a punchline for a certain kind of clueless ex-Prep School trust fund white girl. In Davis's piece, she describes herself as exactly that. I take it as a positive that whereas those qualities were seen as assets a decade ago, today the mass audience looks at it more critically and less favorably.

22 thoughts on “THE LENA DUNHAM PROBLEM”

  • Didn't they say the same thing about Friends in the 1990s? Didn't they say the same thing about Sex and the City a bit later?

    The popular media rarely engages with economic struggle. It strikes too close to home. My impression has been that hard times beget a liking for wealth fantasies, and the movies of the 1930s were full of them. Now that I think of it, the 1970s were like that too. The 1950s had movies featuring economic struggle, but those were good times.

  • @Kaleberg: Also, it's not as if Vogue and Rolling Stone in the 1990s were staffed by hard-bitten journalists who'd worked their way up from the mean streets of the Bronx. Cultural journalism has always been a playground for the rich.

    That said, I'll accept Ed's argument that the situation has got worse. Friends and SATC had to be at least somewhat clever and original to achieve critical acclaim. As critics become more uniformly rich, young, and privileged, it becomes easier to impress them by lazily depicting the rich, young and privileged.

    Note that critical acclaim has very little to do with commercial success. Two And A Half Men was a massive hit for years and years.

    @Haile Unlikely: To be fair, The Cosby Show depicted a successful doctor married to a successful lawyer. There was a reason why they had very few financial concerns.

  • Hate to drop some knowlege because I am no fan of Friends but about half the group struggled financially throughout the show. It was a plot point in many episodes. Also the 90s was about the last time that Manhattan was affordable for working class stiffs. Seinfeld's apartment was charging 400 a month in season one.

  • @ Benny Lava:

    I don't know from Manhattan rents but in 1990 I was paying $400 a month to live in a decent house (with the builder for a roommate–splitting the rent, he didn't own the house)–in East Kingston, NH.

  • I dunno. As shallow as the show Friends could be you knew they were all employed & had the pretenses of being an adult. The SATC ladies also read as adult people. The Girls characters were simply children propped up on money, enough of it to make them tolerable among others with money, a mark outside of their bubble.

  • I watched the first season of Girls waiting for it to get better.

    Something people don't talk about enough — for a supposedly "feminist" show it was pretty damn rapey.

  • Colin McEnroe says:

    It seems odd to single out Dunham, whose gimlet eye regularly pierced the defenses and pretensions of her own generational subset. Also, the show was actually funny. (I'm 64.) Funny covers a multitude of sins. Hey, in "Crazy Rich Asians," the Cinderella figure, the ragged little girl who stands a chance of being lifted out of her drab, dingy existence is an economics professor at NYU. You know, a member of the underclass! And then there's Nancy Meyers, who has built a profitable career on the backs of rich characters' love lives. And before her, well, how many Hepburn movies (Audrey or Kate) can you think of that dealt with the lives of ordinary middle class working people? Holly Golightly is sort of a "Girls" forerunner. But Holly lives large. I thought most of the apartments in "Girls" were appropriately crappy. Dunham seemed to focus, more realistically, on a generation less able to find meaningful (creative class) work, of a kind that was once available. Hannah's parents did not seem wealthy and the male characters, Ray and Adam, showed no signs of having safety nets. There were certainly some trust fund characters, but they were often portrayed, I thought, as lost and ludicrous.

  • I've never had the slightest difficulty paying no attention to Lena Dunham past or present. Accordingly, there is IMO absolutely no such thing as a "Lena Dunham problem." Excavate somewhere else ….

  • Would it kill you when name checking elite academic institutions to include Kellogg Community College? Among us tastemakers, Harvard is known as the KCC of the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area. Good goddam, man, Columbia is barely a KVCC of upper Manhattan (+west of FDB). Try to keep up, GaT.

    And who the fuck is Lenora Dunham?

    Go Bruins!

  • @ Emerson Dameron:

    I am sometimes quite grateful to not have cable. Lena Dunham came up in an NYT crossword puzzle recently–1st time I ever didn't know who she was. I wouldn't shit in Brooks's mouth if he was starving to death.

    Having never seen "Girls" (and not having any interest in doing so) she will remain an unknown quantity to me–forever–I hope.

    Speaking of apartments, again. The only dumpy apartments I ever saw white people living in back in the day, were on the set of "The Honeymooners". Ralph Cramden's apartment was a shithole, as was Norton's, if I recall correctly. It reminded me, at times, of the fever dreams of Ray Milland in "Lost Weekend*".

    What strikes me as odd about that is that both Cramden and Norton had decent jobs, Ralph in a union and Ed working for the city of New York. They could have afforded not palaces but at least a decent home somewhere in Queens or Brooklyn.

    * And the soundtrack features a theremin!

  • defineandredefine says:

    @democommie – I'd describe Louis CK's apartment in Lucky Louie as a shithole as well…kinda the modern equivalent of Ralph's or Norton's. Granted, Louie worked part time in a muffler shop, but Kim is a full time nurse. Seems they may have been able to afford something a bit less…dingy.

    Of course, I can speak to the fact that RNs make shit pay when you consider the shit (oftentimes literal) they have to deal with…

  • As we are headed towards a new Gilded Age, it's inevitable the proletariat will be fascinated by endless stories about the careless rich across the globe, as they rape and get raped.

    Sports stars are on drugs and get injured frequently, and are chided CONSTANTLY to stay in their lane.

    Café society is dead.

    Movie and music stars are increasingly restricted by contracts to stay in their lane. Trump is an aberration simply because no one took him seriously until it was too late.

    So now the only vivacious life the peasants can lead is through the super rich or lottery winners.

    I read a theory recently on how the right-wing capitalizes on new media faster, and sooner, in order to increase their propaganda efforts. Judging that it's 2018, Trump is President, and the 21st century will probably see race wars as a result of global warming, I think they succeeded beyond their expectations. Get ready for the Water Wars of 2040.

  • "I once tweeted at her "I always think your name is Laudnam Ham"

    I think you meant "Laudamu" but, other than that–GREAT band name.

    @ defineandredefine:

    Yes, to all of that.

    Ralph and Ed lived in shitholes for reasons never made clear but I wonder if the writers/producers thought (possibly subconciously) that they didn't DESERVE a decent place to live.

    I was in hospital for emergency surgery back in July and the nurses on the med surg floor (approximately 65 on three shifts) were superb, not a Nurse Ratched in the bunch. Whatever they were paying them to take care of me wasn't enough. I pulled out my NG tube while having some sort of morphine induced nightmare (I dreamed someone was trying to strangle me) and the little, very pregnant RN who came in said, "Well, we seem to have a little mess, let's get that cleaned up." which she did and then made sure I was comfortable before she left.

    'So now the only vivacious life the peasants can lead is through the super rich or lottery winners."

    I think that you meant, "vicarious" but, yes.

  • defineandredefine says:

    @Tareena –

    I would say yes, especially since many Jewish folks are indistinguishable from run of the mill white folks. Further, all harassment aside, I think (though I can't prove) that Jewish folks suffer less from systemic discrimination than black or brown folks.

    Of course, I'm brown and I can't imagine having had a more privileged life, so what do I know?

    @democommie –

    That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. The doctors and hell us pharmacists (at least those like me who work in hospital) are nothing without RNs and other support staff (respiratory therapists, PT/OT, aides and techs.) The pay scales don't reflect that at all. Incidentally, that isn't to say that MDs and my fellow pharmacists aren't worth what they're paid; just that RNs aren't paid what they're worth.

  • " Incidentally, that isn't to say that MDs and my fellow pharmacists aren't worth what they're paid; just that RNs aren't paid what they're worth."

    Well, shit, they're women, how COULD they be underpaid!? /s

    @ Tareena:

    As long as they are Non-Swarth-O-Murkans and name their kids, Erin, Geoffrey–y'know, not JOOO names!

  • Gleason based the aparteent on the places where he grew-up. Ralph & Norton were sole breadwinners and NYC has always been relatively expensive.

    There long has been some sort of annoying self-absorbed hipster class. The Warhol crowd in the 60s and 70s, fpor example. The Greenwich Village characters of the 20s and 30s who fed the fiction of Dawn Powell 9a susccessful novelist of the period). Dunham's show was a guilty pleasure for me–I liked seeing how high concept she could go. Davis' article casts a lot of shade but I'll bet Dunham either didn't notice or simply enjoyed teh idea of being the subject of a glossy's celebrity piece.

  • @ Rich:

    Well, of course. But I was talking about his APARTMENT not his APPARTEENT, mister! {;>)

    Your point is a good one. I was wondering if maybe part of the reason wasn't to let the viewers know that unions aren't any good, 'cuz these people live in shitty pigstys. That's my cynicism, but it's certainly within the realm of the possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>