Probably one of the most flummoxing things to happen in pop culture in the last year is the expectations laid on one young woman’s shoulders, for some reason that I am unable, in my limited intellectual capacity, to identify. Lena Dunham made a tv show, part drama but mostly comedy, about the women who fall “in between” Gossip Girl and Sex and the City. The show is bohemian-stylized, and strives for a sort of naturalism in how its characters express themselves and relate one to another. The comedy is “cringe-y” in the style of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but with the grittiness and pathos of the U.K. version of the Office. Layered on that cringe-y comedy is a general darkness and willingness to tell frank, and often painful stories, about self-exploration and its unhappy trailmate, self-loathing. The show’s sexuality is frank and naturalistic, in the nature of mumblecore movies going back at least to Puffy Chair in 2004*, and more recently HBO’s own Tell Me You Love Me, a show which made the news for its “realistic” and unidealized sex scenes.** I suspect that, like the IFC sketch show Portlandia, if you identify with the portrayed milieu in a positive way, the show is more viscerally enjoyable for that reason. The main characters are treated with affection even when they’re being held up for ridicule (again, not unlike the hipsters of Portlandia). If the jokes and situations in the show make you laugh, it’s funny. That seems to be the long and short of it: elements not unknown or even uncommon in contemporary culture–mumblecore/naturalistic sexual aesthetic, cringe comedy, women-in-a-group–but set in a particular age cohort and social milieu. That milieu, possibly not coincidentally, of late-20s-early-30s white people in creative fields living in a major city with little at stake economically or socially, is fairly coextensive with cultural critics, which may explained what happened before Girls even aired widely.
For some reason the show sparked whatever the cultural critic analog of a firestorm would be. Commenters on sites like the AV Club were often shockingly (and discouragingly) misogynistic and cruel particularly when it came to Dunham’s choice to show naturalistic sex scenes including her own naked body, which is not the idealized feminine form we get most of on television. Dunham was attacked for not including more people of color in her Brooklyn-set show, an odd accusation considering that the milieu she chose to portray is one notable for its lily-whiteness, coupled with the fact that artists should not be charged with telling stories they aren’t comfortable telling; a point well made in this Slate article.
Why couldn’t Dunham just make a comedy about the lifestyle and world she knew, and do it in the way she best knew how? I’m not embarrassed to say I have no theory as to why Dunham the person, and the show itself, had so many expectations and “close readings” done of it. That may be because while I’m fairly familiar with the world she’s describing, having spent my 20s among (mostly middle class) aspiring artists and creatives in a major metropolis, it’s not a particularly compelling one to me. The show doesn’t seem to have any profound analysis outside of that world; it certainly doesn’t strive to relate to the social realities outside that world. Its more an astute look into a very particular world. So? The intolerable Entourage looked into a particular world, but with no astuteness and zero pathos. That show didn’t have even one patho. Not a patho. To be a good comedy with relatable or interesting characters, Girls shouldn’t have to carry the weight of the world on its shoulders. Why can’t it just be funny?
Part of the answer is probably that Dunham is a young woman, and so of course has to be analyzed and held up to scrutiny by a media apparatus still prone to treat confident and talented young women in particular as a new species requiring dissection, putting them in that E.T. tent until they turn powdery-white and emaciated, the joy sucked out of their existence. Part of it has to be that critics who can only speak with a political grammar try to shove influential or popular women, even artists, into symbolic, quasi-political roles that are rarely foisted on male artists.
But here’s the biggest point: if you don’t laugh, or don’t find the characters relatable, the answer is that the show doesn’t speak to you and the solution is to not watch it. Why does Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, or the Moonlight Sonata, almost move me to tears, but have no effect on you? Who knows? Perhaps the the content-hungry internet media, which requires that writers discuss things or lose relevance, and the vestigial requirement that they discuss things “objectively” are a factor. It should after all be conceivable that one is unable to be objective about a piece of art, particularly one that is rooted in a contemporary milieu. So I think the effort to look objective ends up with rationalizing subjective attitudes by imputing certain meanings on the show. That’s dumb don’t do that. Ignore the impulse to “keep yourself out of the story,” because it can often end up being the least fair to the art being reviewed.
For me, I was incredulous about the import of the worldview of an auteur from as privileged a background as Dunham. Not that that background would make a joke less funny or a situation less inherently relatable. And not in the way that many people groused about supposed “nepotism,” that Dunham benefited from because her parents are well-regarding visual artists in Manhattan. The nepotism accusation is frivolous; both of Nora Ephron’s parents were screenwriters (both!) and she didn’t get a screenplay produced until she was in her forties. And she’s Nora Ephron. Dunham’s parents didn’t call Steven J. Hollywood and get her a show on HBO.
What they did give her though, was this house, which was once the administration building of one of Connecticut’s most elite private schools. And a primary-secondary education worth about half a million dollars in tuition. And a childhood and adolescence in the most elite section of a cultural capital of the world. By comparison, my primary-secondary education cost $0 in tuition. Her college education would be valued at about $250,000. Factoring in housing etc., that is an education worth about three quarters of a million dollars, not a penny borrowed. One year of her secondary tuition was equal to the median American salary. And this wasn’t three quarters of a million dollars in Shaker Heights, Ohio, it was in the cultural atmosphere of the cultural capital of the world’s most powerful and influential empire. Her father may not have a wikipedia page, but he has NY Times press clippings and has been a feted artist in the art capital of the planet for a generation; her mother even more so. That is an inconceivable level of real, operating privilege.
Sneering oversimplifications of this reality notwithstanding, that is social and economic capital of a magnitude unfathomable to the average 25-to-30 year old. If we assume the show is a roman a clef–which Dunham herself has said, insofar as it is based on her experiences–then it follows that, cosmetic changes to the character notwithstanding, the show is rooted in a worldview of extravagant, world-topping social privilege. Obviously, artists create art outside of their experiences all the time. That is less credible in this instance however given Dunham’s age. Her work on this show began when she was 24-25, barely two years out of college. At twenty-four she was having dinner with high-powered and influential media critics. Unlike, say, David Simon, himself an upper-middle-class kid, she didn’t spend years gaining experience of the world; she went almost immediately from a privileged bubble into the stratosphere of Hollywood success. If the identity of the auteur is a part of the story being told, then the reality of that identity is certainly germane to an understanding of the show’s worldview. Of course, there’s no reason why any artist should have to step outside their experience to tell a story, and stories about the uppercrust have made wonderful and penetrating art at least since the ancient Greek palace dramas. One of humanity’s first stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was about a king. (Also, lots of prostitutes). If it speaks to you, it speaks to you; if it has something to say, it has something to say. It’s art.
Coming from privilege beyond the reckoning of even the biggest caviar dreams of working class children doesn’t somehow mean someone gets an automatic berth into their dream job. Not every rich kid, in other words, can get an HBO series. But that’s only superficially true. This tiny sliver of the population goes on to become the high-powered attorneys who will eventually populate the federal judiciary; occupies the mid-level jobs that will allow them to take over the finance sector; pursues their interests in the highest levels of academia; get the journalistic and policy positions at think tanks and major news outlets; eases their way into important NGOs and government agencies; etc. The point being that from this tiny sliver of the population, all the major professions and industries are populated at their top echelons, including entertainment and media. So no, being rich doesn’t make you talented, but it does give you the knowledge, self-confidence, and perhaps most importantly the sense of absolute, untouchable security that allows you to pursue your leisure. For the Dunhams of the world, there is no risk to life. There is never a decision to be made of any real consequence outside a finite set of material conditions which, however personally objectionable, to the average person would be a dream beyond reckoning.
Who knows how many supremely talented and interesting young women with something to say and dreams of artistic achievement were waylaid by student loan payments, unfeeling and unsupportive family members, familial obligations imposed on them, a lack of access or even awareness of where to begin to gain that access? Or, in this one realm of art, do we ignore the weighing down of the individual that a lack of privilege entails?
When survival is guaranteed and even your worst failure is sure to be cushioned, you don’t really know what it means to work. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a hard worker, or intensely talented, as Dunham clearly is, but you can never know what it truly means to labor. Not knowing what it means to work alienates you from the reality of the vast majority of society, because working is what defines our ability to subsist, it defines how our day-to-day lives are lived, it defines the very information we’re able to get, and comprehend. It’s everything. Absent a sincere and truly empathetic effort to learn that world–the real world, the world of work–through personal experience, of course you’re alienated from the typical American experience. That alienation absent that effort makes your worldview irrelevant to me. So I can’t be objective; all I can see is the impossibly privileged talking to one another in a bubble. So I change the channel, happy to let those who derive joy from a new work of art to be joyful.
*A quote from that article: “But the nakedness really is matter-of-fact—there’s a sense of intimacy that feels authentic and nonjudgmental, though it’s not always pretty.”
**To drive the point home, a quote about that show: “Even for HBO, though, the explicit nature of the sex scenes pushes the envelope when it comes to nudity and intimate camera angles. That said, the vibe of “Tell Me You Love Me” is less Zalman King’s gauzy soft-core “Red Shoe Diaries” than something befitting the director John Cassavetes’s probing, naturalistic films about men and women.”