Friday, November 07, 2014

The Strange Crucible'd Case Of Lena Dunham

I've been reviewing music and books for Antigravity Magazine since 2011. Most of my reviews have been limited to 200-300 words, which has been both an exhilarating and excruciating challenge depending on the day, the works I review, the weather…you name it, I've written reviews through it (with the exception of Comcast constantly screwing us over on when they said our wifi would be installed - I missed a month of reviewing due to that that I still kick myself a little over). I try to keep what I review relevant to the New Orleans area readers of the magazine while throwing in some things that are of edgy/quasi-underground importance culturally on more of a national level...which is why I decided to review Lena Dunham's Not That Kind Of Girl for AG's November issue. Just after I submitted my short review, I got wind of the hubbub over the Kevin Williamson National Review take on Dunham's book (and, more specifically, the explosion over Truth Revolt's trolling "Lena Dunham is a child abuser" headline regarding the book and the review) and am reexamining what I wrote. After a lot of thought, I stand by what I wrote for AG. What follows is what I was thinking in reviewing Not That Kind Of Girl the way I did.

When Girls got started, I wrote this:
I am repelled, however, by some of what seems to be running through the most popular comedies today that star women, and I doubt that they are signs that things are being "equalized" between the sexes. I don't know that we have reached the point where female characters can screw up just as badly as men can without some major consequences being built into their stories, and without "redemption" including a relationship of some sort as in the movie Bridesmaids. It's kind of what comedies such as The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and Ally McBeal tried to do yet didn't really succeed at: presenting women as people that don't have to be complete airheads or complete superwomen, all one thing or all another. Also - women of color, of other nationalities, of other creeds, anyone? New York is full of those women. Perhaps no one wanted to attempt that for fear of offending any of them. Or, more cynically speaking, they just didn't sell. Not much proven entertainment value.
And this, after watching the first episode & reflecting on my own privilege:
Came across a phrase from critic Glenn Kenny referring to Lena Dunham's film Tiny Furniture that encompassed many of my misgivings about Girls' premise: " does represent the Cinema of Unexamined Privilege, let's face it." Yep, following in the footsteps of Metropolitan, Francis Ford Coppola's short(er) film Life Without Zoe, and - one that dates me some - Reality Bites
In the interests of examining my own privilege, my parents did pay for my health insurance and the charges on one credit card that I rarely used. There was no way in hell I was going to try to lobby for total support from them after college, though - I felt somehow guilty that I was still getting the insurance and the credit card from them. It was in large part what made me uncomfortable when I met people like the guy who had a storefront in Soho that clearly was not doing well selling his wonky glassware. I asked him if he was at all worried about that state of affairs, and he blithely replied,"Oh, I'm not worried. My family won't let me starve."
First, and foremost, Lena Dunham is a grade AA, huge, HUGE neurotic.

In a fictional context, and in much of the arts in general, being a neurotic can be a big advantage. It can be seen as a fount of creativity, a charming quirk, a sign of being edgy and with-it, and an excuse for all sorts of bad behavior. I've only seen season 1 of Girls, now chugging along on HBO into a fourth season, and it appeared, for better and worse, that Dunham had found the perfect medium for a series of trainwrecked stories about mostly privileged twentysomethings fresh out of college and without many clues trying to get by in New York City. She's also found a great cast to put these stories and situations across.

The biggest truth about Girls, however, as is the way with most productions that are out there in the world, is that it isn't for everyone. Its being on HBO, which not everyone can afford (I certainly can't; I piggybacked on a friend's HBO-Go account just to catch season 1) is a big indicator right there. The series' beginnings lie in those of Dunham hooking up professionally with Judd Apatow, who had just had a girl-gross-out hit with Bridesmaids, and in HBO needing a comedy akin to the long-gone Sex And The City that would appeal to a young female demographic. Well, HBO got it, and Dunham got a higher profile from Girls' critical acclaim, its controversial lack of diversity in its casting and its slice of a rarefied (yet still screwed up) set of lives.

Dunham's biggest shtick is being awkward and exhibitionist, all while spinning the dross of uncomfortable situations into understated, comedic fool's gold. I knew that going into my reading of her book Not That Kind Of Girl, so I read most of her tales within the book in that context. She is weird. She dives right into oversharing in a way that has truly shocked the oversharing juggernaut that is the internet - which is really saying something. It was something I and others like me who write reviews probably should have seen coming, but the backlash on certain passages in her book pertaining to her sister is bewildering to me. Was her touching of her sister's vagina when her sister was a year old and she was seven child abuse or normal childhood sexual experimentation? The internet piles on, saying it's the former, professionals say the latter, with the whole thing even inspiring a Tumblr site inviting others to share similar experiences.

None of this is to say that those who have experienced serious sexual assault at a young age should have their experiences suddenly placed under "sexual experimentation." Far from it. But I do question those who ask why Dunham's editor didn't put a lid on her more explicit revelations, as though she needed to be babysat. She's 28 years old and has the right to put what she wants into her book. Besides, the rest of the book contains passages on what it is to stumble through life as an extreme, narcissistic neurotic, to be a woman wanting to learn and to succeed in the television and film industry, and to be a young person still growing and changing that are written quite well and humorously with more than a little bite to them. She is a talented person beneath all of the controversy.

The other thing about Lena Dunham, though, is that she is just a fashion, an "it" girl. Those kinds of girls don't last very long. Threatening to sue the Truth Revolt site for publishing words she wrote ensures that her stock will drop some; canceling her international book tour will cause it to drop further still. All that she will have left will be her writing talent. Time and, hopefully, maturity will tell if she will be able to weather all of this and come away from it a better person, but the odds are now against her (which is partially her doing, sadly). What she will leave behind are questions that still haven't been adequately answered concerning feminism, diversity, privilege, female sexuality, and what it really is to write a memoir. By "adequately answering" such questions, I speak of actual dialogue among human beings rather than online pile-ons...but the pile-ons are all the raging rage. I sure wish that was a fad.