Oh Lena Dunham! She's really been the lightning rod of the year. The writer/director/star of HBO's Girls (and the popular indie film Tiny Furniture) has attracted much attention, both positive and negative, since her show premiered in April. Is she the genuine, truth-telling voice of her generation? Or is she the cluelessly, blithely privileged daughter of wealthy downtown artists who's simply been grandfathered into her success? Getting answers to these questions has seemed pretty important of late, eager as we all are to figure out if Dunham is a true artiste, a flash-in-the-pan fascination, or a repackaged Candace Bushnell come to usher in a whole new terrible era of self-involvement. But you know what? It turns out she's really none of those things.
We bring Lena Dunham up at all because yesterday The New Yorker published an essay that Dunham wrote about an ex-boyfriend, and the sight of a personal, Thought Catalog-esque piece written by Lena freakin' Dunham in the hallowed pages of The New Yorker certainly outraged some. She's back in the conversation right now, so let's once and for all deal with her. Well, not "deal with her," that sounds kind of sinister. What I mean to say is, let's just all accept the fact that Lena Dunham is part of a particular kind of establishment now so we can all stop trying to figure out what Lena Dunham says about the way we live now. Yes. Lena Dunham, a smart and talented white woman who grew up in New York City with substantial privilege, has become part of the rarefied world of the literati and the taste-makers and that's where she will stay. Or maybe she always existed in that world — she was sort of born into it after all — and the past six months has just been her official induction ceremony. So we should not bother ourselves trying to mold her to shape the narratives of our more alarmist arguments. She is not ours to debate anymore. They, big bespoke They, have got her.
Meaning, Lena Dunham is now the spokesperson for The New Yorker. She's making Tim and Eric-esque shorts with the likes of Jon Hamm and is likely doing it less for the money and more for the fact that The New Yorker asked her to. Because she's Lena Dunham. And that's what Lena Dunham does now. She's shilling, but it's for a good cause. And whether she's shilling or not, for money or not, is kind of a moot point. Why are we griping on and on about the perceived Lena Dunham economy? We didn't complain about characters on Friends sometimes being broke, like the girls on Girls, even though everyone who worked on Friends was doing pretty darn well in real life. Sure Girls may have slightly higher intellectual ambitions than Friends and thus gets held to a stricter standard of, well, let's call it honesty, but come on. Lena Dunham makes a well-reviewed television show for an expensive premium network with the guy who did Knocked Up. We're not talking about Marina Abramović here.
If Dunham was running around forming crappy bands and giving bratty interviews to Bust and Nylon and palling around with Terry Richardson or whoever, we could probably still be having a conversation about what potentially awful coming tide she represents vis a vis her age group and demographic and whatnot. Because she'd still be in the messy, flowering stages of her own risky artistry or button-pushing public persona or whatever. But in reality she seems to have herself pretty shored up. She's in the cool but not exactly hip intellectual crowd, the kind that certain urban(e) grownups adore with parental fawning spiked with jealous vicarious possession. Among this somewhat amorphous group of pleasantly interesting and ultimately harmless people might be Harvard-educated celebrity scion Rashida Jones, or dreamy picture maker Sofia Coppola, or hell, even Ira Glass. Dunham is part of this club. In fact she straddles two sects of it. She's a New Yorker girl and a talks-to-Paul Rudd-at-the-Emmys girl. And she's definitely a Wait Wait Don't Tell Me call-in guest girl. This is not a person who actually aims to bother anyone, she's not a rebel or an iconoclast, so we can all put our claws away.
Lena Dunham is not going to define young people for the nation any more than Bristol Palin will. Mind you, that's not to compare Lena Dunham, again a smart and talented and seemingly likable young person, with Bristol Palin, a delinquent with a TV contract, but neither of these people are people that we need to be afraid of, or vengeful toward, you know? I think a lot of the Lena Dunham pushback is based on a fear that she's somehow come to drastically change things, to freak us out about today's youth. And of course she has interesting things to say about a particular subset of culture — Girls often rings with wonderful truth — but come on. No one who's making borderline lame promotional videos for The New Yorker's iPhone app is really going to shake too many things up. At 26 years old, Dunham has got herself pretty well-ensconced in a place where, frankly, revolutions don't happen. That's not to say her work is without value, far from it, it's just the way that people talk about Dunham these days you'd think she was luring twentysomethings into some kind of cult. She's not, actually. She's too busy charming their parents at a dinner party.
Really, Lena Dunham seems to be simply an old-soul entertainer who wants to think a little and earn a living and, in her private life, hang out with and talk to fellow like-minded people. Which is fine. She'll keep her career moving — I suspect the acting aspect will not last terribly long and writing and directing will move fully center stage, but that she'll still remain something of a public personality — and occasionally write a thing on a website or in a magazine that is sedately probing or funny and that will be it. No, Lena Dunham isn't some harbinger of doom. She's not a young Candace Bushnell with a Greenpoint address. Turns out, she's David Sedaris. And what has David Sedaris, or his sister and fellow club member Amy, ever really done to anybody?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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