Lena Dunham Makes My Stomach Churn. In a Good Way. (I Think.)
No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself, okay? So any mean thing someone’s gonna think of to say about me, I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour!” – Hannah Horvath in ‘Girls’
There is no doubt about it: After her Directors Guild win a couple of nights ago for Outstanding Comedy Series, Lena Dunham is even more the voice of her generation than she was before. And she’s already been that since the series she writes, directs and stars in, Girls, caught fire the instant it premiered on HBO last year. So it’s safe to say she’s not just the voice of her generation, she’s a whole chorus unto herself.
So far this new season, Girls had might as well be subtitled “Hannah’s Pursuit of Self-Respect.” The deliberate irony is Dunham makes such an ass of herself in that pursuit—flinging her horrendously clad self around the hipster-ish world she and her cohorts inhabit in Brooklyn with a shameless gusto that makes Lucille Ball look like a wallflower—that she accomplishes the very opposite.
And that’s what is so stomach churning. As if trying to outdo her shamelessness from the previous season, Dunham has now gone full throttle, exposing an inner raging exhibitionist as well as her naked, small-boobed corpulent figure at every turn, in such a raw way that you both gasp in amazement and flush red with embarrassment for this twenty-something who doesn’t want to be loved by others so much as she desperately wants to love herself. And can’t.
The way Dunham’s alter ego, Hannah, dresses is a running joke that flips the finger at the entire fashion and beauty world. If the Dove ad campaigns showing full-figured women was somewhat subversive, if too much of a PR stunt to have meaningful cultural impact, Dunham is a bomb-throwing style anarchist who is influencing the discourse about body image like nobody before her.
Comedy has always been about caricature, the more grotesque the funnier, and for all of its pretensions to be a slice-of-life peek at the lives of four women “almost getting it kind of together,” Girls remains firmly within the realm of parody. When it was first unleashed on the unsuspecting, the series caused an uproar both among women of the same age group, and the older generation. The former felt they were almost kind of represented, the latter decried the wanton excesses of hipsterettes. Still, Hannah and her girlfriends are meant to be caricatures—their acting and dialogue alone is too over the top to be realistic—so the complaints are somewhat unwarranted.
A lot of the initial backlash toward the show was flagrant jealousy on the part of women across the board who resented that four young women who are apparently so well connected in the entertainment business—David Mamet’s daughter, Zosia, is one of the four leads; anchorman Brian Williams’ daughter Allison is another; Dunham herself has vague industry ties via her mother—could land a series at HBO and have it be a hit. But that is a complete misunderstanding of how the film and TV biz works, an overestimation of the pull the cast’s nepotistic connections really have, and is dismissive of Dunham’s accomplishments before Judd Apatow, the real outside force behind her meteoric success, scooped her up and made her who she is today.
The fact is Dunham was writing and directing while she was still a student at Oberlin, one of the better liberal arts colleges located in Ohio that is akin to my alma mater, Wesleyan. In other words, it’s a bitch to get in, especially if you have creative aspirations. After that she wrote, directed and starred in two indie features, one of which was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, and did the same for a successful cult web series, Delusional Downtown Divas. It was after all this that Apatow bent down from Mount Olympus and zapped her with the lightning bolt of his patronage. And in fairness to Dunham, it was one of the wisest moves of Apatow’s career, a much-needed feather in the cap of a star producer who has had a bit of a dry spell lately.
A major complaint in the beginning was that the cast of Girls is all white, and therefore not representative of a cross section of the populous, but this is another non-issue. Dunham is simply being honest, not covering her ass with a falsehood just to be politically correct. The allegations of racism, which Dunham admits hurt her a great deal, seem to have been rectified this season by the addition of a black Republican lover of Hannah’s named Sandy. As a result of this pandering to detractors, or perhaps because Dunham and her co-writers don’t really buy it, he is the most anodyne character on the show.
I have a soft spot for twenty-five-year-olds, which elicits no little amount of scorn among people my age: Many of these ‘kids’ have a tremendous amount of creative energy that is inspiring and energizing; they’re spreading their wings, finally being taken seriously and influencing culture, and there’s a contagious exuberance to that; they are just about to peak physically (for guys it’s usually around twenty-eight), and, yeah, I like attractive people who are also smart and talented. The downside is they can be ten-year-old teenagers, often unreliable and mercurial, not to mention that great beauty or early success has the potential to corrupt their spirits and behavior.
Perhaps some of the success has altered Dunham—a $3.5-million-dollar book advance! wow—but I would certainly excuse her for many transgressions; she is probably the most audacious woman person working in entertainment. Again, she is singlehandedly redefining women’s body image. Here is a quotation of hers about it pulled from the IMDb:
It completely sickens me what our culture is doing to women. Last week I wore a big top and little shorts and a bunch of stuff came out saying I was without pants. ‘The No-Pants Look,’ it said. And I didn’t go out without pants, I had shorts on…If Olivia Wilde had gone to a party with a big silky top and little shorts she might have been told her outfit was cute…What it was really: ‘Why did you show us your thighs’?
Anyone who has seen episode three of the second season of Girls, when Hannah goes on a cocaine-fueled bender through New York, exposed tits a-bouncing, cellulite-speckled thighs a-jiggling, knows that quotation is somewhat disingenuous. Now empowered with success not seen since Sex and the City (and those women were much older and not the creators of their own show), Dunham is using her pint-sized, Rubenesque physicality as a weapon to shock and subvert, and in that she is supremely successful because she succeeds in making my stomach churn. She has called me out for being a typical, superficial, quasi-fashionista who is so body-conscious he spends enough time and energy at the gym to be in better shape than most guys half his age, which is to say exactly twenty-five. She has reminded me that I would never consider having sex with her male equivalent, twenty-five or not, simply because he doesn’t have a body or face like mine or better. She has shamed me because in real life, outside the show, she really is that talented and worthy of respect, and if I could surmount my skin-deep, muscle-defined boundaries I would appreciate someone like her in male form, but I never will. And that also makes my stomach churn.
Perhaps the cleverest device Dunham deploys is her resolute rejection and horror of pathos. Hannah is no heroine to be pitied, don’t you dare pin your hopes and aspirations on her—she’ll fuck you up. As her ex-boyfriend, Adam, whom she caused to have run over and then dumped while he was still in a thigh cast, says at the end of the season one finale, “She’s a monster.” You would think that someone who doesn’t look like Olivia Wilde would have the decency to be a nice person, at least on the surface, but Hannah can be, and very often is, a real cunt. On paper, watching a show that stars someone like this should be off-putting, but it’s the opposite: it just grows more addictive.
As a producer of mine commented the other day on Facebook just after Dunham won her Directors Guild award, “I feel about Lena Dunham the way I used to feel about Bill Watterson — I’m happy to be alive at a time when I can experience her work as it happens.” I agree with that sentiment, no matter how she makes my stomach feel.