The Nerve of Lena Dunham – The Feminist Wire

The Nerve of Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham’s new HBO show “Girls” has touched a nerve. Or maybe a few. Surely this is in part because it is a nervy show.

It takes nerve to make a show this day and age that presents itself with indie credentials but has all white protagonists. It also takes nerve to showcase the realistic sex of young adults, the realistic buoyant immaturity of their sense of themselves (mismatched by fully adult bodies), and the realistic body in particular of Lena Dunham. This is a show not to dismiss out of hand, but to ponder.

Commentators all over the blogosphere have been criticizing the show for its out-of-date, exclusive white cast, especially given that it is set in a city—Brooklyn, my city—that is only one third white. And even more illogically, the actors are representing young liberals, even liberal arts majors. This is not Archie Bunker with all white friends in Queens, but middle class Jews and Wasps in Greenpoint.

Yet perhaps this in itself is part of what makes this show nervy. The truth is that even in 2012 many middle class whites—even liberal arts majors—live in social worlds that are all white or nearly so. Even young city dwellers can create networks of friends and lovers that have less race and class than gender and sexual integration. Dunham is showing it like it is.

There is no question that there are still complaints to be made: when is HBO ever going to produce a show with an all Puerto Rican cast, or an all African American cast, or an all Asian American cast? Written by same? But it is interesting to compare “Girls” to the typical mainstream media fare—fare without indie credentials, in other words—which generally avoid presenting all white shows but in a way that arguably does more harm than good. There’s always a person-of-color best friend, best buddy, or friendly co-worker, who provides support, wisdom, and wisecracks, all without conflict. When these figures are presented as true friends, rather than the butt of jokes as one sometimes sees in the more overtly racist shows, the effect is to paint a liberal, enlightened veneer over a show and avoid the criticism of being all-white. But inclusion of these supportive non-white props provides a too easy assurance to liberal white audiences—audiences who may be secretly worried about how people of color in their lives view them— that all is ok, that they are ok, that they too could potentially have a person of color friend like this, and that they are not racist because they are watching a show with a friendship between a white and non-white person! This is not, to put it mildly, helpful. In contrast to that option, it may well be better to make an all white show that provides to young middle class whites a truer reflection of their social lives.

Lena Dunham, in this way, is kind of brilliant, in the way that artists are brilliant. I teach liberal arts regularly to young women, and the best art majors always stand out in a different way than the best English and philosophy majors. Dunham is brilliant in this way, not because she can offer a nuanced and articulate account of what she is about, but because she has the capacity to impart this moment in time for this subset of the generation with such visual clarity. Case in point: in a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Gross, with her usual perceptive acuity, asked Dunham about the fact that both she, Lena, and the character that she plays on “Girls,” Hannah Horvath, have tattoos of children’s book illustrations. As commonplace as tattoos have become (and they seem to be a requirement for renting an apartment in some parts of Brooklyn), they remain a way to declare one’s adult status and power over the decisions affecting one’s own body.  This makes the choice of children’s book illustrations all the more incongruous. Gross pointed this incongruity out to Dunham and how it perfectly visualized the show’s exploration of the contradictory desires, and status, of young people who veer between assertive independence and needy dependence. In response to this observation, Dunham said “Wow, I never thought of that.” This is what I mean about artists.

It was painful to watch Dunham’s debut movie, “Tiny Furniture,” painful like watching a train wreck, but it revealed her clearly as, oddly enough, a voice for her generation, at least her race, class, and gender’s generation. This is what her character, Hannah, claims to her parents in the very first scene of “Girls,” a claim she is using to pressure them into extending their financial support.  As in “Tiny Furniture,” “Girls” portrays an array of middle class white girls fresh out of college who are dysfunctional in independent adult life. Both portrayed the infantilization of this sub-group, an infantilization very much tied to their class. (The poor don’t generally have such options.) But this theme is carried through in the tattoos, in the shots of Dunham dancing alone in her room, in all of the character’s half-formed sexual relationships, in the very preference for the term ‘girls’ over ‘women,’ and certainly in the struggle to retain financial support from their parents. The need for ongoing support after college is no doubt related to our economic crisis, but as stated, the poor don’t have this option.

Yet the infantilization of the girls in ‘Girls’ is not gender specific: young men of a certain class play unfathomable hours of video games, endlessly indulge in the immediate gratifications of porn, struggle with financial independence, and rarely take care of themselves, their hygiene, or their living spaces. As another middle-aged friend of mine says, few have learned the basics of ‘stuff management.’

The gender inclusivity of this phenomenon should warn middle-aged parents, and middle-aged feminists, to beware of applying old narratives to this new generation. This is truly what “Girls” shows so well. Hannah has a boyfriend/cum/fuckpuppy who is portrayed as a sludge: selfish, insensitive, incapable of a real relationship, who we never see anywhere but in his apartment, day or night, which is filled with his parents cast-off furnishings, and who seems to have two exclusive activities: work-outs, and sex.  His sex with Hannah is one-way—he directs, he gets off, he expresses his absurdly offensive fantasies about 12 year old drug addicts, while she is compliant. But Hannah has sex with the sludge not because she ‘lacks self-esteem’ or ‘accepts a rape culture’ but because she wants to explore sex, relationships, new experiences, and boys; i.e. she has her own reasons, and is not entirely clueless about his reasons. The narrative of such a non-relationship as we older folks might have made in our generation—where women have low self-esteem and are constantly victimized—needs to be revised for this generation, at least in relation to this class and mostly this race. These young women have a confidence in their future economic self-sufficiency we never had, and a decreased pathology about sexual activity. In contrast to Hannah, Shoshanna, the one virgin of the group, is portrayed by Zosia Mamet much more in line with older narratives of women’s powerlessness. Shoshanna is acquiescent to the extreme not only to men but to everyone around her. Far from representing her autonomy, her virginity is a clear sign of sexual hysteria. She is the most one-dimensional character of the group, but she provides a high contrast against which the struggling agency of the other characters becomes visible.

The remaining two characters, Marnie and Jessa—played respectively by Allison Williams and Jemima Kirke, are portrayed as having, on the face of it, the most sexual subjectivity or agency. Jessa initiates casual sex on the day she is scheduled for an abortion, and Marnie disdains her enamored boyfriend’s constant efforts to please her. Their braggadacio is rendered more complex by a sense that neither knows how to attain sexual or emotional happiness. Hannah’s heartfelt speech in episode four to her sludge of a boyfriend, in which she declares simultaneously that she is asking for nothing but wanting an exclusive and caring relationship, turns out to be the bravest moment of serious relational work any character accomplishes. And her constant worries about her less than slender body makes the honesty all the more impressive.

The use of the word “girls” in “Girls” is not about moving away from feminism, I’d suggest. It is about marking the distinctness of their generation through the creation of an in-group word that distinguishes them very clearly from an older generation. Yet it is also a word that returns us to the specter of infantilization. This needs pondering as well. Since the slacker ideal emerged in the 1990’s, the rejection of material success and financial ambition can be interpreted in part as a repudiation of bourgeois values, even if only in a half-conscious way. The refusal to give up meaningless pleasures or learn ‘stuff management’ may involve a refusal to assimilate to corporate subjectivity with its future oriented work ethic of delayed gratification. The here and now is important too. Hannah wants to view herself as a writer and an artist, beholden to her sense of a life with an aesthetic integrity that may have some political implications she cannot yet articulate much less think through. There are seeds of freedom here trying to break free. Part of this will require, without a doubt, a more developed self-consciousness about their race and class particularities. I will keep watching in order to see if these characters can develop this self-consciousness without the need of a wise or wise-cracking nonwhite friend. Let’s see if they can get there on their own.