"Thou shalt not extinguish thine anger, but shall master it, that thy conscience may not be blunted by adjustment to wrong causes."
-The Dutch Ten Commandments to Foil the Nazis


I've been attempting, between class preps and applications and whatnot, to get a sense of why it is I find the whole "Lena Dunham is the voice of her generation" thing annoying, because (for me, at least) it has nothing to do with any biographical facts about her, about which I know little and have less interest. I've been centering in on the idea that her defenders typically begin by de-legitimating criticism of her, so that one must jump through hoops such as the one in the first sentence above to even begin to critique her work.* Alan Jacobs points out this article, which spends a lot of time on the privilege question (one that, I think, is perfectly legitimate to discuss), but also contains the following observation, which seems like the sort of thing Phoebe might have a comment or two on:

But in the end, the adults are the ones who are lavishing all the attention on their plight. ... Twentysomethings are, of course, entitled to write about whatever they want, no matter how cloistered their worldview. It’s the tastemakers at places like HBO and the Times who have thrust them into the cultural spotlight and fixated on their every move.

So perhaps it’s not the twentysomethings whose self-obsession is driving this trend. All those stories about emerging adults bear a suspicious resemblance to another overcrowded genre about the worries of a small and privileged class: the parents who continue to invest in and manage their kids into adulthood. “I sometimes imagine that there’s an editor at the Times who’s got a thirtysomething kid that he can’t get out of the house who’s putting his shoes up on the coffee table and eating Cheetos on the couch,” the sociologist Michael Rosenfeld told me.

The link between confessional 'real' twentysomething culture and confessional 'real' parents-writing-about-their-kids seems worth discussing. If the objectionable thing in the latter is that the people involved can't really consent to their inclusion, this also seems like it might be a problem with the former (I remember when Ross Douthat's Harvard book came out, there was a lot of digital ink spilled about an anecdote in which a (relatively easily identifiable) co-ed came on to him, in which she was made to look like A Woman of Loose Morals Who Is Representative of Her Time). But perhaps this is not quite correct.

*i.e. one pre-empts questions of race or class by implying, more or less directly, that to ask that question makes one a sexist. The conflict between race and gender has been thus for some time, but even so, it's odd.

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At 11:30 am, Blogger Phoebe said...

So much to say, so much to grade...

But for the time being, the relationship between LD writing in the New Yorker about a real-life ex and the parents-writing-about-kids one is... there, but it's different to write about a child, different to write about your child, than to write about a real person who maybe doesn't have the same platform, but is still an adult you have no real power over. I mean, I'd like to see more novels, fewer memoirs, but ultimately there isn't a huge difference between Dunham's unnamed ex and the fictionalized version thereof.

What I keep coming back to re: Dunham is, I wonder how she in particular became the focus of all cultural anxieties re: life's unfairnesses. I mean, with all the all-white casts, why "Girls"?* With all the nepotism out there, why are we focused on this person who isn't in the same field as her parents, and whose parents aren't even famous?

And yes, I do think this has something to do with it being upsetting to many people (few of whom would admit it, or even see it) that the successful person in question is a) a young woman, and b) one who isn't conventionally attractive. Not by movie-star standards (and that's already out there - see: Tina Fey), or by typical-American-high-school ones (which is virtually unheard-of). With Gwyneth Paltrow, say, she gets the "privilege" accusations, but people tend to see it as fair that she's in the public eye, because she looks like a movie star.

None of this is about the quality of Dunham's work. If people think she's getting too much attention for someone who produces nothing special, fair enough. But the criticism I've seen tends to be about how she's white and privileged, as if this is somehow particular to Dunham in that industry.

*Ideally there'd be more shows by people of color and by people with diverse lives, as opposed to shows like "Girls" with last-minute token additions. But I digress.

At 11:44 am, Blogger Nicholas said...

I think she becomes the center of criticism in part because her cultural output is so slight and she's still at an early stage in her career:* one (not especially popular) movie and one season of a TV show (and that was ten episodes, I think). In that sense she's no different than lots of other cultural properties who come in for all kinds of criticism when the hype appears to exceed the output. The analogies I keep coming back to are sports analogies, since that's a place where hype precedes and does not guarantee production, and so there's always a sizeable backlash because people tend to get hyped before they're worthy of it. Just as in the case of LD, much of it is stupid and beside the point, but the fact there are haters does not pre-emptively delegitimate criticism.

There are also generally legitimate concerns for which particular cultural properties then become instances, like complaining about how no people of color were ever nominated for acting Oscars: it's not that the people who were nominated were unworthy in some sense, but you pick the platform that will get you the most publicity so people think about something they'd otherwise neglect.

*(this is my objection, I think: she's written the equivalent of one novel, which is great, but the test is whether you can write another one that's not just the same thing over again. In this respect, "memoir" is not a promising sign.)

At 11:57 am, Blogger Phoebe said...

I get the over-hyped thing, but I just can't see that she's any more over-hyped than any number of other hot-new-thing artists. But I don't think the issue of her gender/age/looks is necessarily about the various relevant -isms. It's also that because she looks ordinary, she gets the usual resentment against someone young and successful, plus this sense of could've-been-me.

But I'm coming at this from a different perspective. If the question is whether LD is overrated, fair enough, I haven't seen enough of her output to say. But what concerns me is that in an industry completely permeated by all kinds of unfair advantage, we've picked this one woman to represent whiteness and privilege, a woman who's definitively pale but, as nepotism goes, not terribly impressive.

It's great that there's a discussion happening about broader (racism) and more specific (nepotism) injustices in whose work gets produced. But there's something unpleasant, I think, in putting this all on LD. At most, maybe, like you say/quote, we could criticize her promoters. But ideally we'd use her as one example, not *the* example, of this problem. Problem, that is, assuming she isn't all she's cracked up to be.


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