The Last Lena Dunham Defense

More than any other celebrity, Lena Dunham has the ability to make people angry without even doing anything. This time, an old tweet from 2017 by The Hollywood Reporter was making the rounds yesterday, describing the story of how Dunham sold the pilot of Girls when she was 23 with a one-and-a-half page pitch that wasn’t particularly detailed. This is held as an example of the “white privilege” that critics constantly say allowed Dunham to have a career making work that is considered by these people to be “white mediocrity.” Of course, the tweet ignores a lot of the context around said pitch — namely, that Dunham had already made the film Tiny Furniture which showcased her talent and got her noticed by Judd Apatow, who sold her to the executives at HBO. The same critics will argue that Dunham had the resources available to make that film, so she still is just an undeserving product of white privilege.

This argument — and in general, anything involving Lena Dunham for some reason — typifies the corrosive, zero-sum nature of our current discourse surrounding art, privilege, and race. I watched every episode of Girls and can say with high certainty that Dunham is a gifted writer and actress. Yet people constantly rip on the show because of their perception that Dunham is a privileged mediocre white woman, a reading that seems more influenced by her sometimes embarrassing public persona than her work. In some respect, the proof of the quality of the show is in the pudding: Girls was a lightning-rod of debate and discussion when it was on the air and a clear success for HBO. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to love it, but to act like the creator and star of it is a talentless hack is ridiculous.

It would be easier to accept the constant trashing of the show if it seemed like any of its detractors understood what it was about. A lot of the “white mediocrity” argument comes from the fact that the show was centered around four white women who were different degrees of obnoxious, self-centered, and privileged. What is missed in the ungenerous readings of the show is that it was fully aware of that, and it effectively turned a mirror to white, entitled NYC brats by allowing the characters to be flawed and to show relatively little growth through the series. Dunham’s talents lied in her ability to create these characters you would gawk at and hope weren’t too much like yourself. One of the reasons I kept watching, even as someone clearly not in the target audience, is that it was fascinating to watch a show built around such an unlikable group of protagonists, and I got caught up in their stupid petty dramas (in general, I also just enjoy shows about assholes). This is a credit to Dunham’s writing as she really knew her characters, probably because they reflected parts of her personality that have since become public and caused her to be despised.

Girls also was one of the first shows I remember really being ripped for its lack of diversity due to its all-white main cast in the NYC setting. This criticism always bothered me, and it ties into my general skepticism of how the concept of “diversity” is used by people who critique media. While lack of diversity has been and continues to be an issue, the solution isn’t just jamming people of color into every show and having a perfectly harmonious racial cast in everything. Girls was a show about well-off white people and their selfish, shallow lifestyles, and so it made perfect sense that the characters didn’t interface with many minorities. The depiction of these people should not be mistaken as an endorsement of them, but this is now a common mistake being made by everyone across all mediums.

Given the success of the show, its critical acclaim, and the fact that I (one of the most knowledgeable arts critics of our times) like it, I can only laugh at claims of Dunham having no talent, because they have no credibility and show profound ignorance. The more justifiable argument against Dunham is that she never would have gotten a chance to make Girls if she wasn’t a white woman with Hollywood connections. That’s not a point I’ll even really argue against. But because everything has to lack nuance and be one extreme or the other, many are mistaking Dunham’s luck and privilege with the complete absence of skill. Here’s a wild idea (really, bear with me on this, because it will blow your mind): maybe people can have connections, and succeed through good fortune, and still be worthwhile artists whose voices are worth listening to.

That intersection of luck, privilege, and talent describes how pretty much every successful artist “makes it” in this world. So why does it seem like Dunham is disproportionately singled out for benefiting from the same circumstances that practically all other artists do? This is where I may humbly suggest that it’s due to her being an outspoken woman, one who maybe doesn’t have the most “correct” politics and who doesn’t look like other celebrities. Throughout her career, I’ve witnessed her be held to a totally different standard from everyone else and viewed with constant undeserved skepticism, and now, years after Girls has left the air, she is still a constant punchline for white mediocrity. For most, I suspect the reason they hate her is jealousy, and it’s easy for people to tell themselves that they could have been Lena Dunham with the right breaks rather than accept the reality of their own lack of specialness and talent. Similarly, it’s easier to think of Dunham as a bad, privileged person instead of considering the possibility that you would have made all of the same decisions if put in her circumstances.

All of this is the problem when art starts being viewed through this extremely polarized political lens. Dunham doesn’t even have particularly problematic politics (as far as I can tell, she is like a normal democrat), but because Girls wasn’t this perfect, racially diverse show and studied the lives of oblivious white people, it’s now considered to be garbage. Increasingly, I see people interpreting art this way, analyzing everything through their own solipsistic bad-faith political readings of the material and scoffing if it doesn’t align with their ideal world view. This is intellectually lazy, idiotic behavior, and it causes worthwhile shows like Girls to be misunderstood and mocked, probably by people who never watched it. What we should strive for is recognizing the wealth and opportunity advantages artists like Dunham have while still appreciating the value of their art on its own merit.

Here’s Some New Music I Like

Some music releases I’ve been enjoying lately:

Mrs. Piss – Self-Surgery

This is a bite-sized side project of Chelsea Wolfe, who is the reigning queen of hyper-intense, melodramatic rock music. While Wolfe has historically been known for slower, dynamically rich songs, on Self-Surgery she shows a different side of herself by amping up the aggression and tempo with help from drummer Jess Gowrie. It serves as a useful companion to her last solo album, Birth of Violence, which showed the other side of her artistry with a calmer, post-apocalyptic vibe.

Given the band name and imagery, which hints at body horror and trashiness, I actually expected this album to be more transgressive and discomforting than it is. Even when Wolfe is trying her hardest to make her music ugly, she can’t help but let some beauty slip out, and songs like “Downer Surrounded by Uppers” have catchy melodies even while taking on more of a hardcore punk structure. The lyrics of that song are in line with the rest of this album, which is the sound of introverts and weirdos unleashing their inner fury at the world. It’s nice to hear some music that actually reflects the rage that many of us are experiencing right now, and it does it without devolving into performative corniness.

Annie – “American Cars”

Grizzled indie pop veterans will recognize Annie, who turned many jaded indie rock snobs into begrudging pop fans with 2004’s Anniemal and 2009’s Don’t Stop. Those albums are classics in the “pop for music nerds” genre that would later be owned by artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, and now the Norwegian artist is preparing her first full-length album in 11 (!) years. “American Cars” is the first single and shows she still has a mastery of the craft and an ability to add deeper, subtler feeling into her tunes that eludes most of the pop artists you hear on the radio.

Noveller –Arrow

Sarah Lipstate serves as the guitarist for Iggy Pop and also records under the name Noveller. Her new album, Arrow, is a hypnotizing collection of ambient songs that form their own cinematic desert landscapes out of her electric guitar. I often struggle with ambient music because it either feels show-offy or impenetrable; Lipstate’s compositions have thought in every note, and she judiciously uses her considerable skill to make an album that is cohesive and vast. It’s surprisingly thrilling to listen to.

Dummy – Dummy EP

The first release from this band out of Los Angeles is the kind of noisy, motorik psychedelic sound that I’m constantly obsessed with. Over only five tracks, the band shows a lot of different sides of themselves on this promising debut. “Slacker Mask” is one of the bigger jams of the year and recalls mid-90s Stereolab pretty well, as does the opener “Angel’s Gear.” “Touch the Chimes” is a long, meditative droning track at the end that shows the band leaning more into folk. Nothing here is mind-blowingly new, but it’s executed so well that it becomes hard to deny, similar to the Peel Dream Magazine album from earlier in the year.

Bec Plexus – Sticklip

Sticklip is an increasingly rare treat: an album that doesn’t really sound like anything else. Plexus’ glitchy electronic sound and chatty, sometimes spoken vocals are most reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, but the themes and her personality are different enough that this album feels like its in its own world. She has presented this album as a “digital confession booth” with friends apparently writing lyrics about their deepest, darkest feelings, though the lyrics are more abstractions than anything that actually sounds like a straight-forward confession. “Mirror Image” is the major highlight; it’s a completely distinct, avant-garde song that confronts the self in a way that feels like a sci-fi movie.

Election Update: Joe Biden is an Electoral Genius

In my last post about the upcoming election, I argued that the democratic nominee was going to be severely underrated by the public, who perceive Donald Trump to be a uniquely difficult candidate to beat even though he sucks and only won last time through luck. Since then, a lot of weird stuff has happened. At the time, Sanders was a clear frontrunner and I assumed he would win, but the Democratic establishment rallied behind Joe Biden, who left him in the dust and claimed the nomination with a series of decisive primary wins. Then there was the whole pandemic thing followed by the current string of protests surrounding the death of George Floyd. These recent events have only strengthened my belief that Biden is very likely to win this election, and it might not even be close.

I want to be as clear as possible that this isn’t about me being optimistic. I don’t believe in optimism and rarely practice it. This is what I consider to be a sane interpretation of current data and trends. Betting markets are finally starting to agree with my hypothesis, as Biden recently became a favorite for the first time. Trump’s disapproval ratings were already high and are continuing to spike as the pandemic rages, the country is on fire, and many question his responses to both those issues. It’s also hard to see Trump regaining momentum because I don’t think Covid-19 is going away and it doesn’t seem like these protests and possible revolutions are either. I believe a lot of these fabled “swing” voters go with their gut on election day. When they go into the booth, in the middle of a pandemic that has been mismanaged, are they going to think “yeah, let’s keep things how they are. Everything is going great?” I doubt it.

Most of my belief here is due to Trump being a bad candidate who people despise. This election will be a referendum on him, and outside of his deranged cultists (which are not a large percentage of people), most see Trump for what he is and aren’t satisfied with his leadership. Biden is a trickier nut to crack, and I’ve been flummoxed by his increasing popularity despite never doing anything. The only notable thing I can recall him doing during this campaign is getting credibly accused of sexual harassment. And yet, there is the fact that he beat Sanders pretty soundly, after having zero momentum, with a lot of signs pointing to the bizarre reality that voters turned out and were legitimately excited to vote for Biden. Who are these people? I have no idea. But they clearly exist and it would be a mistake to discount them.

For full disclosure, I voted for Sanders and lean pretty far left, though I’m not as militant about it as some. I think there is room for reasonable disagreement with people and I am often not a fan of the left’s tactics, which I think are too often aggressive and condescending when the goal should be to welcome people to your cause. A lot of leftists, at least on social media, come off as oblivious to how average people think and seem more interested in proving their intellectual superiority than aiding the causes they purport to care about. I’ve been particularly amused at their behavior since Biden won the nomination. It was a clear repudiation of Sanders that should have been cause for some reflection on how the movement should move forward and welcome a wider range of voters, but instead most have just moved on to attacking Biden and insisting he has no chance to win because he’s a “bad candidate” like Hillary was.

It’s not like I’m a Biden fan (far from it), but anyone in touch with reality should be able to see the results for what they are. Once the establishment rallied behind him, he destroyed Sanders and even won states he wasn’t supposed to be competitive in. And now he’s leading Trump in every single poll I look at (sometimes by fairly huge margins) and is a betting favorite to win the presidency. These are not the results of a horrible candidate who can’t possibly win, unless you’re in an echo chamber and think the entire country reflects your views despite all evidence to the contrary.

Biden’s strategy right now seems to be to sit back and do nothing while Trump clowns around and gets more and more unpopular until people are desperate for an alternative. It’s kind of a genius play. It’s not like Joe Biden can say much at this point to look great to anyone not sold on him, especially given his difficulty forming coherent thoughts, but he can create an aura of competence while Trump continues to be a giant idiot. It’s sort of like how football fans fantasize about how good their unproven backup quarterback is because they haven’t seen him go on the field and throw an interception yet. By the time the election rolls around, Trump would probably be an underdog to a Jared Fogle/Charles Manson ticket, and there’s a distinct possibility Biden coasts to the presidency while doing practically nothing.