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.