Lena Dunham is a screenwriter, showrunner, producer and actress. And now she's going to be the author of an advice book, for which Random House reportedly just paid over $3.5 million. Naturally, the backlash has begun.
Here's a quick composite of the haters' plaints: Dunham is an over-privileged 26-year-old narcissist whose success is due to her family and connections.
See how easy (and predictable) that was? So much easier than acknowledging that Dunham has worked hard for the success she's achieved and cheering her on.
We'd rather cheer her on.
Here are ten reasons we're not joining the Lena Dunham backlash -- and you shouldn't either:
1. Her talent is undeniable.
As you can see from our obsessive weekly "Girls" chats, we're serious fans of Dunham's work. She's brought to life on the small screen young female characters who are complex and flawed and sometimes unlikeable. Like it or hate it, "Girls" continued an important conversation about racism and sexism on television. Plus, Dunham is a natural essayist; it's hard to read on Rookie Mag about how she lost her virginity without thinking about your first time. All of which is to say that there's a reason one publishing house put up those millions, and others probably put in sizeable bids: she has proven that she can deliver a poignant, well-written and sellable end product.
2. She's not paralyzed by her own ambition.
How many 26-year-olds do you know who have made two web series, two feature films, multiple short films, written, produced, directed and starred in a hit HBO TV show and published two (well-received) essays in the New Yorker? How many young women not only dream big but, instead of succumbing to self-doubt, proceed as though those dreams deserve to be brought to fruition? We're not criticizing women for not believing in their own visions; there are plenty of complicated external reasons we don't always fight to see our ideas realized. But when a young woman does, that is something to celebrate.
3. She's done the most with the most.
No one is denying that Lena Dunham has had many advantages in life. She grew up in Soho and has successful, semi-"famous" white parents who were able to finance her her liberal arts college education and support her artistic endeavors afterward. But this privilege isn't unique to Dunham -- especially in the entertainment industry -- and she was born into it. What matters is that she's used it to create something of value. Dunham has delivered on all that her parents invested in her, and with work that addresses, among other themes, entitlement and privilege.
4. She dares to take up space physically...
Few people are brave enough to expose themselves physically or emotionally in the ways Dunham does in every tweet, and occasionally naked in a bathtub, while eating a cupcake, on TV. At the New Yorker Festival on October 7, she told TV critic Emily Nussbaum that part of her mission in appearing on "Girls" in the nude so often is to challenge the way average sized women have taught to be ashamed of and hide their bodies. Dunham said she has a strong impulse to make the public "look at us until you see us."
5. ... and culturally.
Dunham is also unafraid to claim space for ideas and her voice, even as she's aware of the grandiosity doing so may imply (see: Hanna Horvath informing her parents in Episode 1 of "Girls" that she feels she may be "the voice of her generation," then adding self-consciously, "or a voice... of a generation"). Dunham only claims to be a voice -- she told the audience at the New Yorker festival, "I write hoping that my personal experience hoping others think that resonates so we can all feel less alone." If that's not enough justification for her work, here's more: she told Slate, "There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman."
6. She knows how to respond to thoughtful criticism, thoughtfully.
When "Girls" first premiered, some critics attacked the show for its lack of racial diversity, the starring actresses' industry connections and the (often) terrible sex the characters have. Dunham responded to the feedback with aplomb. In an interview with Soledad O'Brien on October 2nd, she said: "I don't care about satisfying the critics, but I care about satisfying my viewers. And I know I have viewers who are women of color who want to see themselves reflected on screen. So, that's what matters to me."
Speaking to the claim that she has succeeded only because of her privilege and connections, she reflected that that critique is nearly impossible to respond to without inviting more ridicule. "I have plenty of counter-arguments to that," she told Nussbaum, "but it's not elegant to share them."
And regarding the criticism that she is off base, that being 24 in New York isn't actually like she portrays it in "Girls," for anyone, that the sex can't be that bad, Dunham told London Times journalist Caitlin Moran,
"I prepared myself for almost every argument somebody could have except for the one where someone goes, 'This isn't real - this isn't your world.' The one thing I guarantee I do know about is being middle class, half-Jewish, half-WASP in New York in 2012."
7. Jealously is useless.
In all of the cries of nepotism and other attempts to tear Dunham down, it's hard not to hear a base note of envy. Yes, it would be pretty awesome to have accomplished all that Dunham has by 26, have a cute drummer boyfriend, a book deal and write for the New Yorker. If you haven't, that is not Lena Dunham's fault.
8. That book is going to be good.
Sure, we may not take some or any the advice in Dunham's book, tentatively titled "Not That Kind Of Girl: Advice By Lena Dunham." But how much of any advice book does anyone take to heart?
We're buying the book not because we want Dunham's guidance, or even because everyone will be reading and talking about it when it comes out. We'll read it because Lena Dunham can write, as her tribute to Nora Ephron in the New Yorker demonstrated:
This past week, the elevator in my new building both flooded and caught on fire, so an extra doorman had to be hired to carry elderly women up the stairs. I think Nora would find this funny and strange and awful. Every sweaty step I take to get to the sixth floor I hear her name like a mantra.
In addition to everything else she does, she can set a scene and turn a phrase and most importantly, she can move you.
9. If you actually listen to her, it is hard not to love her.
You have to be very, very cynical if after reading a few of her interviews or following Dunham on Twitter, a general gratitude that she exists not to warm your dark little heart. Who else pitches a TV show to Judd Apatow, or at least recalls said pitch, "Here's a show I'd like to watch. It would be really fun!"
Maybe the tweets and essays and quips are all part of a shtick, but if so, it's one she maintains with flawless consistency, and not many public personas make us this happy:
The Brooklyn Bridge is closed today. How will anyone get into Manhattan to fulfill their big city dreams!?
— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) October 6, 2012
10. She f**king did it.
It's one thing to call yourself a writer/artist/filmmaker while watching Youtube videos on your laptop in a Bushwick coffee shop and waiting for the muse to come to you. Or to create something and then convince yourself that it's not good enough to show to anyone, ever.
It's another thing to write and produce and direct and star in the TV show or movie (or both, in Dunham's case) and ask people to pay you for it. In a very short period of time, Lena Dunham has worked hard and told stories that resonate with audiences, impress critics and attract investors. If anything, we need more Lena Dunhams showing young women that you can put yourself out there and be taken seriously and seem to take a lot of joy your work and still be, by all appearances, a nice person. If anything, we need more young women doing such amazing things that they inspire tweets like this:
Instead of resenting Dunham, why not take a moment to revel in her success, even enjoy it vicariously. She did it. And maybe you can, too.
Follow Emma Gray on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emmaladyrose