THE BLOG
01/09/2013 03:28 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

The Secret of Lena Dunham's Success

In the closing scene of Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture, main character Aura, in a rare moment of self-reflection, declares to her mother "I want to be as successful as you are." The autobiographical movie -- with Aura played by Dunham, her mother played by Dunham's own mom, artist Laurie Simmons, and filming taking place in the sprawling Simmons apartment -- was the first major step in a remarkable career. Between a $3.5 million book deal, a controversial collaboration with the president, and the debut of her television series Girls, the 26 year-old was likely the most discussed cultural figure of the past year. If the hubbub surrounding this Sunday's season premiere of Girls is any indication, Dunham's prominent place in 2013's cultural landscape remains assured.

While it is Girls's Hannah Horvath (a role assumed by Dunham herself) who famously declares that she may be the voice of her generation, no quote sums up the fears, dreams, and expectations of that very generation quite so neatly as Aura's declaration. A slight modification, however, is due for the non-children of prominent, obscenely wealthy artists. "I want to be more successful than you are" might better represent their hopes and, in turn, their parents' hopes for them.

Tiny Furniture is a film that, at every step of the way, openly acknowledges the privilege of its protagonists. Dunham seems aware that Aura's wealth is her most fascinating quality -- it is what makes her interesting to the audience and alluring to potential lovers, all while allowing her to indulge her worst habits. One of the film's best exchanges occurs when Aura's mother incredulously asks the recent college graduate "Do you like living here?"

"That is such a ridiculous question," an oblivious Aura responds. "I love living here."

Aura's background is far more representative of Dunham's than Hannah's. In late 2010, Dunham explained to the New Yorker that Girls was not to be "the 'move to New York and have an unreasonably large apartment on an unreasonably cute street' version [of post-graduate life.]" Whether for artistic or personal reasons, the titular girls got bumped down a class. Hannah is the child of professors from Michigan, not a famous Manhattan artist. Yet much of the commentary defending the show against allegations of whitewashing and narcissism assumes that Dunham is telling her "own story," and that less privileged writers of color are free to do the same.

The clear implication is that Girls is an origin tale of sorts, chronicling what life was like for Dunham before she got it together and made it big. But in reality, Dunham and her castmates, all of comparable pedigree, are by and large playing characters far less privileged than they are. At Girls's worst moments, the show veers dangerously close to mocking people poorer than her. Its most prominent theme -- Hannah's irresponsibility, laziness, and self-satisfaction -- seems less a systemic critique of unpaid creative internships than an allegation that middle class kids who wish to pursue the same career paths as their upper class friends are spoiled and bratty. In a particularly grating scene, Hannah's mother shrilly screams that she is cutting her daughter off because she wants a lake house. But it is simply good parenting for members of the middle class to steer their children away from fields that don't promise a steady income. They don't have the luxury of supporting their children forever, even if they're willing to forego their desire to "sit by a fucking lake."

Yet when asked about what distinguishes her from Hannah, Dunham shows no comprehension of the degree to which privilege can drive life choices. Frighteningly, she sees herself as less entitled than her on-screen counterpart, whose parents revoke their financial support in the series's opening scene. "I'm sure that I've had some really unattractive, spoiled moments in my years, but I've never -- that conversation that Hannah had has never happened to me, in large part because when I graduated from college, my parents let me live with them, but they made it really clear that they weren't going to support any of my endeavors," she told NPR. One wonders precisely what the starlet thinks supporting oneself means. The most glaring differences between Dunham and her character seem to be that she is far wealthier, better-connected, and has parents who live in Manhattan.

Girls's other difficult moments also stem from Dunham's inability to articulate the vision she described to the New Yorker in 2010. Large apartments and cute streets abound. For a show whose very premise is that Hannah has been cut off, her complete lack of income has no impact on her standard of living. Her roommate Marnie begrudgingly picks up her share of the rent and the bills. When she moves out of the apartment after a spat, no mention is made of the large sum of money she is now owed. The duo's main concern seems to be the damage done to their friendship, not their finances. Other prominent criticisms of the show are, in some ways, a reflection of the eliteness of Dunham's world. The characters reside in a remarkably diverse borough of a remarkably diverse city, and are recent grads of a presumably diverse school. Yet spare a few stereotypical interactions with black homeless men or Indian doctors, the community they live in is unrealistically whitewashed. Dunham seems to have no understanding of what the middle class (or the upper middle class, for that matter) feels or looks like.

In an interview with the New York Times shortly after Girls was nominated for several Emmys, Dunham was asked about critiques regarding nepotism and race. In an arbitrary distinction, she recognized the legitimacy of one, but not the other. "The nepotism one, I was always pretty good at ignoring because it seemed so rooted in basic human jealousy and dislike of other people's success. There's just no other way to read that one. The debates about feminism, about race -- I was caught off-guard because I always thought it was so clear that what I was doing was feminist and done by a liberal-minded person, trying to understand the way the world worked. It ended up being a real gift to me, even if there were moments when it was challenging."

Twenty-six is very young to have scripted and starred in a feature film. It is very young to be an Emmy-nominated writer, director, and actress. It is very young to have scored a multimillion dollar book deal. But 26 is not young enough to exhibit a blithe unwillingness to acknowledge one's own privilege and an arrogant scorn for those who dare to point it out. Whether the infantilization of Dunham by her defenders is related to her gender is unclear, but it's hard to imagine the bloggers who are happy to write off her critics as big, sexist meanies leaping to the defense of a comparably obtuse male in his late twenties. Particularly if his work dealt predominantly with themes of wealth and privilege, and his musings were valued by the market at a whopping $3.5 million. In any case, 26 is certainly old enough to know what the word "liberal" means.

First and foremost, liberalism is based upon the acknowledgment of privilege. An awareness that unearned advantages can have have a direct, tangible, formative impact on one's life demands a system that takes into account how much of one's fate is left to chance. Jealousy, then, is a natural response when that formulation inadequately compensates for systemic inequities. That some groups are jealous of others doesn't undermine the claim that the envied are afforded special privileges; if anything it can serve to bolster the claim that those privileges are substantial. (One rarely hears of someone being "jealous" of another's hard work or persistence.) There is a difference between being jealous of one's inherited privilege and being jealous of one's talent. One who writes off the former as "class envy" has some nerve calling herself a progressive in the same breath.

Dunham's refusal to acknowledge her class privilege is just as offensive as if the white star were to declare that racism is no longer a force to be reckoned with. Does Dunham truly believe that she is simply that much more talented than other aspiring filmmakers who have immediate financial concerns -- student loans, bills, and rent? Or does she understand that these obligations essentially bar many of her peers from creative fields but persist with this fantasy anyways? If the former, she's narcissistic at best, willfully naïve at worst. If the latter, she's malicious. In either case, she is just another privileged person endorsing an unjust system, one that serves to benefit her substantially, at the expense of those who are less so.

If you agree with the suggestion of Girls that pursuing one's dreams is a luxury that, like a private school education or a cosmopolitan NYC lifestyle, should be the sole privy of the wealthy, then perhaps this critique does not stir you. But there are overarching societal implications for this line of thinking that are not reserved for those with sympathy for bitter creatives with day jobs. If you believe that culture matters, if you believe that it has the power to impact our norms, and if you believe that the worldview which art strives to mold is in part driven by the background of its creator, you cannot believe that it is possible to have a healthy society in which the vast majority of cultural output is produced by those whose families can assume the financial risks.

Cultural icons like Dunham whose substantial talents have allowed them to thrive in the creative realm could throw others a bone and acknowledge that that their fame was made possible by the status of their parents. It is a simple, indisputable fact that Dunham's considerable success is due, in no small part, to her considerable luck. But the narrative of the self-made man is an incredibly seductive one. After all, wealth can be inherited. But half the fun of success in America is that everyone assumes it was earned.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.