Comedy fans were treated to insights from two of television's leading ladies this month when Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler released their memoirs. From their stories of navigating a medium that has traditionally been dominated by men, it is clear that both women were boosted by positive reinforcement from parents who gave them the confidence to take up space in our cultural discourse. This week's attacks on Dunham show that many in the media are not quite as enlightened in their ability to distinguish a joke from a confession, welcome discourse about awkward topics, and allow female writers to have ownership over their own narratives.
The introduction of Dunham's memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, includes a passage reflective of the kind of honesty readers should expect to find in her book. "I had a nagging sense that my true friends are waiting for me, beyond college, unusual women whose ambitions are as high as their past transgressions, whose hair is piled high, dramatic like topiaries at Versailles, and who never, ever say 'too much information' when you mention a sex dream you had about your father." By injecting painful stories with humor and hyperbole, Dunham conquers sensitive topics including rape, mental illness, medical diagnoses, and regular old neuroses with a hilarious touch.
If you gathered the two comedians for a game of Truth or Dare, Dunham would choose "truth," eager to divulge information about herself, while Poehler would likely choose "dare," preferring comic stunts over secret telling. In her memoir, Yes Please, Poehler defines intimacy as a rare combination of sadness and joy, a mood that Dunham is famous for evoking. For the most part, Poehler's memoir avoids that kind of emotional excavation, and focuses instead on professional experiences in improv and show business, motherhood and positive memories from her childhood.
In one chapter, Poehler shares a story about a casting agent who asked her to tell her most embarrassing moment at an audition. She refused and was never called back. Her advice to readers is that "everybody wants you to share your most embarrassing moment all the time, and I am here to tell you that you don't have to. You don't have to tell it or tweet it or Instagram it. You don't have to put it in a book or share it with anyone who doesn't feel safe and protective of your heart."
Poehler is absolutely correct. Nobody can make you share your most intimate or embarrassing or scary moment. All people, including celebrities, have the right to privacy. And the Internet, with its democratization of power and dearth of gatekeepers has waged a war on privacy and specialized in disseminating bite-sized chunks of what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness," fossilizing our every word and making us vulnerable to guerrilla attacks at any moment.
When a right-wing blogger from Truth Revolt parsed together unrelated passages from Dunham's book to create a depiction of her as an incest-prone child molester, he demonstrated why writing is an act of bravery. By pairing an off-handed quip about being a sexual predator that was told in the context of trying to understand her baby sister with an anecdote about her childhood curiosity about human anatomy, a side-note in her story about discovering she has endometriosis, and stripping her remarks of their humorous intentions, he successfully hijacked Dunham's personal narrative.
Almost as disheartening as the critics who give credence to Truth Revolt's ridiculous conclusions, are those who have questioned why Dunham "had to tell that particular story" and suggested that her editors "should have known better," treating Dunham like a senseless child rather than a professional writer. Every person is entitled to tell her own stories, especially the ones that make people uncomfortable. A comedian's willingness to use her most taboo material is what makes her relatable. From Woody Allen to Larry David to Louis C.K., male comedians have made names for themselves by offering up "too much information" about their bodies and more disturbingly, their minds. By questioning Dunham's agency to decide what's worth talking about and shaming her for not being ashamed of herself, they are missing the purpose of her work.