Okay, I don’t normally do this because I think celebrity worshipping is the root of evil in popular culture, but every once in a while an artist comes along that is actually worthy of attention; somebody whose claim to fame is not being the hottest or having the best publicist or the most airbrushed pictures or the dumbest reality show. Somebody with an all-new approach to a well-worn entertainment medium that uses it to push the boundaries of artistic expression and to lay their soul out in the worst possibly lighting for the rest of the world to judge, mock, be challenged by, and maybe, just maybe, relate to. In my world, Lena Dunham is one of those people.
I see her as the feminine equivalent to Kevin Smith in that she’s also a confident person who stands in direct contrast to the standard accepted definition of attractiveness who gets by by making the most out of every single thing she’s given and by portraying herself as she is: a funny, charming, and talented writer/director/performer who is not afraid to show the world how messed up she is and in doing so speaks to her audience in thoughtful and honest ways that most other entertainment can’t touch.
I’ve yet to see her debut 2009 student film Creative Nonfiction – a title that literally defines her career. Dunham’s current project is the divisive HBO series Girls, which was preceded by her independent film sensation Tiny Furniture. Both are intensely autobiographical, regularly unsettling, funny, and strikingly unique. But let’s take it back to the very humblest beginning for a second. If I told you that her career started as an overweight girl playing in a public fountain in her underwear on Youtube while trolls jeered her, would you believe me?
If I had to pick the most awesome way to begin a career like hers, that’s got to be it. Bold, in-your-face, unorthodox, utterly insane, and funny; it’s more than a little bit fitting. In a way Tiny Furniture and Girls are each extensions of that core concept. Dunham’s one-woman war on pants and non-idealized, “look how effed up I am” portrayal of herself and her characters are primary points of a long list of criticisms. Call me a weirdo, but those same things inspire complete adoration in me.
This picture was originally going to be Lena Dunham naked on the toilet eating a whole cake like a depressive pixie dream girl, but Unreality couldn’t handle the awesome.
Don’t like Girls because the characters are neurotic, self-centered, and do moronic things? Turn that lens of contempt on your own circle of family and friends. Turn it on yourself and see that how that works out for you. There’s something extremely inspiring and appealing about a young woman who is willing to show damn near every wart and stretch mark on her body and soul for all to see. It’s a statement that says “this is who I am. DEAL WITH IT” and she finds a way to make it compulsively entertaining at the same time. Ironically, her fictional works arguably contain more actual reality than every hyper-edited reality series freak show on the air put together.
Being self-aware enough to not only accept yourself at your very worst, but to portray yourself that way onscreen is not a trait you see in very many people. In one episode of Girls, Dunham’s character, Hannah, runs off her boyfriend upon discovering that he’s a Republican because Republicans are intolerant. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that the man in question (played by Community’s Donald Glover) is clearly a kind, calm, intelligent, and caring person who makes no offensive overtures against anyone and is the closest thing to “normal” Hanna has ever seen, much less dated.
What follows is as obnoxious display of liberalism as you will find outside of the internet itself. With that scene, Dunham offers herself up as a devastating commentary summing up the hypocrisy of the modern entitled liberal expressing their own intolerances loudly and erratically while claiming to combat intolerance. The kicker here is that Dunham is the furthest thing from conservative. She campaigned for Obama, bringing the usual shitstorm from FOX News down on her head as a result. But she is intelligent, grounded, and brave enough to eviscerate her own politics on her own show (even if it was likely meant as a swipe at her critics from that corner) and that is as rare a thing in entertainment as you will ever see.
This is my battle cry. Come at me armed with words and you’ve got nothing.
As you can see from my headline image, Ms. Dunham cleans up pretty nice. Remember when everyone went all crazy over Charlize Theron uglying up to play serial killer Aillen Wuornos? Well, that’s about the only way I’ve ever seen Lena portray herself onscreen. I was actually shocked the first time I saw her in an interview all done up because she always looks a goddamn mess in her work. A lovable mess, but definitely a mess.
And those quotable quotes. Get out of my head, woman! Seriously, Lena has a way of saying things are absolutely true thoughts of a great many (if not all) people, but sound absolutely batshit ridiculous when you say them out loud. For example:
My first thought: what a self-centered tool. My second thought: that’s also what I want.
And then there’s her work ethic. The girl puts her freakin’ heart and soul in everything she does. Remember how Kevin Smith cast his friends and family in Clerks? In Tiny Furniture, Dunham did him one better and cast her real mother and sister as her character’s mother and sister, respectively. So what she was doing was essentially enacting her worst thoughts and feeling about her life and family on camera with her real family. After one scene in particular, her family said they were actually disturbed by the authenticity of her performance while filming and felt like they’d just been attacked by a loved one. In a way, that was exactly the case.
The market for this sort of thing is what we call “niche”. The fact is that most people only want to see the absolute prettiest people in black and white situations doing the right thing and affirming all of the positive things we like to think about ourselves. A chubby girl casting shadows over the childishness of that worldview with a microbudget career in a megabudget culture is an unlikely success story.
Enter Judd Appatow. Yes, the guy who makes ridiculously male-centric bro comedies. After watching Tiny Furniture, he was inspired to throw his weight behind the girl who made that film happen, and that is how Girls got greenlit. Did I mention the unlikeliness?
Appatow hardly represents what we refer to as “feminism”, and the word never entered my head as I watched the show. But while losing a philosophical argument with a porn actress (it happens to the best of us), Dunham stated that she made Girls as a feminist statement, which I found interesting.
I mean, this is a show where the title characters are neurotic and selfish, often to the point where you want to throw things at them. Most modern feminists demand that female characters be portrayed as ideal, if not superpowered exaggerations of what real women are. Then it hit me: it’s not the characters so much who are feministically empowered, but the show itself.
Pictured: sisters doing it for themselves.
Dunham pulled herself up from nothing and nowhere by plumbing the depths of her self-esteem (or lack thereof) and sharing it with the world in the boldest way possible. She writes, she directs, she stars, she produces. Her art is utterly and uniquely hers. A great film and a hit television series about accepting women as they are built from the ground up by a woman to share her flawed vision of the world with that same world in an industry where men call the shots. Now that’s feminism we should get behind. Ironically, many “feminists” don’t.
The show has garnered comparisons to Sex and the City, but I find that insulting and null. The former HBO series was a shallow, pretentious, superficial rich woman fantasy designed to dress up crude humor as sophistication. Girls is that rare show that feels like it’s about real people for real people. Not ALL PEOPLE, as several particularly dim-witted keyboard parasites have been quick to criticize, but genuine portrayals of humanity will always be at their best when the people involved draw from their personal experiences. You write what you know and you know what you’ve experienced. Writing what you don’t know about what you think other people might have experienced to try and make everybody else happy is how mediocre populist crap is born.
Hannah’s struggles as an aspiring writer battling her psychological and interpersonal demons and trying to find her place in a city that eats people like her alive are relatable in a way that Sex and the City’s parade of plastic people conquering the world with shopping montages couldn’t dream of, and it’s a fantastic portrayal of that small segment of the population that I find entertaining and compelling even if it doesn’t attempt to represent the experiences of a dorky Central California blue collar family man who whines on the internet for fun.
Due to her unorthodoxy, Dunham has arguably endured more scrutiny and criticism than any other celebrity I can think of. The world goddamn wants her to fail, and she has failed to oblige them. Conservatives hate her liberalism, liberals hate her straightforwardness, and the top search terms paired with her name on Google include “racist” and “weight”. I can’t think of another celeb I’ve googled where the hate started before I even finished typing their name.
This is her “really?” face.
Love her or hate her, there is no one else like her in entertainment, and that alone is reason enough for me to embrace her. And yeah, I genuinely think she’s sexy. I don’t care about her weight or whether she’s wearing make-up or pants or pandering to demographics she doesn’t represent. If Dunham is nothing else in the world, she’s herself and she wants (nay, FORCES) you to see her for who she is where most only want you to see them as they wish they were. How many people in your life can you say that about?
If only we could all learn to accept ourselves and each other for the hot messes we are in our most private and unguarded moments and see that it is not perfection that makes us unique, but our flaws. Lena Dunham’s entire career is a testament to that beautifully humanistic concept, and I can’t wait to see more of it. Season 3 of Girls is incoming and I just started a free three month HBO trial. Life is good and I’ve got the trailer to prove it.