Lena Dunham isn’t exactly a victim. At the age of 26, she has a show on HBO and now has reportedly signed a major book deal worth $3.7 million dollars. And if all else fails, she remains a White woman born to parents with some nominal level of fame. Of all people in need of a savior to don a cape and rush to their aid, one would hope Dunham would volunteer to stand in the back of the line in a moving display of self-awareness.
During a recent conversation with TV critic Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker Festival, Dunham said of this critique about her success: "The criticism that disappointed me was the privilege and nepotism of things. It’s upsetting and confusing…I have plenty of counterarguments to that but it’s not elegant to share them…I’ve had summer jobs since I was 12 but I can’t come out and say that.”
I wish she had expressed whatever other counterpoint she had regardless of how inelegant it may have sounded to her. Not that it’d alter the truth about her circumstances. True enough, Dunham has proven herself to be both a talented and ardent worker; nonetheless, much of her success can be attributed to the opportunities her privilege has afforded.
That is not her fault, nor is she at all wrong for seizing on what’s in front of her. However, Dunham's failure to acknowledge her status as a White woman of a particular socioeconomic status and the access it provides doesn’t do much in the way of convincing less-fortunate folks not to critique her or, at the very least, to critique what her success means to them. It’s not that most have faulted Lena Dunham one bit for accepting a $3.7 million book advance. Who wouldn’t? Still, I do take issue with the rationale behind it and some of the defense mechanisms launched to shield her from critique.
The role of sexism or any other form of prejudice can never be discounted…but why is it that whenever criticism is leveled in Lena Dunham’s way, somehow it always falls back to gender?
When Tina Fey received a $5 million advance for her collection of essays, Bossypants, I don’t recall that great an outcry over it. Perhaps that had to do with by the time her book was announced, Fey had already amassed a huge following based on her work on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, along with hosting huge events like the Academy Awards. Lena Dunham’s Girls enjoys a much smaller, albeit vocal, community of supporters. It's likely that a huge marketing campaign will be launched to build upon the buzz she has now, though it’s pretty clear publishers haven’t taken similar gambles on her contemporaries – particularly the darker ones.
I don’t begrudge Lena Dunham and have actually come to like her show. A show I never felt needed to display a diversity that didn’t appear natural to its creator. That said, Lena is often touted as the voice of a generation, and no matter how much she feigns a discomfort over that tag, she benefits from it at the expense of others.
The same can be said of other writers like Emma Koenig netting TV and book deals while being sold as voices of millennial struggle, despite the fact that their backgrounds suggest a comfort not enjoyed by many young people of any race. According to "The Irrational Allure of the Next Big Thing,” Slate’s Karla Starr suggests Lena’s big coup is another instance with “our long-standing fascination with the Next Big Thing.”
Perhaps, but why is the “Next Big Thing” always so similar to the last one?
I know, I know: Life isn’t fair. Even so, just because it rains all the time doesn’t mean no one should point out when water is falling from the sky. Again, it’s not all Lena Dunham’s fault, but she is susceptible to assessment the same way everyone else is. Especially when Dunham herself occasionally responds to flack she gets like, "Isn't enough that I'm kind of fat and I'm naked on TV? Can't you leave me alone?"
The entertainment and media communities are willfully ignorant to the experiences of minorities, and while Lena is a part of that group, she gets some sense of relief from her race. Until the playing field feels leveled her success will make some feel a ways. Such is a reality whether she or anyone of similar fortune like it or not.
And for someone getting close to $4 million in which they will further paraded as ‘the’ voice of generation, Lena Dunham could have it far worse.