Early this week, I opened an envelope that had arrived at my door to find inside Lena Dunham’s new book, Not that Kind of Girl. I love getting free books in the mail, I admire Dunham’s television show, "Girls," and I'm a big fan of her movie, Tiny Furniture. I should have been curious and excited to read her book.
Instead, I felt a nearly incapacitating exhaustion. I could barely bring myself to open its cover, so paralyzed was I by the feeling that once I did, I would be responsible for feeling something important, defining, or culture-shaping about this attractively designed, 264-page collection of essays and personal advice from a young writer, actor and television creator.
That pressure is not Lena Dunham’s fault. The problem is a culture—high and low—in which so few young women have large public platforms. The few who do break through—and this is important: as in many other arenas, they are often white and privileged—become such exceptions that they immediately get elevated to the highest pedestals, examined under the strongest microscopes, and placed in the most punishing stocks, all for having the temerity to exhibit some combination of ambitious, successful, feminist and flawed behavior.
It’s a formula that makes it impossible to benignly consider and evaluate the work or contributions of women like Dunham, to come away with mixed reviews or mild appreciation or, for that matter, to not really love what she does but also not detest her enough to condemn her to eternal damnation.
In the two years (it’s just been two years) since "Girls" made its HBO debut, Dunham has been hailed as the rebellious representative of her generation and excoriated as the avatar of selfish, infantilized (i.e. independent) femininity that the right apparently fears above all else.
She has been described as unattractive by conservative columnists—male and female—eager to grab a page view. “Dunham is not very pretty and she’s also kind of fat,” wrote Andrew Klavan at Truth Revolt; Dunham is “an exhibitionist who has the doughy dimensions of a ‘Before’ picture and who embraces her Rubenesque beauty with gusto,” wrote Christine Flowers; she is a “distinctly unappealing actress,” wrote the National Review’s Kevin Williamson this week, days before declaring his belief that women who have abortions should be hanged.
How can anyone hear this level of vitriol—and understand it to be so obviously rooted in the profound threat of a woman who does not care about your estimations of her—and not openly and enthusiastically root for her?
Well, because Dunham has also been under far more reasonable scrutiny for the limits of her artistic vision, for the whiteness and privilege of the world in which she was raised and which she has now created through her work. She cannot be an un-fraught heroine because we have all been made very aware of who’s not included in her slightly radical revisioning of contemporary female life, in which approval from and dependence on men is not an imperative.
The critical conversations around Dunham, "Girls" and race have been instructive and valuable, they have challenged her in ways that she’s acknowledged. The fact that those critiques can and do interfere with an appreciation of her show or her writing is fair. But what’s unfair is that related critiques seem not to be applied with nearly as much zeal to the overwhelmingly white (and far more male) Sunday morning news programs, CBS’s primetime line-up, the opinion pages of The New York Times or to, say, Congress.
No one should be immune from scrutiny about the narrowness of their vision, but I’m also not sure that a handful of figures—often those who diverge from an oppressively narrow norm in some other threatening way—deserve to shoulder the burden of representative critique while peers and elders get off scott-free.
And yeah, she’s not suffering. She’s making lots and lots and lots of money. We know how much because it’s been tallied regularly, in a way quite clearly meant to suggest that she doesn’t deserve it and that she’s being handsomely paid off for any abuse that comes her way. But again: Dunham is not the only highly visible figure in the United States who makes a lot of money. Flavorwire this week ran an instructive comparison between the way that Dunham’s $3.7 million book deal has been covered versus the way that young television comedian Aziz Ansari’s $3.5 million book deal have been covered. Hollywood has long built on people who make gobs of money for making movies—or reality shows—that lots of people think are bad.
There are American presidents who have come in for less scrutiny than Lena Dunham. There are heads of major banks whose work to erode the possibility of middle and working class stability in the United States has drawn less criticism thanGirls. There are sitting Supreme Court justices, men who have recently disemboweled the Voting Rights Act, whose intelligence has been insulted less sharply than that of a 28-year-old woman who created and stars in a show on HBO.
This degree of pressure is unsustainable. Not just for Dunham, whose thick skin—and willingness to engage the valid critiques—does earn her my full-throated, unequivocal admiration. But also for all the exceptions to male rules—from Beyoncé to Hillary, Shonda to Sheryl—who get pulled and pushed and combed and raked over with equivalent ardor. This craziness is depleting and, I worry, ultimately defeating for all the other women out there with big ambitions: ambitions to write or sing or pass legislation, to lead or create, and to make money, win elections, earn recognition for their work.
We’ve got to make these women mean less, so that we can like their stuff and dislike it, point out its weaknesses and celebrate its strengths without branding ourselves or branding them.
Of course the only way to make them mean less is to create more of them. And that's a project that can feel daunting in a week when the weight of a single book cover can feel too heavy to open.