The Cycle of Celebrity Critique: The Laundry List Legend of Lena Dunham

by / 0 Comments / 176 View / November 10, 2014

There is perhaps no figure more frequently scrutinized, with equal parts of criticism and praise, as a member of the millennial milieu than Lena Dunham. The actress, writer, director, producer – and now author – has generated an almost inordinate share of controversy in the short span of time since her 2012 entrance into the public eye with HBO’s Girls. Dunham acts as a “figure” in senses both public and physical, generational and artistic, commercial and deviant. Nearly every article analyzing Dunham finds some new aspect of her work or personal life to either laud or slam – rarely attempting to occupy any reasonable ground in between these two modes of review. In one such (albeit reluctantly) self-proclaimed “think piece,” The Nation’s Michelle Dean describes this problematic polarization: “In fact, virtually all discussion of Dunham or Girls occurs at the kind of top volume that in any other context would make you switch the dial. I love it! shouts one side. I hate it! shouts the other. The only kind of claim available is a sweeping one. In part the culprit is the current ascendance of the fandom mode of cultural criticism, in which a writer has a stark choice: either Be A Fan or Be A Hater.”

Given the mold-breaking nature of both her TV show and projected persona, it is unsurprising that Dunham is a lightning rod for this kind of cultural critique. But whether or not she deserves it – or, rather, the astronomical multiplications of it that spawn from the seemingly endless echoes of the internet – is another question entirely. The nonexhaustive list of things for which Dunham has been lauded and slammed – sometimes simultaneously – since her 2012 introduction includes fully displaying her “normal” body  on Girls; the perceived self-involvement of both the show’s characters and Dunham herself; a racist/religiously insensitive tweet; her personal privilege in terms of both relative wealth and parental connections in the art world; the glaring lack of diversity in the first season of Girls; her self-proclaimed feminism; her status specifically as a white feminist; the $3.7 million advance she reportedly requested for the memoir of her twenty-something self; her initial decision not to pay the performers she recruited for the book-tour-turned-circus promoting said memoir; and, most recently, some of the more revealing content of the memoir itself. 

Aside from the controversy surrounding the huge advance for first-time author Dunham, the first thing that leapt to mind at the news of the book’s release was the past successes of its presumed peers – that is, the commercial and critical slam-dunks scored by essay collections written by other leading comediennes in the entertainment industry. From Tina Fey’s Bossypants – which disturbed the publishing peace of 2011 by selling 1 million copies in its first six months – to Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns and Amy Poehler’s highly anticipated new release Yes, Please, Dunham’s book would be in entertaining – and profitable – company. However, as promotion for the book begin to flow, it became clear that publishers and Dunham herself wanted to make it known that Not That Kind of Girl was Not That Kind of Book. Instead of opting, like other comediennes, for bright, witty essays with just enough sprinkling of showbiz to satisfy audiences that know their authors through their work in the industry, Dunham clearly aimed for a more highbrow perception of her work. From her incorporation of literary notables as guests on her book tour (including the likes of Carrie Brownstein and Zadie Smith) to the copious advance praise she solicited from revered writers of many genres (such as David Sedaris and George Saunders), Dunham is obviously attempting to enter their esteemed ranks with her debut. Given the fact that one would more easily associate Dunham’s commercial appeal with the likes of Fey or Kaling, this attempt to evoke literary ethos makes Dunham seem like she’s trying a little too hard. In other words, all this effort makes the reader wonder whether or not the quotes around “learned” in the book’s subtitle should instead be applied to her newly acquired title of “Author.” 

Upon the book’s release, however, the media maelstrom surrounding it moved away from the controversial advance and promotion and towards the content of the memoir itself. Conservative blogger Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review, along with TruthRevolt’s Ben Shapiro, characterized Dunham’s description of her 7-year-old self encounter with her then 1-year-old sister’s vagina as sexual abuse. As with any instance of Dunham-centered controversy, there is so much to be said about these allegations. They provide just one example of the first phase of the Lena Dunham News Cycle, whose never-ending stream of commentary functions as follows: Dunham does something controversial, conservative writers are the first to criticize it, Dunham may chime in to defend herself via social media (or, in the case of the sexual assault allegation, a statement published on Time.com in which she threatened to sue), her fans and more liberal writers come to her defense, other critics attempt to conclude the discussion by criticizing what has by this point inflated to massive media attention for one single event, and still other critics follow in their wake remarking upon why the discussion of whatever controversial issue Dunham brought up is important. The cycle, if not vicious, is exhausting, though it occasionally produces well-articulated stances on the matter. In the case of the sexual assault allegations, such a stance would be Jia Tolentino’s “The Right to a Sexual Narrative.” In consulting Debbie Henrick, PhD, the Jezebel writer debunked the accusations of Dunham: “To attribute sexual abuse to a seven-year-old is to attribute sexuality to a seven-year-old, which is cruel and invasive in any circumstances, no matter who that seven-year-old grew up to be.” 

Tolentino’s well-crafted sum-up of the scenario once again brings to mind one question about Dunham that many an opinionated piece neglects to raise. To attribute sexual abuse to a seven-year-old is certainly unfair; isn’t it also unfair to hedge the lion’s share of  millennial meta-analysis on the shoulders of one, relatively recently famous, 28-year-old? Yes, the content of Dunham’s life, work and now memoir certainly can be considered controversial without the added element of maximized media scrutiny. Yes, Dunham does indeed display many signs – including the self-aggrandizing book tour and literary montage – that point to the self-absorption and privileged obliviousness that so many critics diagnose as symptoms of her generation. But did any of these so-called “think” pieces ever stop and “think” that maybe, just maybe, part of any one of the issues surrounding Dunham is that we perpetuate, conflate, and exacerbate them through a unremitting cycle of continuous commentary?