Why do people hate Lena Dunham?
This was the question haunting the Stranger's Blabbermouth podcast today. While hating Lena Dunham is clearly an evergreen issue, this week, we discussed it in the context of a remarkable profile of Dunham published recently by New York Magazine and written by Alison P. Davis.
The profile is a work of art, and you should read it, especially if you’re curious about hairless cats. Jasmyne Keimig, Stanger arts intern extraordinaire (follow her), wrote her own response to the profile in a post entitled "The Pleasure of Watching a Baby Have a Meltdown in Public." The baby, in this case, is Dunham.
"I'm constantly torn between emphatically not caring about a word that falls out of Dunham's mouth and grabbing popcorn when the latest Dunham drama pops off on Twitter," Jasmyne writes. "Perhaps it’s my own little green monster that resents the variety of cultural forces, like her well-off and prominent artistic family, that gave her a sturdy platform to achieve so much at a young age. But I also think that the spectacle around Dunham, her almost constant unsympathetic self-immolation, is what makes it so hard to look away from her, like watching a toddler have a total meltdown in public."
It's an evocative image, and Dunham does occasionally come across as a toddler, especially on social media, where the dominant theme of her brand seems to be "Look at meeeee!" (Then again, it’s social media. Whose isn't?) Jasmyne also gets to some of the contradictions inherent in the near-universal dislike of Dunham. She notes "the dripping-in-privilege quality of Lena Dunham’s work," which is, perhaps, the most frequent bit of criticism Dunham receives. She's just so privileged, we tell ourselves. No wonder she got a deal on HBO before she was old enough to rent a car and I didn't.
But I think there's something else going on, too. Dunham, as I noted on Blabbermouth, is hardly the most privileged woman in Brooklyn much less in Hollywood. Even two of her Girls co-stars are objectively more privileged that she is. Dunham's parents are artists who few people outside the New York art world had heard of before their daughter skyrocketed to fame. Zosia Mamet, who played Shoshanna on Girls, is the daughter of famed playwright David Mamet and the actress Lindsay Crouse. Pretty much everyone in her family is on Wikipedia. Allison Williams, who played Marnie on Girls, is the daughter of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. And they aren't even at the top of the heap: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the daughter of a billionaire. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone more privileged than that, and yet, I've never heard anyone talk about Louis-Dreyfus's privilege at all, much less the fact that it's Problematic.
So, why do we hate Dunham so much if it’s not just her privilege? There is, of course, something about her public persona and her tendency to overshare that is easy to loathe. But we loathe these qualities more in Dunham than we do in anyone else. We actually like it when some celebrities overshare. We want to go into their bathroom cabinets and see what they've got. We watch (or watched) MTV Cribs just for a glimpse into Shaquille O'Neal's shoe closet. And there's a multi-billion dollar industry built around the Kardashians, a family who are famous precisely because of how much they are willing to share. And yet, you rarely see people screaming TMI!! at Kim and Khloe.
Kim and Khloe, however, have something going on for them that Dunham doesn't. They're beautiful. Dunham, on the other hand, looks normal, unextraordinary, the opposite of successful women in entertainment. If she were just a writer, we might not care about her looks, but she’s not just a writer; she’s on TV, looking like a disheveled preschool teacher. That is not what Americans look for in our famous women. Men can get away with being plain, but women? That's not acceptable. And if you need evidence, name all the other normal-looking women currently starring roles on American television. There are a handful, sure, but not many, and if Lena Dunham were cuter or sexier, I have a suspicion we'd all be more willing to tolerate her.
What's more, we hold progressive women like Lena Dunham to a higher standard than basically everyone else. Dunham is a young woman, and, like a lot of young people (including the one writing this post), she does seem to have her foot permanently installed in her mouth. But every time she makes some comment that is vaguely (or explicitly) insensitive, we treat it like she just bombed a hospital in Yemen. Actually, we seem to care way more about Dunham’s missteps than we do dead civilians.
When Dunham, for instance, made an unwise and offhand remark a few years ago about sitting next to pro football player Odell Beckham Jr. at an event and how she was sure he did not want to fuck her, this was treated as the scandal of the year. She may well have been right about him not wanting to fuck her, but Dunham was widely dragged for neglecting the historical context of white women projecting sexuality onto black men—something that has lead to actual lynchings in the past.
This incident, which Dunham later said stemmed from her own discomfort with her appearance and self-worth, was widely viewed as proof of Dunham’s inherent racism. At the same time, half of America voted for a presidential candidate who was actually sued by the Justice Department for housing discrimination against black people. That is textbook racism that actually impacted peoples' lives, and yet, he still ended up in White House. Why? Because when it comes to ethics—especially the ethics of being woke—we hold progressive women to higher standards than we do either conservatives or men. And, frankly, I'm not sure who this really benefits... except for conservatives and shitty men.
There are legitimate criticisms of Dunham's work, like the failure of Girls to represent more than just white people. But too many white characters and not enough of everyone else isn't exactly a problem that started with Dunham. I'm not saying she should be exempt from this criticism, but why yell at her and not the creator of, say, The Office or the Big Bang Theory or every Judd Apatow movie? For some reason, people expected more from a 25-year-old woman.
The real root of our hatred of Dunham, I think, is pretty simple: We get something out of it. As I noted yesterday, studies show that almost nothing brings people together like a shared sense of dislike. Shit-talking and bad-mouthing other people is a social glue, something we bond over. So while Lena Dunham is certainly flawed, the reason we hate her isn’t that she’s particularly monstrous. When it comes to the long list of ghouls in our species, she hardly makes a mark. Instead, we hate Lena Dunham because it brings us together in a gleeful fit of rage and indignation. The one thing that's more fun than loving people together, it turns out, is loathing them.