Why It’s Okay To Love Lena Dunham: The Evolution Of The Girl Everyone Loves To Hate
With 'Lenny' and 'Women Of The Hour', Dunham's done something I admire but rarely get to see: she's owned up to her mistakes.
In my social circle of feminist, politically correct Arts students, watching Girls past its first season was like being part of a secret club. We’d whisper about new episodes en-route to class and during clandestine cigarette breaks. We’d scan the location looking for signs of the anti-Lena crew, dreading the inevitable explanations of the show’s backlash and condemnation.
Most of us agreed that much of the criticism directed at Girls was just a demonstration of good old-fashioned misogyny and/or the way that feminist principles get lost in translation between generations. Hannah Horvath was too naked all the time, too fat, too self-entitled, too self-hating, too privileged, too unlikable and having too much sex with bad people. Lena Dunham was condemned of nepotism, called an exhibitionist, and even accused of promoting unhealthy lifestyles. Much of these allegations have, of course, been easily dismissed.
There was one issue however, that we all agreed on: the show was whitewashed. And this is where it got personal for me, because I am a woman of colour and a tricky one at that.
The Problematic Fave
I identify as a woman of colour because my mother is African Brazilian and Indigenous Brazilian and as such I have endured direct and indirect experiences of trauma and dispossession. I am also a migrant in Australia from a non-English speaking background, and am frequently racialised as a result.
In general, it’s pretty shitty that I don’t get to see myself on the screen that much. And when Latin American women are included in film and television I hardly ever identify myself with them because they’re caricatures. They are usually oversexualised, demanding, loud-mouthed, big-breasted women adorned with hoop earrings, crucifixes, tramp-stamps and belly button rings. My pastel-coloured hair and ability to speak fluent English doesn’t quite match the quintessential image of the Latina woman.
My race identification is also complicated by the ambiguous lightness of my skin — I’m often perceived, if not directly told, that I am white. Frustrating as these occurrences are, I understand that the lightness of my skin also enables me to take part in a number of privileges that people who are more visibly “of colour” than me don’t get to enjoy. Furthermore, because my mother is now married to a wealthy white Australian man, I reap certain benefits that are exclusive to a limited number of people in the world.
Maybe these attributes of privilege eased my identification with the characters in Girls. Perhaps the lightness of my skin is also the reason why a lot of white feminists end up mansplaining The Issue of Girls and Whiteness to me. But I am still a woman of colour. And I was disappointed that Girls was so white.
I certainly support the other women of colour who complained about the show, because we have the right to do so — two great articles come to mind here: Jenna Wortham’s ‘Where (My) Girls At?’ and Kendra James’s ‘Dear Lena, Dunham I Exist’. But all this doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the show myself, particularly in regards to the other issues it does well like mental illness. (Full disclosure: I’m writing my honours thesis on that very topic).
That being said, I don’t think I’ve actually had to defend the show to a single woman of colour I have spoken to about it. Sometimes I’ll blurt something out about “the whole whiteness thing”, but most women just shrug like, ‘Why is Girls different from all the other shows that don’t represent us?’
Roxanne Gay addressed this in her essay, ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’. Infamously, in the Girls’ pilot Hannah says, “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a generation… somewhere.” Although she’s tripping balls on opium tea at the time, a lot of us chose to take her statement seriously. Not only that, but as Gay contends, “We have so many expectations; we’re so thirsty for authentic representations of girls that we only hear the first half of that statement. We hear that Girls is supposed to speak for all of us.” Once Gay’s essay came out, some white feminists chose to embrace the show — albeit in an ‘oh that black lady says she doesn’t mind the show so it must be okay’ kind of way — and many more stuck true to the cause. To borrow from the lyrical genius of Kelis here, “the bitch y’all loves to hate”.
Yet the more I immersed myself in this whirring industry of criticism surrounding Girls, the more I fell in love with Dunham herself. And that’s because she soon did something I really admire in people, but rarely ever get to see: she owned up to her mistake.
During a Television Critics Association panel last year — not the first or the last on this topic — Dunham openly talked about her show’s flaws and her growing advocacy for diversity on screen.
“I felt like that’s such an important conversation and if we’re going to be the instigator of that, I’m not going to be frustrated,” she said. “We need to talk about diversifying the world of television … I’ve learned so much in the past few years about intersectionality: the way that feminism has underserved women of colour. I really try to educate myself in those areas.”
In my mind, the fact that she has now learnt from this makes her deserving of my strange, academic love letter to her, and right now I’m feeling pretty fucking shameless about it.
The Evolution Of Lena
Earlier this year, Dunham and Girls co-producer Jenny Konner launched Lenny: a free bi-weekly newsletter that features interviews with a bunch of amazing women, from Hilary Clinton to Amy Poehler, and thinkpieces on everything from endometriosis, to skirts, to tips on how to avoid abusive men and support your local planned parenthood clinic. Three weeks ago she also launched a Buzzfeed podcast, Women of the Hour.
And here’s the thing: the women featured in both of these new mediums aren’t the exclusively self-involved, privileged white millennials of Girls (whom I love with all of my heart, by the way). Instead, we hear equal contributions from white women, women of colour, queer women, trans* women, women with disabilities, old women and young women who don’t shy away from big topics like gender equality, visibility, and divergent ideas on selfhood. Much of the series’ second episode (themed ‘Body’) focussed on the meaning of hair – albino hair, black women’s hair, the baldness of a woman with alopecia; it’s all about sharing different experiences of the world.
This was a theme Lena was keen to set from the start. Describing the birth of her friendship with Ashley Ford in the podcast’s first full episode, Dunham tackled her own experiences and understanding of privilege. “I remember having this revelation [when we met], which is gonna sound so dumb, but I was realising my job wasn’t to try and tell you or anyone that I understood your experience,” she said. “My job was just to listen.”
“[I realised] I can’t say ‘Yeah, I get what it’s like to be a minority because I was chubby in high school’… My job was just to exist for you and to hear you, and the most adult and beautiful thing we can do for each other is not to try and insinuate ourselves into all of each other’s experiences. [We should] just listen and be like, ‘Yeah I don’t know what that’s like but I can see that you’re in pain, and so I’m here’.” (This is a great tip for all the white ladies out there who want to be more mindful pals to women of colour by the way.)
While this all sounds very heavy and political, somehow listening to Women of the Hour feels like eavesdropping on sweet and intimate chats. Each episode features a Q&A with 27-year-old Emma Stone and 86-year-old June Squib, who hilariously become the listener’s agony aunts. Then there’s “Lena’s Corner”, where she highlights a historical woman that she thinks we should all know about. One second I’m laughing at Dunham’s endearing giggle and the next I’m in tears at the gym because she just leaped into a really deep thought I wasn’t ready for (but in a really great way).
There’s no telling yet if these new considerations will come across in the fifth season of Girls next February. It’s a different kind of beast after all. But I do know I won’t be ashamed to talk about it. How could you not be on board with this new Lena D?
She is, without question, my woman of the hour.
Ana Maria Gomides is an Arts student. She writes about experiencing the world as a feminist woman of colour living with mental illnesses.
Feature image via Lena Dunham/Facebook.