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In Defense of Lena Dunham

18 Sep

Lena Dunham The New York Times Magazine Cover

Despite what you may think about the uppity characters depicted on Girls, the suave styling of her childhood home, or the banality of her plotlines, there’s no denying that Lena Dunham is different. After Tiny Furniture gained accolades and Girls launched on HBO, the general tendency was to try and examine these works as encapsulations of “our generation”. Were the experiences depicted accurate? Where they socially informed? Did they help our image or hurt it?

The skepticism was immediate and rampant. It seemed that no one had attempted to capture or speak to the state of millennial affairs from within, and people were surprisingly sensitive to the material.

People dismissed Dunham’s work for its whiteness, its affluence, and its superficiality. The concept of Dunham as talented artist was constantly challenged by the suggestion that she was privileged. This meant her success was inherited, not earned.

Why were we so obsessed with proving her phony?

A lack of female-centered narratives was partially to blame for the heightened attention Girls received. Womankind was hungry for representation. However, that didn’t mean we would welcome just anyone with open arms. Although it’s hard to say exactly how, I think it’s safe to assume that the reaction would have been different if Dunham were a man.

A subject often considered too lowbrow for discussion, yet which serves as the origin of much criticism is Dunham’s nudity.

HBO

HBO

In television and movies, nude and/or sex scenes are reserved for the physically “attractive”. Whether or not you fall within this lot is determined by a set of requirements that’s especially rigorous for women. Dunham doesn’t fit the mold, and it’s her uncompromising confidence, despite her difference, that I find most inspiring about her. She’s intelligent, she’s interesting, and she’s ignoring boundaries at no small risk to her popularity or self-esteem.

Scenes considered abrasive, vulgar, or political due to Dunham’s body would be unremarkable if she were Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan, or Zach Galifianakis.When Hannah spent an episode sleeping with Patrick Wilson, the web was in an uproar over the episode’s alleged lack of plausibility, claiming that such a handsome man would never sleep with a girl who looked like Hannah. When the look ratio is skewed in the other direction, it’s a nonissue. This is because we’re accustomed to seeing overweight, image-indifferent male characters canoodling with 10-point knockouts. This formula is familiar.

Dunham’s character on Girls radically suggests that women who aren’t Hollywood Gorgeous or Innocence Personified can still assert themselves as multilayered human beings worthy of attention and chalk full of informative perspectives, experiences, and lessons.

The baseline of a central female character does not have to be her own fuckability. Worth can be measured differently. Expectations can change.

And yet we continue to be bombarded with one type of woman on the screen and in the magazine. It’s obvious that Beauty comes before anything else. Beauty, we are told, is the ultimate gatekeeper.

A fascinating aspect of Dunham’s decision to feature herself in so many nude scenes is its apolitical nature. As the author explains in the clip below, they’re more a natural extension of the plot than an intentional challenging of beauty standards.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-J60MftOS9M

During the interview, it’s impossible to ignore the contrast of the tanned, tightened, coifed interviewer against the unfussy physical presence of Dunham. The dichotomy is a fitting visual accompaniment to their conversation.

You can claim that Lady Gaga and Beyonce are feminists, and I won’t argue with you. I don’t believe in witch hunts for authenticity. But if you asked me whose work I thought was actually helping to address and improve today’s oppressive beauty standards, I would choose Dunham’s.

No matter your charitable donations, your glittering FEMINIST declarations, or your song about female independence, if you still insist on starving, stitching, and shellacking yourself into a Pretty Pretty Princess, you’re not really taking a stand on beauty standards.

I applaud Lena Dunham for her impetus and confidence. Her presence forces mainstream culture to witness—and become more familiar with—a female character who stands proudly and complexly in the limelight without being altered or smoke-and-mirrored into the sexually-desirable, virgin-meets-sexpot status quo.

At the end of the day, action always speaks louder than words, and Dunham’s putting her body where her belief is.

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7 Career Skills I Learned from Being Self-Employed

19 Apr
my former home office

my former home office

Since graduation, I’ve spent the majority of my career as a freelance writer and the founder of my own creative/marketing company. But over the last year I’ve undergone a major career change, shifting from ‘self-employed’ to ‘employee’ and relegating my contract work to nights and weekends. While settling into my position as part of a team, I’ve gotten a chance to appreciate the skills that I picked up as a freelancer that have helped me to stealthily navigate my career and life in other settings.

Whether you’re dealing with a client, coworker, boss, or friend, the same skills will help you to earn what you deserve and stay cool, productive, balanced, and challenged.

1. Don’t fear the unknown task.
When I worked for myself, I would have been out of the job if I declined a project because it seemed a little (or sometimes a lot) out of my league. I wouldn’t have been growing my skill set either. Whether at work, volunteering, at home, or socializing, sometimes it’s smart to push yourself to take on the scary project. Ignore the I’m not smart/strong/brave enough voice in your head and go for it.

2. Say ‘no’ when things don’t feel right.
When you’re an artist/creative and a woman, there are people throughout your life who put the squeeze on you for time, work, emotional energy, and more. Women are often wired to want to keep things feeling comfortable, and we do this by saying ‘yes’ too often. Recognize when you’d rather not and stick to your guns. Your work will be better because you actually want to do it, you’ll suffer less stress, and your relationship with your client/boss/spouse/friend will be better off.

3. Save yourself time and stress by creating boundaries, managing up, and setting expectations.
People are different. They communicate differently. They work differently.  They manage projects differently. They require different things in order to thrive and feel comfortable. Recognize what you expect out of others and yourself, and then figure out what you actually need. Recognize what your client/coworker/spouse/friend expects, what they actually need, and try to meet them in a place that feels fair and comfortable for both of you.

4. Ask for more than what you think you’re worth.
I’ll admit that this one is an uphill battle for me. But I realize that as a freelancer, I already have a leg up on many other young professionals. I’ve had ample opportunity to practice deciding upon my own wage, asking clients for it, and pushing myself beyond my comfort zone. Holy cow, have I under-quoted on jobs before! There are certainly writers who charge more than me, and there are many who charge less too.

But what I learned through all the clients and negotiations is that you should always try to ask for more than you think you’re worth. Because chances are, you probably undervalue yourself. Especially when negotiating with an employer, never accept the first offer. Always ask for more. You’ll probably get it.

5. Know when to cut yourself off.
I’ve also made the mistake (as I’m sure many freelancers & entrepreneurs have) of totally over-booking myself and leaving little to no me time on the calendar for months on end. When you freelance, work can be feast or famine, and it feels scary to say ‘no’ to jobs, or to say that you’re not available for three or four months. But you have to give yourself time to relax. Time off is precious, and it doesn’t take more than working through a weekend or two before important things begin to unravel (your sanity, your relationships, the quality of your work).

6. Be wary of the internship/unpaid gig/pro-bono project
If you’re an artist or working in the creative industry, then you’ve probably already faced a handful of unpaid job “opportunities” that claim to pay you with “exposure,” “portfolio building,” or by helping you to “get your foot in the door.” As a writer, I implore you: Do not take unpaid work! PLEASE! With every unpaid or might-as-well-be-unpaid wage you accept, you are undermining your own worth and the value of your fellow creatives. What we do is worth a wage. Hold out for respectable compensation and don’t be afraid to tell people that their pay (or lack thereof) is shamefully low.

7. Pick your projects and positions wisely.
In our hired today, fired tomorrow world, there’s no telling which of your technical/creative skills will sustain you over the long haul. This means that it’s important to think critically about the type of work that you take on. Diversify your skill set to give yourself more options. But don’t just say yes to a project because it’s something you haven’t done before. It’s equally important to decline projects that don’t fit with the skills you intend to develop.

At the heart of all my experience is the knowledge that nothing is more important than the pursuit of experiences that help to move you closer toward what fulfills you and makes you happy. If an opportunity feels totally out of sync with your values or goals, then it’s not worth it, no matter how fabulous the pay or prestigious the title.

How about you:

What career lessons have you learned over the years?

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