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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.



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.

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.

Can I afford to do good?

17 Jul

eye on the prize

“A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

–Steinbeck, East of Eden

I’ve spent the last five years trying to assemble my life into a defendable state of adulthood. At the heart of this nebula, my ultimate goal: the Real Job. My boyfriend, G, hates it when I use this term—says it’s a limited way of thinking about things. I see his logic clear as day, and yet I can’t stop yearning for the shiny, tied-neatly-with-a-bow, money-laden recognition of a Real Job.

Until I found it, it was my obsession. I would mentally work over the concept for hours, navigating a barrage of familiar questions with indefinite answers: How would I get it, was I worthy of it, did I actually want it, would it be sustainable, would it be worth it, would I ever have what my parents have?

Always this central goal tethered me. I might be a full-time volunteer with Americorps, an intern at a magazine publishing house, a public school tutor, or a solopreneur—but always in transit,  striving for the coveted status of hirable in the Real Job sense. Full time, benefits, desk, chair, computer, coworkers, office supplies I needn’t purchase myself: The tangible proof that I was good enough, that my skills were real, that I could cut it.

When a Real Job finally became mine (copywriting for an electronic retailer), I was overtaken by a permeating wave of relief. The true weight of an invisible, hulking anxiety I had been carrying for years was finally recognizable. I could look at it squarely now that I had defeated it.

I knew that rent would be paid. I had an item on my resume that didn’t need copious explaining. I was in the club and everything looked sunny.

But what now? Everything is shimmying into place, yet I sense there’s something missing. The weeks march forward, projects and dramas run on a loop. A nagging question starts to pepper my thoughts. Every once in a while it nervously rattles in my mind: Is working hard and paying bills enough?

In the wake of the Great Recession, I know how I should feel. I know what people expect me to say. That I’m so grateful, I’m so lucky, I should appreciate what I have and work my way to the top. I should drop down on my knees and thank god almighty I don’t have any more student loans. But there’s something more I need, and this need—no matter how convenient it would be—won’t simply dissipate if ignored. I need something more.

A sense of contribution.

keep climbing

But is real purpose in work something everyone can afford? What about getting by? What about bills? If everyone demanded work of substance, wouldn’t our Consumption Nation fall on its face?

I recently read an article in the New York Times that interviewed a variety of higher ups from the food industry as part of its exploration of junk food and obesity. I took away three things: Food in the U.S. is a dark, dark topic; a mechanical chewer costs a whopping $40,000; and people have found a lot of creative ways to make peace with the way they’ve made their money. The executives and scientists who spent their careers firing up an obesity and diabetes epidemic were forced to look back over their contribution and square it up with the pearly gate, so to speak.

From ‘I’ve got no regrets’ to ‘I’m rebuilding karma the best I can’, each man had his own view on the ethics of his career. A response from food optimizer and industry big shot Howard Moskowitz caught my eye:

“I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature.”

Is morality a luxury? Is it something that requires affluence to attain? Must it be earned, won, or inherited? Surely it is something that is always within reach, an indelible choice. But what is the true cost of that choice, and does that cost slide up and down the scale depending on who you are? Does placing morality above other needs, desires, and pressure ever come easily?

I know that if I leave my job my position will be easily filled behind me. When you focus on this fact, it can start to sour your view of things. The machine roars on, claiming endless hours of people’s lives (or the actual life itself, such as the collapsing factory in Indonesia) in the office, sweatshop, and store.

Right now, I can’t afford to focus on how things will continue if I leave. In the short term, the important question is not can I end this, but can I live with myself? At the end of my days, will I have done any good in this world?

Do you do good at your job? Do you feel like a job that does good comes at a price?

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