Lena Dunham as a role model
by Óscar del Pozo
I admire people that take risks, even if they fail; visceral people; bigmouths. I prefer Morrissey to Johnny Marr, let’s say. I’m against that opinion trend that defends that humility, discretion and prudence are the height of intelligent behaviour. Most of the time they’re just an excuse for mediocre or, being a bit more benign, pusillanimous people to hide their own defects. Why should I find more lucid and wiser, say, J. D. Salinger for having avoided public life for years than Lena Dunham for turning even the most insignificant detail of her life an excuse for exhibitionism?
Last October, Dunham announced that she would stop managing her Twitter account after receiving all sorts of insults (“go on a diet, pig”, “no one wants to see that amount of fat” and so forth) for having uploaded a picture in her undies. It was a gesture unworthy of her, a childish tantrum that reminded us that no matter the balls she has proved to have up to now, she’s still an under thirty rich Brooklynite. Because if there is something Lena should be proud of is having turned her fatness, her insecurities, her sexual frustrations and her imperfections into our reasons for loving her. Lena wants to be loved, not for her qualities like, say, sportsmen or Hollywood actresses, but for her flaws. And up to today she has put them, like a dog, at the feet of her audience. In Girls, the HBO show that has made her mega-famous, she appears naked several times, but in framings that don’t flatter her at all and never try to hide her rolls of fat. She’s a shameless woman, but behind her stripping off there is more of a desire for normalisation than simple narcissism. Her first book, Not That Kind of Girl, starts with a sentence that leaves no room for doubt: “I’m twenty years old and I hate myself. My hair, my face, the curve of my stomach.”
Born within a family of what Tom Wolfe christened as the radical chic left-wing, with a painter father (Carroll Dunham, a man who signs paintings depicting vaginas in the shape of mouths and real-life-size penises) and a photographer mother (Laurie Simmons), Lena was raised in a well-off, bohemian and liberal environment that encouraged her literary vocation. As a child, she was so conceited and insufferable as we can imagine. In her own words: “obnoxiously self-aware, irritatingly smug, prone to reading the dictionary FOR FUN”. Probably that’s why reading wasn’t enough for her. She has too big an ego to become yet another member of the generation of confessional writers developed in parallel to the emergence of social networks. Lena doesn’t aspire only to the cover of The New York Times‘ literary supplement: she wants to be on the cover of Time and also on Vogue‘s. That’s why since, at twenty, she wrote, starred and directed her own short-film, Dealing, she adopted as a model all those Jewish comedians, from Woody Allen to Larry David, who blend person and character, who become themselves in their works. What Hannah says and does in Girls or what the main character of her first feature film, Tiny furniture, says and does could be said and done by Lena herself. Her thing, more than ME literature, is total ME creation: she breaks the boundaries between life and art, between fiction and autobiography.
Girls is perhaps the most irregular comedy in recent years, with amazingly brilliant chapters (Beach House, Ask me My Name…) and other quite poor ones (One Man Trash). In its best moments it has great qualities: her characters transcend clichés, her outlook is clearheaded and not obliging, her hipster (or mumblecore; or new realism used by directors Noah Baumbach or Joe Swanberg…) aesthetics is not a pose. In four seasons (the fifth will be premiered in January in the US), its director, scriptwriter, main protagonist and executive producer has achieved what she announced on the first chapter: “Becoming THE voice of my generation or, at least, ONE voice of a generation”. That’s why, like many other fans, I ventured to read Not That Kind of Girl with devotion as soon as I could get a hold of it. The book, a kind of memoir divided by themes (sex, friendship, eating disorders…), is yet another example of confessional literature in little pills, ideal for the consumption of bloggers, twitters and women’s magazine readers. High literature? Not quite, but neither empty nor self-satisfied. What’s interesting about this personal diary is that it allows you to dig deeper in a personality that is becoming a role model. And I’m not saying this ironically: I truly believe it. From Not That Kind of Girl I draw, at least, four great conclusions:
IN ORDER TO WRITE, YOU NEED TO LIVE. “I was eager and hungry: for new art, for new friendship and sex.” Many of the stories that Lena tells in the book dwell on the desire of finding creative raw material. The origin of her literature is not in books, but in life. Any experience, no matter how awful, can at least be the point of departure to write a script. “I channelled my feelings of shame into a short experimental film called Condom in a Tree”, she explains after having lived a humiliating experience with a boy.
IN ORDER TO LIVE, YOU NEED TO FANTASISE. “Addressing my beloved by a single initial seemed romantic, like the desperate and secretive correspondence of two married intellectuals in the late nineteenth century.”
When reality isn’t entirely satisfactory, resort to imagination. Any experience can be better if, while you live it, you fantasise a little bit. And if it’s necessary, force things slightly: “I was so bored that I started arguments just to experience the rush of almost losing him.”
IN ORDER TO TELL STORIES, YOU NEED TO LIE. “I’m an unreliable narrator. Because I add an invented detail to almost every story I tell about my mother. Because my sister claims every memory we ‘share’ has been fabricated by me to impress a crowd”. The kings and queens of the party know that you need to add a tad of literature for stories to be effective. If you strictly tell what happened, it’s never so funny. And since you’re at it, you can even tell stories that aren’t even yours as if they were your own. “Sometimes I will find myself telling [a story]. It takes me a second to realize that I am lying. My best memories, the ones I hold dearest […] aren’t mine at all. They belong to someone else.”
EMOTIONAL REPRESSION IS USELESS. “I had been telling my parents, sister, grandma—anyone who would listen, really—about my desires from an early age. I live in a world that is almost compulsively free of secrets.” Reservations, inhibitions and emotional repression are illnesses. We all know people that need to resort to drugs or alcohol in order to loosen up (or others that never do and never loosen up: those are the worst). Better be a scatterbrain chatterbox than a prude. “There are women […] whose ease of expression is impressive, whose mastery of party banter has me simultaneously hostile and rapt.” That’s her model. And ours.