Sunday, January 20, 2013

The millionth thing you've read about Lena Dunham and privilege

The new "Sex and the City," in case you missed that.

Lena Dunham explains it all. Not as in explains it all to us - that too - but her mere existence now represents an entire conversation about class, young-people-today, body-image, etc., etc. There's Dunham, looking at us as we read on Jezebel about how we can read in The Nation about the difference between broke and poor. I promise I have thoughts on this as well (and the short version is, it's gotten very popular these days to define as "broke" a great many people who are poor), but for the mean time, Lena Dunham. Or a Dunham alter ego? It hardly matters - her immediately recognizable face announces Privilege, summons fury, yes, but a very particular kind of fury, namely YPIS. Someone on Twitter called "the Frenemy" put it best: "Lena Dunham only won because her dad is a Golden Globe."

So what is she, then? A decadent anti-hero? A George Costanza for our times, who represents the worst in all of us, our worst fears? (That a wide-ranging commentariat has seen us naked and isn't impressed, and that we come across as entitled.) Given that the near-entirety of mainstream show business is white people with family connections, we might also ask why someone whose connections aren't even in show business, and who, while white, lacks the specific kind of whiteness-privileged possessed by Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Kate Hudson, and whichever other famous-daughters-of-famous-people, namely fitting the most conventional beauty standards possible... why such an individual inspires such YPIS. Is the problem that Dunham presents herself as ordinary? Is it somehow offensive to audiences that she doesn't acknowledge her native-New-Yorker privilege by getting her hair done at Bergdorf's? Why is she, of all performer-creators, the one asked and asked again to step aside on behalf of someone more deserving?

I might take this even further, and consider how critiques of systematic unfairness often end up punishing relatively powerful intermediaries rather than those in the positions of greatest power. This happens with NYC schools - however valid both questions may be to investigate, it's much easier to ask why elite public schools are predominantly (lower-?) middle-class and Asian than to ask why private schools serve wealthy white families. Similarly, someone like Dunham, whose status is more precarious, who frankly wasn't born into stardom, just posher circumstances than most, is easier to pick on than someone like Kate Hudson. (Paltrow, with her lifestyle-empress aspirations, is another matter.) And yes, I do get the sense that people consider it unfair that a young woman got so successful so fast for reasons other than her physical desirability. (Not that she's undesirable, just that her talent/self-promotional ability seems more the issue.) There's this sense that there's a natural order of things - of course rich white kids go to the actual fanciest schools, and of course the pretty daughters of movie stars are box-office sensations. These things we just accept. But when someone shakes things up from the middle, or upper-middle, there we can unleash whichever populist outrage.

The above are most decidedly not my fully-formed thoughts on this. But if my musings inspire musings of your own, comment away.

13 comments:

Petey said...

"So what is she, then? A decadent anti-hero? A George Costanza for our times"

In a way, yes!

My caveats: I like her show, like her, and think her quite talented. In short, she's not Paris Hilton.

But, given the way US GINI has exploded over the past generation, and given the way median net worth has dramatically diverged from mean net worth over the past generation, she's an innocent stand-in for a larger debate. The whole unpaid intern business comes out of the exact same place.

So, we can have this debate both ways, and both are valid.

It's the Winter of Lena, with all the good and bad that brings. Just keep her away from ordering envelopes.

(And for the personal overshare, back when I was using food stamps in the nearby provincial city's version of Zabar's, I was coming out of a family that had provided me with quite a privileged upbringing that had fallen on hard times. But those hard times didn't mean I didn't have an immense head-start on life. I mean, I didn't acquire my clinical addiction to huge hunks of Reggiano out of nowhere...)

You don't choose your parents, but there is a larger societal component that is legitimately part of the debate as well.

Petey said...

"Similarly, someone like Dunham, whose status is more precarious, who frankly wasn't born into stardom, just posher circumstances than most, is easier to pick on than someone like Kate Hudson."

The pseudo-autobiographical nature of the show is the lightning rod here.

Phoebe said...

OK, so I think we agree a) that Dunham is great (but I also like George Costanza), and b) on the Dunham-unpaid internships connection, just not quite on what it is. As I see it, it's on the one hand great that cultural capital is now a more widely-recognized phenomenon. On the other, cultural capital doesn't pay the bills, and however fancy you seem, if you don't parlay that into wealth, it's gone in a generation. Awareness of cultural capital has reached the point that people whose cultural capital consists of being white, college-educated and lower-middle-class are acknowledging and exaggerating their privilege. Simply giving off the impression of being someone with rich relatives who'll fix everything doesn't mean such relatives actually exist. While whichever trappings (cheese-expertise) no doubt help get some back on track, knowing one's way around the gourmet shop isn't a guarantee that one will soon enough - or ever - be able to afford to shop there.

And yes, the pseudo-autobiographical angle matters, but I don't think that's all of it. Why wouldn't she just be more respected, like when teen pop stars actually write their own songs?

Flavia said...

I completely agree with your argument. I suspect it's easier to knock on Dunham because she's someone who seems not so different from many of those hurling YPIS at her (unlikely Paltrow, Hudson, etc., who are just in another class altogether).

Basically, what makes DUNHAM more successful than your average quirky, not-conventionally-attractive, recent grad from a small college (most of whom haven't yet achieved diddly squat)? Obviously, it must be her connections.

Britta said...

An interesting comparison is Tori Spelling, who is not all that attractive or talented and who got an acting career through blatant nepotism. While people have kind of pointed this out, I don't recall any sort of societally directed hate towards her.

Andrew Stevens said...

Flavia's take is the same as my initial reaction. As for Tori Spelling, I recall a very, very great deal of societally directed hate towards her, but her rise to fame occurred in 1990, which was pre-internet.

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

"I suspect it's easier to knock on Dunham because she's someone who seems not so different from many of those hurling YPIS at her"

Absolutely.

Britta,

Andrew's right - Tori Spelling was despised. But it was a different version of despised, because a) she straightforwardly (as far as we could tell) benefitted from nepotism, b) we had no reason (as far as I remember) to believe she was the creator of anything particular, and c) although she also was not celebrated for her looks, she was mocked for trying so hard - the hair, the nose. The overlap with Dunham was maybe, as Petey says, that the show Spelling was famous for being on depicted something like what everyone thought was Spelling's real life - being a bratty kid in L.A.

Actually, the Spelling/Dunham comparison is quite interesting in understanding the development of YPIS. Back in the day, the complaint would have been effectively that Spelling had taken the spot of a better/prettier actress. Now, the same complaint is dressed up in terms of far more palatable reminders that Dunham is one more rich white New Yorker on the television. But I think the underlying complaint is the same.

Annie said...

"Basically, what makes DUNHAM more successful than your average quirky, not-conventionally-attractive, recent grad from a small college (most of whom haven't yet achieved diddly squat)? Obviously, it must be her connections."

One thing I feel is missing from this conversation is the difference between being a pretty actress/quirky arts grad student is the talent to write, produce and act in your own show. That is something that makes Dunham different/exceptional. Yes, her privileged education and position in society helped that along, but success as a writer of a TV show, that you also star in is not easy to come by, even with a ton of privilege.

Shybiker said...

I agree with Annie's point. Acting can be easy; writing is always hard. You can fake adequate acting with little talent, but bad writing is manifest and condemns itself.

Petey said...

The real issue with Lena Dunham is that while Girls is a quite good show, Enlightened is an even better show. Yet Girls gets all the buzz cuz Lena is sexier than Mike White.

Attention must be paid.

Petey said...

"Acting can be easy; writing is always hard. You can fake adequate acting with little talent, but bad writing is manifest and condemns itself."

Meh.

Acting can seem more effortless than writing, but exceptional acting requires no less talent and is no more common than exceptional writing.

Everyone always made fun of Keanu Reeves because it didn't seem like he was actually doing anything. But that quality was precisely what made him such a reliable and bankable movie star during his youth, and wasn't something that anyone could do, even if it seemed that way...

Phoebe said...

Annie, Shybiker, and Petey,

Yes, it does matter that Dunham's not just performing in someone else's creation. (Not that acting isn't a kind of creation, fair enough.) I think what I was getting at in my responses to Petey and Britta kind of got at this - it does matter that Dunham is a) creating the story-lines herself (and Petey, she's of course also acting), and b) that they are perceived of as largely autobiographical. Although if anything (and I've just seen two episodes of "Girls" and "Tiny Furniture"), the real-life Dunham could well be more privileged than the alter ego. What's different, though, is that rather than being yet another victim of an economy that's been remarkably weak for humanities majors (who probably always got paid less, but are now paid nothing at all at many "jobs"), she's hit it big. She's clearly well beyond economically self-sufficient, however much her persona is that of an overgrown, entitled dependent.

Shybiker said...

"Meh"? I guess Petey didn't read my comment closely enough. I said acting "can" be easy and I was talking about "adequate acting"; of course exceptional acting, like exceptional anything, requires talent.