Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Emerged adulthood

Lena Dunham's New Yorker essay about how puppies are nice was what finally permitted me to articulate what it is about Dunham's persona that grates. And no, it wasn't that I too think puppies are nice, and yet the New Yorker didn't ask meeee to write about it. Nor even that her face is there looking at you every time you open the magazine's app, for reasons I don't entirely understand. (She made a video explaining it? and one must be alerted to its existence every week?) Nor is it that she comes from privilege* (she is, as we all know, next in line for the British throne), nor that she doesn't resemble a "Friends"-era Jennifer Aniston.


No, it's something much more simple than that. It's that the Dunham persona is a child. A child in whom we must celebrate any glimmer of adult competence. The essay ends with Dunham saying, of her new dog, "He is mine, and I am old enough to have him," adding of herself, her boyfriend, and her sister, "We are all adults here." And this seems consistent with the tone of other Dunham alter egos elsewhere in her oeuvre. The reason for the Marnie character.

Now. Dunham is 26 years old, nearly 27 (thank you, internet, for such trivia). That is not emerging adulthood. That is emerged adulthood. It's adulthood even for those who aren't as well-established in their careers as Dunham famously is. Why should we be surprised that a grown woman has a boyfriend, or is able to care for a dog? Why, more generally, should we be surprised that Dunham isn't a child anymore, any more than we're surprised when anyone else comes of age and then some? 

It's because of an aw-shucks persona of sorts, this idea that Dunham and the alter egos are such messes, such eternal bratty children, that we should be impressed when they reveal themselves capable of tying their shoes. And this is grating for several reasons. We who are about her age have felt like adults for a good long while. Moreover, we suspect that Dunham has as well. We suspect that the self-presentation as an overgrown (age! not a body-snark!) petulant teen is calculated, with two aims: first, to make Dunham seem like a child prodigy ala Tavi Gevinson (who was legitimately famous at, what, twelve?), and second, to tap into cultural anxieties about adult children living in the proverbial basement. 

Re: the first, this is a bit like scrappiness oneupmanship - all achievements are more impressive if done by someone from a poor background, or if done by a child. If Dunham is a pseudo-child, and we're impressed that she tied her own shoes, we need to be positively awed that she's on HBO and in the New Yorker. The hype about Dunham being so young to be that successful needs to last as long as possible. Re: the second, the possibility that you or your adult child (depending your age) will never quite make it to self-sufficient adulthood is really the concern of the moment. Dunham embodies that, all the while having her act together far more than most definitive adults decades into adulthood. So some of the eye-rolls the Dunham phenomenon inspires might not be resentment over her being successful at a young age (or the expected gender/privilege/looks angle), but rather annoyance over her persona's reliance on eternal youth. 

*Dunham is not helping matters, referring to her Tribeca-loft upbringing as follows: "We didn’t have a proper home. We lived in what was essentially one big room, on Broadway." 

24 comments:

caryatis said...

I find it insulting. This high-profile 26-year-old who seems to take pride in being incompetent, indecisive, and dependent on her parents hurts the reputation of all other young adults. I can't remember a time when being a child felt less than stifling. Do you think she just got along extraordinarily well with her parents?

caryatis said...

This reminds me of the Dear Prudence column with the man who wasn't "ready for" marriage Insofar as "not ready for" is not just a euphemism for "don't want," what does it mean? More clinging to childhood?

Phoebe said...

Not sure what you find insulting - Dunham's persona as I describe it? Dunham's persona as you've found it? In terms of how well she did or didn't get along with her parents, I couldn't say, but her movie "Tiny Furniture," basically a proto-"Girls," is about a young woman who keeps on living at home because she's in a funk. She claims she loves living at home, but this is clearly her downfall.

As for "dependent on her parents," what's of course amusing from that perspective is that Dunham is doing just fine for herself financially, and has far from regressed to the mean. That she's the poster child for that situation - which is a real and depressing one, although not the universal 20-something experience - can get annoying, but how else would it work? How would a poster-child not be a famous person, and actually live in her parents' basement?

Anonymous said...

If anything, that makes her kind of more annoying. She playing the role of the misunderstood child is the same to me as Judd Apatow portraying the "real" life of people at their 40s- in beverly hills palaces. So artificial.
best from buenos aires, phoebe.

Miss Self-Important said...

Actually, according to authoritative science, the human brain is not fully mature even into one's 30s (if ever!), so Lena Dunham and you are both still children. Sorry to break it to you. But good news - you shouldn't be held accountable for anything you do for at least another year, so now is the time to "find yourself" by "making mistakes" and avoiding responsibilities.

Petey said...

If Dunham is a pseudo-child, and we're impressed that she tied her own shoes, we need to be positively awed that she's on HBO and in the New Yorker. The hype about Dunham being so young to be that successful needs to last as long as possible.

FWIW, she really is mega-fucking young to have accomplished what's she's accomplished. It's not publicity hype; it's very, very real.

Dude made a good indie movie, which lead to creating a hit, zeitgeist, acclaimed, (and very good) HBO show at 25. Twenty-five? That's serious prodigy status. Who else is in her league? No names pop off the top of my head.

Quentin was 29 for Reservoir Dogs, as one point of comparison. And if you want to get down into the kiddie league business of animation, Seth McFarlane was 26 and Matt Stone was 27 when they hit the big time.

Seriously, Lena is a genuine wunderkind, publicity angle or no.

Petey said...

Sorry for hitting bold instead of italics. No undo after hitting 'post'.

Phoebe said...

MSI,

The brain-maturity stuff is always a delight. I especially like the health-journalism reports that anyone who's touched alcohol before 25 or whatever is permanently brain-damaged and incapable of functioning academically... while everyone around me is a theoretical physicist or something along those lines, and is from a country where everyone drinks oh, well under that age.

Petey,

Lena Dunham is impressive (as well as, in my opinion, quite talented). She's not a child prodigy. She was not a child when she made "Tiny Furniture," and she certainly wasn't a child when she wrote that New Yorker essay (which we know because of the relatively recent dog, boyfriend).

What I'm reacting to explicitly isn't "hype," but Dunham's own self-presentation, including that of her various subtly different alter egos. She's intentionally presenting herself as childlike. Listen to her Fresh Air interview, about her tattoos that come from children's literature. This is part of her act, and separate from whatever resentment her success relatively young inspires.

Petey said...

Let's see if I can do italics this time...

"She's not a child prodigy. She was not a child when she made "Tiny Furniture," and she certainly wasn't a child when she wrote that New Yorker essay (which we know because of the relatively recent dog, boyfriend)."

Well, children can have dogs and boyfriends, no?

But more seriously, we're down to semantics. In her field she really is a child prodigy. (I strongly prefer "wunderkind", which is almost identical in direct meaning to "child prodigy", but has a different shading of connotations which might eliminate some of your semantic concerns.)

She has no peers in her field in the modern era who have accomplished her feats at her tender age. That's what makes her a genuine wunderkind. Upon further thought on the matter, the closest analogy I can come up with is Orson Welles, who did his radio War of the Worlds at 24, and Citizen Kane at 26.

And Welles was constantly referred to as the "Boy Wonder", which really is yet another almost perfect equivalent to "wunderkind" or "child prodigy".

"What I'm reacting to explicitly isn't "hype," but Dunham's own self-presentation, including that of her various subtly different alter egos. She's intentionally presenting herself as childlike."

As well she should!

Welles traded on the "Boy Wonder" tag for years. If you are a genuine wunderkind, and you are in a field where self-promotion helps you get your (expensive to make) work financed and to your audience, why not play up an actual reality that works to your advantage?

She may be old enough to vote, serve in the military, and drink, but in her particuar profession, she's a toddler who can recite the entire Iliad from memory...

Phoebe said...

Petey,

Your membership in the Lena Dunham Anti-Defamation League is not in doubt. But what I'm saying, to repeat myself, is that playing up/altogether inventing her childlike/dependent nature (and no, being 25 rather than 30 when accomplishing something doesn't make you a child, just impressive) is off-putting. I wouldn't say she should stop doing it, as it's clearly key to her success - she taps into those anxieties about boomerang children. But this very key to her appeal is, paradoxically, also what can make her alter egos hard to take.

Phoebe said...

Also - she's not portraying herself as a "wunderkind," which could perhaps be forgiven. She's portraying herself as exactly the opposite kind of child - bratty, dependent, a mess.

Nicholas said...

I love the tag on this post, first of all. The argument you're making also gets at something I had a difficult time trying to articulate, which is much appreciated in trying to sort out the endless rounds of dislike and vigorous defense.

I was left uncertain about this, though: "Dunham embodies that, all the while having her act together far more than most definitive adults decades into adulthood." Perhaps I missed it, but I'm curious as to the grounds for the 'having her act together' claim. It does strike me that she has constructed a persona different than her personality, and that one probably doesn't direct movies and write tv shows without some inner drive and organization; then again, it also seems at least somewhat possible to do this and not qualify as a functioning adult in any other sense. So is the idea that the fact of the work itself discloses the adult beneath the surface, or is there something else that factors into it?

Phoebe said...

Nicholas,

By "act together," yes, "Tiny Furniture," "Girls," the book deal, the New Yorker, the everything I'm forgetting. But also, more crudely, that she's clearly not in need of financial assistance from anybody, and not flailing around wondering what to do with her life. She's in a steady-sounding romantic relationship, and evidently beyond-competent at networking, asserting herself, and so forth. She's figured out where she belongs in the world. So I suppose (relationship-bit aside) this is about inferring from her success that she's functional. But not simply from the fact that she's successful - from what it is she's successful at. I wouldn't infer that a fabulously popular it-girl model-type did or didn't have it together.

Anonymous said...

caryatis: "I find it insulting. This high-profile 26-year-old who seems to take pride in being incompetent, indecisive, and dependent on her parents hurts the reputation of all other young adults. I can't remember a time when being a child felt less than stifling. Do you think she just got along extraordinarily well with her parents?"

I am the frustrated older sister of a Lena Dunham wannabe and it makes me angry every time I watch, listen or read Dunham validating my sister's inability to get a job and become independent of my parents. If I tell her that she needs to start doing something, she tells me of all the NYTimes articles about how EVERY humanities master's degree holders are living off their parents and how, at 24, there is no way she should be expected to be half-way independent. Moreover she feels slightly cheated, because our parents are wealthy but only send her $1,000 a month instead of setting her up in Manhattan.

Petey said...

"Also - she's not portraying herself as a "wunderkind," which could perhaps be forgiven. She's portraying herself as exactly the opposite kind of child - bratty, dependent, a mess."

Again, that's a replay of the Orson Welles l'enfant terrible schtick.

"(and no, being 25 rather than 30 when accomplishing something doesn't make you a child, just impressive)"

You parenthetically touch the central nerve of the entirety of what I'm disputing with you here.

In terms of helming movies & teevee with big impact, 30yo wunderkinds are what the world normally looks like, while 25yo wunderkinds are a quite rare bird. I'm arguing that if you at ages of breakthroughs, 25yo is a real outlier, and that is fully noticed by folks who pay attention to that kind of thing.

(Plus, if you can accept that premise, her whole l'enfant terrible positioning within that world starts to make more sense.)

"But this very key to her appeal is, paradoxically, also what can make her alter egos hard to take."

I thought we agreed she was George Costanza. He can be hard to take, no?

Andrew Stevens said...

Actually, even 30 is pushing it quite a bit. Writers peak at 35-45. Writers younger than that already able to helm TV shows are rare. When you get down to 25, they are virtually non-existent. David E. Kelley was 36 before he helmed his first successful show. Steven Bochco was 38. Aaron Sorkin was 37. Dick Wolf was 44. (I'm purposely looking for people who helmed more than one successful show, preferably several.)

Actors probably hit their peaks much later even than that, but physical attractiveness is such a factor in how actors are actually cast that this is obscured. Acting in TV and movies is very, very far from a meritocracy, probably as far as you get in the entertainment business. Just look at opera singers, who are basically a meritocracy, and you have a good idea of what movies would look like if people were cast only on the basis of talent. They'd also probably all be close to 60. Orson Welles was an extremely rare acting prodigy.

I'm with Petey. Dunham's success so young is extremely remarkable. I am not quite on the "amazing wunderkind" bandwagon since I don't actually care very much for Girls; Citizen Kane it is not. However, I'm more than willing to give her next show a look and revise my opinion.

Andrew Stevens said...

For that matter, if she does it again, even if I personally don't care for it again, I will be willing to concede "super-talented wunderkind" rather than my provisional opinion of "one-hit wonder who got lucky and tapped into the zeitgeist."

Phoebe said...

OK. Let's say, for the sake of argument, Lena Dunham were the first person under the age of 40 to have made a TV show. What would that change about her persona and what makes it potentially grating? Wouldn't that make it all the more grating that she portrays herself as a dependent layabout?

caryatis said...

I don't find Dunham's persona insulting so much as the assumption, by those who comment on it, and there sure seems to be a lot of comment on it, that this incompetence and insecurity and dependence is the new normal for someone in her mid-twenties. It's lowering expectations for young adults, which contributes to efforts to deprive young adults of some of their adult rights.

Petey said...

"Your membership in the Lena Dunham Anti-Defamation League is not in doubt."

Actually, I'm a member of the Mike White Anti-Defamation League. Girls is a very good show, but Enlightened is in a whole 'nother league.

And given the recent pogrom against Mike Whiters, I'm becoming convinced that our assumption of safety in assimilation is destined to end up in tears.

I believe it's time for Mike Whiters to emigrate to our homeland, (which I believe is Madagascar), and create a new society where it is safe to produce and distribute Mike White shows. If you will it, it is no dream.

Petey said...

"Actually, even 30 is pushing it quite a bit. . Writers peak at 35-45."

Well to return to my stated terms - helming movies & teevee with big impact - a 30yo accomplishing such a breakthough is relatively normal. If you look at the ages of such 'wunderkinds', you'll find a real clump in the 29yo - 32yo range. It's the 25yo breakthroughs that are the total solar eclipse rarity.

This says nothing about when they 'peak'. For example Marty Scorsese accomplished his Mean Streets breakthough at 30yo. That's the normal wunderkind. Now, we could justifiably argue that he 'peaked' with Raging Bull at 38yo, but that's not the topic at hand here.

"OK. Let's say, for the sake of argument, Lena Dunham were the first person under the age of 40 to have made a TV show. What would that change about her persona and what makes it potentially grating?"

None of it means you have to like her. One of the George Costanza / Larry David parallels that Dunham has going on is her essential un-likability, which can sometimes work quite well in terms of quality narrative enjoyment. I don't think Girls would be nearly as much fun were Dunham more likable.

But Dunham's "Child Prodigy" status does help explain some of the contours of her particular persona. It's the obvious play for her, which is why I keep bringing up the Orson Welles parallel...

(BTW, I finally read her New Yorker piece. Since I get the dead tree edition, I refrain from reading it online, and save it for either the bath or sauna, which is what dead tree pubs were invented for. And it's funny! Above average for a Remnick-era piece. I might have edited or excised a couple of paragraphs, were I her editor, but overall, it's pretty, pretty good. But who is this 'Lena Dunham' person anyway? She isn't listed and described on the Contributors page in the mag, so I'm at a loss.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Petey: I want to distinguish between writers and directors. You can find a decent number of 30 year old staff writers and even the occasional 25 year old staff writer on TV shows, but helming your own successful TV show just doesn't really happen until you're 35, Dunham aside. Younger than that and you're a wunderkind. Movie directors are different since they mature and peak younger than writers do. There is a visual element to directing which skews it younger. (Great writing requires a maturity with language which only years can provide. Directing doesn't.) As you say, a 30 year old director who can be successful isn't that unusual (Tarantino and Scorsese being typical examples). So you have to be younger than that, like Orson Welles, to be a wunderkind.

If you don't distinguish between writing and directing, you're going to be misled and all of your "prodigies" are going to be directors.

Petey said...

"I want to distinguish between writers and directors ... If you don't distinguish between writing and directing, you're going to be misled and all of your "prodigies" are going to be directors."

The wrong distinction in this case, IMHO. Dunham isn't a big deal because she's a writer on the show. She's a big deal because she's the helmer of the show.

In movies, it's almost always very easy to tell who's helming just by reading the credits. It's the director. (Though, only very occasionally, a hands-on producer will really be in charge.)

In teevee, it's harder to tell who's helming. It's generally a "creator" or "executive producer", but there are always a lot of executive producers, and sometimes multiple creators, so it's not obvious who's in charge. You basically have to read the trades, or get that info second-hand.

But, to break it down...

Dunham : Girls teevee show :: director : movie

She's the person in charge. Same role as Marty Scorsese.

"(Great writing requires a maturity with language which only years can provide. Directing doesn't.) "

You're free to think this, but as a bibliophile and cineaste, I find no evidence to support it. Maturity seems to come at around the same ages in both fields to me. (If anything, it's somewhat more common for a writer to have a major breakthough at 25 than a director.)

Not to mention that a lot of wunderkind directors are writer-directors, like both Scorsese and Dunham.

To my way of thinking, helming is a very similar storytelling art form to writing; just a different set of paints.

(One maturity difference is that writers tend to fare better in old age than directors do. Directing involves lots of social and physical tasks that force many artists out as they age, or at least diminish them, while many writers can continue to improve their craft as they age. I'm always a big fan of a rarity like Polanski who's actually gotten better as he's gotten ancient. But this whole tangent isn't really what we're talking about.)

Andrew Stevens said...

You're free to think this, but as a bibliophile and cineaste, I find no evidence to support it. Maturity seems to come at around the same ages in both fields to me. (If anything, it's somewhat more common for a writer to have a major breakthough at 25 than a director.)

Dean Simonton did a study on this years ago. My belief is based on his data collection. Unfortunately, I read it in an academic publication and cannot recall the source. I would guess that it appears in his book Genius and Creativity: Selected Papers, but I'm not certain of that since I've never read the book.

However, if you can name a successful showrunner of more than one show who had his first success before the age of 30, it would go a long ways toward your point. (You have named a couple of one-hit wonders in Dunham and Parker/Stone, but one is the reason for this conversation and the other is just animation. None have been able to helm a second successful show yet.) You yourself have come up with directors who were successful by 30, but not a single showrunner. The youngest success I can find in those great showrunners I can think of (David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf, Steven Bochco, Norman Lear, Donald Bellisario, Aaron Sorkin, Gene Roddenberry, etc.) is J.J. Abrams who was 32 when he helmed Felicity. Joss Whedon was 33 when he did Buffy. Everybody else was 34 or older.

However, I should have carefully distinguished poets, who are more likely to become successful at the same age as movie directors, from novelists and showrunners who take longer.