Lena Dunham- the “Voice of a Generation”?

(published February 17, 2014)

Lena Dunham. Photo courtesy of HBO.
Lena Dunham. Photo courtesy of HBO.

In a small press conference at 2:15pm last Saturday, a writer for The Grape joked that there would be protestors filed outside of Finney Chapel, awaiting Dunham’s grand entrance—picket signs and everything. “Maybe I’ll join them!” Dunham laughed.

There is no question that Dunham has become one of the most celebrated recent Oberlin alums. Dunham’s brainchild Girls has met massive critical acclaim; in 2013 alone, Dunham was awarded two Golden Globes—Best Actress in a Television Series Musical or Comedy, and Best Television Series—among many other notable recognitions in the film industry since Girlspremiered on HBO in 2012.

During Lena Dunham’s Convocation on February 8, President Krislov noted in his introduction that she “thrives on witty banter and awkward physical comedy.” With a fourth season under way and a $3.5 million Random House deal to publish a book of essays (Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned), one can hardly argue that the experiences and feelings Dunham expresses in her work are ones with which many can empathize.

“I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation,” says Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham) in Girls’ pilot (which Dunham later commented Saturday evening that it was intentionally the most “selfish, absurd” thing she could say). Despite her undeniably successful career post-college, her work has also been met with a considerable amount of criticism. A cast consisting of four white, hetero-normative, women-identifying Oberlin grads (or in the case of Shoshanna, a senior at NYU) in considerably well-to-do personal economic situations hardly speaks to the voices of many—if not most—in our generation.

What I appreciated most about Dunham’s conversation with Professor David Walker, and later the audience, was that she openly addressed the criticism leveled at her show. Sure, Dunham restated, as she has in previous interviews, that she wrote from the experience she knew—the experience of “kids in therapy since they were ten, who text all the time, who take too many meds.” She reiterated that she hopes her work speaks to “generational issues”—and acknowledges that her work can’t possibly reflect the experiences of “everybody born in 1986,” nor other variables like class, race, or “the rainbow of gender.” On the despicability of her characters, Dunham replied, “It doesn’t really matter if I like her, because I know her.” After saying this, she added that it’s truly ridiculous and disgusting that there are so few series that have women frontrunners, that it’s rare to see a non-white protagonist on a TV show, that audiences historically do not respond well when women in entertainment behave “badly.”

Dunham tried (maybe a little too defensively) to say that she tried to address these issues in an organic way as they came up on Girls, but ultimately that, “If we had to take one for the team so this conversation could happen, GOOD,” because that conversation needs to happen, and there were no places to start from nor doors already open to foster that discussion as she initially crafted Girls.

Dunham’s characters—as many in life—are growing, and rapidly change as they navigate through various challenges. The girls on her show “take two steps forward and then three steps backwards.” To the pending, idle college-graduates in all of us, Dunham reflected that finding a balance between personal and professional growth is very important; finding time to reflect and think and be with others is important, as is seeking out and seizing opportunities. “I hope [my characters] will use their energy and intelligence in a better way,” Dunham stated.

Sure, her characters may be based on exaggerated versions of herself. True, Girls, like Tiny Furniture before it, tell the stories of privileged 20-somethings floating through life in an often cringe-worthy fashion. But Dunham’s work as a smart, talented individual suggests that perhaps, when storytelling, honesty really is the best policy.

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