Anxiety-Privilege And The Lena Dunham Question

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Lena Dunham was an anxious child:

My parents are getting worried. It’s hard enough to have a child, much less a child who demands to inspect our groceries and medicines for evidence that their protective seals have been tampered with. I have only the vaguest memory of a life before fear. Every morning when I wake up, there is one blissful second before I look around the room and remember my many terrors. I wonder if this is what it will always be like, forever, and I try to remember moments I felt safe: In bed next to my mother one Sunday morning. Playing with my friend Isabel’s puppy. Getting picked up from a sleepover just before bedtime.

One night, my father becomes so frustrated by my behavior that he takes a walk and doesn’t come back for three hours. While he’s gone, I start to plan our life without him. …

In our first session, Lisa sits on the floor with me, her legs tucked under her like she’s just a friend who has come by to hang out. She looks like the mom on a television show, with big curly hair and a silky blouse. She asks me how old I am, and I respond by asking her how old she is—after all, we’re sitting on the floor together. “Thirty-four,” she says. My mother was thirty-six when I was born. Lisa is different from my mother in lots of ways, starting with her clothes: a suit, sheer tights, and black high heels. Different from my mother, who looks like her normal self when she dresses as a witch for Halloween.

Lisa lets me ask her whatever I want. She has two daughters. She lives uptown. She’s Jewish. Her middle name is Robin, and her favorite food is cereal. By the time I leave, I think that she can fix me.

The difference between Dunham’s childhood fears and everyone else’s is, in part, that hers were met with old-time New York therapy sessions out of a New Yorker cartoon and are… now featured in the New Yorker.

Which brings us to another issue, namely the anxieties Dunham herself inspires in a certain segment of the population. That segment being, I suppose, those who feel that all of life’s unfairnesses can be summed up in the fact of Dunham’s success. It’s a bit like how, for committed anti-Semites, every last one of the world’s problems can be blamed on Jews, with the crucial difference being that Dunham has – as far as I can tell – shrewdly incorporated these perceptions into her act. Many before her have passively resigned themselves to being the face of ‘privilege’; Dunham’s innovation is to not merely own it (as someone like Gwyneth Paltrow does) but go with it.

One can never just appreciate a cultural product Lena Dunham has created. One must always defend doing so, in anticipation of the ‘but-all-that-privilege’ detractors. The latest – and possibly strongest – apology comes from Jacob Clifton, who hones in on the key issue in his response to the essay:

We have a propensity for taking women, young women especially, at face value. Young women are not alone here: Dave Chapelle quit comedy when he realized the racists weren’t laughing with him, but at him; Kurt Cobain killed himself in part because his rapist fans were winning. I get infinitely more laughs with jokes about theater than I do about football. Taylor Swift continues writing singles about the haters because we’ve convinced ourselves that she isn’t making conscious choices to write about love, an abiding subject in poetry for a while now, but in fact just writing her diary for our consumption.

Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash: Those are artists, because their experience—of white heterosexual masculinity—is after all universal. Everybody can identify with the love of a good woman, the vicissitudes that attain thereof, but nobody wants to hear about some dumb white girl getting dumped. …

Reading this first excerpt of Lena Dunham’s forthcoming book, preceded as it has been by a year’s worth of death knells and straight-up unadorned hating, I was irritated. Of course I was; it’s irritating as hell. But the funniest and loveliest thing about Dunham has always been, to me, the deadpan irony of exactly those choices. Tiny Furniture is every bit as self-excoriating as the first season of Girls was, and just as confusing for those of us (most of us) who find it hard to switch gears, to hear that register at all: The one where a woman telling you the worst things about herself is an attempt to bridge the gap, to create art that transcends selves, rather than to simply confess.