Lena Dunham is undeniably an “It Girl.” With an immensely popular television show, HBO’s “Girls,” and the ability to call her character “the voice of a generation,” Dunham has become one of the most important female figures of recent times, and a controversial one at that.
Not everyone agrees that Dunham deserves all the respect and praise she has been getting. For every Lena Dunham fan out there who thinks she’s beautiful, smart and original, there seems to be one more critic or internet troll there to tell you she’s more likely entitled, undeserving and far from the voice of a generation that many have come to see her as.
Given all this controversy surrounding Dunham, one might expect to find nothing more than shallow social commentary, vulgar humor and an unintelligent and over-privileged account of just another twenty-something in her new memoir, a collection of essays entitled “Not That Kind of Girl.”
As a fan of “Girls” with a more-than-mild interest in the woman who made it happen, I figured I might enjoy Dunham’s book, too. What I found is this: Dunham isn’t just another celebrity trying to cash in on a book deal because she has a wildly popular TV show. She also isn’t a hack that thinks she can slap together a few funny stories about her life and call it a memoir; this girl can write.
Dunham’s book is funny, yes, but it is also deep and resonant. Life isn’t always funny, and Dunham understands that fact. I couldn’t help but identify with her voice, which strikes a nearly perfect balance between sarcastic and serious. Her goofy quirks and tendency for self-deprecation are recognizable in me and the people I know, almost like Lena Dunham could be my best friend if she wanted to.
An article on Mic.com, a news website specifically geared toward millennials—the very sort that are also familiar with Dunham’s work—boldly stated that her book “is likely to become a seminal text in the feminist literary canon.” While this may be a bit premature, it’s easy to see that Dunham’s place as a feminist role model is solidifying within the pages of her book.
From the very first pages, Dunham is a refreshing mainstream voice that doesn’t skirt around the issue of feminism. She’s up front, unlike so many annoying celebrities that walk and talk like feminists but ultimately “don’t want to put a label on it.”
She also speaks on important topics of sexual assault, anxiety and body image within the same pages as sarcastic pick-up lines or a humorously labeled drawing of the female reproductive system. So much of what she has to say resonates with me as a young college woman.
Maybe I’m more inclined to identify with Dunham because of our similar identities; like her, I am a white female of middle-class upbringing. While it’s great that Dunham’s book inspires identification in readers like me, that doesn’t have to mean that people with differing identities can’t also take something from her words.
Dunham cannot possibly speak from a perspective other than her own, but the important thing is the fact that she is speaking at all: as a young woman, as a cultural icon and as a feminist. She says it herself in the introduction to her book: “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.”
I’m not saying that Lena Dunham can do no wrong. Anyone can see that “Girls” has a representation problem and, by the very virtue of her upbringing, there is also the very legitimate issue of privilege in any of Dunham’s work.
What I am saying is that where her work falls short should not be a target for discrediting what she does, but an opportunity to learn and to do better. I believe in making room for constructive criticism, the kind that says “This is pretty good, but we can do more.”
Yes, it’s true that Lena Dunham is not a perfect role model. Whether or not people like her, it’s what she has to say—as Lena Dunham herself or within the body of her work—and how she says it that is important. If Dunham can teach or inspire at least one girl or woman or any person, then hasn’t she done the feminist cause and our generation justice?
No one should be allowed to tell someone else that their personally empowering ideas aren’t empowering; if Dunham represents that empowering idea for someone, then she shouldn’t be shamed for it. Even when she makes mistakes—and she does make mistakes, maybe even a lot—it should be an educational moment for her and the people who see her work.
So whether you love her or hate her, I think there is something valuable in the very fact that Lena Dunham is here. She has work that inspires and incites conversation, and an audience that is empowered by her, even if she is imperfect.