In Which I Continue to Berate Lena Dunham

I’ve said some harsh things about Lena Dunham a few times before, and you’re probably all sick of it by now.  But I’m gonna keep doing it, at least for this post.


Alyssa Rosenberg piqued this particular point of interest, quoting from an NPR interview Dunham did in the spring wherein she defended the all-white cast of “Girls” with this quote:

I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls…I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.


Now, what I have to say is not particular to Lena Dunham.  It is, to a certain point, not entirely her “fault”, but rather the fault of society, that we can not only allow but endorse the ignorance of our most privileged members, and she is far, far from the only wealthy white person to be so ignorant – trust me.  I went to Georgetown.  I lived in San Francisco.  I have met lots of these people, and the only reason they are not being called out by name on this blog for their ignorance is because nobody has given them their own television show.  (Yet.)  And maybe if Dunham weren’t handed so much success at such a young age, she could have matured into a better and wiser storyteller (and, let’s be frank, joke-writer) without assholes like me hassling her on the Internet.


But as it stands, she’s a public figure, and I’m offering public criticism.


Because here’s the thing: what Lena Dunham is offering in her own defense, in that quote from NPR, is – truly – nothing more than her own ignorance, and it is ignorance made all the more inexcusable by the exceptional privilege in which she was raised.  Here is a girl who grew up in New York City – an incredibly diverse place! – and yet all the people close to her throughout her life have only been Jews and WASPs?  Here is a girl who graduated from Oberlin – a famously progressive liberal arts college – and at no point did it ever occur to her to encounter people with different backgrounds from her own?  And, most distressingly, here is a girl given the power to hire a staff of her own writers – an opportunity or perhaps even an *obligation* to account for the shortcomings of her own life experience – and she never thought about hiring a single person of color?


And make no mistake, the whiteness of “Girls” is – as Dunham herself admits in that quote – a direct consequence of the shortcomings of her own experience.  It may seem strange to characterize the life of someone raised wealthy, educated at private schools, and running her own TV show in her twenties as having “shortcomings”, but as a storyteller and a human being, what Dunham typifies is nothing more than ignorance; and like all ignorance, it can only persist through a failure of empathy and intellectual curiosity, especially when one comes from a background like Dunham’s.  She has the means, resources and connections to explore any corner of the world; she chooses to linger in comfortable spaces.  (Or at least, she has chosen.  One might hope – and it does seem – that the barrage of criticism she endured over the show’s premiere has challenged some of her comfort in “writing what you know”; or at least, it has forced her to confront the narrowness of what she actually “knows.”)


Because, really, it’s not that hard to tell inclusive stories, most especially in a collaborative environment like television.  Dunham isn’t sitting alone in her garrett, pouring forth her soul; she works with a crew and a team of writers and directors and actors and if any of them were people of color, then their creative input could inform and expand the universe of Dunham’s show; it could chip away at her ignorance.  It might mean having to loosen creative control, to let others speak – but then, choosing to listen to the unfettered voices of others is, ultimately, the only way to overcome such ignorance.  If she wants to tell better and truer stories then she need not resort to tokenism or defensiveness; her world sounds like a startlingly narrow place, and all she has to do is broaden it.

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