Lena Dunham: Love Her Or Can't Stand Her? A Brief History Of the Criticism Surrounding the 'Girls' Star
Lena Dunham, the extraordinarily original and honest creator of Girls , is used to being the center of controversy. Since her rise to fame in 2010 with the film Tiny Furniture, Dunham has been called a racist, slammed for being "fat" and naked, and criticized for tweeting some not-so-nice things. And, following Sunday night's Girls finale, now is as good a time as any to take a look at how the public's attitude towards her has evolved. So, after an uneven season that ultimately led to a surprisingly satisfying finale, how does the public feel about Dunham now? Let's first rewind.
2010: Tiny Furniture Debuts
Tiny Furniture, the 2010 SXSW conference winner for Best Narrative Feature, was Dunham's real debut as a writer, director and actor. Aura moves back in with her mom and sister (who are played by Dunham's real mom and sister) to their artsy loft (which is their real home). Manohla Dargis of the New York Times applauded Dunham's ability to capture the "drip, drip, drip" nature of real life.
Yet in her at times exasperating, at times touching fashion, she has created a work that addresses a constellation of ideas that speak to how we live now, on screen and off, in an age of multiplying types of technological reproductions. By playing a version of herself (and asking her family to go along for the ride), and by closing the distance between art and life, she has gotten at something real.
Richard Brody of the New Yorker echoed this praise, but in a different sense. He comments on Dunham's inherent ability to be funny, saying:
Nobody can learn to be funny, and it’s also hard to turn it off. That’s where some of the movie’s extraordinary poignancy comes from: Dunham’s clarity about her own situation is laced with acerbic humor, which burns away any vestige of self-pity.
Tiny Furniture put Dunham on the map as a highly original and smart producer. And that's where Girls came in.
2012: Girls Premieres
Rewind to the first episode of Girls . We meet Hannah Horvath, a twentysomething journalist who gets cut off from her parents, wallows in her own self-pity, and has incredibly awkward sex with her not-boyfriend Adam.
Though the episode hit home with some, other viewers initially found her writing to be over-the-top, unnecessarily graphic, and difficult to watch. Critical reception of the show, however, was good. Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter had nothing but good things to say of the series in it's early days:
Few series come out of the box as brilliant as Girls does. The new HBO series from Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture) is one of the most original, spot-on, no-missed-steps series in recent memory... In the first three half-hour episodes (of a 10 episode season), Dunham manages to convey real female friendships, the angst of emerging adulthood, nuanced relationships, sexuality, self-esteem, body image, intimacy in a tech-savvy world that promotes distance, the bloodlust of surviving New York on very little money and the modern parenting of entitled children, among many other things – all laced together with humor and poignancy. You shouldn’t have to be told what a difficult party trick that is.
There was no denying that Season 1 of Girls challenged the viewer, but in a good way, according to Mary McNamara of the LA Times.
There is a cool cleverness to the show that is both attractive and off-putting.
The characters are flawed and hyper-aware of their flaws, the stories so bent on covering every angle of self-examination that there is no real role for the viewer to play. Which makes watching it an intellectual rather than emotional experience.
Critics seemed to agree that Girls was ground-breaking and original, a notion that the viewers certainly agreed with as well.
2012: Accusations of Racism
Girls was immediately criticized by the blogosphere for its lack of diversity — and Dunham was marked by many as a self-entitled racist. Huffington Post blogger Phoebe Robinson voiced her anger over the lack of people of color on the show:
Ms. Dunham: go out and learn some more shit, so you will have more things to write about. It's lazy to stay so self-contained and beyond unacceptable to pass off such a myopic view of the world as THE 20-SOMETHING EXPERIENCE. That is how the show is being packaged after all. Well, Girls doesn't represent me nor the women I know who have matured in NYC.
Dunham finally responded to the controversy in an interview on NPR:
I take that criticism very seriously. ... This show isn't supposed to feel exclusionary. It's supposed to feel honest, and it's supposed to feel true to many aspects of my experience... 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.
If having an all-white cast wasn't enough for critics to slam Dunham, her "goth/fundamentalist" tweet gave them some material.
The tweet was in bad taste, yes, especially in a country where xenophobia spreads far too wide. But Samhita of Feministing.com had her own take on Dunham's style of racism:
It’s more like casual racism–or when someone reinforces something that’s inherently racist and rather than question it, they just goes with the flow. The most concrete offense is that she is conflating fundamentalism with veiling. Many women don headscarves who aren’t fundamentalist. And there are people that are very fundamentalist that don’t veil or aren’t Muslim. So, it invisibilizes these lesser known groups of people.
Dunham did, however, apologize for the post. The sincerity of the apology was questioned, but it was an apology, nonetheless.
It became clear that Dunham listened to her detractors by Season 2, when she cast Community's Donald Glover to play her love interest. He called Hannah out for being racist... and then quickly disappeared from the show.
By Season 3, however, Dunham seems to have created a slightly more diverse series culture.
2013: Nudity Controversy
One year later, most people had moved from talking about Dunham's racism, and instead decided to focus on her body. Shock jock Howard Stern called her a "little fat girl" and New York Post writer Linda Stasi called Dunham a “pathological exhibitionist” while conceding “it’s not every day in the TV world of anorexic actresses with fake boobs that a woman with giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts is compelled to show it all."
Dunham explained her TV nudity to New York magazine:
Another part [of doing nude scenes] feels like, not "Fuck you," but a way of saying, with these bodies, you know: Don’t silence them. I say I’m not a political person, but it’s a political statement in a way. I know it’s going to gross some people out. There’s people who don’t want to see bodies like mine or bodies like their own bodies.
As Bustle's own Rachel Krantz wrote for the Daily Beast at the time:
It’s that point that might get to the heart of why there will always be a controversy around Dunham’s work. Perhaps it’s not that she had no people of color on the show that so many white critics found offensive; it’s that she admitted on television that many so-called progressive, educated, city-dwelling white people are actually so insulated.
And maybe it’s not the cellulite we find terrifying when we look at Dunham’s ass, but the fact that there she is, in TV world, looking just like us.
2014: The Vogue Cover
Being Vogue-worthy is a giant step in any celebrity's career, but Dunham's February 2014 cover was an even greater milestone for fashion. Not only did we see a recognizable face on Vogue's cover, we saw a face that looked more like our own. But Dunham’s Vogue glory came to a halting stop when Jezebel purchased the un-retouched images for $10,000 in pursuit of ousting Vogue for being Photoshop-happy and not recognizing the beauty of a real woman. Dunham, however, slammed the attempt in an interview with Time and announced the retouching was minimal and that she was very pleased with the end result.
They made such a monumental error in their approach to feminism… It felt gross.
2014: Molestation Comment
Despite that feminist victory, the world quickly went back to hating Dunham after she tweeted an ill-advised joke about molestation in response to a tweeter criticizing her nudity in an Adam and Eve SNL sketch. The actress quickly deleted her tweet and apologized, blaming it on her lack of sleep and saying “even naked girls get embarrassed."
For a producer and actress who stepped into the spotlight only four years ago, Dunham has certainly mastered the Twitter apology. And, likely, we can expect her to make many more — and to field even more unfair criticism herself. After all, Dunham's work will continue to push the envelope and make people think, which is what every good producer should do.