By Kristy Webster
Thursday Review Contributing Writer
“You may not agree with a woman, but to criticize her appearance—as opposed to her ideas or actions—isn’t doing anyone any favors, least of all you. Insulting a woman’s looks when they have nothing to do with the issue at hand implies a lack of comprehension on your part, an inability to engage in high-level thinking. You may think she’s ugly, but everyone else thinks you’re an idiot.”—Hillary Clinton
Lena Dunham has been called lots of things: brilliant, a genius, a rare literary talent, even the voice of a generation. She does after all write, produce, direct and star in her own award winning HBO series, Girls. She also signed a 3.7 million dollar book deal with Random House. Oh yeah, and she is twenty-six years old. Twenty-six, folks.
It's understandable that some people may feel jealous towards someone who has found so much success at such a young age. It's understandable that the show Girls doesn't speak for or to every girl. The “realness” can be awkward, uncomfortable, even painful for some viewers. But what I take issue with is the hateful comments I read following almost any article I've ever read about Lena or her show online. As if it wasn't enough that Yahoo! was flooded with comments calling her—among other things—an ugly troll, fat, disgusting; Howard Stern also had to weigh-in by calling her “a little fat girl who looks like Jonah Hill.”
Lena Dunham is obviously not the first female celebrity to endure such petty and pervasive criticism. If anything though she is the poster child for the contemporary epidemic of reducing women—intelligent, creative, thoughtful, passionate, wicked talented women—to the most superficial of standards, as if aside from all the gifts these women encompass they owe it to the public to be meet an approved standard for beauty.
Coincidentally, last week I ran across a blog post by Erin McLean that brilliantly articulated this point that rattles and catches fire in my ribcage:
“You don't owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don't owe it to your mother, you don't owe it to your children, you don't owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female’.”
Gee, what a thought!
Still, critics say Lena Dunham brought this on herself—that if she doesn't want to be criticized for her less than Hollywood-standard-of-beauty body she shouldn't spend so much time being naked on screen. Although Lena may not intend to use her nudity as a political statement, I can't help but interpret it as such: a way to confront mainstream beauty standards and force audiences to reconsider those ever unrealistic and narrow standards. In a recent Huffington Post article Lena explains that nude scenes are part of the show because nudity is simply a natural part of living, even though mainstream media has some very strong opinions of who should and shouldn't get naked onscreen (especially when it comes to women).
“We have this insane culture where women who don't look like the cast of Gossip Girl are put into sweaters and nightgowns to sleep in," she told CBS in a recent interview. "What I love are the films of the 70s where someone gets out of bed and you see half of their nipple because that's what it looks like for a person to get out of bed.”
It is important to remember that Girls is a show about someone who is learning to be a person and letting the entire world watch the whole mess of it. It is an honest confession. This is a show for anyone who is ready to confront the nitty-gritty, the bibulous and itchy and terrifying aspects of being human, and becoming a woman. This is not Sex and the City. This isn't the world of woman wrapped up in Manolo Blaniks . It gets ugly. And real. And poignant. And very, very uncomfortable at times. In a recent Rolling Stone article, Judd Apatow responded to some of the show's critics.
“People talk about the show as if we're not aware of all the awful mistakes they're making,” Apatow said. “People say, 'Oh, they're self-entitled and self-involved,' and I always think, 'Yeah! That's why we have her steal the tip from the maid in the first episode.' You can say, 'Where are all of the ethnic people?' And I might say back to you, 'Yeah, where are all the ethnic people?'”
This is the kind of show where girls use toilets (gasp!) and Q-tips, a show that confronts mental illness, abandonment, and showcases the beauty and pain that come with being absolutely, terrifyingly vulnerable. That is what makes Lena and “Girls” so powerful. When you can make art out of your ugliest work—ignorance, neediness, self-absorption—and resist the urge to glam it up, or downplay just how clueless you are, then you move forward. You evolve. You become all the beautiful things you thought were out of your reach when you were goofing it up.
Lena Dunham doesn't need me to defend her. But I need Lena Dunham to keep doing what she's doing. As a woman of color (and yes, I can still “relate” to a show about 20 something-year-old white girls) and a feminist, I applaud the risks Lena and others like her are taking. Because even though Lena might not need me to have her back, there are plenty of women and girls that need to be reminded that their worth doesn't lie in their dress size, the luster of their lips, or the length of their lashes. A woman's gift to the world is whatever she chooses to bestow upon it, and not what the world chooses to extract from her with scissors and a measuring tape. That gift is usually the last thing we want to share about ourselves, but usually it is the one thing that will open us to the world, and make the world open up to us.
“It's interesting,” says Dunham, “how we often can't see the ways in which we are being strong—like, you can't be aware of what you're doing that's tough and brave at the time that you're doing it because if you knew that it was brave, then you'd be scared.”