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I May Need to Give Lena Dunham Another Try

After reading this essay (h/t Andrew Sullivan) comparing her to Philip Roth, for the first time I have some idea what she’s about:

Captivated by [Portnoy’s Complaint], I quickly devoured the rest of the Roth canon, starting with Goodbye, Columbus, and working in chronological order. By the time I got to what was essentially Roth’s account of the Goodbye, Columbus blowback in The Ghost Writer, that Jews would regard Roth as anything but a literary hero was shocking to me.

Many of them didn’t, though: to those in the Jewish community who believed everything created by members of it served as a window for the “other” into the lives of the Jews, Roth gave both aid and comfort to the enemy, and set about creating some kind of universally false set of ideas (as in, realistic ones) about What Jews Valued And Believed. Even to a son of two Jewish parents, in a largely Jewish New Jersey suburb, this kind of monolithic cultural community concept was quaint by the early 90s.

Roth answered his critics by putting young Nathan Zuckerman, his writer stand-in, before an actual judge, who asks him questions like, “What in your character makes you associate so much of life’s ugliness with the Jewish people?”

Roth had chronicled, with depth and realism, the full emotional template he’d experienced. For Jews less than 15 years removed from a serious attempt at extinction, seeing a son of theirs break ranks was itself a hardship. Literature was not an available template for Roth’s critics, or at any rate, used by them as a means of measuring his work. His work could only be discerned as representative or not.

And yet, more than half a century later, how to explain Lena Dunham receiving similar treatment, not from the Jewish community, but from nearly every angle imaginable? Wasn’t the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, indeed the surge in the number of Jews intermarrying itself all part of eliminating the concept of us and them?

Yes. Too well.

Dunham described Girls, by way of explaining the seeming lack of diversity of the show: “I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs… each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me.”

But by creating such real post-college characters, by boldly declaring herself, through Hannah, “the voice of my generation,” she allowed an open season from the vast cross-section of cultures that Dunham’s generation includes. Everyone wanted in on the story; if Dunham were to be writing the great American novel in TV series form, she needed to find a spot for more than just her corner of that American life. Or so her critics charged.

Again, art be damned. Girls was subjected to a culturally idealized version of the world and criticized for being exclusionary, just as Goodbye, Columbus had been. And poor Lena Dunham wasn’t just failing the Jews; it was 2012, so she was failing everybody.

Or, more specifically, she was failing the female heirs of the feminist and sexual revolutions, just as Roth was failing the heirs of the Jewish struggle to enter fully into the mainstream of American life, and the Zionist struggle to establish a Jewish State.

As Nathan Zuckerman says to his mother in The Ghostwriter, who begs him to write back to Judge Wapter’s letter accusing him of providing aid and comfort to Joseph Goebbels with a short story, “Mother, I will not prate in platitudes to please the adults!”

Dunham, too, was pressed on such universal terms, such as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni commenting on a sex scene early in the first season of Girls with, “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” It was as if by chronicling the reality that sometimes, sex isn’t fun for everyone, Dunham was responsible for this reality, no less than Roth was responsible for some Jews being grifters, or unfeeling, or even… Reform.

In the end, all Hannah really wants is what Neil and Brenda have in Goodbye, Columbus. Yes, Frank Bruni, Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this: not so Hannah could fail to enjoy some sex, but so she could learn what it was she wanted instead, could tell that to Adam, and could pursue what she wanted no less than Neil does.

By the end of season one, Hannah breaks up with Adam. Hannah empowered.

By the start of season two, Dunham, through Hannah, is mocking her critics. Lena empowered. Not enough black characters? Within three minutes of the season, she’s on top of her new, black boyfriend, as he asks her and the audience at once: “You wanted this? Well, now you’re going to get it.”

You want black characters at the center of my show, Dunham asks? Well, here: you can find one in my vagina. And even then, she has the last laugh on her critics; the black boyfriend is a Republican, making him a minority among minorities, and also not representative all at once, his political party itself a joke and the source of his departure from the show. And while she’s at it, a gay man ruins a party and plays a villain. None of the Oberlin untouchables are safe.

Lena Dunham has processed the words of her critics, and she isn’t going to let her masterwork turn into a seminar on diversity at Oberlin, her vision clouded by a need to do right by not only her people, like Roth, but by everybody.

Roth is a huge lodestar for me, in substantial part because of his unwillingness to “do right” by anybody. Roth is rightly classed as a massively self-involved writer (that’s a description, not censure or praise), but he is emphatically not a self-satisfied writer, in the way that, say, Updike or Bellow are (the major reason why I find their work persistently irritating). Roth isn’t trying to please the teacher. But he’s not trying to provoke the teacher either – he really doesn’t write (I don’t feel) what he does or the way he does because he’s trying to get a rise out of anybody. His writing feels, to me, to be very much internally motivated.

As is Dunham’s, from what I’ve seen, which is not much; I haven’t seen “Girls” yet, and “Tiny Furniture,” I didn’t love. It reminded me of the things I don’t like about Whit Stillman‘s work, in that they both show me worlds whose mores they claim to be observing in an acute Austenian fashion, but whose reality I never really buy because I strained to sense the souls behind the carefully constructed (and yet never-quite-fitted) social masks their characters wear. Dunham’s persona in “Tiny Furniture” seemed comprehensively to lack basic social survival skills, while simultaneously being almost consumed by the desire for external approbation – all of which could make for a very interesting character, except I didn’t get the sense that Dunham herself was aware that these were character traits. And every other character in the movie seemed to exist only within the frame of the main character’s vision – the male characters in particular felt to me like they’d have trouble passing the Turing Test. There’s a difference between self-involvement and solipsism.

But the Roth comparison is making me reconsider that hasty judgment. If nothing else, I’m brought up short by the suggestion that the ugliness I saw in “Tiny Furniture” might be similar to the ugliness Roth’s elders saw in his early work, that the sad, knowing smile of conservative critics (and the anxious smile of liberal ones) with “Girls” might be similar to the mainstream Jewish reaction to Roth’s early eruptions. And, you know, I don’t know how many of Roth’s women would pass the Turing Test either.

In any event, I’m certainly intrigued enough to check out “Girls” and give Dunham another shot. It may turn out, on a closer look, that she isn’t actually saying anything that speaks to me. But I’m more curious than I was to know what she is saying.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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