“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”
When I first started my site, Deus Ex Malcontent, back in the spring of 2006, the original personal bio on its front page had a line in it that slammed Sarah Jessica Parker. I can’t remember the exact words right now but I basically said something about how I didn’t like Hollywood trying to convince me that she was attractive. It was, I admit, a really obnoxious thing to say right out of the gate but being that the blog was in its infancy and I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to be or what I’d eventually be writing about a good portion of the time it made sense to just come out swinging. Even at the time, though, my point was never that I didn’t like Sarah Jessica Parker — I simply didn’t like what the arbiters of pop culture were constantly telling me I should like about her. In other words, my issue wasn’t with SJP the Person, it was with SJP the Product.
I try to keep that thought process in mind these days every time I read one screed or another defending Lena Dunham. In keeping with tradition in our rapid-fire media culture, Dunham became kind of an overnight sensation in 2012, spawned an instant backlash to her instant popularity, and is now, more and more, on the receiving end of a backlash to the backlash. What started almost immediately with articles asking why exactly she’s famous has now morphed into the inevitable series of articles asking, “Why all the hate?”
The latest example of the “Stop Dumping on Lena Dunham!” meme comes to us courtesy of Salon; it’s a column written by an author named Elissa Schappell that’s actually titled “Stop Dumping on Lena Dunham!” In the piece, Schappell applauds Dunham’s two big wins at the Golden Globes on Sunday night — for Best Actress in a Comedy Series and Best Comedy Series for her HBO show, Girls — and rails against those who seem to be resentful of Dunham’s recent critical and financial success.
Here’s how she opens it:
“I couldn’t help noticing last evening, as I cheered for Lena Dunham, who won two Golden Globes, that those around her were decidedly less enthusiastic. Chilly even. I understand that no one likes to lose or see their friends lose, but faking some gracious smiles (you are supposed to be actors, after all) would have been nice. As well as appropriate, given that Dunham is clearly a talented young woman with great promise. I’d think that everyone in that room, knowing how the business works, would go out of their way to applaud the young and gifted Dunham if for no other reason than they might want to ask her for a job one day.”
The piece goes on to try to figure out what exactly it is about Dunham that inspires so much rancor from a certain segment of the population, seeing as how the author sees her as full of talent and the benefactor of the same kind of nepotism and praise as the “next big thing” that launched plenty of other careers in Hollywood. Well, let me see if I can clear it up once and for all. Call this an attempt, however pathetic, at crafting a mildly articulate treatise on why Lena Dunham is an especially insidious plague on our current pop culture. In other words, why she sucks.
First and foremost, she’s not funny. I get that I’ve said numerous times that humor is in the eye of the beholder and what I think is hilarious might not appeal in the least to other people, hence why I tend to defend comics even when I might not necessarily like their brand of comedy. But as with Sarah Jessica Parker years ago, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with Dunham, per se, it’s simply that there’s an insurmountable reverse correlation between how great her proponents say she is and how great she actually is. When Girls won Best Comedy at the Globes the other night, my first thought was, “Isn’t a comedy supposed to be, you know, funny?” And no, laughing at the incredible discomfort Dunham mines from her incessant need to show off her own naked body doesn’t count. I’m not looking for slapstick by any stretch of the imagination and God knows a guy like Louie CK can take palpable unease and make it the funniest thing imaginable, but Dunham doesn’t really excel at any kind of humor. Again, when you consider the passion with which Dunham is lauded by those who love her, many of whom are supposed to know better, it’s actually frustrating to watch her not be anything approaching all that good at what she’s supposed to be great at.
Add to that, an unavoidable fact about Lena Dunham that makes anyone not a millenial want to put his or her fist through a wall: everything about Lena Dunham is about Lena Dunham. Her entire career is one giant self-obsessed navel-gaze, from the memoir she’s raking in a $3.5 million advance for, to her mumblecore show about her personal experience and viewpoint, to, well, everything. Even if you’re a fan of Dunham, this presents a problem because she’s inextricably linked to her art — hence it’s completely understandable to conflate one with the other. Answering Elissa Schappell’s question regarding the resentment heaped on Dunham is pretty easy, actually: If you don’t like her show or her book or anything about her artistic endeavors, you don’t like Lena Dunham herself because that’s the way she’s engineered it. She’s tied herself to her work by making it meta and allowing her character to state her desire to be an outsize voice in society, even if her character fails miserably at it while Dunham doesn’t.
But more than anything else, there’s the critical acclaim. Look, here’s the thing: When Here Comes Honey Boo Boo debuted last year, even the critics who didn’t slam it as the final nail in the coffin of Western civilization didn’t exactly hail it as brilliant television either. The best anybody could say about it was that it was stupid but entertaining. Girls, however, is a critical darling and was right out of the gate and Lena Dunham — again, since the show is all hers and all her — was immediately called the new face of comedy by some very respected people. That critical celebration of Dunham and Girls culminated on Sunday night with the two Golden Globe wins. So that’s what pisses some people off: We’re not only expected to tolerate Girls and Dunham as a pop culture phenomenon, we’re also being told that it’s high art. As one commenter over at Uproxx said brilliantly about the fact that critics have so embraced Dunham, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
If Lena Dunham and her largely insipid, uninteresting creation weren’t sold to America as being so damn good, chances are a lot of people wouldn’t think it was incumbent upon them to point out how damn bad they are — whether those people are throwing together quickie columns on the web or sitting in a crowd at the Golden Globes. The good thing, I guess, is that in our current ADD, 140-character media climate the “next big thing” tends to last a very short amount of time. That rocket ride to the top of the media saturation heap for Dunham could easily turn into a plummet straight down to the ground in no time. It’s just the way things work these days.