Tuesday, November 11, 2014

James Wolcott on Lena Dunham (figuratively)

A well-written article is that much more delectable when it contains a goodly measure of humor.

Now, James Wolcott has written the review to end all reviews of Lena Dunham’s new book. (My thanks to the anonymous commenter who referenced the review in response to a prior post.)

Here Wolcott describes Dunham’s book:

A jokily earnest, cutesily illustrated (by Joana Avillez), no-big-deal variety pack by everybody’s favorite fun feminist and generational spokesmodel—a commercial proposition, to be sure, but normally not the sort of jewel of the Nile that would justify the reported $3.7 million advance usually reserved for first ladies and retired CEOs. Yet the blockbuster advance Random House shelled out for Not That Kind of Girl was no blindfolded-chimp dart toss. It was the nearest thing in publishing today to a mortal lock. For Lena Dunham is so money, to invoke Swingers, she is major bank. 

Later, he offers a more extensive critique:

Callow, grating, and glibly nattering as much of the rest of Not That Kind of Girl is, its impact is a series of glancing blows. The self-revelations and gnarly disclosures are stowed alongside the psycho-twaddle, affirmational platitudes, and show-offy candor of someone avid to be liked and accepted—on her own terms, of course, for who she is in all her flawed, bountiful faux pas glory.

Many people believe that Lena Dunham, the spokesperson for her generation was created by The New York Times. Wolcott seems to find the argument persuasive. He summarizes it herewith:

Whatever it says in her official bio, birthers believe that Lena Dunham was born on a bed of golden straw in the basement of the former New York Times headquarters on West 43rd Street and doted upon ever since as the newspaper’s princess daughter….

…but never before has the old gray mare taken such an active, ongoing, nurturing, and rooting interest in its wunderkind. Since adolescence Dunham has been under their roving spotlight.

Happily, Wolcott offers us a sampling of Dunham’s humor, with his own reaction:

“My uterus does tilt to the right [there’s a chapter devoted to the subject in Not That Kind of Girl, “Who Moved My Uterus?”], which could mean it’s an inhospitable environment for a child who wants a straight-down-the-line kind of uterus. And so I will adopt, but I won’t have the sort of beautiful, genetics-defying love story that People magazine chronicles. The kid will have undiagnosed fetal alcohol syndrome. He will hate me, and he will nail our dog to a board.” I recognize that humor is subjective, but Jesus. 

Given his argument, Wolcott correctly warns of the dangers that accompany being a creation of the media:

 I do think the premature canonization of “Girls” as a breakthrough classic does it no favors, and not just because of the backlash effect triggered every time the fawning media lifts Dunham’s Cleopatra litter higher. The excessive buildup could be the prelude to a steeper devaluation….

No longer the idiosyncratic underdog, Dunham has become an iconographic bearer of an entire generation’s promise; a bold-face name in the upper tier of celebrity, feminism, and cultural liberalism, that imaginary green room where Mindy Kaling, Roxane Gay, Tina Fey, and a shimmering hologram of BeyoncĂ© mingle; an advice counselor to other young women; an entrepreneurial success story; an inexhaustible topic of conversation, no matter how exhausted of hearing about her many of us get; in short, a role model, and being a role model entails responsibilities inimical to being an independent operator.

It’s better not to believe you are the avatar concocted by the New York Times. It isn’t who you are. With Wolcott I hope that Dunham does not have to learn this the hard way.


Unknown said...

I hope she learns it in the hardest way and several times at that ... she deserves ever bit of pain her fall from grace will bestow on her ... she's earned it ... and of course as a strong woman she will handle it gracefully

Sam L. said...

Go, Jeff, GO! Yowza.

Ares Olympus said...

I confess I know nothing about Dunham or her book, but I'm more interested in the bigger picture than individuals, but in general what sort of spokesperson women might benefit from, if Dunham is not helping.

I saw this TEDx talk was uploaded today, starting with a wide mixture of really horrendous cultural behavior around controlling women's sexuality, but then softer issues.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40riTBK9Qjo Female Sexual Shame Hurts Us All | Jennifer Gunsaullus

And the speakers website, with her "awareness raising" suggestions how to reduce female sexual shame. She doesn't make it clear how any of these suggestions are going to weaken things like sex trade, except with the idea that girls and women who are not shamed by their gender and body will say no to things done to them.

So the list below is on the website, but doesn't do much for me, and nothing at all whether shame has any positive virtue, or HOW to listen to shame in constructive rather than destructive ways, if that makes sense.

So maybe social conservatives have some better suggestions? I wouldn't think it would be very hard to improve, but I admit I'm stumped.

Maybe we have to clarify the mission better, but all I can think of is:
◾ Don't think with your sexual organs - they make you stupid.
◾ Sex is like baseball, most of the important action happens before you get to first base?

Oh, well.

I will take a stand for female sexuality and...
◾...never fake an orgasm again.
◾...call out my male (or female) friends when they call a woman a slut.
◾...always use a condom or protection unless we have both been tested for STDs/STIs.
◾...post 3 sex-positive articles to my Facebook page.
◾...not use the word "fag" to demean a man (and not let my friends use it either).
◾...donate money to support L. International, an organization dedicated to reducing HIV through making safe sex accessible to women and girls around the world.
◾...organize a Vagina Monologues fundraising performance in my community.
◾...look at my genitals in a mirror and tell myself I'm beautiful.
◾...reach out to one person I trust and share my story about being sexually abused, and stop blaming myself.
◾...stop judging other women for being sexual under their own terms.
◾...respect any woman I have sex with, even if I just met her.

Lastango said...

As Samuel Johnson once said of a certain poet: "He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him great."

Also, I'm struck by Wolcott's observation that Dunham is "avid to be liked and accepted - on her own terms, of course".

That brings to mind a recent column titled "8 Things Men Must Understand About a Career-Oriented Woman."


The emphasis there is on the "Must", and after declaring "I mean, who doesn't want to date a future doctor?", the youthful she-author and soon-to-be MD reads men the riot act thus:

"1. We know what we want. And, we let people know exactly what that is. The sky is the limit .... The 10th promotion? We’re working on it. The nice car, six-figure house and vacation to Maui are on our soon-to-do bucket lists. We’re ambitious — and you may or may not be able to deal with it."

Points after flow from that, and tell the man what he MUST deal with. Mostly, it boils down to him realizing he will be the only one making adjustments. She is simply too busy, and her work too important for her to accommodate him.

In generations past, people harboring a combination of triumphalism, narcissism, arrogance, entitlement, and borderline-sociopathic presumption took at least some pains to conceal or downplay it, if for no other reason than not wanting to alienate people they might need to use in some unforeseeable way. No more. Nowadays -- at least among young women -- it seems a measure of one's empowerment to strut like an NFL receiver in the endzone.

So, I find Dunham interesting. Not for herself, though, but for what the fact of her existence, career path, product, and antics say about the substrata from which they sprang. Testify, sister... show us what the ruins of our civilization look like.

Dennis said...


Ares Olympus said...

Great find Dennis, but your link confused me by starting at the end, so best to remove the start time parameter.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DCDYSJwwE4 10 Hours of Princess Leia Walking in NYC (Official Video)