Consider the following (bogus, to my mind) controversies: She was alleged to have gotten her HBO show through family connections and by casting the daughters of other famous people. She was severely criticized for not writing in any black characters during the first season. She is routinely accused of being an exhibitionist for appearing nude on her show. Indeed, a critic at the Television Critics Association provoked a meltdown from Judd Apatow by asking why she – of the unconventional beauty type – continues to display her body. She was criticized by the feminist website Jezebel for allowing (minimally) doctored photos of herself to appear in Vogue.
Although Dunham did once go out of her way to provoke a controversy by appearing in an Obama campaign ad that compared voting for the first time to losing your virginity, she has not sought the role of cultural lightning rod. Lady Gaga she ain’t.
Dunham inspires a level of vituperation that is wildly disproportionate to her popular cultural impact. “Girls” is witty and original, but focused on a narrow slice of the population: upper-middle-class young women trying to make it in New York City. The show itself is not a giant ratings hit, attracting only about one-third the audience of “Game of Thrones.” Shows with much larger audiences generate far less attention.
Undoubtedly jealously plays a part in some of the criticism. If you’re a writer in your 20s or 30s, it must be hard to understand how this particular 27-year-old ordinary-looking woman gets to have her own TV show, Vogue photo shoot, and rock-star boyfriend.
Then too there seems to be a misapprehension that Dunham and Hannah Horvath, the selfish and narcissistic character she plays on “Girls,” are the same person. Horvath grandiloquently declared herself the voice of her generation (before scaling it back to “a voice of a generation”), something Dunham has not claimed for herself. I’d be mad too if Hannah Horvath had her own TV show but it’s hard to begrudge the prodigiously talented and hand-working Lena Dunham this platform.
But I think a bigger problem is that “Girls” is one of those unsparing works of works of art that discomforts people and gets under their skin. The basic outline of “Girls” is the same as “Friends,” but darker and more realistic. There are no happy endings or conventional resolutions on “Girls.” Dunham’s nudity is the physical manifestation of her characters’ emotional exposure, with their fears, needs, ambitions and flaws open to inspection. The pushback against Lena Dunham the artist seems closely tied to a revulsion at her scathing dissection of the Millennial generation. It’s easier to dismiss the artist than the vision.
This discomfort with Dunham’s depiction of Hannah and her friends might explain why women are such reluctant viewers of the show, for it is one of the ironies of contemporary gender politics that a show written by and for young women is watched primarily by older men. Vulture attempted a technological and economic explanation, theorizing that younger women are more likely to time-shift or not have HBO in the first place, but I’m more apt to think the lack of female viewing is related to a discomfort with her dark sense of humor and unwillingness to provide a “Sex In the City”-type fantasy of female empowerment.
Dunham herself seems not to understand that women are her less-enthusiastic fans. In a recent interview with Grantland’s Bill Simmons, she advocated for more female show runners so women could see more of their lives represented on TV. I’m all for more female show runners but the last thing the world needs is more TV shows aimed at women, who already constitute the majority of the TV audience. What the world does need are show runners of all genders, races and political viewpoints who aren’t afraid to take risks.
As “Girls” has shown, honest, unsparing shows are not always appreciated and sometimes even provoke dramatic reactions. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that in the end, “Girls” is a comedy, and maybe we should all take it a little less seriously. It’s a great TV show, not the Last Judgment.