This Sunday, “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg’s just-published and hotly debated career primer for women, will debut at number one on The New York Times Best Sellers list.
A week ago, “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s HBO hotly debated series about women of the millennial generation, wrapped its second season.
On the surface, Lena vs. "Lean In" would seem to be a study in contrasts.
In “Lean In,” Facebook COO Sandberg famously suggests that for many complicated reasons, including the kind of external messages they get from the culture, women hold themselves back from grabbing the reins of power. They need to raise their hands and sit at the corporate table, she says.
While thinking about Sandberg’s advice, however, I couldn’t help but remember a scene from the first episode of “Girls.” That’s when Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s vaguely autobiographical, entertainingly awkward, and at times oblivious character, leaned in -- physically -- over her boss’s desk. She confronted him head-on about getting paid.
And got kicked out of her job.
A little background: The series (written, directed, acted, edited and produced by Lena Dunham) opens with Horvath’s parents telling her that they are cutting her off financially after supporting her for two post-collegiate years in the big city. (She lives in a hipsterish section of Brooklyn.)
While comically heightened, the scene was familiar to many worried parents and their frustrated Millennials. Sadly, with the unwelcoming economy for kids coming out of college in 2010 into the real world, internships that are unpaid -- or barely paying -- have become much more commonplace.
A would-be writer, Hannah has had that sort of arrangement at a Manhattan publishing company for a year. It’s hard to say if, as Sandberg suggests, a lack of belief in herself is at the core of what has held her back. It’s more the reality of the business climate in publishing, mixed with her general avoidance of doing the work involved in becoming an adult. If anything, it would seem that Hannah suffers from a case of overconfidence about her usefulness.
Faced with starving, she approaches her boss and leans over his desk. “I have been working here for over a year,” she says, reasonably enough. “My circumstances have changed, and I want you to know that I can no longer work for free.”
“I’m so sorry to lose you,” he responds. “I was going to start you on our Twitter. You have the right, quippy voice for that.”
I could go on forever quoting from the show. As a writer, Dunham has a great ear for comic dialogue (particularly skewering the way arty, downtown types speak), and a knowing eye for the affectations and preoccupations of her generation and our time. She’s also a gifted physical comedian, fearless about showing her imperfect body naked, and fiercely honest about the sometimes depressing and cringe-making hookups that she and her cohorts regularly fall into.
With one or two exceptions, her characters are not driven corporate or Wall Street types, and the genders are equally annoying, both floundering while seeming to feel entitled.
But there are similarities in the works Sandberg and Dunham have sent into the world, too -- especially in the way they’ve been received. Both women have been criticized as privileged elitists dramatizing First World problems, and a very white world at that.
Dunham -- who seems to have a thing against pants, and goes topless a lot -- has been tremendously attacked for her exhibitionism and the look of her body, since she’s not a standard beauty or airbrushed model type.
There has also been backlash about how rich each woman has become.
But what really unites them is that both Sandberg and Dunham (though not her character) are outspoken, ambitious and hard-working women, who are not afraid of self-exposure. They have made their views transparent -- Sandberg while keeping her clothes on.
And each has been attacked for what really comes down to her absolute refusal to stay with the status quo -- to remain in her place.
The opening of Season One of "Girls" showed Hannah getting cut off by her parents, and then cut off by her boss, which did ring true. But by the end of Season Two, the story line got much darker.
Hannah ends up with every writer’s dream: getting a decently sized advance to write an e-book. But trying to write the book breaks her down. The stress of delivering on her success brings out Hannah’s OCD, depression, and lots of crippling and self-sabotaging behaviors. She punctures her “ear hole” and mutilates her hair
In the end, it becomes clear that she doesn’t feel she’s worthy of the advance, and is scared to speak her messy truth. She wants to be “saved” by her boyfriend, Adam.
That fits right in with Sandberg’s thesis. Nobody wanted to see Hannah in this depressed, manipulative state, but it’s entirely believable.
Neither writer claims to be the voice of her generation, by the way. (In fact, Lena, in an obvious joke, has Hannah musing to her parents that she might be at least “ a voice.. of a generation.” ) Each speaks to her niche.
But when smart, provocative, successful women speak out, they tend to be criticized, no matter what they do. Meanwhile, although they are very different people with very different styles and working lives, both Sheryl and Lena have done their sisters a great service in making the debate about women’s roles and feminism spring to life.