Commentary

Lena And The Lean-In Lady

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.

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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.

8 comments about "Lena And The Lean-In Lady".
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  1. Ej Meany from IPC, March 22, 2013 at 4:10 p.m.

    As the parent of a 20-something who is struggling to find his muse, I love watching Girls. It's often poignant, and features great life lessons for what NOT to say, or do.

  2. Tom Scharre from The Hunch Fund, March 22, 2013 at 4:33 p.m.

    Wondering how Ms. Sandberg likes being referred to as 'The Lean-In Lady'? Which somehow evokes 'The Colon Lady' -- "Gas? bloating? diarrhea? That's me!" (Though I personally find the latter much less irritating than the former.)

  3. Ivy Ronquillo from Agent Ivy, March 22, 2013 at 6:26 p.m.

    Thank you for this article, Barbara. I suspect this is a subject that will continue on college campuses for many years. Neither one of these woman commit to the status quo, and are therefore subject to criticism from far and wide. They're rich? Well, they both worked for it. They're irritating? Well, turn your head.

    Rarely is a man in the critic's spotlight for being successful, though. Women are, regularly. And they have to justify their success. Sandberg's book seems to be as much a How-To for younger women as it is a Mea Culpa for women who aren't afraid to take the bull by the horns. It's for business women, not business people. Dunham, on the other hand, finds the cringe-worthy humor in Millennials. But she's criticized for the female-centric nature of her production. Judd Apatow, a co-creator, and renowned realist-comedian himself, is not subject to the same scrutiny.

    In my mind, though, one of the greatest challenges women face is feeling a need to subscribe to one school or another. You can be a Lena on the surface, or a Lean-In Lady. A Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte or Miranda. A member of Team Jennifer or Team Angelina. Every inspiring woman out there also has critics coming out of the woodwork. No matter who's mask you wear, someone's going to disapprove.

    Four years on an all-women's campus drilled Madonna v Whore indelibly in my brain. And for most of my early adulthood, I never quite came to terms with whatever stereotypes I applied - they changed as easily as my lipstick shade. I could be fun and flirty, but not professional. I could be smart and studious, but that would have made me boring. If I spoke up, I was out of line. If I remained quiet, I'd never be recognized for my contributions. Perhaps it was because I was young. More likely, it was because I was young AND a woman.

    On the verge of 40, with children, a career of sorts, and a hell of a lot I need to accomplish on a daily basis, I first now feel free to be whatever I want to be. To behave however I want. To ask for what I'd like or take a back seat if I'm so inclined. I'm not a Sandberg or a Dunham. I'm not a Hannah, a Joan, a Khaleesi. I'm complex and my strengths waiver. My weaknesses do, as well. I pursue what appeals to me. I learn from my mistakes as well as my achievements. I'm a rich character because I'm human, not because I'm a woman. And because I'm neither one way or another, I might just make for a good cocktail party converstionalist. Not an expert, not a dummy. If someone feels a need to pigeonhole me, I can't control that. But I don't need to bow to their opinion, either. In my mind, women don't necessarily need to be more ambitious or more like a man. They need to be confident in their organic nature. When we stop seeing gender first, we might just become a better society.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 22, 2013 at 10:32 p.m.

    I wanted and started a comment a few times, but there is just too much here. Barbara, you can fill libraries.

  5. Bert Shlensky from stretchandcover , March 23, 2013 at 10:12 a.m.

    more than anything sandburg ignores the fact that over 40 % of working moms are single . they can't afford to risk telling the boss what they really think

  6. Janet Chiu from CyberTurf Strategic Media, March 25, 2013 at 10:32 a.m.

    Perceptive and insightful article. We semi-supported our daughter for a year as she worked at unpaid internships, but she worked like the dickens to land a paid position. (For us, that was a nod to two decades of tough love - rearing kids as we were reared, and often criticized for it.) In our family, as we grow up or grow old, we've learned to ask a million questions, respect reality checks, and take risks; these tough times are quite a test of character.

  7. Farnaz Wallace from Farnaz Global, LLC, March 25, 2013 at 11:07 a.m.

    Funny you should write a comparison between Sheryl and Lena, Barbara...because they were both hot topic of a dinner conversation couple of weeks ago. Great article, and I admire both women.

    I wonder if we're making a big deal about criticism in general. Igniting a conversation/debate, selling books and show ratings, getting rich and successful--and even leading a social movement or contributing a part to it--will all involve some criticism. I, for one, believe in benefits and trade-offs in every decision in life (this includes strategy for any business) .... everything has a price, right? The greater the value, the greater the sacrifice.

    I don't have any problems with polarizing...in fact, find it to be more effective versus staying safely in the middle while trying to please everyone. But that's just me and my style. And that's why I like what both these women are doing. Trying to be all to everyone--or better say trying to please all women--is not only impossible but also a strategic trap which can be very useless and mundane.

    Thanks for continuing this great dialogue.

  8. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 25, 2013 at 11:17 a.m.

    Thanks for the great comments, commenters.
    I think the answer is flexibility. No one size fits all response. Yes, Sheryl has an army of help. even more reason to protect herself and not speak out. And Lena offends people by being nude, and she's not gonna stop! I think she's is indeed a "voice" of a generation, and what annoys so many people is that she reflects every uncomfortable detail about life, including bad sex!

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