I don’t watch Girls (or anything else with, from, or about Lena Dunham), but I was still interested in Silpa Kovvali’s take on Lena Dunham and privilege.
The clear implication is that Girls is an origin tale of sorts, chronicling what life was like for Dunham before she got it together and made it big. But in reality, Dunham and her castmates, all of comparable pedigree, are by and large playing characters far less privileged than they are. AtGirls‘s worst moments, the show veers dangerously close to mocking people poorer than her. Its most prominent theme — Hannah’s irresponsibility, laziness, and self-satisfaction — seems less a systemic critique of unpaid creative internships than an allegation that middle class kids who wish to pursue the same career paths as their upper class friends are spoiled and bratty. In a particularly grating scene, Hannah’s mother shrilly screams that she is cutting her daughter off because she wants a lake house. But it is simply good parenting for members of the middle class to steer their children away from fields that don’t promise a steady income. They don’t have the luxury of supporting their children forever, even if they’re willing to forego their desire to “sit by a fucking lake.”
Yet when asked about what distinguishes her from Hannah, Dunham shows no comprehension of the degree to which privilege can drive life choices. Frighteningly, she sees herself as less entitled than her on-screen counterpart, whose parents revoke their financial support in the series’s opening scene. “I’m sure that I’ve had some really unattractive, spoiled moments in my years, but I’ve never — that conversation that Hannah had has never happened to me, in large part because when I graduated from college, my parents let me live with them, but they made it really clear that they weren’t going to support any of my endeavors,” she told NPR. One wonders precisely what the starlet thinks supporting oneself means. The most glaring differences between Dunham and her character seem to be that she is far wealthier, better-connected, and has parents who live in Manhattan.
I’ve been reading more and more about privilege and class issues over the last couple of years, and this is one of the more interesting pieces I’ve read.
3 thoughts on “Lena Dunham and Privilege”
Interesting piece. I went to the same school as Dunham (though not while she was there and I don’t really follow her either). But in the context of our shared alma mater, the quote about nepotism vs. race, sex was particularly jarring. I remember (though its been 6 or so years) that privilege was always a dominant theme on campus, if not in practice then certainly as an intellectual ideal. Since it’s been a while, I don’t remember how various facets of privilege were emphasized, but I remember at least a general good faith effort of people to accept the idea of privilege and to strive to be aware of those from which they benefit. It’s weird because her response to the nepotism charge vs. race and feminist critique wasn’t just recognizing one and dismissing the other, but being baldly judgmental of those who might suggest a class basis for her success. Weird.
I’ve seen this quoted a couple of times recently, and I think it applies really well here:
It’s from Stuff White People Like, and the rest is here.
Which means that this (quoting you again) isn’t very surprising:
It’s not so weird because the dedication to acknowledging “privilege” was always just an exercise in self-absorption. It responds to a real social problem by saying “Aren’t we great for doing something about it?” It’s the ultimate salve for white-guilt (or other privileged guilt) because it keeps the ego firmly intact.
So, when someone dares to threaten that safely-guarded ego by suggesting that not all of Dunham’s success was earned, but the she benefited from privilege in real and concrete ways she’s going to react with some defensive anger.
‘Stuff White People Like’ cuts right to the core, doesn’t it? Nate Oman hit this same nerve in his T&S article “King Benjamin and the Moral Irrelevance of Panhandlers.” When it comes to giving change on the street, it isn’t about the real problem of alleviating poverty, but instead about maintaining one’s ego.
In many cases, outrage against injustice is largely just that: outrage. One feels they alleviate themselves of the responsibility to do anything concrete by appealing to some abstract form of awareness. A First Things article put it well (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/08/the-pleasures-of-self-hatred):
“To begin, the notion that the West is the Great Satan feeds our egoism. As Bruckner explains, “This is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history.””
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