Lena Dunham is the greatest new filmmaker in at least a decade. She’s abhorred by liberals and conservatives alike—mostly liberals—and the attraction of hostility from both sides of the political spectrum is almost invariably a sign of great art.
When Tiny Furniture came out it was popular to dismiss Dunham in a sexist fashion with words such as "twee" because she was a girl and had tattoos and boho friends and the marketing of the film and the word "tiny" in the title made it appear sort of cute. Boring people on Criterion Collection forums pitched a righteous fit when Tiny Furniture was made part of the collection. I stupidly fell in line with this brand of thinking until I actually watched Tiny Furniture, was blown away, and proceeded to re-watch it four more times that week.
I immediately knew myself to be in the presence of an outsider, a rebel thinker, a true nonconformist. Tiny Furniture was fresh and addictive because it wasn’t asking any of the questions movies about girls normally ask, and its conflicts were not located in places the viewer would expect. The Dunham surrogate in this case, Aura, did not register as particularly spoiled or insensitive or pathetic to me, as the media characterized her. She was someone real that I wanted to know, someone cool, as were her friends. I certainly wanted to "take an Ambien and watch Picnic at Hanging Rock or Christiane F." with them. Aura was literary and cultured in an effortless way. She could handle being around men and fetishized the sort of masochistic interactions that unimaginative feminists would be frightened of, while making all of the men in the movie realistically disappointing and flaky. When the hipster deadbeat chef that Aura works with begins talking about cum omelets and tentacle rape, Aura laughs good-naturedly and seems turned on. Conversation of this sort, seen through the eyes of lesser feminists, is usually present to bludgeon the audience with the artist’s notion of the inherent "badness" and "creepiness" of men. Jemima Kirke’s character, Charlotte, has a great speech about embracing the more disturbing aspects of sexuality:
When I was sixteen, I was absolutely in love with this man. I was head over heels. One time, we were in SoHo, and we broke into this residential park, and it was raining, and it was so romantic, and I was so sure he’d kiss me, and then he just reached over, and he just grabbed my cunt, and I was really traumatized, and I was super sad for a long time after that, and then one day I just got over it, and I realized that that’s what you call spontaneous.
There was also the issue of Dunham’s purposefully sloppy appearance, which has been talked to death. Everyone has it wrong. Liberals champion her for beating the audience over the head with images of a "real" woman’s body, framing her work in the context of insipid body-positivity campaigns by Dove and Hanes. This is a reductive and silly reading, typical of citizens trained by dour leftist academy to read "decapitation" and "gang rape" and "dismemberment" into advertising images of thin women. Conversely, conservatives tend to just dislike her because they consider her ugly, and they Twitter-harass her accordingly.
What none of these people understand is that Lena Dunham is a pervert exhibitionist in the manner of Madonna. On my first viewing of Tiny Furniture, I was fascinated by my inability to properly categorize her style; she wasn’t Mary-Kate-and-Ashley boho like her friend Jemima Kirke. There was something specifically trashy and whorish about her, but not in the usual "hip" interpretations of those concepts. This is most notable in the scene where she is preparing for her job interview and chooses to wear raccoon eyes and enormous hoop earrings, the sort which weren’t remotely fashionable, ironic or otherwise, in 2011. She looked authentically cheap and slatternly and seemed to enjoy rubbing it in the audience’s face, highlighting it by framing herself in the pristine, spacey 2001 modernity of her mother’s apartment in CinemaScope widescreen. Her physical presence is such that people walking through the room as a Dunham production is on the television will recoil and make a fuss just from seeing her for a moment. My mother, who has watched and enjoyed all of Girls with me, still moans during every episode that she wishes Dunham would wear some makeup. Leftists are trained to not express things such as this directly, but their hostility comes out in other ways.
For three years, Dunham has been the subject of wild moral panics whipped up by the left. The reaction to her from conservatives has been relatively subdued—they dislike her for being a liberal pro-choice feminist symbol, and that has been the extent of it. The left, however, has conjured a continuous stream of shrill controversies on the level of what Marilyn Manson attracted from Christian evangelicals in the 90s, but with added heft and staying power because of the insidious viral aggregation of news stories and opinions that is unique to the social-media age. Jezebel, largely responsible for the popularization during the last decade of 70s-style militant second-wave feminism via their lacquering of its tired "rape culture" formula and victim obsession with a glaze of au courant Daria sarcastic smugness, led the crusade by constructing a straw man argument about how Dunham’s white privilege and the absence of a Burger King Kid’s Club-style ethnically diverse cast meant the show was both worthless and racist.
This agenda was transparently driven by the sour grapes of the Jezebel-Gawker writers, who are members of Dunham’s general demographic but lack her artistic prowess and capability for transgressive vision. This mattered little, because the race card had been played. The received opinion among liberals (men and minorities in particular) was that Dunham was a twee spoiled racist unworthy of their attention. None of this criticism would ever have befallen a man, but that was beside the point. For those who actually watched the show, there was something off about it, something bothersome. They might admire Dunham’s commitment to body positivity and abortion and various leftist causes, but why did she have to be so unlikable in her execution? Why the unflinching focus on aberrant, miserable sex, which contrasted sharply with the Babysitter’s Club way the show was marketed?
The second season of Girls defiantly addressed these controversies. A black Republican boyfriend was added to the cast and pointedly disposed of after Hannah subtly breaks the fourth wall while fucking him, telling the audience that "this is what [they] wanted." Her nudity became so relentless it achieved a surrealistic quality when Hannah was shown wandering the streets without pants in an oversized "Life is Good" T-shirt; even her supporters could be heard constantly saying that they’d "gotten the point" and that they didn’t want to see her naked anymore (I, of course, loved it, and hope the nudity becomes even more pervasive).
Most significant, however, was when Dunham slyly toyed with liberal feminist notions of rape in "On All Fours," the season’s penultimate episode. Adam, a character who has been the embodiment of brutal, uncontrollable, alluring male sexuality since the beginning, got drunk and fucked his new (thin, conventionally pretty) girlfriend played by Shiri Appleby in a way that would read as degrading to the anti-porn feminists of the 80s. He licks her ass against her will (she says that it’s dirty), tosses her around, and cums on her tits. She expresses that she didn’t like it and looks jarred. This is brilliantly crosscut with a Polanski-esque parallel plotline where Hannah ruptures her eardrum with a Q-tip, and the effect, particularly when it was actually airing and had not been talked to death, was truly thunderous.
The Internet reacted in bafflement. Liberal women thought that Dunham was making a party-line point about rape that would be explored in the next episode; they screeched at anyone who thought that what the show depicted was ordinary bad sex. They were proven wrong when, in the season finale, Adam the "rapist" and Hannah reunited in the most conventionally romantic scene of the series. These are buttons of orthodoxy that only the truly rebellious have the desire to push. It was a provocation, not an accident. Girls has the kind of split appeal that Paul Morrissey’s Trash/Flesh/Heat trilogy has—Morrissey is a social conservative who was operating with the specific aim of making Warhol’s coterie and the hippie generation at large look depraved, stupid, and unappealing, but the films have a camp sensibility and homoerotic transgressiveness and an association with Warhol and "coolness" that attract the left. Some social conservatives even like Girls because it depicts urban millennials’ promiscuous lifestyle as dreary, disease-ridden, spiritually bankrupt, and miserable.
Since Girls’ inception, I noticed that Dunham remained relatively silent about the content of the show and her intent. She is adept with handling the press and remains admirably stoic in the face of continuous criticism. Because of the relentless attacks from liberals, however, she has cultivated a social media presence that seems to have nothing to do with her art and feels like someone else curates it. On it, she curries the favor of the liberals that despise her or like her work for the most facile of reasons. She issues robotic pronouncements that appeal to the left’s lowest common denominator. She has fashioned herself an ill-fitting identity as an establishment feminist symbol and Democratic Party operative, releasing a series of "Rock the Vote"-type awareness ads that are rightfully ridiculed and seem to resonate with no one. Her leftist lesbian sister Grace, whom I’ve always thought was an insidious influence on Dunham and who ironically is the reason for Dunham’s current "sexual abuser" ill fame, encouraged her to turn her book tour into a partnership with Planned Parenthood and a "place for women to share their stories." I recoiled when I saw the tour positively described as a "chatty feministy party" somewhere, wondering how the maker of something such as Girls could be responsible for such an atrocity. She was not always like this, as I recall reading not long ago that she was a registered independent (but was now proud to identify as a Democrat).
Her hatred of men, which is abundantly obvious from both her filmed work and her book and which I have no problem with, is mobilized in the form of feminist tweets about men’s stupidity, how her castrated feminist boyfriend is the only man she likes, and how "creepy" and "rapey" all vestiges of male sexuality are. I have no problem with man-hating in her work, just as I have no problem with so-called "misogynist" art that expresses the artist’s negative feelings about women, but since Dunham’s Stepford Wife Twitter presence is passed off as feminism, it’s annoying and alienating to much of her audience.
Since the release of Dunham’s excellent memoir Not That Kind of Girl, there have been two media talking points, and both involve the current popular obsession with "rape culture." The first was that a story in the book about a gray-area bad-sex situation of the type depicted on Girls was reported as Dunham "coming out as a rape survivor" by the media. Nowhere in the story does she say she was raped, but she silently went along with this media reading of the event, which coincided in a timely fashion with the tireless left-wing hysteria over rape on college campuses. The other controversy was set in motion by Kevin D. Williamson in National Review and ironically utilized leftist/feminist "rape culture" dogma to assert that Dunham molested her sister when she was seven, based on a passage where she looks in and touches Grace’s vagina paired with a joke about being a "sexual predator." I had guffawed at the boldness of this passage when I read the book, but I didn’t imagine that it would come back to get her, focused as the media was on her new status as "rape survivor." I read the Williamson article before it was aggregated and turned into a big thing; I greatly enjoyed it because it was trashing my idol in a new and original way and because it gave Dunham a taste of her own leftist medicine. I’ve resented that she only cares what Jezebel types think of her, her casual dismissals of men, and her constant framing of her work as some sort of exclusive club for women only.
I instantly knew what Williamson, who hates Dunham for his erroneous perception of her as a universally beloved liberal symbol, was doing: lobbing a bomb at her that would turn the left against her using its own nonsensical ideology. It worked, and the Internet has been aflutter with anti-rape activists taking Williamson’s insincere accusations with leaden seriousness, as they take everything, because none of them know the source of the controversy and few of them have read the book themselves. Even those defending her are investing their words with a wildly silly "Perhaps we should investigate these events further" air of sensitivity and seriousness and concern. Her brief response in TIME was abysmal and missed the point; she merely apologized to rape victims for using the phrase "sexual predator" as a joke.
The problem is that she’s a radical artist, and the left with its dogma does not understand this, nor does it want to. Her vision of human sexuality is infinitely more realistic, sophisticated, funny, politically incorrect, and complex than liberal censors will allow. She is so mired in her identification with corrupt establishment feminist ideology and rich East Coast liberalism that she cannot see (or will not state) the injustice in this situation beyond her having possibly offended rape activists. She should have told everyone that if they think small children touching genitals is an example of sexual "abuse" worthy of investigation that they are idiots. She should have told them that anyone who doesn’t admit to doing strange sexual things as a child is plainly a liar with selective amnesia and no understanding of human nature or sexuality. Sadly, few have the courage to say this, even fewer who identify themselves as liberals and thus must kowtow to the ideological whims of anti-sex, anti-art, anti-man Puritans or else be publicly shamed and defamed.
In the present climate, all it takes is one nutcase arbitrarily framing a "creepy" sexual behavior or incident as abuse for it to become an unquestionable fact. The victim-obsessed see abuse everywhere and want to see it everywhere. Lena Dunham and most people my age are still fighting an outdated battle of left (good) versus right (evil). Having become politically aware during the big bad Bush Administration, millennials cannot conceptualize or identify the signs of totalitarianism from the left.