With hit show Girls, Lena Dunham wants to make something culturally relevant – even if that does mean acknowledging any criticism.
Googling the fragment, “Lena Dunham criticism,” brings up 320,000 results. Replacing Dunham’s name with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan yields less than half that, and replacing her name with fellow Girls Executive Producer Judd Apatow yields less than a third as many hits. Google can’t tell you everything, but the differences in these results are staggering, though not surprising. Critics hit at every show’s head writer; Lena Dunham just happens to be one that likes to hit back.
Googling “Lena Dunham criticism” yields 320,000 results. Critics hit at every show’s head writer; Lena Dunham just happens to hit back
It’s a divisive strategy, to say the least. Most creators, for the good of their show and the good of their sanity, make an effort to avoid reading or engaging with critics about their work. In some ways, it serves the viewer as well. For many, it’s much easier to treat art as if it happens in a vacuum. Their thoughts and feelings on the topic can be shot in as many 140-character segments as necessary, and it won’t have an impact on the products they consume. Neither the media, nor Dunham herself, have any interest in that sort of image. The question, then, is why? What makes Girls so different from other shows and why does that difference ultimately justify the otherworldly reaction from its viewers and critics?
To start, Girls has a quasi-commitment to realism that almost no other show, and certainly no other comedy, does. As a result, people have had a much higher standard for the manner in which socially important issues are handled. After its first season, Girls was hit with a tsunami of criticism surrounding the lack of racial and political diversity in its cast. Then, in what many people viewed as a direct call and response, the second season began with Dunham’s character dating someone who was both black and a Republican, played by Donald Glover.
Aside from that, Sandy also played an important role in knocking Hannah down a peg. He, as a character, believed her to be privileged and believed her to possess middling talent. Within the world of the show, he was simultaneously the voice of and a middle finger toward the critics. (For what it is worth, Dunham has said that the character had nothing to do with the criticism.)
There’s nothing unrealistic about Glover’s character, or the relationship that he participated in during the show. What is important is the idea that Dunham, of her own volition or because she was being pushed by critics, directly and outwardly addressed a hole within the show, and also spoke about it publicly. Even if Dunham holds firm that the critics had nothing to do with it, she confirms via acknowledgement that she hears, thinks about and considers the types of things that critics write about her show.
Dunham, perhaps because she was being pushed by critics, directly and outwardly addressed a hole within Girls
To be fair, she isn’t shy about this. In a May 2012 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Dunham said, “for me to ignore the criticism and not to take it in would go against my beliefs and my education in so many things. And the liberal arts student in me really wants to engage in a dialogue about it.” There’s no other television producer, past or present, that has done something like this and then stuck so feverishly to it throughout the production of their show.
Whether it’s a desire no other creators have, or it’s a desire the media isn’t interested in indulging for anybody else, Dunham is one of the few, if not the only, that has taken her show from a half-hour on a handful of Sundays throughout the year to a full-force cultural conversation that takes no breaks. She is interested in making great television, but she is not just interested in making great television.
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Inherently, by its name and its cast, Girls broke the mould. It followed (and follows still), at least spiritually, in Bridesmaids’ footsteps (for what it’s worth, that film was directed by Paul Feig, who wrote and produced Freaks & Geeks with Judd Apatow, an Executive Producer on Girls). Its entertainment value is important, but Girls is a show that wants to be influential, and it wants to be influential not just structurally or in a comedic sense, but in a cultural sense, too.
Girls wants to be influential, and it wants to be influential not just structurally or in a comedic sense, but in a cultural sense, too
It would be an egregious oversight if the fact that Lena Dunham is a woman was not mentioned here. Undoubtedly, Dunham’s gender plays a major role in the way the media treats her. One of the biggest problems that plagues criticisms of Girls is an inability to separate Dunham’s character, Hannah, from who Dunham really is. It’s a problem that didn’t impact, for example, BJ Novak during his time as a writer for The Office. It’s also worth mentioning that the manner in which Dunham is criticised does not reflect the way the media treats Elizabeth Meriwether, creator of New Girl, or Tina Fey, creator of 30 Rock either.
The numbers for Girls just appear to add up. A female creator who is willing to talk to the media and who cares both about the veracity of her work and the social implications of her work is a lot of different drugs all taken at once, and the media has been high off them. Ultimately, it serves everyone’s interests. If Dunham can say what she needs to say, she seems fine taking a little heat for it.
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All images: HBO