Conservative columnist Ross Douthat has declared his love for Lena Dunham. It hardly comes as a surprise that a New York Times writer, even one who dwells to the right of the aisle, would find the Girls prodigy appealing. What makes Douthat’s devotion disturbing is that he has managed to transform a goddess chained to a slew of liberal causes into a sacrificial lamb for conservative culture. In his struggle to do so, his misses the mark in what could have been one of the most culturally relevant critiques of Girls to date.
The critic defends Dunham’s showpiece Girls, writing,
She’s making a show for liberals that, merely by being realistic, sharp-edge, complicated, almost gives cultural conservatism its due.
It’s a seemingly ironic observation, based in the idea that Girls “often portrays young-liberal-urbanite life the way, well, many reactionaries see it…” That is, a subculture on the verge of self-destruction due to excessive amounts of what sociologist Robert Bellah dubbed, “the view that the key to the good life lies almost exclusively in self-discovery, self-actualization, the cultivation of the unique and holy You.”
In other words, as Gawker so simply put it:
He likes watching the show because it allows him to feel superior to Dunham and her fellow sluts.
By employing a rote, traditionalist perspective, Douthat argued himself into a hole, turning his love into judgement and burying his point in poorly-worded theory and equally bad theology.
Our first responsibility as conservative critics is to take back the language. It is a shame that the idea of self-worship should take on such a potent name like “expressive individualism” as the best achievements of this world have been the result of individuals bold enough to express their beliefs and stand firm in the face of the reactionaries of their own time. Indeed, it would seem that “expressive individualism” is the deceptive terminology of a Marxist academic bent on hoodwinking a contemporary audience into believing that conservatism despises individuals who express their individuality. Perhaps this is the reasoning behind the prolific myth of the white, blucher-clad “Religious Right.” A more appropriate term for Bellah’s theory is simply “self-purposed narcissism.” Acknowledging the theory’s inherent narcissism adds key clarity to the conversation Douthat initiates.
What muddles the matter further is Douthat’s definition (or lack thereof) of “cultural conservatism.” In drafting this concept he implies that cultural conservatism relies on Biblical faith. Then, in the same sentence he belies the Bible in favor of Christian theology, stating that “biblical faith takes… a rather darker view of the unfettered self.” This definition of “unfettered self” is totally dependent upon the Church doctrine of original sin, not the Biblical concept of free will and individual choice. The reality of a truly Biblical faith is a belief that an individual has the autonomy to make good choices. Far from being dark, this is a hopeful and empowering vision of humanity and of a God who loves His creation so much that He wants them to make good choices and to dwell with Him by choice, not by force.
Douthat’s attempt to admire Dunham crafts Girls into a medieval church morality play dependent upon the notion that Dunham herself is doomed, and that through her damnation other viewers may somehow “see the light.” This renders his declaration of love as cruel as that of critics who defend the young woman’s exploitation of her sexual experiences for a political campaign. More frustratingly, in his rush to account for self-purposed narcissism’s many failings within the show, Douthat ignores his own critical observation that is the true key to Dunham’s political and moral value to the Right.
The columnist writes that the self-purposed narcissism seen in Girls is dependent upon “a politics in which the state is effectively a therapeutic agent, protecting the questing self from shocks and deprivation.” In other words, the girls need a redeeming force, a protector… God! In their instance, the god is the State and the relationship is a damning dependency. In other words, Lena’s liberal lovers are wrong. The powerful statement of Girls (indeed, of Dunham’s political career thus far) isn’t that women are sexually independent, but that they, in fact, are dependent upon the state-funded clinics for their sexual health. If self-purposed narcissism culminates in self-actualization, it is also the epiphany when the human soul recognizes they cannot possibly “do it all” on their own. The drama of Girls is not powerful because of the girls’ inevitable doom, but because they are playing out the 21st century version of Jacob wrestling with God.
This is a Girls I can root for and a Dunham I can defend. Not because she illustrates good morality, but because she has the potential, as do all human beings, to learn hard lessons and make good choices. And when she pulls herself out of her own navel, Dunham has the ability to write culturally relevant scripts that illustrate this timeless internal conflict. But, like many bright young things of today, Dunham is too scared to confront this internal conflict and is too often perfectly pleased to surround herself with a bevy of distractions, including sex, drugs, alcohol, and worshippers more commonly known as critics and fans.
Perhaps that is why the world remains blindly in love with Lena Dunham. As long as our culture remains married to a theological doctrine that insists we are defective creatures at birth (“unfettered” is a polite, but inadequate adjective) we are doomed to be distracted in any struggle that markets itself in our general direction. We employ, defend, and argue over these external conflicts to shield ourselves from our own internal struggle. Yet, if we understood our culture through a truly Biblical lens we could easily recognize the inherent lesson in all dramatic conflict: The immense, tragic power of choosing evil over good, self over others, ego over God. Or, as God so succinctly put it to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai: Death over Life.
image via shutterstock / Helga Esteb