Ed Driscoll

'The Emotional Equivalent of Song-Dynasty Foot-Binding'

Kevin Williamson pens a devastating profile of actress Lena Dunham:

“I think I may be the voice of my generation.” So says Lena Dunham in the role of her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, in the first episode of Girls, the HBO series she has been writing and starring in since 2012. The scene is classic Dunham, if we can use “classic” to describe a phenomenon of such recent vintage. The basic sentiment is there in plain English, but it must be qualified, run through the irony dicer until it is practically a Cubist representation of the original, and held at a comfortable distance. Dunham very clearly does want to be considered the voice of her generation, as her recently published memoir — Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” — makes unmistakably clear; in fact, she has been hailed as precisely that by Time, Glamour, Today, and others. But she cannot say that herself — not with a straight face, not in Brooklyn. Instead, the line is assigned to her alter ego, who is at the time of the utterance high as a Georgia pine on opium tea and trying to convince her parents to keep supporting her financially. Having delivered the line, Hannah retreats into uncomfortable self-awareness, adding: “Or a voice of a generation.” As a literary stratagem — laying down a marker in the popular culture without making herself vulnerable to accusations that she might be taking herself too seriously — the maneuver is transparent. It is far more troubling that she uses the same technique in real life, for matters much more serious than the plot of Girls: Specifically, she uses it in her memoir to accuse a man of rape without having to take responsibility for the accusation.

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She did not get this way by accident; she got this way because the series of economic and intellectual cloisters in which she has lived her life have functioned as the emotional equivalent of Song-dynasty foot-binding: Intended to bring her nearer to perfection, they have instead left her disfigured and disabled. Her ambition is palpable, but fashion dictates that she forswear ambition: She describes her memoir as her answer to Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even if You’re Starting with Nothing, which of course Dunham purchased ironically from the inevitable “dusty shelf” of a hipster-haunted thrift shop, where it sat next to a copy of Miss Piggy’s autobiography. But Helen Gurley Brown of Green Forest, Ark., who lost her father at ten to an elevator accident and a sister to polio a few years later, did in fact start with something close to nothing, and laboriously rose to a position of cultural prominence (from which she inflicted a tremendous amount of damage). The self-made Helen Gurley Brown, another voice of a generation of women, was in many ways the genuine version of what Lena Dunham pretends to be — at least, the woman she pretends to be on television. Brown emerged from her chrysalis at the age of 40; Dunham is busily building an ever-thicker cocoon of fantasy, prescription drugs, and weaponized celebrity, manipulating reality to her own specifications. If she is emblematic of her generation, it is in that her life, in her own telling, is a reminder that being ruined by comfort and privilege is as easy as (perhaps easier than) being crippled by privation and abuse.

Charles Murray likes to say that the left’s problem is that it can’t preach what it practice — that coastal elite leftists lead lives of sober integrity, but refuse to teach these virtues to others. As Williamson’s profile (quoting extensively from Dunham’s autobiography) makes plain, that’s not at all true in her case, leading to his conclusion quoted above.

Incidentally, can Time-Warner-CNN-HBO pick ’em, or what?