Lena Dunham's latest statement and why I'll always have her back
This weekend Lena Dunham posted an empowering photo of herself on Instagram in full workout gear, along with an important message about mental health. She wrote: “Promised myself I would not let exercise be the first thing to go by the wayside when I got busy with Girls Season 5 and here is why: it has helped with my anxiety in ways I never dreamed possible. To those struggling with anxiety, OCD, depression: I know it’s mad annoying when people tell you to exercise, and it took me about 16 medicated years to listen. I’m glad I did. It ain’t about the ass, it’s about the brain.”
It was a powerful, honest, funny, wise statement about her personal mental health that at least 90,000 followers have taken to heart. It was also another example of Dunham’s tendency to go where others fear to tread. Talking about mental illness and medication isn’t something most famous people share in a casual Instagram post.
But Dunham does things her way—but her gutsy honesty has sparked constant backlash throughout her career.
Earlier this month, she came under fire over a quiz she compiled for The New Yorker called, “Dog Or Jewish Boyfriend?” It was understandably controversial. Dunham walks a fine line between what’s funny and what’s deeply provocative. As the Washington Post’s Jeffery Salkin put it, “There is something unnerving about seeing all of those silly Jewish stereotypes on display in the venerable pages of The New Yorker.” And he and other detractors weren’t wrong to question her judgement. Everyone is entitled to their reaction, and to feel that Dunham maybe went too far or tackled a topic in a flawed, potentially offensive way.
At the same time, comedians, especially minority comedians, have a history of making fun of stereotypes about their culture as a way of combatting those stereotypes. The way I see it, Dunham was poking fun of, and deconstructing offensive and degrading stereotypes that have long been held about the Jewish community, a community that she is a part of. Also, Dunham isn’t perfect—she doesn’t always tread lightly on touchy topics (see her controversial chapter in Not That Kind of Girl), and that may get her into trouble.
But her edgy fearlessness is also a trademark of her work. It’s why she’s not afraid to talk about mental illness in an Instagram post and reach thousands of people who may be able to feel less alone. She puts it all out there, and is brave enough to deal with the possible consequences with both understanding and strength.
Defending Ms. Dunham is my first instinct, but my second is to flip the switch entirely, not talk about the negative conjectures thrown at her, but discuss what makes Ms. Dunham such a special individual, such a beautiful part of our culture, and an important artist for young women (and men!) to look up to. So, here it goes, a little piece about why I think Lena Dunham is beautiful, smart, kind, and goddamn funny.
It’s hard to find individuals in this world with whom you can admire and be inspired by. There are many wonderful women who’ve motivated me over the years: Oprah, Meryl, Hillary, but they were so much older, and so big, so far away from me, they were untouchable, mythical women that had paved the way years before and now stood as monuments in artistry and spirituality.
I was 21 when Tiny Furniture was released. I was in film school feeling flummoxed as to how I ended up there, and not connecting to any of the testosterone-laden classics. I wound up depressedly wandering into the Keystone Arts Cinema one day, where I often went on weekends because of the full bar, and saw the poster for Tiny Furniture. I didn’t know anything about it but thought I’d give it a try. I watched and fell quietly in love. It was such a different perspective then anything that was being released at that time. It was a fresh take, a modern new voice that seemed to appear from thin air while I wasn’t paying attention. I was aghast during the credits to find out that Ms. Dunham starred, wrote, and directed it, oh, and she was only a few years older than I was.
It was the first time in my life I felt that in spite of my age I actually might have something of worth to say about the world. That was an energizing lesson for me, and when I speak with people about Ms. Dunham it’s a feeling that comes up again and again, the feeling of creative empowerment, no matter what age you are, no matter what your circumstances may be.
With her show Girls in 2012 that feeling became somewhat of an anthem, she was now a filmmaker and a show runner, for HBO no less! But, what most of us found as deeply impressive, left others with a bitter taste in their mouth – it couldn’t just be that Ms. Dunham was a talented and ambitious young woman, no, she was the daughter of artists and therefore didn’t earn her spot, but was helped there by her parents. Which, had to have been the argument of individuals who were clearly not artistic in any way, shape, or form, because as any creative could tell you – you can’t fake art: you can’t fake a screenplay, you can’t fake a feature film, you can’t fake a TV show, and you can’t fake a book. You can’t. If you’ve even written an essay before you’d know that it wouldn’t matter if your dad was Dave Eggers, you still have to face the blank page yourself, and it doesn’t matter what your mom’s art collection looks like to agents and managers. People who chalk up Ms. Dunham’s success to her artistic parents are people who can’t handle the fact that a young woman has more discipline, more gumption, and more artistic merit than they’ve ever dreamed of. Period.
Last year she added to her list of accomplishments by publishing a memoir, Not That Kind Of Girl, which sold abundantly, drew major acclaim, caused controversy, and was also, quiet simply, an incredible read, with witty prose and beautiful insights into her world.
Ultimately, at the end of the day she’s an artist telling a specific experience, but a human experience that is easily identifiable and relatable.
When I moved to Los Angeles to become a writer the first spec I ever penned was a Girls spec, and it opened a few doors for me and gave me a confidence in my writing that has been fundamental to who I am now. I thought I wrote it because I loved the show and knew the characters well, but deep down I think I did it in homage to the girl who gave me the belief that I could pursue my dreams in the first place. I don’t think I’m alone in that. I don’t think for a second that I’m the first person that Ms. Dunham inspired to take their craft seriously at an age where most treat it as a hobby. She is a role model for what discipline and courage can do for an artist, and that is not something to take lightly.
I’m so happy we have Ms. Dunham to tell the stories she tells in our culture. I think she fits like a glove, and while she’ll always have detractors, she doesn’t let them stifle her voice —and that’s inspiring. She says what she feels when most would stay silent because, after all, she’s just that kind of girl.
(Image via Instagram, HBO, IFC Films)