Conservative Tastes

The Naked and the Dead

Lena Dunham's remarkable achievement.

By From the March 2014 issue

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What was that stereotype again? Something about women being fickle and unable to make up their minds? Oh, and being illogical. You know, wanting contradictory things, like being treated as equals with men and at the same time with special consideration for their female sensitivities. Or, perhaps, loudly insisting on a latitudinarian approach to feminine beauty and body size while posing for Vogue in photo-shopped sveltitude. That, of course, was Lena Dunham, the third season of whose Girls on HBO debuted in January and proved funnier than ever, though it was somewhat overshadowed by her Vogue cover. This provided endless material for feminist debate, scandalizing some of her admirers and causing others to leap to her defense—especially after Jezebel offered a reward for and subsequently posted the unretouched original photos. 

As it happens, in this season’s fourth episode, Hannah Horvath, Miss Dunham’s character, calls Jezebel “a place feminists can go to support each other”—something all the more necessary in these days of “slut-shaming.” This was obviously taped well before the controversy, but not for the first time there was an amusing coincidence in Miss Dunham’s loudly proclaimed feminism. Only a few months ago, sounding for all the world like the bumptious Hannah, she told Marie-Claire (UK) that her frequent appearances on the show with the body that God and not the photo editor gave her were “essentially important in my contribution to the world”—unnecessarily adding that she feels easy and comfortable about being naked in public because she has high self-esteem. 

Fortunately, her high self-esteem is not incompatible with a capacity for self-deprecation. In the pilot episode, Hannah told her parents that she wanted to be “the voice of my generation. Or at least, the voice of a generation.” This, somewhat amusingly, is more or less what she has become. But hers is an inevitably ironic voice, which is why some critics who profess to be dismayed by Hannah’s latest incarnation are failing to get the joke. Certainly, the opinion of Hank Stuever of the Washington Post that she is “despicable” can be explained in no other way. To portray a self-proclaimed feminist such as Hannah, as the fourth episode did, as being so utterly self-absorbed that she can only see the shockingly sudden and mysterious death of her editor in terms of the effect on her forthcoming e-book must seem to a certain kind of politically attuned temperament like dangerous, possibly “sexist”-inspired heterodoxy.

Others are worried about Hannah too. Laura Bennett of the New Republic regrets what she sees as the Larry Davidification of Girls, writing that Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mr. David’s own HBO series, “has always been more purely ‘funny’ than the comparatively mature, dramatic ‘Girls,’ so many of these new jokes can feel dropped in from another comic universe.” Do the quotation marks around “funny” mean that she finds less-than-funny the presumably immature, Larry David-style humor that the new jokes on Girls disconcertingly resemble? At any rate, there appears to be something slightly disreputable about the “purely” funny that must have something to do with the way in which Miss Dunham’s and Mr. David’s brands of humor are alike, namely their creators’ wicked delight in making fun of themselves. The old joke notwithstanding, feminists may be permitted to be funny, but only if they’re making fun of someone else.

The idea of “maturity” also carries with it the subtext of political maturity, which means a consciousness raised to an awareness of the correct way of looking at the world from the feminist perspective. That must be why, in Laura Bennett’s view, “It’s notable that this season, six episodes in, is probably the show’s least funny yet.” This can be true only in the sense that the “purely” funny doesn’t count. But, she adds,

its darkest moments are actually some of its best. A highlight is the introduction of a terrific, intense, genuinely scary new character—Adam’s unstable sister, played by Gaby Hoffmann, whose deep well of craziness casts the other characters’ neuroses into sharp relief. It’s to Dunham’s credit that the show doesn’t always need to be funny. At a certain point, we just want to see the girls, at last, grow up.

She should speak for herself. The title itself tells us that if they grow up, the girls will no longer be Girls. Their raison d’être is to be immature—in both the traditional and the political senses—which must annoy the feminists (along, presumably, with the title) as it amuses those who tune in for other than political reasons. Also, Adam’s crazy sister is pretty funny to anyone who doesn’t mind laughing at the pure kind of funny.

I have always seen Girls (see “Laughing on the Wrong Side,” TAS, June 2012) as, at bottom, a satire of Sex and the City in much the same the way that Cervantes’ Don Quixote was a satire of early modern chivalric romances or that Fielding’s Joseph Andrews was a satire of Richardson’s Pamela. Both went on to be much more than that, but both owed their existence to the satirist’s urge to show the reality behind some popular literary ideal. And the popular literary ideal in our time is the feminist and liberationist one of a unisex world in which men and women are morally interchangeable and enjoy the same kind of sexual freedom in the same way. Girls, like Sex in the City, takes that freedom for granted, but in Girls, as in reality, it nearly always turns out badly for the women. Lena Dunham can hardly be regarded as an apologist for traditional sex roles or sexual morality. But she is too clear-sighted an observer of the sexual economy that the abandonment of these things has created not to take note of it in her portrayal of the way young women at the urban leading edge of the sexual and feminist revolutions live their lives today.

To me, this attempt to represent the world as it is instead of the Sex and the City fantasy is worth putting up with any amount of incidental feminist or other political claptrap. At times I even fancy that Dunham’s notorious “Your First Time” ad on behalf of President Obama’s re-election was made in character as the self-obsessed feminist Hannah Horvath, with whom the slightly less self-obsessed feminist Lena Dunham has publicly recognized her own kinship. Her achievement is all the more remarkable because of the immense effort that has gone into the construction of the political template against which nearly all representations of the world, and especially the world of the past, tend to be critically judged in our day, when artistic merit is routinely assigned according to how far a work confirms the critic’s political prejudices. 

So much so, indeed, that even when it doesn’t confirm them, critics are likely to assume that it does, at least if they like it. For example, The Invisible Woman, Ralph Fiennes’s film about Charles Dickens’s mistress Ellen Ternan, is itself all but invisible to critics without its presumed political context of Victorian “sexism,” hypocrisy, and double standards. It “reminds you uncomfortably of the degree to which Victorian society was a man’s world,” writes the critic for the New York Times. “Virtuous women may have been put on pedestals, but woe to the woman who flouted the rules unless she was prepared to live outside society.” Yes, yes. One has heard such things before. As the critic for Variety put it, “Though Fiennes is hardly the first filmmaker to tap into the restrictive social codes and barbed double-speak of the Victorian era, he renders it all with an unusually sharp, unsparing touch that, at its best, recalls Terence Davies’ film version of The House of Mirth.”

If true, that would be a pretty damning judgment in my book, since Mr. Davies’ version of The House of Mirth was a gross caricature in which Edith Wharton’s subtle portrayal of human, and especially feminine, frailty was reduced to a crude political tract. But that is precisely what The Invisible Woman is not. Critics may not be able to understand what the movie is about without the assumption that it all takes place within the framework of a feminist critique of Victorian society, but such a critique forms no part of Mr. Fiennes’s purposes. With remarkable intelligence and singleness of purpose he has shown us a particular instance of a great man’s love affair in its social context without allowing the context to overshadow either the love affair and all its attendant heartbreak—for the wife he abandoned (Joanna Scanlon), the young woman he loved (Felicity Jones), and for Dickens himself (Mr. Fiennes)—or the man’s greatness. As with Girls, it’s not a direct defiance of feminist orthodoxy but a look past it to human truths that, we may yet hope, will outlast it. 

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.