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Lena Dunham doesn’t need our pity, but doesn’t deserve our scorn either

Despite largely positive reviews by critics, the ‘Girls’ creator’s new film has been described across the internet as a ‘heinous’ disaster. Adam White asks why we’re still endlessly roasting an admittedly problematic star who’s long been trying to be better

Sunday 30 January 2022 08:41
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<p>Comeback kid: ‘Girls’ creator Lena Dunham, whose new film premiered this week at Sundance</p>

Comeback kid: ‘Girls’ creator Lena Dunham, whose new film premiered this week at Sundance

Lena Dunham is in the midst of a comeback. Inescapable for much of the early 2010s, the actor, writer, Girls mastermind and walking think piece had been largely absent from the public eye since 2018. Her new film has changed that. Sharp Stick – her first feature since 2010’s Tiny Furniture – has drawn mixed reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival, with mainstream outlets rushing to report on its apparently “heinous” failings. It’s obviously unusual for the Daily Mail and the New York Post to cover a low-budget independent film that only a few hundred people have seen. But Sharp Stick also provides a valuable opportunity for the press to partake in a tried-and-tested sport: kicking Lena Dunham in the shins and then running away laughing.

For as long as Dunham has been famous, she’s been currency. And not in the way that celebrities by their nature are forms of currency. Rather, the internet learnt long ago that Dunham making mistakes, or talking, or existing at all, could sustain whole weeks of content at a time. Race, wealth, sex, nudity, privilege, feminism, abuse, body image and politics all flowed through her, Dunham at the centre of a Venn diagram of things to be mad about. That she’s been so game to partake in it all hasn’t helped much. That she’s made quite so many ill-judged decisions in the public sphere hasn’t either.

She has, at the very least, always been talented. In the early months of the pandemic, I rewatched Girls for the first time since it was originally broadcast. It first aired – between the years of 2012 and 2017 – concurrent with my early twenties, when much of its air of post-university malaise struck a chord. Girls revolved around four intermittently horrible characters puttering around New York, each of them existing in states of sexual and professional disarray. Characters – but notably Dunham’s aspiring something-or-other Hannah Horvath – were outwardly ambitious but also lazy and entitled. Poor decisions were made. Love, sex and work tended to disappoint. Television shifted soon after its arrival, Girls giving way to a litany of other funny-sad series revolving around dysfunctional, self-destructive young adults. Broad City, Fleabag, Lovesick and Russian Doll are just a handful of shows that seemed shaped in its image.

Much like its creator, Girls wasn’t for everybody. But it often got misread. Dubiously promoted in its early years as a colourful, Sex and the City-esque fantasia, the show was in actual fact tricky and unpleasant, reflecting back the tiny miseries of young adulthood. The self-aggrandising attitudes of its leads were regularly interpreted as unintentional, and Hannah’s arrogance reflective of Dunham’s own. To this day, Hannah’s opium-induced claim to being “the voice of a generation” gets attributed to Dunham herself.

In general, it was a show endlessly read in the worst faith, something echoed in cultural responses to Dunham. Critics insisted that the privileged horrors on display in Girls had to be accidental, likewise that Dunham wasn’t merely a chronic oversharer of sometimes tone-deaf remarks, but an exhibitionist, a fool, or – via one especially hellish moment of far-right hysteria – a child molester. It is true that no one really needed to know that, at seven, Dunham went through a phase of being curious about her one-year-old sibling’s vagina – but she put it in her 2014 memoir anyway. Was the backlash to it completely deranged, though? Absolutely.

All of that said, when Dunham launched her comeback with a cover story for The Hollywood Reporter last week, I felt a pang of relief. Not because she’s back making films and TV – Dunham continuing to write was always a given – but because she was speaking publicly again, despite knowing that that’s led to little but chaos. Dunham is someone who’s said genuinely ignorant things worthy of criticism, and someone who has sustained far more digital abuse than anyone should ever have to deal with. Angry reactions to her haven’t occurred in short bursts, either. Rather she’s been engulfed in a seemingly unending vortex of noise and disdain from all quarters. If anything has the potential to unite people of all political and cultural persuasions, it’s having problems with her.

Yet we seem to have lost sight of why we feel so negatively about her. Criticisms of Dunham have long been a blur of the valid and the incredibly dumb, and the hysterical responses to Sharp Stick’s debut angle towards the latter. Round-ups of reviews have claimed that the film has been met disastrously, despite most of the reviews themselves being gently positive. And while a handful of critics have claimed that the film – about a young woman experimenting with sex after an early hysterectomy – is “misjudged”, “amateurish” and “a mess”, it doesn’t sound any more divisive than Dunham’s typical work. Instead, it feels like Sharp Stick is being written about so negatively because of its creator, whom we’ve decided we need to keep roasting. Even if it’s unclear why we should anymore.

Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal in Lena Dunham’s ‘Sharp Stick’

The fly in the ointment to all of this is that Dunham has made genuinely awful mistakes in the public eye. Her 2017 defence of Girls producer Murray Miller after he was accused of rape – which included a statement alleging that Miller’s accuser was lying – was a baffling and horrendous error of judgement. That Miller’s accuser was a young Black woman, and that Dunham herself had tweeted a year earlier that women “don’t lie” about rape, was the icing on the cake of a miserable situation. It remains one of the oddest, cruellest displays of ignorance by an otherwise left-leaning celebrity in recent memory. On a similar note, the dissonance between Dunham’s understanding of race and the amount of times she casually judged, misinterpreted or wrote poorly about Black people was gulf-sized.

Dunham has also apologised for all of the above. “I made a terrible mistake,” she wrote in 2018 of defending Miller. “There are few acts I could ever regret more in this life.” In her Hollywood Reporter profile, she reiterated that she was “young and had huge blind spots” at the peak of her fame. Even so, I read tweets in the wake of the story that asked why the article wasn’t tougher on her. It brought to mind that – as a culture – we’ve learnt the language of accountability, and how to demand justice for ignorant, offensive and hateful conduct, but we still haven’t figured out what happens after.

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Dunham doesn’t warrant a kind of collective forgiveness, or much in the way of pity, but I’m not sure she warrants continued scorn either. That she remains trapped by her past sins is one of the weird by-products of how the internet functions. Someone does something stupid or ignorant and it gets trapped in amber. We forget if there were acts of contrition that followed, or how those actually hurt by or intimately involved in the original incident reacted, and instead regurgitate, retweet or resurface the incident itself. Mistakes effectively become memes, slightly faded each time they’re shared, and further and further divorced from their context.

As much as the internet doesn’t believe it, Dunham does appear to have evolved in recent years. By all accounts, Sharp Stick is softer, sweeter and more racially representative in its casting than her past work. It also follows Generation and Industry, Dunham-backed TV shows that haven’t had the success or watercooler buzz of Girls, but echoed and resisted that show’s particular rhythms. They retain Girls’ prickliness and complexity, yet also feature gender, racial and sexual diversity that Girls never had and was rightly criticised for. Writing rooms with greater diversity than that of Girls has also helped.

I only wish that all of that could be included in the Lena Dunham story, too, along with the things we should be justifiably angered by. She remains a nuanced character, someone who is brilliant and confusing and occasionally terrible, but who always seems to be working to be better. When it comes to our grappling with celebrities like that, maybe we ought to do the same.

‘Sharp Stick’ will be released later this year

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