An Open Letter to Lena Dunham
First, let me apologize.
I formed an opinion about you without really examining your work. All I’ve been able to see from your critically-acclaimed comedy Girls is clips from YouTube. Since I didn’t exactly know what to make of them, I mostly ignored and moved on. But since hearing of your casting Donald Glover as a black Republican boyfriend – even for just two episodes — I thought to myself, “maybe I should give her another chance.”
So looking for an entry point, I watched your feature film debut, Tiny Furniture. And I was impressed by its emotional honesty. While I’m glad that it helped me to get a broader sense of your cinematic voice, I can now say with certainty that many of my initial instincts were correct.
You and your costars, the progeny of successful, famous people, have inspired quite the backlash from critics and bystanders – a potent combination of curiosity, incredulity, and let’s be honest, plain ol’ Haterade. There are many reasons for this, but one stands out:
Lena Dunham, you are, quite literally, a living embodiment of white privilege. (By the way, that “literally” was spoken in Rob-Lowe-as-Chris-Traeger-voice.)
Now I realize that in 2013, privilege is no longer the exclusive domain of white people – just ask Rashida Jones – but yours is a situation that specifically illustrates the advantages in the entertainment business that are granted by growing up amongst the liberal, hypereducated upper class.
And none of this is your fault, really. None of us asked to be born into our families. But I say this only so that you can understand how grating it can sound to struggling artists and filmmakers – of any race, really, but especially of color – when you say, as you did in last year’s NPR interview, that you “wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me, and only later did I realize it was four white girls.” You should take plenty of credit for the freedom and boldness that it takes to write from such a gut-level place. However, the ability to express those gut-level fears and anxieties in the context of a commercially successful television program on a premium cable network? As President Obama put it, you didn’t build that. That ability came straight from your invisible knapsack.
I’m sure none of this is news to you, so don’t think of this letter as an indictment, but an encouragement. Your fledgling success actually gives me a measure of hope, because I see parallels in your story to another writer whose work I really respect. For now, we’ll call him Paulie.
This guy Paulie also came from a Jewish background. His upbringing was also steeped in privilege – a privilege that he understood and fully owned, even though he eventually grew disenchanted with it. And even though he could be intellectual and systematic, he wasn’t afraid of showing his real self, warts and all. He wrote with a raw, visceral intensity. He once implied that vegetables are for weak people, he referred to his enemies as dogs, and once sarcastically told some of his critics to cut off their own junk.
But as far as I can tell, there’s one important difference between Paulie’s story and yours. Paulie had an amazing encounter with the Christ, one that quite literally opened his eyes to the world around him (after being temporarily blinded), and eventually transformed his entire worldview.
And you know what the kicker is? All the stuff that I just mentioned… he wrote all of that after he became a Christian, not before. Though he hated Christians and actively tried to undermine everything they stood for, after having really encountered Christ, he went just as hardcore in the other direction.
Now if you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering – how is this relevant, exactly? I’m not a Christian. Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to change that. I want everyone to experience the forgiveness and freedom that comes from having a relationship with Christ.
But that’s not my main objective here. I want to call your attention to a specific aspect of my man Paulie’s story (okay fine, nobody calls him that, I’ll just call him Paul). See, when Paul became a Christian, he didn’t run away from the privilege afforded by his upbringing; instead he leveraged it. He wrote and spoke with firsthand knowledge and experience of the cost of following Christ as one of the Hebrew elite, and his resulting message was credible and resonant. As an apostle, someone who traveled to various churches in various places, Paul understood that God had given him a unique platform. By writing from a dual perspective, both inside and outside of his culture, and by doing his best to be all things to all people, he reached many with his writing.
(I would apologize for the cliché, but Paul’s the one who started it.)
My guess, Lena Dunham, is that with Girls, you’re trying to use your story to speak resonantly to people beyond your core demographic of disaffected, upper-middle class, twentysomething women. In my opinion, that goal, admirable as it is, only happens if you can demonstrate enough grace and humility to reach out and learn from others beyond the scope of your upbringing. And it starts with realizing that you need other people to help you get there.
In Paul’s case, the love of Christ compelled him to do so; in yours, perhaps Nielsen numbers would suffice? Either way, I hope you learn how to cross those cultural boundaries. Your professional output will be better for it. If you do, could you share some of that grace and humility with Cathryn Sloane? She’s probably ready now. You can reach her on social media.