It’s taken some mulling and contemplating to step back from all of the recent press (good and bad) and ask myself why I felt so uncomfortable with the first episode of Girls. Duh, it was because that was my introduction to Lena Dunham’s style. It was my own fault, really. I’d only heard countless times that she’d made a feature called Tiny Furniture and the show Girls was sort of in the same vein. I vaguely remembered seeing the trailer when her film was released and even then, my interest was piqued but no dice. So yesterday, I finally did it. I put my Breaking Bad binge on pause and watched Tiny Furniture on Netflix Instant.
I’m not writing a review of the film by any means, but I am still processing it, that’s for sure. I can only describe my reaction as a series of the following: smiling in amusement but not enough to laugh aloud, cringing in embarrassment and groaning in irritation. That’s pretty much it. I didn’t feel the way that I thought I’d feel, but in a way I was relived. It meant that I wasn’t just jumping on the “I hate Girls just because (fill in blank)” bandwagon. I took the mature cinephile route and watched Dunham’s previous work. I’m just not a fan. However, I’ve since come to a few new conclusions as to what’s the big deal about Lena Dunham.
She’s being honest in her work. Unflinching, no-pants awkward, full of excruciating long silences, sweaty palms/dry mouth, take it or leave it honest. That’s all. And her madness is quite brilliant, I’ve finally realized. I’ve also accepted that maybe I’m just not equipped to handle that type of realness from a white upperclass college educated female under the age of 30 who according to Twitter just moved out of her family home. I could barely finish the pilot episode of Girls for this very reason. Dunham’s truth will never be mine.
At the end of the day, Dunham’s success intrigues and frustrates the hell out of me. I only have to look at the reusable Girls coffee cup I snagged at SXSW to be reminded that she’s doing what so many of us aspire to. She’s telling her story of how she sees the world and people are watching every Sunday night. I’ve been scratching my head trying to figure out how somebody not only completes their first feature, but wins Best Narrative at SXSW and Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards and gets a half-hour show greenlit by HBO with Judd Apatow as an executive producer in what seems like only a few years. What can I learn from this series of events?
One lesson is clear as day and I must admit this is my secret fear. Lena Dunham’s truth is accepted and broadcasted to millions now because she is still safe. I mean think about. Almost very counterpoint to the cries about a lack of diversity on the show was that it wouldn’t be organic to throw a stock person of color in a world where they simply might not exist in the creator’s mind. Even Dunham’s own response to audiences (“I really 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 that it was four white girls.”) reminded me again what happens when filmmakers write what they know. People get left out.
That last bit always whispers in my mind when I muse over my script ideas. For example, if I set a film/TV show in Los Angeles with a Black female lead, her Mexican-White (White-Mexican?), Nigerian-American and Indian-American best friends, will there be Google pages full of bashing if the only white guy in the pilot episode is a homeless man cleaning the famous Walk of Fame stars on Hollywood and Vine? No. That would never happen (even if that man really was at that very corner when I was in LA). Because what Tiny Furniture/Girls and even Friends/Seinfeld taught me a long time ago is that 9 times out 10, a white creator/white writer’s room will see the color of my skin as an “in addition to”. Hence, the Sassy Black Friend, Black Detective Partner, Ethnic Girlfriend and the Nerdy/Quiet/Sexually Repressed Asian that frequent our TV sets. They have the luxury of living with such a skewed reality. I don’t.
Okay, rant over. Back to the fascination over Dunham’s career thus far. She writes what she knows. In the midst of Hollywood’s crap-o-palooza (Battleship, anyone?), maybe that is the best age-old advice any of us can take. Imagine the multitude of stories that could be told on the big screen if more of us were as truthful as Dunham. People like to throw around the word “refreshing” and “groundbreaking”, but really, it comes down to the idea that what is most personal to us is the most universal. Dunham’s protagonists (Aura in Tiny Furniture and Hannah on Girls) with their individual idiosyncrasies speak to a specific demographic for this reason. Hell, Woody Allen’s being doing the same thing for years. When I think of “refreshing” and “groundbreaking”, I’m more likely to think of Degrassi: The Next Generation/Misfits or Attack the Block/Goodbye Solo than what’s on Dunham’s IMDB.com page.
I now look at Dunham’s film biography in a state of clarity after months of being baffled. Yes, there are many invisible strings that I cannot see that led her to where she is, but from where I’m standing as a working class college educated Black female under 30 living at home, her journey is worth taking note. So to those that have written off Girls, the cool kids on Twitter say the season’s picked up since the pilot. And if you’re stuck on that dream script or hesitant about writing your truth, I urge you to watch Tiny Furniture (or even just the trailer below). Who are the four white girls in your head? Seriously, I bet your story isn’t a fraction as uncomfortable.