Death by a Million Bucks: Where Do You Fall in the Lena Dunham Debate?

Lena Dunham in ‘Girls’/Photo © Jojo Whilden/HBO
Lena Dunham in ‘Girls’/Photo © Jojo Whilden/HBO

The menacing hissing noise you might have heard yesterday -- that was the sound of schadenfreude come to life, when news hit that "Girls" creator Lena Dunham was shopping around a proposal for a book of autobiographical advice essays with the hefty price tag of $1 million.

Sure, that's a lot to shell out for a twenty-six-year-old's hard-earned lessons in love and life. And Dunham -- dubbed the "voice of her generation" -- has made it all too easy to begrudge her success. Ever since she splashed down at the epicenter of hipster Hollywood with her low-fi directorial debut, "Tiny Furniture," Dunham's compulsion to make her every creative act an opportunity for stark self-exposure has made her a polarizing source of envy and exaltation. One would assume her courage to let loose with her flawed self, physical and otherwise, might have endeared her to her urbane base of high-achieving self-loathers. Instead, Dunham, the spawn of trust-funded downtown artists, has become a much-maligned symbol for everything the creative class hates about itself.

Privileged, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and soft inside and out -- Dunham delivers the ugly truth about women's halting progress to achieve creative and sexual parity with men. As a result, she's received more than her fair share of misdirected scorn. From the moment word of her book proposal hit the airwaves, the virtual peanut gallery flooded comments sections of blogs like this one with bilious screeds, calling out everything from the nepotistic sources of Dunham's success to her super-sized entitlement complex to her general unworthiness of attention and $1 million book deals.

Fair enough. But what's confusing about this particular slag-fest is that other similarly self-referential privileged New Yorkers whose lives were turned into much-talked-about TV shows were not subject to the same kind of unforgiving scrutiny. Sure, Candace Bushnell had her detractors in her heyday. But the mob mentality never coalesced around any  professional windfall the way it has around Dunham. Nor did Nora Ephron, Lauren Weisberger, Elizabeth Gilbert, or Helen Fielding weather any kind of wrath on this scale.

Dunham is self-aware enough to be self-effacing and undefended when confronted about the fact that her base of haters may be outpacing that of her fans. So what is it about Dunham that makes people begrudge her success when the quality of her writing (albeit for film and TV up to this point) is probably higher, pound for pound, than any of these other supernova literary sensations? We'd argue that the extreme reactions to Dunham can be traced to sheer tectonic impact of her work. It's hard to remember the last time a young pop culture artist had the cajones to challenge perceptions of what it means to be a young woman in today's world. Yes, there's Lady Gaga. But she carefully smuggles her subversive messages in mass-marketable pop confections. Dunham prods at our private shame and challenges us to disabuse ourselves of the beauty myth and own our imperfections. The quartet of young ladies at the center of "Girls" aren't types and don't fit our prescribed "Charlie's Angels"-fed  idea that it takes a trio to create the perfect woman. Dunham's heroines are complex, confused, and unpredictable. Just like life. Just like us. That may be why the world hates her so much. And it's precisely why we don't.

Where do you fall on the Dunham divide?