Lena Dunham, creator of the sensational HBO series Girls — and now the object of overwrought child abuse accusations by boys on the right — seems the perfect antidote to election fatigue.
Poor Dunham. Everything was rocking along just fine. At 28, she has her own television series, a new book released in September, money, fame and, as these things go, critics. Her book, “Not That Kind of Girl,” has become an overnight cri de coeur for righteous types offended by what they read about what she wrote.
It’s a cinch that many of her harshest critics haven’t read the book themselves, but a few principles have emerged that concern not the content but the treatment of the author. We’re not quite at the point of burning books, though there’s a hint of kerosene in the air.
Basically, Dunham wrote about her 7-year-old self and her anatomical curiosities at the time, which included wondering whether all vaginas are the same. To answer this question, not satisfied with her mother’s “I guess so,” Dunham explored her 1-year-old sister Grace’s private parts. Lo and behold, there she discovered pebbles, put “there” by little Grace for reasons that only 1-year-olds know.
Let me interrupt myself here to say that I would prefer a world in which uterus and vagina discussions took place primarily in homes and doctor’s offices. It isn’t prudery but decorum that compels me to say this. But then, I am sentimental about many things, such as the days when people married before having children.
But back to Dunham.
The pebble anecdote, combined with a couple of others, constituted child sexual abuse in the fevered minds of Dunham’s critics. The other small tales, lest your imagination gallop off into de Sade territory, were: (1) bribing Grace with candy to let Dunham kiss her on the lips for five seconds; (2) exploring her own anatomy in bed at night after Grace fell asleep beside her.
One might find this offensive but, contextually, Grace didn’t stop sleeping with her older sister until she (Lena) was 17. Dunham’s was apparently an affectionately demonstrative family that favored physical closeness, which is not the same as sexual. If we weren’t talking about vaginas all the time, we might know this.
Dunham’s brand of blunt truth is, in fact, her brand and is the reason “Girls” has been such a hit. She shows girls (young women), or at least a subset of girls, as they really are — imperfect and striving. In Dunham’s case, they’re also self-absorbed, hurting, seeking, wanting and painfully, humorously neurotic, as well as refreshingly lacking in vanity.
These adjectives have led not surprisingly to comparisons to Woody Allen, who most closely resembles Winston Churchill next to Dunham. But the interior dialogue that tortures both Allen and Dunham links them to each other and to their respective audiences. They treat us to the contents of their unconscious minds, which entertain us precisely because we realize, oh dear, we’re not the only ones.
Don’t all men wonder at some point what it’s like to be a sperm, as Allen portrayed himself in his 1972 film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex — But Were Afraid to Ask? (You have to see the movie.)
Likewise, Dunham might ask, don’t all little girls wonder what other vaginas look like?
But never mind. Nasty sees what nasty knows. Instead of critiquing Dunham’s book as a work of art or literature — or even as a display of narcissistic self-parody — Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, focused on the anecdotes that, one surmises, interested him most. They were repeated in an article by Bradford Thomas at TruthRevolt.org that prompted Dunham’s attorneys to seek both a cease-and-desist and an apology.
Reasonable arguments accrue to both sides. Dunham sees her stories taken out of a context of humor and innocence, though she did write (tongue in cheek) that “anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.” On the other side, lazy reviewing isn’t illegal.
To the larger point, artistic freedom, including offensive or “bad” art, has to be protected just as unpopular opinions must be. We don’t need a First Amendment to protect Hallmark slogans but to protect us from forces that would silence certain thoughts, and, inevitably, certain people.
For now, Lena Dunham is stuck with the story she wrote. And critics, as always, are stuck with themselves.
© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group