A couple weeks ago, before the season four premiere of Girls, I put together a compendium of Lena Dunham think pieces, most of which were either subtly or overtly negative. It was my way of dealing, a bit passive-aggressively, with what I saw as the endless supply of jealous, illogical, and borderline hysterical reactions to Dunham’s artistic choices. In grasping for any critical trump card with which to put her down, supposedly progressive writers—male and female alike—have betrayed a strange, anti-progressive intolerance for a female artist whose choices aren’t influenced by a political agenda, but by her own aggressive instincts. In the process, the reactionary left wing of the Internet has proved itself just as militantly backward as the righties—they couldn’t pin her down, and it killed them. Some are adept at couching their arguments in the language of political correctness, but anyone who buys is it is a sucker—their hatred comes from the same wellspring. They call her a racist and elitist, and the conservatives call her fat, but they’re all bleating from the same puritanical pit of narrow-minded envy and resentment, and their ultimate goal—though they’d never admit it—is censorship.
In Sunday’s episode, the second of the new season, Dunham’s Hannah Horvath reads a paragraph of her story at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—she’s a student—about a character named “Anna” who asked her boyfriend to physically abuse her while they had sex. The story, at least from the paragraph she read aloud, deals with the sensations the writer experiences—of submission, of escape—by subjecting herself to the punishment. When the other writers are asked to comment on the story, though, they quickly abandon ideas of of ambiguous emotion and dive into the realm of sexual politics. Horvath, they say, has trivialized the experience of sexual abuse survivors. She has too much privilege. She has not shown sympathy for the male perspective. They don’t know how to react to her, because ‘Anna’ is so clearly a stand-in for Hannah. Horvath fires back on the same terms—she had even given them all a trigger warning before reading—and the discussion devolves into questions of who should be offended, and why. The actual art of the writing is completely lost.
Later, at the bar, Hannah confronts one of her classmates.
“Just here, woman to woman, you didn’t actually think the piece was insensitive to sufferers of abuse, did you?”
But she did, and says so.
“But it’s just a story!” Hannah fires back. “We’re all just here to express ourselves. So it’s like, to censor each other? We’re no better than George W. Bush!”
I’m not the first one to point out how closely this episode parallels Dunham’s own experience with critics, and how it functions as a sort of answer to the endless critical hand-wringing from those who try to hide their true motives. And in fact, some might say that the act of responding, even metaphorically, shows a kind of sensitivity on Dunham’s part that doesn’t belong in art. But because Girls is a personal show—although the degree to which some viewers insist on conflating Hannah and Lena is sort of appalling—it made sense, at least to me, for Dunham to address the issue obliquely. And she hit the nail on the head in identifying the impulse at the heart of every complaint; they want to silence her.
The line quoted above, about censorship, may have seemed like her answer to the critics, but the brilliance of Dunham and her writers is that the real answer came later, in a wonderful display of subjective expressionism. Her gay friend Elijah visits, sick of New York, and they crash an undergraduate house part. There, they dance drunkenly until Elijah disappears to give a handjob to a “straight” student in a bathroom, and Lena gives a harsh pep talk to a weeping undergrad upset that her long-distance boyfriend has cheated on her—”snap out of it!”—before cutting her in the bathroom line. The scene is pure energy, pure emotion, and pure debauchery. There are no ethics, no moments of philosophy, and no disrupting bouts of political correctness. It’s pure Dunham, unapologetic and raw, and it was an emphatic fuck-you to the intolerant and prudish alike. Life, the message went, is messy, and can’t be controlled.
The success of Girls has always depended on Dunham’s boldness, and that boldness has been so offensive to so many that it inspired an unconscious online campaign designed to muzzle the disruptive she-devil. Depending on where they came from, they attacked her looks or her politics, but the goal was the same. And at every moment, she has held up to the pressure and asserted her right to artistic expression. Not once has she demanded that anybody like her, but she has adamantly refused to back down to the will of those who don’t.
Lena Dunham is a confirmed badass, and every time she proves herself in the face of the cowards that are her enemies, I want to stand up and cheer. She is asserting that art matters, and in many ways expresses a deeper truth than mere ideas ever could. That, I think, is where her real power lies. Ideas and theories and petty complaints are a dime a dozen, and they wilt in the face of real talent. Lena Dunham, I imagine, could write a mean think piece, but her detractors could never, ever do what she does. Her best defense—the only one she needs—is to show it.