Why Does Everyone Expect Lena Dunham to Speak for an Entire Generation of Quirky Women?
March 13, 2014
I've been wondering how is it that Lena Dunham somehow ended up with the entire feminist, comedic world on her shoulders in a matter of three years? After her much anticipated and critically viewed turn as host on Saturday Night Live last weekend, followed by her majorly hyped keynote address at the SXSW Festival on Monday, I just started thinking, how did this happen so quickly for her? And perhaps more importantly, why?
As a black woman who works in comedy and media, I may cringe at that whitewashed lens of Brooklyn portrayed in her show GIRLS, but I thoroughly get Dunham’s real world image and confidence. It has to feel daunting to be that one female voice expected to represent all of our diverse realities as women, and what she does with that expectation is real. I get it. We are underrepresented, challenged with unrealistic ideals of beauty, and racially pit against each other in all forms of mass media. I understand why representation matters, but should Lena Dunham really be anointed as leader of a new generation of “awkwardly funny” women?
While Dunham and her Hannah Horvath character speak to a certain and familiar quirky lifestyle and comedic humor, her voice is not every young, quirky woman no matter the racial background or experience, and it certainly does not represent my journey. Not because I feel like the odd woman out when it comes to watching GIRLS, or that I’m hopefully standing by for an episodic debut from producer/director Issa Rae, or a reboot of Daria. It’s that Dunham is not the first or the last to speak to do what she’s doing, and honestly, I think her success is far more a matter of right place at the right time than it is anything else.
Regarding Dunham’s appearance on Saturday Night Live—despite the fact that the writing and sketch selections were up and down, fairly uneven, there were standout skits such as “GIRL” and a hilarious “Scandal” take. Still, everything seemed scripted to elevate her “awkward” comedic style throughout the show.
True comedic genius comes from the ability as an actor to transform into “that funny part” of any given character. Playing “hipster awkward” as a comedian is great stylistically, but it also limits an actor’s ability to play diverse characters in their career. And while Dunham does “hipster awkward” humor really well, I am regularly confused when people ask me if I think of Dunham as a shero because of it. The “awkward” archetype is not a new concept.
Gilda Radner, Carol Burnett and Whoopi Goldberg are among those considered to be the grand dames of this archetype—women who successfully embodied the funny regardless of character type throughout decade-long careers. Not within three years of emerging onto the scene.
Our culture of matching diverse female representation within various forms of media is being met with a “hurry up and we can’t wait” throttle of expectation. Throwing Lena Dunham into the mix of this lineage is a “too much, too soon” movement perpetuated by our loss of recall as a society. I have seen commentary over the past few years referring to her as “the voice of a generation,” which is a hefty cross to bear, but mostly it’s just premature.
Being a woman in comedy is hard enough as it is without demanding so much from someone who has what is essentially a mere budding career. I might be an outsider with this stance, but I feel that it is rather quick to give this title to someone who has shown such limited character and range.
I applaud Dunham for speaking out against typecasting and sexism in the industry, as she did during her SXSW keynote address. Though I would much rather she impart change instead of talking about it, and I have grown weary of celebrating stand-up voices that continually talk about how they are ill-supported without actions to follow. I respect Dunham for being a woman who can place her “awkward” funny on the board in a way that is counted. Yet, it doesn’t seem she has done all that much outside of GIRLS to demand so much attention.