Lena Dunham, White Privilege and the Myth That Anything Is Possible

Watching Lena Dunham’s 2009 proto-"Girls" film, Tiny Furniture, I was struck with a question I often ask myself when I'm watching random films on Netflix: How did this get made?


As always, I turned to IMDb for answers. I found a simple explanation, right away. The very first piece of trivia for the film is this:

"Lena Dunham used her parents’ money to make the film. She didn’t have enough to pay anyone, so she ended up asking her friends and family to be part of it and it worked."

There isn’t any great surprise. This information nugget makes it sound like a scrappy Lena Dunham put things together with good, old-fashioned, Little Rascals-style gumption.

Also, maybe, some privilege.

As my first question was mostly answered, a second question pinballed around in my head, one a lot of people have asked about Dunham’s HBO series “Girls”: Where are all the people of color? Besides the simple answer, not in this film, I think another, slightly less sarcastic answer may be hidden in the riddle of how this movie got made. It wasn’t just access to mommy and daddy’s checkbook. Something is hidden in the quote above, specifically in the words: “And it worked.

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The girls from "Girls" in front of a curiously empty basketball court in NYC.

That piece of trivia is so enthusiastic, and so proud of Dunham, yet so reductive. What worked? The film was a success? She became an "overnight" sensation? She drew the attention of HBO? Maybe it just means she got her film made, period. 

Consider, for a moment, how that happened.

Even with unpaid actors, Dunham says the movie cost $65,000, almost certainly less than the actual cost, but far more than most 23-year-olds can afford without assistance. I suppose it is possible that her father, Carroll Dunham IV, and her mom, Laurie Simmons, sold everything they owned to raise that money and support their daughter’s dream, but, no, that is not what happened. (If it was, trust me, it would be part of the narrative.)

Not only did Dunham get the money for the film from her parents, but we can infer she was also supported during the making of the film. She wasn’t serving coffee. She wasn’t waiting tables. She wasn’t driving a cab or working construction. She was able to devote her energy to her film, and answer to no one, giving her the freedom to explore any idea she wished, within the limitations of the budget.

Dunham cast her mom and her sister in important roles (as her mom and her sister). Both of them were free of any pressing commitments (like jobs) so they could act in a film. (To be fair, her younger sister may have been in school, and while plenty of teens get jobs, well, why would she?)

Dunham’s mother does have a job. She is a photographer who takes pictures of, among other things, tiny furniture. (More on that in a minute.) I suspect she makes her own schedule, as tiny furniture is not a demanding client.

Dunham rounded out her cast with unpaid friends. Friends who could be available to learn lines, learn how to act (or do their best), and be on set without other commitments getting in the way. Friends who were financially stable enough to live in New York City and act in a movie without compensation. I don't know if they had job or not.

Oh, and her friends just all happen to be white.

Is it fair to infer that Lena Dunham doesn’t have any friends of color, just because we don’t see them in this movie? No. I know you’re thinking it. Or you think I’m thinking it. But neither of us know.

So what are the possibilities? Maybe Lena Dunham didn’t have any friends of color, free of obligation to participate in her breakthrough movie. Or, maybe, her friends of color lack the detached talent of Jemima Kirke or the ability to read lines and also do makeup for free, like Rachel Howe. Whatever the reason, we do know that, among Lena Dunham’s theoretical friends of color, none of them were given roles in this film.

There is one more possibility. All Lena Dunham’s white friends may not be rich and free from obligation. It could be that some of them were willing to sacrifice and starve to help Lena get her movie made. If true, it is also possible that only Lena’s white friends were willing to make that sacrifice. So if that is true it might imply that people of color are lazy, but, really? That is an outmoded, racist myth, that no adult in this day and age has any right to believe. I can’t even think of a good reason to bring it up, because Lena Dunham’s well-reviewed Tiny Furniture isn’t a movie that even deals with race, right?

The point is, Lena asked her friends and family to star in her movie, and it worked! She now had people to film, and a script she had written with her creativity, about subjects she wanted to explore (race not being one of them), and so off she went to film. Where? In and around New York City.

Given the budget, it is likely she filmed outside without permits, which I’m all for on a film of this scale. Inside, she filmed in enormous apartments, especially by New York standards. (Filming in a typical New York apartment is difficult, because there isn’t room for lights and people at the same time.) Where did she find these large spaces? How did she get access? My guess is through her friends and family, who she already cast in the film.

The space that serves as the main character's home, is Lena Dunham's parent's $6.25 million dollar Tribeca apartment, right down to the clean, yet cluttered, photography space where her mother, and her mother's character, both take pictures of Tiny Furniture.

What’s up with the tiny furniture? I assume something profound. The script won Best First Screenplay for Dunham and her finely crafted words at the Independent Spirit Awards, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider it was her second screenplay, from the second movie that she also acted in and directed.

Yes. Lena Dunham wrote, directed and starred in a feature-length movie before she was an "overnight sensation" with “Girls” and Tiny Furniture. And that’s just the feature. She also made numerous shorts and a web series, “Delusional Downtown Divas,” which you can see on the Guggenheim Museum's YouTube channel.

I don’t know if you just noticed, but it’s the Guggenheim Museum’s YouTube channel. The Guggenheim! How do you get your video on that? You might think it is because of Lena Dunham’s fame, but no, that video has been sitting there since at least 2010. Maybe she just sent it to them, and it worked! I suppose it helps to film one of your web series videos right inside the Guggenheim? Probably it does, but how do you get inside? Maybe Lena Dunham asked, and it worked?

This makes it sound like luck. But surely some other force is working to help her out. Maybe that force was a person? If your mom is a former Guggenheim Foundation fellow, like Lena’s mom, Laurie Simmons, was in 1997, that might help. Here is a picture of Laurie Simmons, with her husband, Carroll Dunham IV, and oh hey! it’s Eileen Guggenheim.

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The caption on this photo said Lena Dunham’s parents were being honored in NYC. (I’ve been to NYC, but I’ve never been honored. Groped, spit-on and drunk, sure, but never honored. To be fair, I haven’t earned it.) The picture is from a ball thrown for Lena Dunham’s parents by the New York Academy of Art, where both Dunham’s parents were given honorary doctorates.

Here is the other thing about NYC: every time I’ve been it's been filled with people from all all sorts of backgrounds. But Lena Dunham’s NYC doesn’t look like that. It has very little color, even in the background, and is especially devoid of African Americans. Is it because Lena Dunham’s experience is also nearly devoid of people of color, especially African Americans? If we look at the faces from the Ball, it’s a sea of white. If we look at the curators and directors at the Guggenheim, vastly white.

It makes me wonder if, back in 2009, Lena didn’t know there were non-white people living in NYC!

But then there is this:

Midway through the film Lena Dunham’s character has to get a job. She works as a “daytime hostess,” which I learned is a job answering phones and taking reservations until the restaurant actually opens. I didn't know this, in itself, was an actual job. Not all by itself. But I don’t know anything about running a restaurant in New York. So let’s assume this is just the way it is done, and it works, (see what I did there?) even if it’s a crazy waste of money.

At her job, Lena flirts with the hot but distant chef (or maybe he is a saucier) with fine features. This guy suddenly looks to a corner of what had seemed like an empty room, where we cut to a sleeping busboy — and he appears to possibly not be white!

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The hot chef/love-lust interest explains to Lena Dunham’s character (with words Lena Dunham, as screenwriter, wrote and won awards for):

All you need to know is that these guys, are the laziest fucking guys in the world. Your job consists of mostly making sure they’re not sleeping or molesting you.

As it turns out there is more to her character’s job than answering phones. I thought it was weird I didn’t hear about this scene before, in this well-reviewed, “sharply written” movie that, in theory, made Lena Dunham’s career, but I didn’t know where the movie was going to take this comment. Maybe she was going to take on racism head-on. Characters in movies say lots of things. What matters is how the movie handles them. The film’s point of view is important. What does she do? Her character literally giggles as he says it. It’s funny!

I thought: Maybe Lena’s character is going to go off on him later. Maybe she will learn something. I assumed the film would bring up this comment further on and use it to point out what a horrible guy the chef is for saying such a bullshit thing. But no. There is no commentary. The line, as it reads in the film — from the point of view of the film — is that casual racism and prejudice are just part of a white girl’s flirtation. No judgment. Let’s go have sex in a metal pipe. (Indeed, that is where the movie later takes us instead, in this movie Lena wrote, all by herself.)

Now, I know I said above that Lena Dunham didn’t have, didn’t want, or didn’t choose any of her theoretical friends of color to appear in this film. Yet here is a guy of color, sleeping through a scene in the corner of a restaurant. He doesn’t have any lines, but he is there!

Yes. And I thought to myself, surely he is not a friend of Lena Dunham’s. I didn’t know if he was a friend of a friend of Lena Dunham’s who thought it would be cool to sleep in a corner for two minutes of the film, or if it was a guy she pulled off the street, or maybe he was even cast and had the only paying role. But then I looked it up, and it's Jody Lee Lipes, the movie’s director of photography.

Was Jody Lee Lipes paid for his work? I don’t know. I sure hope so, but then, I also know that Lena Dunham doesn't think much of paying people for their work, because people should just be glad for the exposure she gives them. (Or, at least, this is what she thought until five years after this movie was made, when people got all up in her business about not paying people who performed on her book tour.)

Maybe she just asked him nicely if he would shoot her film for her, and it worked!

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Is Jody Lee Lipes a person of color? I can’t know. Jumping to that conclusion is a dangerous business. What I do know is that he reads as non-white in this film, intentional or not, and the award-winning script’s commentary about the character Busboy feels racist as Donald Trump.

You might get the sense I don’t like Lena Dunham, but that isn’t true. I don’t like this movie. That isn’t the same thing. But what I really don’t like — the thing that I find maddening, and detestable, is the myth — the myth that hard work and talent equal success; the myth that anything is possible if we only try hard enough. The myth that she did her best and, by gosh, it worked!  Because the flip side to that myth, is that the rest of the losers out there, busing tables and trying to survive, dreaming of making films, or dancing, or painting (Like Lena’s dad, Carroll Dunham IV), aren’t making good on their dreams because they don’t have what it takes, which is a good, old-fashioned work ethic. It is a myth deeply rooted in racism and self-aggrandizement, passed down to us by slavery.

I did not just go there.

Yes. I did.

If my thesis strikes you as crazy, read this movie quote again:

All you need to know is that these guys, are the laziest fucking guys in the world. Your job consists of mostly making sure they’re not sleeping or molesting you.

Is that line more at home in “Sleepless in Seattle” or “12 Years a Slave”?

The myth allows white folks to believe that everyone has what they have because they deserve it. That sea of white at the Guggenheim Ball is filled with people who earned their place. The all-white nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards Best First Screenplay earned their place too, with talent and hard work. For people of color, who don’t get this access and exposure, it is only because they are lazy, unwilling to sacrifice and work for free for a rich, white girl on the movie she really, really, really wanted to make with mommy and daddy’s money. Those malingerers, see, they don’t work. The myth? It’s really ugly, and it works.

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe it’s just a movie and I should get over it. But you see, either art doesn’t matter, or it does. Either artists are important and say things and affect the world with their messages, or they don’t. Either they are honored with awards and balls and doctorates, or they aren’t, but you don’t get to have it both ways. The myth pretends Lena Dunham crafted and made her own feature with her hard work and incisive writing, but that is nothing more than a story — a better story than the one in the film.

Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” found people of color irrelevant and rendered them invisible, and it worked! Meanwhile, what movies go unmade by those people of all colors, whose families don’t chain back to Plymouth in 1620 (like Lena’s dad, Carroll Dunham IV), who don’t have access to the Guggenheims, and a handy $65,000, and whatever the first film cost, and enormous New York apartments, and a posse of friends who, sure, what the heck, are free for a few weeks to act in a film because, why not, we don’t need any money? Crazy? Maybe a little. But we are all being robbed of the possible, of stories about all of us, and that makes me a little bit insane.

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