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Why Lena Dunham is a Kardashian at heart

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Katherine Boyle is a writer for The Washington Post’s Style section.

In Season 2 of the HBO series “Girls,” which premieres Sunday, lead character Hannah Horvath gets into a political debate with a Republican. When she says, “You don’t think [my gay roommate] should be able to have, like, a beautiful wedding like all the ones we saw earlier on ‘Say Yes to the Dress’?” the remark might sound familiar. That’s because it echoes a line from Lena Dunham’s Obama campaign advertisement.

Blurring the line between Lena and Hannah, between real life and scripted television, is what Dunham is all about. By mining her personal experiences for material for her barely fictional show, she’s essentially fashioning herself as a reality-TV star. And not just any reality star: Dunham is taking a page from the Kim Kardashian playbook of how to become famous.

Some Americans look down on those who are famous for being famous — unless those people are memoirists writing for New York magazine or telling their stories on premium cable. Go on “The Bachelor” to find fame and love, and you’re a desperate exhibitionist. Tell similar tales of relationship woe in a New York Times “Modern Love” column and — congratulations! — you’re probably well on your way to a book contract.

Dunham and Kardashian personify this contrast. Dunham, 26, is an Emmy-nominated writer, director and actress schooled in feminist theory. Kardashian, 32, is a reality-TV star who spells “classy” with a K. But Dunham is following the Kardashian business model: Overshare, overexpose and become famous for being you.

With Kardashian, the strategy is obvious: She uses a reality show and her strong tabloid presence to sell beauty products and fashion lines. Dunham’s moves are a little more veiled: She appears on a semi-autobiographical show and is hyped in revered publications such as the New Yorker and Time. There are also “Girls” beauty and lifestyle products — and Dunham will soon sell her first book.

Both Dunham and Kardashian have pushed the limits of decency in a tell-all culture: They’re comfortable talking openly about things that most of us wouldn’t be willing to post on our Facebook timelines.

Reality shows come in many forms, and there’s a clear line between scripted autobiography and improvised drivel. Dunham writes a reality show for an audience that’s uncomfortable with the trashy variety. She told NPR that “each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me”: boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, people who annoyed her once. And the drama depicts awkward sex scenes, discussions of sexual fetishes and friends accompanying each other to the gynecologist. They’re so uncomfortable, they feel too private for television.

But without the witty dialogue and Golden Globe nominations, you’re essentially watching “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” The highbrow “Girls” characters joke about the perils of sexting, just like the Kardashian women do. The girls mock Hannah’s tiny breasts — and the camera fixates on them — in the same way the Kardashian sisters make fun of Kim’s posterior.

Dunham’s fans might feel smart and in-the-know for catching the subtle reference to her Obama ad in “Girls.” Meanwhile, references to Kim Kardashian’s wider fame — an episode of her show dramatizes her supposedly difficult decision to pose for Playboy, for example — just look like crass, overt marketing. But whether they’re winking at viewers or flashing them, both women are using the same tricks, reminding audiences that these leading ladies are profitable brands.

Kardashian may not be as self-aware as Dunham, but they both understand that, to become a larger-than-life brand, it’s smart to sell more than a hit show. For Dunham, that has involved an eclectic marketing scheme that doesn’t always seem to fit her TV alter ego. For example, to promote the second season of “Girls,” HBO partnered with the salon chain Drybar to offer free blowouts to fans. The demand was so high that Drybar’s Web site crashed the day the promotion was announced. It was an odd marketing choice for a show about broke, 20-something girls in Brooklyn in which the lead character often looks unkempt. Does Hannah even own a hair dryer?

Anna Holmes, a writer and founder of the feminist blog Jezebel, highlighted another promotional partnership that seemed to be anti-Hannah: a “Girls”-themed spin class at studios in Manhattan and the Hamptons. On the show, Hannah isn’t exactly a gym rat.

“I was really shocked by this,” Holmes said. “My understanding is that it is an overpriced exercise experience . . . for 30-something, wealthy women with free time on their hands,” adding that the partnership seems “very off-brand.”

Then there are the beauty products. Similar to the Kardashian nail polish line — which includes a “Kim-pletely in Love” shade of pink — there are $45 “Girls” polish sets sold online. This to market a show in which Hannah has trouble paying rent and begs her parents for money? The Kardashians sell theirs at Wal-Mart.

The marketing strategies seem to be working. Both women make waves off-screen, which keeps viewers coming back. Dunham has addressed claims that she’s famous only because of the privilege and connections she was born into, a charge Kardashian also hears. And when Dunham received a $3.5 million book deal with Random House and parts of her proposal were leaked, she was panned by some as insensitive — largely because of a chapter tentatively titled “Offending people in Sweden, Japan, Israel, and Cuba.” The same week, Kardashian was criticized for providing positive publicity for the repressive regime in Bahrainby visiting the country to promote her milkshake chain.

Sure, there’s a difference — cultural insensitivity as comedy isn’t the same as being oblivious to world events — but in the end, both women profit from the controversies they create.

There’s a double standard that separates high and low culture, but the same urge to share and bare everything unites them. For some, life’s highest aspiration might be to star in a reality show. For others, a similar desire is fulfilled by creating an autobiographical HBO series. Yes, talent separates these two products. And the stars’ education and connections — and their products’ marketing and presentation — matter, too. But they’re selling the same stuff.

Both Dunham and Kardashian prove the sad fact that exposure, superfluous nudity and calculated self-humiliation, even when drenched in irony, are the most valuable commodities women can sell. And whether they’re deemed highbrow or lowbrow, brilliant or vacuous, sharing and baring all beget book deals and beauty lines.

Dunham seems a little conflicted about oversharing her way to fame. When David Lettermanasked her this past week how much of her show was autobiographical, she responded: “Some days, I really want to feel like a writer, so I say, ‘I’ve made up 89.5 percent of this material.’ And then other days, it’s really just like, ‘I’m writing myself and changing the names.’ . . . And sometimes that gives me pride, and sometimes that gives me shame.”

boylek@washpost.com

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