In her 2014 collection of essays, Lena Dunham highlighted her initial trepidation about computers. “There was something sinister about the green letters and numbers that flashed on the screen as the computer booted up, and I hated the way Marissa stopped answering questions or noticing me the second it was turned on,” she wrote. “My distaste for computers has an almost-political fervor: they’re changing our society, I say, and for the worse. Let’s act human. Converse. Use our handwriting.” [Emphasis added.]
Of course, like every other millennial, she is soon entranced by the devices that allow instant connection (email, instant messenger) and instant distance (Why hasn’t he returned my emails? Why isn’t he initiating IM chats?) simultaneously. I can’t help but think that Young Lena was right to be suspicious — that the “real hostility toward technology” her instructor reports at a parent-teacher conference isn’t a deeper wisdom. Dunham’s own career suggests that her younger self may have been on to something.
It’s hard to keep track of all the pointless, Internet-based kerfuffles surrounding Dunham: complaints that HBO’s Girls was “too white”; that she had “sexually abused her sister” in an essay about the awkwardness of children and their sexual curiosity; that her book tour was exploiting performers by not paying them; that she said the wrong things about visiting India; et cetera, et cetera. The latest bout of outrage occurred just before the Labor Day weekend, which Dunham expressed her sadness at being perceived as less attractive than other attendees of the Met Ball.
“You and I were literally sitting across from each other at the Met Ball, and it was so surreal to get to do that. I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr., and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards. He was like, ‘That’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog.’ It wasn’t mean — he just seemed confused,” Dunham said to Amy Schumer in a conversation published in Dunham’s newsletter. “The vibe was very much like, ‘Do I want to [have sex with] it? Is it wearing a … yep, it’s wearing a tuxedo. I’m going to go back to my cell phone.’ It was like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie.”
This snippet of conversation was portrayed by the perpetually outraged as dehumanizing — not to Dunham, who referred to herself as “that” and “it,” but to Beckham, the fantastic wide receiver for the New York Giants who happens to be African American. There goes crazy Lena again, stepping onto another cultural minefield. How dare she overly sexualize a black man!
Except, she obviously wasn’t. At least, no more than she usually does. Context is key, and one could point out that a running theme in Dunham’s work is that she often finds herself less attractive than she would like, wondering why guys don’t like her or imagining that she’s at the bottom of some beauty-based pecking order. You could discover this by watching her TV show “Girls” or her film “Tiny Furniture” or by reading her book “Not that Kind of Girl.” Or you could just, you know, look at the interview from which the offending paragraph comes and see that this is what Dunham asked fellow comedienne Amy Schumer shortly before her comments about Beckham: “Do you think hustle — fear you’ll never work again or never make your mark — comes from a place of deep anxiety and damage?” [Again, emphasis added.]
In context, then, Dunham is clearly making light of her own “deep anxiety and damage.” It’s not so much that Beckham should find her attractive or that he owes her any sexual attention. It’s that she obviously feels less than in the company of the sorts of beautiful people who attend ridiculous events like the Met Ball. Less attractive than, less beautiful than, less worthy of love and attention and affection than. She’s using humor to both highlight and negate her struggles with her self-worth. This is so obvious that I can’t believe it needs pointing out.
But it does need pointing out, because the Internet and social media are the two greatest decontextualization devices ever devised by man. Humor, especially when it’s a little dark, often makes little sense when stripped of its context. Dunham is an artist whose work exists within a very specific context. And social media thrives on context-free outrage and angst. Combine all this with the fact that Dunham has actively cultivated a progressive fanbase that, shall we say, sometimes has trouble with humor that transgresses their norms and you get something of a perfect storm, one that has unceasingly swirled around Dunham for the last four years or so.
Older Lena should listen to Younger Lena: Computers are the devil, and everyone with a Twitter account is his unwitting tool. And since we pawns of Satan are unlikely to get much smarter about our daily outrages — and since she herself spends so much of her time thinking about how she perceives herself and is perceived by others — maybe she should think about separating herself from her fans. Just a bit. Maybe she should avoid her Twitter mentions and her Instagram comments and her Google alerts for “Lena Dunham.” Rather than worrying about the latest tempest in a teapot, she could do something more useful.
Like work on her handwriting.