Stephanie Hlywak rejects the claim that Lena Dunham, the 20-something creator and producer of HBO’s new series Girls, has had success because of her famous parents.
Did your cultural seismograph register a disturbance in the tectonic plates of society at approximately 10:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time Sunday night? That tremor was the premiere of Lena Dunham’s Girls, a television show so massively hyped that the backlash against it began before it had even aired. For a program the media had dubbed the anti-Sex in the City and lauded for its frank and unapologetic realness, the complaints were predictable. “That’s not what my 20s were like.” “Neither Hannah [played by Dunham herself] nor any of her friends represents me.” “I didn’t get any help from my parents when I was 24. She should shut up and get a job.” And the response to Dunham has been even more trite. The New York Post’s Andrea Peyser called her “a fat chick,” and she is variously described as “plain,” “ugly,” and “dumpy.”
But perhaps the most insidious criticisms are the accusations of nepotism. Dunham is the daughter of two successful artists, and, some would say, is enjoying success not because of her talent but because of her parents. And that’s where I’m calling bullshit. Is pedigree going to become another criteria (add it to the list of physical attributes women are judged by) that we use to measure female merit? Or, at this volatile juncture when the chasm between the haves and have-nots continues to widen, is privilege a liability? Whatever the root, it’s a dangerous double standard, and women are disproportionally targeted.
A few months ago, the debate about authenticity in art was personified in the backlash against the singer Lana Del Ray. Critics chastised the smoky-voiced chanteuse for changing her name (it used to be Lizzy Grant), her look (she describes herself as “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”), and her lips (they used to be less promiscuously plump). But her biggest offense? Having a rich daddy. Suddenly, the young ingénue who had been once warmly welcomed by the indie rock community was reviled as a market-driven formulation.
And now Lena Dunham. Her precocious achievements—a critically adored feature film by 23 and a Judd Apatow-produced 30-minute comedy on paid cable by the age of 25—make her suspect. Something, other than talent, must be at work here. So we call her a rich girl. And what’s worse, she’s a rich girl playing a rich girl on television. And her castmates? All have famous dads, too. Ergo, none of them deserve to be recognized on their own. They are reduced to being someone’s daughter.
The trouble with all of this is that more often than not, we’re calling out rich girls while giving rich boys a pass. Mark Zuckerberg grew up in Westchester County, New York, the son of two doctors, and yet we don’t dismiss Facebook as the creation of a privileged kid. Nicolas Cage changed his name to distance himself from his famous uncle (which we laud), but Sofia Coppola only got where she is because of her father. Gwenyth Paltrow’s Hollywood pedigree is a liability while Ben Stiller’s is something to celebrate. The list goes on.
The old saying goes, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your family. Lena Dunham could have had the same parents and turned out an anonymous, talentless nobody. But she didn’t. And who she is, and what she has become, has everything to do with her own capacities and nothing to do with her parents. So say what you will about her appearance (I find her refreshingly real), say what you will about her show (I found it refreshingly real), but it simply is not fair to dismiss her as the product of nepotism when her male peers aren’t held to the same standard.
Stephanie Hlywak lives in Chicago. Her writing and reviews have appeared in Playboy, Flavorpill, Bookslut, and Rain Taxi.