How Old Does Lena Dunham Need to Be To Deserve Success?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 9 2012 12:06 PM

In Defense of Lena Dunham Being Young

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Photo by Desiree Navarro/Getty Images

I’m not feeling the hate for Lena Dunham’s flush $3.5-plus million book deal either, Alyssa. I’m actually looking forward to her book, if only for the novelty of reading advice for twentysomething women that’s actually written by one of them.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

Yes, Dunham has an irritating pedigree: Her parents are famous white visual artists (which means I’d never heard of them until their daughter became Hollywood famous). She’s got a history of exclusively hiring white people, some of whom tweet racist jokes. The fact that she is one of the only young women sanctioned (by Judd Apatow) to speak for my generation is a shame, but the rarity of her success shines a light on the strange position young white women occupy in the media today: They are its most valuable commodity, as long as they keep quiet.

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When Girls debuted, critics hammered Dunham for her class and connections. But they seemed less concerned that she came from privilege—that is an industrywide and really nationwide problem—than that she had managed to leverage it so quickly, rocketing from general-issue entitled Oberlin student to HBO series producer, director, writer, and star within the space of a couple of years. What I see, though, is someone who’s taken her raw talent and stacked-deck resources and smartly turned them into proven skill and a dedicated audience.

To some, though, she’s still too young to open her mouth. “Lena Dunham became eligible to vote in 2004, so you should listen to her,” John Cook (my Slate editor’s husband!) wrote at Gawker when details of her book deal were released. “TWITTER TWITTER FACEBOOK INTERNET IPHONE TEXTING.”

How many presidential votes does a person have to cast in order to have her voice taken seriously? How long is long enough for a young woman to read books and watch television and go to films and listen to music penned by older women—and mostly men? At 30, can we begin talking among ourselves?

The problem with the she’s-too-young-to-have-something-valuable-to-say position—beyond the condescension and the sexism—is that our media is otherwise highly invested in promoting the stories of young white ladies, as long as they stay in front of the camera. Critics rarely call nepotism on the many privileged young actresses hired to play young female characters written by middle-aged dude screenwriters (all of whom clawed their way up from life in a ragtag group of street urchins, I’m sure). The famous families of actresses like Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore, Blake Lively, or Kristen Stewart are more likely to be relayed as fun facts on their IMDB profiles than serious critiques of their work. 

We usually don’t knock down Hollywood royalty actresses—or their salaries—because we need that constantly refreshing stream of young women to fuel male screenwriters’ film fantasies. (Woody Allen keeps getting older, while the girls stay the same.) But an age-appropriate woman actually writing the lines and directing the scenes? Hasn’t earned it—you’ve got to be old to deserve to write about young people! 

Aging male filmmakers don't get criticized for hiring second-generation actresses, but Dunham did. The backlash against her was so strong it extended to the women she cast in her show, too—Zosia Mamet, daughter of playwright David; Allison Williams, daughter of news anchor Brian; Jemima Kirke, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon. It's fine to begrudge Hollywood for giving only the most well-connected women a leg up, but this particular commentary—Kirke's dad drummed on “Feel Like Makin’ Love!”—felt like a personal attack on Dunham, not a serious critique of the industry.

I’m as annoyed as anyone that a woman needs to be born into a finely calibrated environment of well-off New York City pop artists in order to get Hollywood’s attention and a publishing house bidding war—and that so far Dunham hasn’t appeared to use her position to give a leg up to less-privileged voices. (And as a twentysomething white woman born to two college professors, I’d also like to figure out how to cash in my intellectual pedigree for $3.5 million—please advise.) But youth is a poorly served minority, too. We get a lot of media aimed at us, and it’s mostly crap. The silver lining to Dunham’s fast track is that she hit the stratosphere before she logged so much time in Hollywood that she got too old to relate.

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