The limits of selfie feminism

Although she is a year older than me, about the only thing that Lena Dunham and I have in common is that our introduction to computers was through Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

Last week, the creator, writer and star of acclaimed HBO series Girls launched her latest project, Lenny Letter. A collaboration between Dunham and Girls producer Jenni Konner, the enewsletter aims to provide ‘a snark-free place for feminists to get information: on how to vote, eat, dress, f–k, and live better’. Konner and Dunham write that ‘millennials are often accused of incredible solipsism that manifests as a desire to Instagram their own belly buttons rather than engage with the world around them’. But, they tell subscribers, ‘that’s simply not true — and you’re the proof.’

The inaugural issue greets readers with a proud feminist selfie: sandwiched between Konner and Dunham is Hillary Clinton. It was a ‘surreal honor’, says Dunham, to sit down and talk with this ‘First Lady with a career and vision of her own’, whom she had admired since she was nine. Clinton is a surprising, yet somehow disappointingly unimaginative choice. The message appears to be that women like Clinton – confidently tilting at the highest seats of US political power – are the besuited proof of the triumph of liberal feminism.

Whether you agree with Hillary’s politics or not, she represents something beautiful and all too rare: a woman choosing to say ‘No thank you’ to societal expectations. A woman who gets up when she’s been knocked down, attacked for not just her politics but her marriage and her body. A woman attempting to claim a historically male space and saying, without a trace of apology, ‘I can do this, and I deserve this.’ A woman who gets what’s so cool about a suit. That’s what excited Lena in the third grade, and it’s what excites us now.

If her social media presence is anything to go by, Dunham has done very little to dispel the perception of female ‘millennials’ given to over-documenting the banalities of their lives. Girls follows the post-college experiences of four twenty-something women in New York, who are often between jobs yet seem immune to rent stress. The show is admirable for its frank exploration of such topics as abortion, sexually transmitted diseases and the discovery that one is a target for dick pics – issues that speak to the experience of vast numbers of young (white, western) women now coming of age. Yet I have often felt there is a crucial scene or two missing. Hannah’s experience might have been represented a tad more realistically if we had occasionally seen her checking her balance at the ATM and witnessed her face drop at the (lack of) figures on the screen, before she trudged home for another night of beans on toast. Or if just one of the characters returned home with aching feet and a throbbing head, suffering the particular defeated exhaustion that accompanies a six-hour retail shift during which you are forbidden to sit down.

In the pilot episode of Girls, Dunham’s character Hannah ventures that she could be ‘the voice of my generation. Or, at least, a voice of a generation’.   Slightly inebriated after ingesting opium tea, she had burst into her parents’ hotel room to plead that they continue supporting her ‘I’m-trying-to-be-a-writer-in-New-York’ lifestyle. The claim has since attached itself to Dunham and been parroted uncritically by mainstream journalists, but it is one that Dunham is undeserving of, largely because of Girls’ roundly criticised lack of racial diversity. The two-thirds of Brooklynites who are Black have no place in Dunham’s opus other than as background scenery or thinly drawn caricatures. Dunham addressed these criticisms rather inelegantly in season two by giving her character a Black boyfriend, who was swiftly dismissed.

While feminist commentator Roxane Gay was one such critic, she also commends the force of Dunham’s vision, offering that ‘we have so many expectations for this show because Girls is a significant shift in what we normally see about girls and women’. But as Gay rightly points out, Girls is haunted by the unacknowledged politics of class:

Girls … represents a very privileged existence – one where young women’s New York lifestyles can be subsidized by their parents, where these young women can think about art and unpaid internships and finding themselves and writing memoirs at twenty-four. Many people are privileged, and again, it’s easy to resent that because the level of privilege expressed in the show reminds us that sometimes, success really starts with where you come from. Girls is a fine example of someone writing what she knows and the painful limitations of doing so.


In my efforts to give Dunham the benefit of the doubt, I sought out her feature film Tiny Furniture.  Although it predates Girls, I was disappointed by the sense of repetition: here we were, back in a New York loft, pondering the post-college stumblings of twenty-something women. Dunham’s Girls co-star Jemima Kirke reprises her role as professional scrounger and vision of expensive bohemian chic.

However, after perusing her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A young woman tells you what she’s ‘learned’, I was ready to concede that the limitations of Dunham writing only about what she knows are indeed painful. ‘I had a lucky little girlhood,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t always easy to live inside my brain, but I had a family that loved me, and we didn’t have to worry about much except what gallery to go to on Sunday and whether or not my child psychologist was helping with my sleep issues. Only when I got to college did it dawn on me that maybe my upbringing hadn’t been very “real”’. A dorm mate there referred to her as Little Lena from Soho and the comment, she says, nagged at her: ‘What was it that I couldn’t understand and how could I understand it, short of moving to a war-torn nation? I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had experiences to gain, things to learn.’

Like Caitlin Moran’s popular How to Be a Woman, Dunham’s tone aims for quirky and loveably insecure, but where Moran has a hilarious turn of phrase, Dunham’s telling of her neurotic childhood comes across as dry and unfunny. A full third of the book is given over to assorted romantic attachments and moments of sexual awkwardness taken from Dunham’s ‘intimacy database’. Perhaps the only thing that is genuinely refreshing about Dunham’s memoir is that she is unashamedly self-obsessed. As you turn the pages, it becomes clear that the inspiration for Girls’ central character is purely autobiographical. Hannah and Dunham are cut from the same privileged cloth: each the daughter of two middle-class professionals, negotiating romance, friendship, jobs, as well as her own insecurities, in The City of Dreams.

Hadley Freeman, writing in The Guardian, situates Dunham within the emerging genre of ‘clit lit’:

Some commentators have argued that clit lit is helpful to teenage girls because it teaches them that bad sex is par for the course. But the other side of the coin is that this genre suggests the only truly interesting thing about a woman is her most intimate personal life. Certainly, Dunham sees her self-exposure as a benevolent feminist act: ‘There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman,’ she writes. But saying a story deserves to be told doesn’t mean that it inherently does.

Dunham claims she wrote the book because: ‘If I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile.’ It is in this spirit that she offers advice on such relevant topics as how to look comfortable going nude on national television: ‘people are always curious, so I’m going to tell you what it’s like to lie in bed in a room full of onlookers and simulate intercourse with someone you may or may not know … It’s fucking weird.’


In a review of Lenny Letter, Australian columnist Helen Razer writes, ‘Dunham, for mine, is a gifted auteur whose Girls is a beautiful and uncompromised self-portrait. As a director, actor and screenwriter, the woman has already outdone the best of Woody Allen. As a progressive commentator for Her Generation, she can really shut the fuck up.’ Razer once passionately defended Girls from harsh feminist critics who, she argued, held Dunham ‘to an absurdly high moral standard’, yet here she offers a scathing dismissal of the kind of watered-down progressivism that women like Dunham stand for: ‘“feminism” in the critically uncritical age of GetUp! has ceased to mean anything beyond, apparently, not hating one’s own vagina.’

Konner and Dunham have emphasised that Lenny will not be a forum for their own shameless self-promotion. Rather, they wish ‘to bring other people’s voices forward’ and highlight women who might not have a large audience right now. They have also hinted that the newsletter will eventually introduce an e-commerce component, featuring collaborations with ‘independent female artists and designers in ethical, affordable, and witty apparel and design items’.

While Lenny might be low on snark, it is arguably short on substance. This is perhaps unsurprising given that its co-creator is in no hurry to check her own considerable privilege, and that she continues to be celebrated for a concept no more subversive or original than a younger-generation Sex and the City. About the only radical thing about Dunham’s ambition is her wish to be clad in a ‘fierce jumpsuit’ while she tries to ‘have it all’, and by ‘all’, she means the standard feminist script of career, middle-class lifestyle, and, eventually, marriage and kids – ‘for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a mother’, she confesses in her memoir.

In Dunham’s work, viewers will find no representations of survival in post-recession America, of how vast numbers of young people are staring down the barrel at a future in which there are few certainties beyond insecure jobs and mounting debt. And it irks, because unlike Dunham, most of us do not have the choice to linger on the edge of the world of adult responsibility. Nor do we have the luxury of pretending that our soft self-probings are of interest to anyone but ourselves.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Meave Noonan is a PhD candidate in Sociology at RMIT University.

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  1. I agree with most of what you’ve said here, Meave, but the same questions keep swirling around in my head every time I read a piece about Lena Dunham – and yours was no exception.

    Why is it becoming increasingly impossible these days to call yourself a feminist without other feminists feeling that they get the final say? Moreover, why isn’t it okay to just let someone like Dunham exist in a wide spectrum of feminist thought? Lastly, why devote an entire article to discuss the impact of one measely, spoiled rich New York (I think Dunham is well aware of her privilege here) on the feminist movement? Why not talk about someone else?

    • That’s a really valid point Cayce.

      You’re right in pointing out that there are a wide spectrum of voices under the banner of feminism. I suppose from my perspective I tend to get frustrated with those feminists, like Dunham, who are made much of by the mainstream media and yet fail to properly situate their critique within the context of patriarchal capitalism.

      I think that is where someone like Laurie Penny is doing some great things, offering a feminist perspective that is driven by social justice and that speaks to the broad issues facing young people, male and female, growing up in a neoliberal world.

    • Because this piece has nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with merely wanting to associate oneself with the rich and famous.

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