Unless you’re a twenty-something year old woman, you probably have no idea who Lena Dunham is. Well you will soon. Until now Dunham’s cult followers have been downloading her HBO series, Girls, illegally but at 10pm tonight viewers will get a chance to see it on UK TV.
Lena Dunham is the latest pin up for those of us young women who think Caitlin Moran (a drooling fan of hers) is a little too old, a little too Wolverhampton and a little too successful to be a figurehead for our rudderless ship. Happily married since she was twenty-four, Moran isn’t exactly representative.
Girls seems to have hit a nerve with young women who are nearer the norm: waiting for their career to kickstart, sleeping with reluctant inappropriate men and all the while still believing the world owes them one. In one of the funniest moments, she counters her parents’ threat of stopping her allowance by ‘I don’t want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation.’ She falters, rethinks ‘Or at least a voice. Of a generation’. An apt dissection of the Me Generation, it’s as far as anyone thinks about anything else apart from themselves.
The series recently received five Emmy nominations. It is a spin off from her self financed film Tiny Furniture which was feted at Sundance. Not content with both writing and directing the film and the series, she also stars in them. She’s only twenty-six years old. She’s also campaigning on third runway ticket to be Mayor of Casterbridge. That last bit’s not true but you get the picture.
What’s unbelievable – but factually correct – is news last week of her three and a half million dollar advance from Random House for a forthcoming collection of essays centring around dating, food and morality.
Despite mixed emotions from mostly female commentators – and much evidence of seething green oceans of jealousy that make schadenfreude look healthy – I want to claim Dunham’s success as one for the sisterhood. She’s put pay to the myth that ugly women are funny – and beautiful women therefore are not – by being uncompromisingly average looking. She’s launched a cultural franchise and, despite being the product, she hasn’t sold out. She’s managed the impossible task of discussing sex frankly while making a program for women that’s not simply a SATC throwback and better than the overrated Bridesmaids. It’s even more impressive that Judd Apatow also produced Girls but Dunham stood firm and didn’t let poo jokes swamp her script. Now if that weren’t enough, unlike almost everyone else in the publishing industry, she’s managed to make money out of books.
If her essay in the New Yorker is anything to go by, her collection will be well written, wry, with a few arresting images – “The emotional acrobatics involved turned my heart into a hardened little gymnast with tiny tits and a leotard wedgie” – but basically in line with what every young liberal hipster in Brooklyn is thinking. The dominant references will be to herself. The chapter headings mooted thus far seem self consciously fey and more than a little tongue in cheek “Red lipstick with a sunburn: How to dress for a business meeting and other hard-earned fashion lessons from the size 10 who went to the Met Ball.” So far she’s managed to write about what concerns every aspiring writer: about being an aspiring writer. The idea’s so simple, it’s genius. In fact, it’s almost Proustian.
It’ll catch on; there’s bound to be a rash of young unpublished female writers who will be wondering how to turn that morning’s discovery of a rogue hair sprouting on their chin into a short story for the New Yorker.
But while you’re waiting for Dunham to put pen to paper – she’s got a busy schedule – I’d suggest taking a look at other female essayists. Eleanor Witt has just published a fascinating essay in the LRB explaining how internet dating originated while detailing the idiosyncratic homogeneity of hook-ups. Regular n+1 contributor Elif Batuman, author of the collection of essays The Possessed who has just got a deal from Harvill Secker for her first novel, is also wonderfully entertaining and knowledgable. Gangly and funny, she’s a Miranda Hart who’s moved to the East coast, converted to Judaism and become an academic with an expertise in Russian nineteenth century literature and a fascination with Balzac. She manages to evoke the wastes of Samarkand and the ice palaces of St Petersburg, while unpicking the intricacies of her floundering relationship with her maladjusted boyfriend. She may be fascinated by her gastric movements; but, like any good essayist, she makes you feel like a traveller treading further than the familiar ground of Brooklyn or the privilege of Tribecca.