I’m watching Girls. Hannah (Lena Dunham) is tweeting in her bedroom: “My life has been a lie, my ex-boyfriend dates a guy.” She deletes this and types: “All adventurous women do.” She stands up, shakes her hair, swings her tattooed arms and dances to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” I was this person once, I think to myself, as another girl (Marnie) walks into the room and laughs maniacally as the two discuss the shocking reveal that Hannah’s boyfriend, Elijah, is gay (“he seemed gay”). They dance together like white girls on Ellen. I tweet the video: “White girls with tote bags.” I realize that what felt relatable in 2012 now comes off like a camp-cringe spectacle that’s oblivious and dumb. It’s shocking. It’s perversely millennial. I like it even more than I did in 2012.
For those of you who’ve muted Dunham from your feed, let me offer an update. Per a recent Hollywood Reporter profile, Dunham said she self-exiled after the final season of HBO’s Girls, describing the tumultuous period as a “fifty-car pileup,” when the “pressures of churning out the hit series while being cudgeled daily on social media” nearly broke her.
Girls ran for six scandal-ridden seasons (2012-17). It was the first show caught in the zeitgeist tornado of Twitter, a show that everyone had an opinion about and, for the first time, could share in real-time. While I think Girls is one of the most stylish (and exquisitely curated) television shows of the past decade, it never transcended its era: millennial white girls struggling to find themselves amidst Brooklyn brownstones. Dunham was nude in every episode like a hipster Lebasque painting that Camille Paglia would mock as a “pile of pudding.” Dunham is undeniably gutsy for turning her plump figure into viral thinkpieces. Episodes of Girls were titled like a headline: “Vagina Panic” and “Female Author.” The feminist media felt like they had found their anti-sex Madonna. Dunham turned HBO into a body-positive runway. The media adored her until she gave them every reason not to.
During Girls’s six seasons, Lena Dunham’s oblivious, hipster-airhead persona blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction and turned her into a lowbrow spectacle. When pressed to comment on the lack of diversity in Girls, she rejected the accusation of racism by insisting she wanted to fuck Drake — which is outrageous. She was later accused of “hipster racism.” At the zenith of her celebrity, Lena Dunham published her own messy, lowlife memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, which included a John Waters-flavored account of Dunham playing with her little sister’s vagina. It led to Dunham being accused of molesting her little sister. In her defense, the only thing Lena Dunham ever molested was her book editor’s reputation.
“Lena Dunham sparks outrage” became a permanent fixture on the bird app. Because of this, she’s often remembered as a notorious figure who trended for saying that she wished she had gotten an abortion; trended for comparing the Holocaust and Bill Cosby, which required her to hire fixer Judy Smith — the inspiration for Scandal’s Olivia Pope — to manage the crisis. Is there anything queerer than this? I ask because in the nadir of her celebrity, i.e., as I write this, on the verge of (maybe) making a comeback as an indie filmmaker, Lena Dunham decided to leverage more of her shock value.
“When I go,” she tweeted one afternoon in October, “I want my casket to be driven through the NYC pride parade with a plaque that reads ‘she wasn’t for everyone, but she *was* for us’ – who can arrange?” I giggled and howled, but Twitter was aghast. It read like a scene from Girls that was crumpled up and tossed into the trash because it was too outrageous, even for Girls, even for a show that centered on white girls being outrageous, tone-deaf and so neurotic they made Woody Allen seem like Paul Newman. There’s also never been a celebrity who lobbied for queer sainthood in such a queer way. It also came after she brazenly compared herself to Marilyn Monroe, a well-established queer icon, in Vogue.
The only problem: queer people under thirty view Lena Dunham as a neoliberal white feminist equipped with all the phony-baloney talking points. They view her as a hipster, a racist, an annoyingly privileged theater kid and a deranged clown. What boggles the mind is how Lena Dunham does not have a publicist telling her this or proposing the John Waters strategy for redemption: become the joke, vomit all over your bad reputation and be the dizzy bitch you were always meant to be! Where is her queer fixer? Maybe she’s unfixable. She’s not alone.
I thought about Roseanne (my domestic goddess) killing her career with a single tweet. I thought about Lena Dunham. I thought about Bret Easton Ellis writing in White about how Twitter nearly turned one writer (yours truly) into a tragic footnote in the history of popular culture; about how even Bret Easton Ellis found himself in the zeitgeist tornado (he has all but stopped tweeting because of it). “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…” That’s how I feel about Twitter. It’s the heroin of my generation. But as I write this, I’m also tweeting about it. This impulsive need to workshop my stories on Twitter led to a discovery: Lena Dunham had blocked me on Twitter. I’m not sure why. It is a question I will probably never have an answer to, so naturally, I began obsessing over it. Was it because I teach in a creative writing program taught by the person who first accused Lena Dunham of “hipster racism”? Did I forget that I joined the pile-on when Twitter accused Dunham of being a child molester? I never thought she was anything of the sort.
I know this sounds deranged, but being blocked by Dunham, which coincided with Dunham’s latest queer PR gaffe, inspired me to teach Lena Dunham to my students. I am now the only person to teach Lena Dunham to college kids who do not know who she is. They know Woody Allen but not Lena Dunham. But she has reluctantly become the Woody Allen of a generation she defined but never transcended due to numerous zeitgeist-specific gaffes. College kids a decade ago viewed her as the voice of their generation or at least the voice of a generation, but for Gen Z, she’s either damaged goods or aged out of the current discourse, which is why she’s so queer to me.
Her impulsive need to shock and provoke didn’t “cancel” her, exactly, but instead trapped her in an era defined by what Dunham described as “blind spots.” She now lives in her own tragicomic “bottle episode.” It’s a millennial premise defined by publicity whores and helplessly provocative edgelords who are as messy as Lena Dunham, who wrote a show in which her characters were compulsively willing to overshare to the point of camp — Vice thinkpieces without gatekeepers — which is something I’m suddenly nostalgic for in a country where everyone sounds like a carefully crafted press release. I want stilettos, broken bottles, spinning around in circles. Lena Dunham was the low-culture Mary Tyler Moore. We need that person to exist today. We need someone to spin us around in circles. Everyone has become so prepackaged and frictionless. She may not be a queer icon, yet, and I’m not queer enough to anoint her, but as long as she continues to be outrageous, suffering ridicule for being fabulously herself, never resisting the impulse to say something shocking, pushed even further to the fringes, she could very well become camp-cringe royalty.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2022 World edition.