Lena Dunham steps further outside her already uncomfortable zone
Rarely do I feel the need to follow-up a review or feature as directly as I will this week. The dialogue on race, which began with “Django Unchained” last week, demands further exploration, although with the gaze turned now to the small screen, as the second season of the HBO series “Girls” enjoys its grand premiere rollout across the premium network. While not a regular television commentator, I find myself drawn to the HBO approach to storytelling, their curious artistic and investigative instincts, which lead them to working with creative types who would challenge and perplex the networks and even the Hollywood studio system. Former journalist David Simon (“The Wire” and “Treme”) has found a welcome home for his true fictional brand of social justice narratives that wander the dark streets on the edge of the urban landscape and cultural/governmental corridors of power in search of something far more complex than mere answers to societal ills.
And so, it seems, the next premium darling is young Miss Lena Dunham, the 26-year-old creator (the multi-hyphenate one-woman force of nature earned a following for her 2010 indie film “Tiny Furniture”) of “Girls.” The show – too easily dismissed as a twenty-something strain of “Sex and the City” – wallows in the ennui of its four female protagonists (Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet) as they search, largely in vain, for even the merest glimpse or sense of meaning in their lives. They have sex with guys more lost than they are, work but have no sense that there can or should be a “career path” to follow and chatter amongst themselves because there is nothing else to do. There’s no joy or passion driving any of these women – nor anyone else in their world. It takes a few episodes to settle into and realize that this isn’t a sign of some problem with Dunham’s creative efforts; it is, in fact, a brilliant distillation of what young women must really be feeling at the moment.
But what is truly fascinating, and relevant to my attempt at “explaining” race relations in “Django Unchained,” is the overwhelming whiteness at the heart of “Girls,” when the media has spent so much time heralding the arrival of this new post-racial rise of the minorities. We’ve been told, since the November election, the new racial norm is all about the emergence of a collective minority that is visibly loud and proud and spearheading a revolutionary takeover of the cultural space. Network television produces shows like “Deception” and “Scandal” featuring more diverse casts without drawing undue attention to race or ethnicity. Television has been ahead of the curve – moreso than film, it could be argued – in this respect as well as with gay and lesbian portrayals.
Yet, “Girls” has been quite stunning in its complete and utter lack of diversity, especially for a show set in New York. Admittedly, it took awhile for “Sex and the City” to embrace the overflowing colors and flavors of the Big Apple, too, but the micro-microcosm depicted on “Girls” nearly negates all of the contemporary edginess and indie spirit apparent in the show.
Dunham, towards the end of the first season’s run, attempted to address the concerns, admitting her own trepidation in stepping into these troubled waters because tackling race was outside her scope and she feared the inevitable backlash. Her sincerity inspired me to give her a pass, but now, as the second season looms, it appears that she has waded into the shallow end of the pool by adding a black Republican, played by Donald Glover, as a boyfriend for her character Hannah Horvath.
Dunham, as smart and funny as she is, lacks Tarantino’s White Negro credibility. This looks and feels like a hasty move to address her critics. Someone should have reminded her of the importance for the artist to be herself, but she’s got time to live and learn.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com