I don’t like Lena Dunham, but I have my reasons.
Dunham is the writer and creator of Girls, one of those “edgy”, sometimes-women-are-naked shows on HBO. Girls follows the lives of four young (and almost permanently and perhaps proudly unemployed) New Yorkers as they navigate the melodrama of their loveless love lives and self-induced trauma. Despite the startling banality of this premise, Dunham is extremely popular.
It is in Girls’ expression of characters who struggle — but skirt politics and real struggle against the system — and their selfish engagement with others, that fans are finding a way to live and be that affirms their inclination towards self-obsession and self-interest. In this tele-universe the characters live for themselves alone, and present a sanitised, cheap representation of love, politics, and the lives of women and gay men.
Up until very recently blind individualism was considered unattractive. Now, we are told to live our lives and make decisions for ourselves. And yes, as a liberal I’d like to continue doing that, but I want to separate selfishness from individual agency and freedom. Blind individualism sanitises and castrates all that is important in maintaining individual agency and freedom — democracy, friendship, love and politics.
One can exercise agency and freedom without behaving like a brat out of Girls.
In this world of blind individualism, Beyoncé is our favourite feminist without definition. She appeals to activism and real oppression without speaking substance to the issue. This is similar to Dunham’s character in Girls, who storms out of her new job at GQ because she can’t bring herself to write for “corporate overlords”. This career-limiting move isn’t built on some political principle; no, it’s built on what’s best for the character’s ego. She feels an internal guilt, a solidarity with self that cannot extend beyond making decisions that only serve to make herself feel better.
Love cannot coexist with selfishness and meaningful politics cannot coexist with this solidarity with self, and self only.
I think it’s incredibly important to examine the motifs used by the media and others to promote this culture and obsession with self, because there’s always a link and appeal to the things we may actually care about: feminism or love, for example. But the substance is always missing.
Beyoncé, the former Republican, is not a feminist icon. If anything, there’s an adherence to self-obsession in almost all her music. One need only compare the now infamous “I woke up like dis [sic]” lyric from Queen Bey’s song Partition to anything by Whitney Houston, or even Mariah Carey to see there’s a fundamental shift in the way we think about and now worship ourselves in the post-millennial world.
Of course, Beyoncé’s sudden coronation as the queen of pop culture (and feminism!) and Dunham’s popularity must have something to do with the way in which it affirms our innermost egotism and concern for/about ourselves.
And importantly: we can now indulge ourselves while pretending these people are actually selling us something else: activism, empowerment, feminism!
The real danger that exists in perpetuating the obsession with self as expressed by recent pop culture is the dilution and impoverishment of the things that sustain our souls — and freedom.
What’s at stake is a kind of love that extends beyond selfishness, a kind of sex that isn’t stilted and impersonal, and a kind of politics that isn’t devoid of meaning and substance. With Beyoncé as the new Pope and prophet of blind individualism, and people like Dunham expressing a sanitised politics of self, it becomes important to assert an alternative ethic of living and being.
We can choose to look beyond ourselves. Our lives might just actually depend on it.
Image – (L-R) Actors Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, Allison Williams and Zosia Mamet attend the Girls season three premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Centre on January 6, 2014 in New York City. (AFP)