Lena Dunham, the Anti-Mary-Sue

Despite the abundance of great shows coming out (and my dearth of time), I’ve become hooked on Lena Dunham’s works. She writes, directs and stars in mimetic comedic dramas that all express one theme: painting her in the most unflattering light possible.

Tiny Furniture was Dunham’s breakout hit, a $50k indie production that lassoed her friends and family, and led to major commercial recognition. She plays an immature, insecure, and occasionally manipulative girl, recently graduated from film school and having no idea what to do with her life. Her real life mother plays her character’s successful, somewhat detached mother, and her real life (model) sister plays her character’s prettier and more successful younger sister. Jemima Kirke (a real-life friend) steals every scene as Dunham’s drug-scarfing, alcohol-quaffing, utterly uninhibited friend whose deadpan encouragement becomes terrifying (see the scene when she reads out truly excoriating Youtube comments on one of Dunham’s videos).

Among all these beautiful people, Dunham mopes about the house without pants, whines with great self-entitlement, pulls faces, tries desperately to hook up with some truly awful guys, gets into awkward situations, and embarrasses herself repeatedly. If you don’t like that kind of humour or have to identify strongly with the protagonist, stay well away. Dunham’s character’s (usually futile) efforts to impress others are amusing, and a far cry from the attractive, self-assured, righteous protagonists in other series.

Despite her masochistic adventures, Dunham’s character is nowhere near the moral high ground, casually screwing over those she can afford to, and she undergoes little enlightenment before the end. In these kind of works, I think it’s more important to depict truth than desired truth.

Though everything is scripted, the style is massively naturalistic (apparently from the Mumblecore movement), and there’s a rawness to the way the film addresses its themes of being young and entitled, and unattractive and insecure. There are some beautiful moments (I liked Dunham’s split-second look of shock when she’s slapped in greeting by Kirke) and fantastic lines:

  • “He’s a little bit famous.”/ “Yeah, I guess so, in an Internet kind of way”
  • “Maybe just put on some pants.”
  • “Do you have the same sense of entitlement as my daughter?” / “Oh believe me, mine is much worse.”
  • “I think everything’s right, for every context – and you can quote me.”
  • “What could be worse than the street?” / “A pipe in the street.”

I also watched Dunham’s “Tight Shots”, a series of naturalistic shorts on Youtube that mockingly portray the dynamics of a film-making group. Here as the fictional writer/director, Dunham is more demanding and aggressive, but still puts herself into humiliating situations (“This is my fat-sucking underwear”).

The great strength of Dunham’s work is its unflinching, un-self-conscious, almost satirical portrayals of the flawed and contradictory experience of just-graduated twenty-somethings. The depictions of the actions and situations of this group are incredibly realistic. Her work is definitely a niche taste, but I really like it.


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