Sunday, September 11, 2016

Lena Dunham's Awkward Millennial Moment

 Actress / writer Lena Dunham
As you may have heard, last week Lena Dunham, the creator, writer and star of the HBO series Girls, made a pretty big social media splash - and not for a good reason.

As the New York Times reported last Wednesday, she found herself on the defensive after comments she made during an interview with actress / comedienne Amy Schumer about Odell Beckham Jr., a talented African-American wide receiver for the New York Giants in which she ascribed thoughts and words to him that he didn't actually say.

Let me first say that I don't think that Dunham is a racist at all, in fact her politics are clearly pretty progressive.

When she made the comments in question, she was interviewing one of the most talented comediennes in the business via Skype, so clearly she was having a one-on-one conversation and trying to be funny, but it didn't come off that way.

The interview was published the Friday before last in the online newsletter Lenny Letter, which was founded last fall by Dunham and Girls co-creator Jennifer Konner as an online forum for young feminist voices to be heard through stories, essays and interviews.

It gained notoriety when actress Jennifer Lawrence published her online op-ed piece, "Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?" on the Website last fall, generating a slew of media attention to the gender pay gap in Hollywood.

During the interview with Amy Schumer two weeks ago, Dunham was trying to steer the conversation towards an issue that's very personal to her; the distorted perception of female body image that exists within media, art, entertainment and popular culture.

Dunham in a photo she posted on Instagram
Part of Dunham's appeal is that she's the opposite of the standard thin blue-eyed blonde stereotype that saturates film and television; she looks like an "average" woman, someone you might know or work with.

Her body isn't artificially "perfect" in the sense of the hyper-toned meticulously sculpted female figures most commonly seen in American films and television that radically distort perceptions of the normal body types of women and girls.

Dunham accepts herself for who she is; a talented writer with a voice who isn't afraid to express her opinion, or show her body off as evidenced by the nude scenes she's done on Girls or the pictures she posts on social media.

So as she began her interview with Schumer, who's made herself famous for her own jokes about her embracing her own body type, Dunham referred back to the fact that both she and Schumer sat at the same table at the ultra-exclusive Met Gala back in May.

The Met Gala is an invitation-only annual charity fashion event that benefits the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute that is chaired and hosted by Anna Wintour, the American Vogue editor and artistic director of publishing giant Condé Nast; individual tickets run about $30,000.

Although companies, or loaded individuals, who slap down $275,000 for a table often invite well-known people who might not otherwise be able to afford a ticket for the opportunity to mingle with them, simply because it's interesting and worthwhile to have them there.

So unless you're an A-list actor, really hot model, wealthy financier/lawyer/media executive, or a talented and well-known designer, athlete, musician, writer, politician or performer (or are dating or married to one of the above...) don't expect an invitation in the mail from the notoriously discerning Ms. Wintour anytime soon.

So it's more than a little ironic that Dunham and Schumer were at the same table at an exclusive event that is essentially a money-festooned ode to the "perfect" female body.

Dunham, dressed in a black tuxedo pants suit and wearing oversize thick-rimmed glasses, was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr. at the event and in an effort to sort of sarcastically play on her own personal insecurities about her body and looks in a room full of some of the hottest models in the world, during the interview Dunham told Schumer that she felt like Beckham dismissively looked at her because she wasn't as attractive as the other women at the Met Gala.

Giant's receiver Odell Beckham
She told Schumer:

"I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr. and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards. He was like, 'That's a marshmallow. That's a child. That's a dog.' It wasn't mean, he just seemed confused." 

Then it got even stranger.

"The vibe was very much like, 'Do I want to f*ck it? Is it wearing a...yep, it's wearing a tuxedo, I'm going back to my cell phone.' It's like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than having to look at woman in a bow tie. I was like this should be called the Metropolitan Museum of Getting Rejected By Athletes."

Check out the comments on for yourself, they came pretty early in the written online interview.

As I said, I don't think Dunham was being racist per se, but her comments about Beckham, even if meant in jest, clearly tap into damaging, demeaning and enduring stereotypes about black American males being simplistic, over-sexualized predators consumed with bedding white women.

Last week black female culture writer Zeba Blay took Dunham to task in a well-written op-ed titled
"The Way Lena Dunham Talks About Black Men Is Peak White Entitlement" posted on Huffington Post that noted that Dunham has had several other instances or comments with decidedly racial overtones that have made media headlines since 2011; including comments she made during a 2013 interview suggesting black Canadian rapper Drake didn't find her physically attractive.

Does Dunham have some kind of "thing" about black men not finding her attractive?

I don't know. Her style of humor tends to be so layered with cynicism and sarcasm that at times it's hard to pin down what Dunham herself actually thinks or believes, versus what she wants people to think that she believes.

It's hard to gauge what's in someone's mind, but my sense is that Dunham's comments reveal an awful lot about her own personal insecurities about her body and her looks, I mean if you read her quote above, if you didn't know she was a 30-year old writer and actress, you might have thought it was written by a sixteen year old high school girl who secretly pines after the varsity quarterback.

Again, from the perspective of a guy who played college and professional football, I've been around and known a lot of very talented athletes, white and black - many of them come from very modest means that are lightyears from the privilege that surrounds professional football.

Claire Danes at the 2016 Met Gala
It's important to remember that although Odell Beckham signed a four-year contract worth a guaranteed $10.4 million when he was signed as a first-round agent out of LSU in 2014, including a $5.8 million signing bonus, and was listed on GQ's best-dressed list in July, he's still a 23-year old kid who grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The football players you see on the field may exude confidence, but they're still human.

Lena Dunham is not only seven years older than him, she's made a movie, pitched and sold a TV series to HBO, started a Website and been published as a writer; she's a "player" and as such has had infinitely more experience at formal events packed with influential and wealthy people - she's also been attending the Met Gala since at least 2014.

So maybe she didn't stop to consider that Beckham might simply have felt a little bit insecure himself at that table at the Met Gala surrounded by some of the wealthiest and most famous people in the world.

If she was so curious about what he thought, why didn't she just turn to him, introduce herself and try and get to know him? Isn't that what most of us make an effort to do when seated at a formal event or affair with people we don't know?

Maybe Beckham sort of retreated into looking at his cell phone because no one thought to include him in the conversation taking place at the table.

Have you noticed that looking down at one's cell phone and pretending to be occupied has become something of a social crutch of sorts in today's hi-tech society?

A lot of people do it, but I think it's especially true of Millennials, who at times can seem tethered to their phones through some sort of WiFi umbilical cord.

Maybe there were other social dynamics at that table that Dunham simply didn't pick up on that caused Beckham to tune into his phone.

I mean, say for example Chase Manhattan or Time Warner had paid $275,000 for the table at the Met Gala where Schumer, Dunham and Beckham were all sitting that night, and the rest of the people at the table were wealthy C-level executives of the company with their spouses who all knew each other - Beckham might have felt left out or no one thought to include him the conversation.

Believe me (not to "Trump" out), I'm a fairly intelligent guy who can converse on an any number of topics, and I've been to social occasions where people make some pretty base assumptions about me because they find out I play or played football - there are people who think football players are lunk-headed idiot simpletons.

But to get back to the topic, as Dunham said, she had Amy Schumer at the same table and they've known each other for years and are friends - I'd be interested to know if there were any other people of color seated at that table or what the dynamics of the conversation were.

Schumer, Dunham & Beckham at the Met Gala
There were certainly some A-list black people at the Met Gala event including Rihanna, Beyonce Knowles, Jay-Z, Drake, Kanye West and Idris Elba among others - but of the 600 guests who attended, how many of them were people of color?

Personally I think Dunham's actions were something of a "Millennial-thing"; Millennials being those born in the 1980's to early 90's.

Obviously it's not fair to ascribe behavioral characteristics to an entire generation of people.

But in both the professional and social sense, American Millennials have certainly been tagged with attributes that can sometimes cause Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers like myself to scratch their heads; in particular a tendency to be remarkably self-focused and to use social media to broadcast anything they think onto the internet.

So I think Dunham's identity as a feminist whose also sort of unofficially been dubbed by the media as the "voice" of the Millennial generation (Hearst Media backs her Website and Time-Warner behemoth HBO bought her series Girls...)

If you stop to think about it, what really qualifies Lena Dunham to be crowned as the unofficial spokesperson of the Millennial generation?

Sure she wrote and directed the critically well-received 2010 film Tiny Furniture and found a way to successfully tap into some of the anxieties of Millennials and fictionalize them for an HBO series; but does she genuinely represent the Millennial mindset and values?

Maybe it was just convenient for mainstream media to appoint Dunham because the executives who spend their days trying to figure out how to market to them and sell them stuff had a hard time understanding them and their elusive (and oft all-consuming) social media habits.

Does the Millennial voice have to be someone who had been on television or in the movies?

Remember last fall when a white University of Southern California fraternity brother leaned out of a window of his frat house and hurled a nasty ethnic slur at Indian-American student Rini Sampath and chucked a drink at her as she was walking by?

USC Undergrad Student Body Pres. Rini Sampath 
Sampath just happened to be the president of the USC undergrad student body, but the frat brother didn't know that, in the bliss of his ignorance he just saw a female with dark skin walking by with her friends and took it upon himself to say what said and do what he did.

In true Millennial fashion Sampath, whose undergrad student body vice-president Jordan Fowler is an African-American woman, quickly took to Facebook and posted about her experience as a means to try and make sense of what happened.

By doing so she brought national attention to the climate of intolerance on the USC campus, (like the University of Texas chapter of Phi Gamma Delta that banned Mexicans, gays and interracial dating) and brought focus to the prevalence of bigotry and prejudice at American institutions of higher learning.

That's when the Washington Post and other large national media outlets picked up the story.

Incidents like that were the topic of a lot of mainstream media discussion last fall, winter and into the spring, illustrating how the divisive racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump campaign had seeped into mainstream culture; as if intolerance and bigotry had been given a collective nod of approval and some students took it upon themselves to openly express that on the campuses of their respective colleges.

So why doesn't mainstream media crown Rini Sampath as the voice of the Millennial generation?

She's certainly a feminist in the truest sense of the word and has devoted herself to causes like mental health, religious and ethnic tolerance and the promotion of diversity on college campuses.

Clearly her own message is as relevant as Lena Dunham's is, and arguably just as meaningful - it's certainly less snarky and more inclusive in the racial, ethnic and cultural sense.

I may be just a Gen X fringe media guy, but in my book Rini Sampath makes a pretty good case for being regarded as the "voice" of the Millennial generation.

Again, I don't think Dunham is a bad person, maybe she just needs to develop a social media filter, or just stop and consider that just because a particular train of though pops into her head, it doesn't mean everyone is going to find it as witty and urbane as she seems convinced she is.

Or maybe Millennials simply find the old adage "some things are better left unsaid" a bit elusive.

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