The problem with criticizing Tiny Furniture is that, ostensibly, it’s a good movie. The pacing, plot and characters are all perfectly acceptable in the larger scheme of the subtle narrative arc it employs. The final scene between Aura, the main character, and her mother, Siri, is one of the better Bechdel-test-approved interactions that I’ve seen in recent film. The problem then lies in the obsessively self-centered, myopic portrayal of what everyone wants to call a contemporary, feminist “voice of a generation.”
At 25, Lena Dunham, who has thus far written exclusively about the struggles of being a post-college creative type, has seen little struggle, at least professionally. The daughter of a successful artist with an overpriced Oberlin degree, two well-received autobiographical independent films, and a heavily promoted HBO series under her belt, she has little in common with say, me. Or my friends. Or any other “women of my generation.”
That said, Tiny Furniture is stocked with several believable, “real” characters. The YouTube sensation that is being courted by cable TV; the girl who affects cool boredom while describing friends as “wildly talented” and “incredible.” The problem with these characters is that they are the exact people who you would avoid at parties—the children of wealthy New York elites with little passion beyond an idea of “artistic success” that has nothing to do with artistic practice. See also the cast of Girls: the daughters of Brian Williams, the drummer of Bad Company, and “reformed Liberal” David Mamet.
Let’s also talk about the roles of the marginal non-white characters in Tiny Furniture. At the restaurant where she is momentarily employed, the brown understaff are consistently referred to by both the head chef and Aura’s best friend as lazy and perverted. 2012, you guys!
Towards the end of Tiny Furniture, Aura decides not to move out of her mother’s house and, informing her potential roommate, says, “This is like the worst time to graduate college,” in some vague reference to the economy. However, Aura’s pervasive privilege keeps her largely sheltered from what is truly a generational experience of the lucky among us being overeducated, deeply in debt and incredibly underemployed. In the larger context of the movie, this statement is a joke, an excuse. She is even able to quit her above-minimum-wage hostessing job when a coworker stands her up on a date-question-mark. The economy has nothing to do with Aura’s inability to find and maintain gainful employment. It probably has more to do with the fact that she doesn’t seem to actually apply for jobs.
The film really falls flat when you step back and consider who this movie is for. As someone roughly Dunham’s age who spent both my college years, as well as my floundering post-college years in New York, supporting myself working as a grocery delivery girl, an after-school teacher, and eventually landing the marginally better paying holy grail of post-graduation positions, the executive assistant, I fail to identify with anyone but the mother. In a particularly prescient scene, the downtrodden Siri asks Aura’s best friend Charlotte if she feels as entitled as her daughter, a question that I was endlessly asking myself throughout the film. If Aura ate my frozen entrees and drank my wine, I’d be pretty irritated too.
In a New York magazine article (that is, the official magazine of the privileged middlebrow post-college woman that makes NYC her playground) entitled “Why Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ is Like Nothing Else on TV” in which writer Emily Nussbaum goes on to compare Dunham’s new series to nothing short of 5 other shows on TV, she states, “But Girls also suggests that entitlement can be a superpower: It’s the strength to believe, even when no one is listening, that you do have something to say.” Um, were your dictionaries broken, New York? Cause as far as I can ascertain, believing that you have a right to rail off whatever you want regardless of whether or not people are listening is part and parcel of entitlement. Girls is not giving voice to the voiceless. And furthermore, who exactly isn’t listening to Lena Dunham?
As far as feminism goes, I fail to see how Girls, a project that would not have been greenlighted without the self-described paternalistic support of Judd Apatow, does much for “our” cause. Yes, there is something to be said for the frank portrayal of promiscuous 20-something girls, but without an underpinning of anything resembling character or ambition beyond a misguided and privileged notion of “success,” these depictions end up being more self-deprecating than self-actualizing. And give me a break on the whole importance of flawed female characters thing. Cause there are plenty of far more interesting flawed women in television.
As a feminist icon, Lena Dunham is an industry cop-out. Regardless of her own personal ambition and motives, which may be totally feminist, the fixation of the entertainment industry on her as a feminist revelation and exception to all-male domination is far too convenient. Dunham’s characters are coddled and apolitical, never making reference to feminism as such. Their privileged acceptance of the status quo is a far more prevalent and convenient political statement than a character’s personal decision to obtain a perfectly legal abortion. What would be more radical? How about a 20-something without health insurance trying to finagle a gynecological exam from an underfunded, overextended Title X clinic? Not only would this tackle more challenging contemporary feminist issues, but it would be something that a million more women could relate to.
Girls reads like an ensemble cast of Gloria Steinems in which corporate success and sexual relations with men are the true measures of empowerment. As a woman, a feminist and a member of Lena Dunham’s generation, these are no longer the signposts of progress. Community-building, personal and artistic integrity, perspective, openness and an ability to work outside a prescribed system are the tenants of contemporary feminism that I cherish. Regardless of Dunham’s own political beliefs, calling her work a breath of fresh feminist air is sad proof that we haven’t come as far as we may have hoped.