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For Lena Dunham, the pastry is political

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I don’t want to brag here, but, you know, I’m very “down” with the “Youth Culture”. There is little that this demographic does of which I am not apprised, and if you need to know anything at all about their Google chroming, flip-phone “texting” or very keen interest in the defiant music of James Blunt (youth fact: a “blunt” is what you and I would call a jazz cigarette!) consider me a one-stop source.

OMG. JK. LOL. I have no familiarity with the proclivities of youth at all. But, I’m starting to think that I’m not the oldest person in the world to know nothing about our youngest. Comrades: I give you the intellectually menopausal Lena Dunham. She’s saying things about the beliefs of young people that, I think, are truer of the beliefs of older people. Namely, that their keenest wish is for more “positive” and personal representation, and not for a better reality.

Lena Dunham, creator and star of the especially good HBO dramedy Girls, is eager to share her elderly thinking, in addition to her youthful art.

This is the bullshit hand-me-down belief of people my age. Persons, like me, who grew up in a period of great affluence were so comfy, we were able to say, “Now, I’d like to see better things on TV”. With our free education, affordable housing and implicit belief that democracy had delivered a good life to most—and it did in the west for a few short years—we were at our liberty to think that the material work of history was done, and that we were now able to relax and fret largely about the quality of the immaterial.

Was our culture representing women well? Did persons of colour have satisfactory roles on TV? Were there sufficient Inspiring LGBT Role Models in parliament? These were the questions that consumed us first in cultural studies tutorials, and then in all the media of all the west. A ‘90s cultural obsessive might not unreasonably suppose that government, having delivered economic benefits to most, had now nothing left to do but give us fierce and empowering speeches. The purpose of our legislators in this still social democracy was now indistinct from that of our entertainers: to inspire us. Yay. Misogyny speech. (A parliamentary moment I could remember more fondly if it had not unfolded on the same day as legislation authored by Gillard that hurt single mothers was passed in the Senate.)

Let it be plainly said that I, like anyone who is not formed from the basest ressentiment, enjoy empowering and atypical people in parliament and on TV etc. But, due perhaps in large part to my failure to become a property owner, I am beginning to think of this will for represented diversity as not just a “distraction” from the social and economic poverty that many, including myself, now face, but as a dangerous ideological delusion. And one, moreover, that young persons are beginning to do away with, no matter what Lena Dunham, so rich and so richly cultural, says.

Yes, it would be nice to see this representational stuff; it might even have a good psychological outcome for certain people. Take your nude selfie and call it an act of disobedience etc. But, if we uphold the ‘90s fiction, as Dunham does, that it is political to see this stuff, then we’re thinking in a way that is both old and fucked.

To say that empowering tattoos, “self-care” massages or nude yoga can be “political” is to return to the mid-century.

Dunham, creator and star of the especially good HBO dramedy Girls, is eager to share her elderly thinking, in addition to her youthful art. She does on a range of stages, from the Democratic National Convention to lingerie shoots to her own newsletter, Lenny, where last week she posted an editorial on how everything was political. Not just things on TV!

To her readers, she cooed:

Every single one of you is engaged in your own act of political warfare. Whether it’s drawing, baking, doing a fucking awesome job at something that’s traditionally male, OR being tough as nails at a job that’s traditionally female, you are reconceiving what activism looks like.

Everything nice that you do for yourself is political. For many hazily described reasons, but primarily because it’s “self-care”. Dunham recalls an episode from her childhood:

My earliest memory of self-care, not yet named as such, was when my mother allowed me to take a “mental-health day” from third grade.

She then recounts the purchase of clothing and deli-goods:

My mother had given me permission to relax every fiber of my being and, in doing so, reclaim my fight. And that’s something I’ve found about self-care: we often need someone else to jump-start it for us. Giving ourselves permission — to rest, to recharge, to realize self-indulgence isn’t actually self-indulgent at all — is especially hard for women.

In the same week that she had stripped down to her scanties, an act that Vogue said “matters so much”, Dunham declared it wasn’t only acts of representation in media that were political, but acts of pastry as well. The Personal is Political.

It’s dangerous to think that anything you do is likely to have a Positive Political result.

Dunham says that both self-care and positive representation are “reconceiving” political activism. Actually, it’s exhuming a form of activism that even predates me. To say that empowering tattoos, “self-care” massages or culturally sensitive nude yoga and other personal acts can be “political” is to return to the mid-century. We’re getting really old, here.

The Personal is Political” was not an essay title of which its author had approved. In a 2006 introduction to a 1960s work that had examined the power of personal storytelling in small (small) consciousness raising groups, Carol Hanisch says she didn’t even CALL it that, and locates her claims historically. She says the essay was a “response in the heat of the battle”. Even within the original essay, Hanisch said that women representing themselves to other women in small (small) consciousness raising groups was a provisional tactic. There are no “solutions at this time”. (My emphasis.)

In its ‘60s context of private activist spaces, this “personal is political” strategy is useful. In the context of a Vogue shoot, a widely read newsletter or this week’s “My Self-Care is Revolutionary” response to some woman or another getting her kit off on Instagram, it kind of loses its power. Amplified within a mass or social media, the bold cry “This is Me” is apprehended by many as an indulgent whisper.

This is not to suggest that anyone should desist in acts of self-expression. Get your mams out or bake scones; these acts are unlikely to impact your future and anyone who says that those selfies you took of yourself nude and covered in baker’s flour is “dangerous” is a dick. (Although, please do wear an apron when removing the batch from the oven.) But, it’s also, in my view, dangerous to think that anything you do is likely to have a Positive Political result. Do it. Just don’t delude yourself it’s “political”.

It’s true that the personal is always political in that we all live in political economies. But this doesn’t mean we can call every act “political”. Nor can we call every act of “self-care”, as Dunham does, as meaningful sustenance for the revolution she thinks can be fought and won on premium cable.

The problem is that even if you do think that treating yourself well, and not punishing yourself, is purely “political”, you also run the risk of not recognising pure “politics”. This permits you to remember the famous misogyny speech as a day that changed everything for women, and not as a day that extended Howard policy and ended the hopeful future of many women. This permits you to read Lena Dunham’s Manhattan childhood as something entirely divorced from the most purely political thing, which is capital. You know. That thing, unlike feelings of personal empowerment, governments have the power to control.

I would fucking love to bake scones this afternoon. But I fucking can’t. Because my “personally political” time is scored over with the need to make a wage.

Lena has parental approval to take a “mental health day” from grade school. It’s good that Dunham got to explore her selfhood in a loving family; I wish that for all children. But Dunham’s error is to remove her “personally political” experience from actual political history. This was an era in which the US public school system began to fail; in which many other children were taught almost nothing in miserable buildings bounded by metal detectors.

Dunham’s “self-care” is seen as just a decision some parents and individuals can make, and not one that is entirely contingent on capital. I would fucking love to bake scones this afternoon. But, I fucking can’t. Because my “personally political” time is scored over with the need to make a wage.

Anyhow. I shouldn’t grumble about my own limited time for “self-care”, when I know that young people, many of whom find themselves in a deprived economic class, have it worse. Which is why they’re turning such a substantial political attention toward leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, both of whom have capital, that purely political thing, as their primary political agenda.

Culture is important. Personal desires and acts are important. Of course they are. But to say, as Dunham and others do so forcefully, that they are things we can examine, critique or enjoy when we have, as young people do, limited social and economic capital, is a very old lady idea.

Empowerment, positive representation and self-care are all fab. I don’t even suggest that they’re indulgences. But, it is indulgent to say that the means to enjoy the immaterial sensation of a “body-positive” lingerie shoot or selfie has nothing to do with the material world. Duck-face don’t pay the rent. And Lena Dunham needs to get more “down ” with “the youth” who no longer perceive the pastry as political.

30 responses to “For Lena Dunham, the pastry is political

  1. Dammit Lena, if self-indulgence isn’t self-indulgent then what the hell is?! I love Girls but politically Dunham always seems to focus on paltry things like pastry and body positivity for people with rich girl hair who like to eat. At least she’s still infinitely less insufferable than Russell Brand has become (remember when he used to be kind of fun and very charming?).

  2. Great article as always Helen.

    Just would just like to add:

    “Which is why they’re turning such a substantial political attention toward leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn”

    As well as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Pauline Hanson.

    Their followers don’t tend to be so young, but give them time.

    1. Apologies for the phrasing confusion – looking over my shoulder at work whilst I type…

      “Which is why they’re turning such a substantial political attention toward leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn”

      Give them enough time and soon they’ll follow Trump et al.

      1. I’m not so down on the younger generation David. I’m not sure that they have been brought up with the same demons that we have, and my exposure to that generation through my children gives me reason to think they are our last best hope. They aren’t buying the bull that they have been fed and have too many sources of information to believe anything willy-nilly as we may have, as HR hopes, and I too, they aren’t listening to our dreams and hopes and advice, thank God.

        The followers of the Trumps, Hansons and Farages are heavily weighted to the older generations that are seeing their old way of life being threatened.

        The younger generation don’t have the same dreams that many of us and older did. They have no chance of owning real estate except through inheritance, little chance of a lifelong career, will have to think and move much more flexibly than we ever needed to.

        They aren’t having their dreams smashed because they can’t afford those dreams, so for a certain number of them they are dreaming much bigger, like equality, fairness, skills and life experience, a government and an economy that serves them. I wish them well. They will surprise you, I hope. It’s that or the seventh circle of hell.

        1. Not necessarily down on the younger generation Dog’s – attempting to rear a couple there myself.

          I just don’t think the generations despite all the ballyhoo are all that different – the young and idealistic today will buy their houses (or equivalent) tomorrow and become fogies the day after.

          Solomon Grundy sort of stuff.

          You’re right, the dreams aren’t necessarily the same, I just think the story arc (for most of us) is.

    2. I don’t think your claim will be borne out. I appreciate the pessimism. But material socialism has really electrified literal millions of young people in the US. 200,000 young Britons have joined Labour for Corbyn. We see nothing like this active support for nativiat parties on any demographic. Material socialism (or as I know it, socializm) is a more substantial belief than racist isolationism, something young people in the west, being fairly anti racist on the whole, just have no interest in.
      Things are changing for young people. They really are. It’s fucking great.

      1. I hope so Helen.

        I just don’t know.

        The Left’s problem is its tendency to splinter. The many headed Hydra of identity politics which you so rightly have been railing against is a perfect example.

        All that energy being expended into “STANDING FOR X”, “STANDING FOR Y”, “STANDING FOR XY” where the Right just have to appeal to self interest.

        The Left punches itself out chasing shadows (and mystifying those who they should be standing for) whilst the Right just waits for us to get old.

        1. Splintering is a problem everywhere. It’s a human problem. With the left it’s a case of splintering into being the right.
          The left is no longer left, but liberal. We are SO convinced in liberal democracies that there are just two choices: tolerance and intolerance. There’s a third one. Being actually left and seeing that tolerance (as per Zizek) is an ideology.
          Tolerance and intolerance are two sides of the same coin. The new “left” sees tolerance as indistinct from solidarity, which is something very different. On a true left, I believe, you can and must have solidarity for people you can’t personally tolerate. I can still fail to tolerate you, but I can have solidarity with you. You may be a Muslim cleric, for example. You may believe in the subjugation of women. What can I do to have solidarity with you? What is our common ground?
          So long as the purported “left” keeps purging itself and going on with what is to me this obviously Enlightenment era liberalism (Kant) about how we need to act in “good will” and be ourselves perfect before we can do anything, the left will do nothing. Nothing but “call out” its own internal divisions.
          Of course, at the personal level, you are going to have to say to people sometimes “you are being a sexist racist fool”. But, this is now all the left does. Follow the dream of the categorical imperative. Make itself as nice as pie. Purge itself of unclean thinking.
          Solidarity doesn’t mean I have to like you.

  3. “But, it’s also, in my view, dangerous to think that anything you do is likely to have a Positive Political result. Do it. Just don’t delude yourself it’s “political””

    Thanks for the explanation and the history of the phrase “The Personal is Political.” I had always struggled with the idea, couldn’t grasp it and never knew where it came from, but given its context as you have, and the fact that it was never intended in the way it has often been used since, I can now understand what it was saying. I think. Personally I don’t buy it, and essentially you have explained why I never did, it’s indulgent and full of shit, or if I was a nicer person would suggest ‘that it’s a long bow’.

    But yes, the way that you live your life and interact with others is a political event, it’s just that politics isn’t at the forefront of my mind when I treat people equally whether the cleaner or the CEO. I just don’t think of politics when I work less hours than I could, because I don’t quite need that extra bit of money but I do need the time off during the week to keep me sane, but I do recognise that not following ‘the man’ could be construed as a subversive act, if I was being political.

    So thank you. Something daft and inscrutable has been made scrutable, and so I am now more scruted than I was.

  4. GIRLS was a show that appealed to a noticeable but still insignificant amount of viewers in the world of ratings and influence. It was successful and some people enjoyed it although I am not the demographic. It’s difficult to make and execute a show so there is no malice there.

    However it is interesting that Lena Dunham, personally, appeals to no one other than herself and is one of the worst examples of a human being who has created a cult of personality that is as vacuous and empty as her soul. She and Hillary should do well together. She is one of the worst examples of the evil power of the internet in my lifetime.

  5. I loved Girls too. However, let’s not forget Lena’s now in Taylor Swift’s “squad”.
    I think if she had anything interesting to say before, she’s well and truly pushed it aside for some good old down-home self promotion. Not surprised she’s on the self love bandwagon now.

  6. I don’t like the “old lady” quip. Seriously – it detracts from a really good piece. The old ladies I met were old communists, the old ladies I know now are second wave feminists. All really good, really political people.

    1. As an Old Lady, I understand your discomfort.
      I was merely making the point for young readers that Lena’s purported youth is not especially young.

  7. I’m a 54 year old, married male. 2 kids.
    Probably as far from what the ‘demographic’ was for this show as you can get.
    I bumped into Girls channel surfing (is that still a thing?) and have been addicted ever since. Howlsteryically funny. Empowering for any girl who isn’t rake thin. (can I say plump)? Beautifully filmed and constructed. An ability to take itself seriously, yet kick its own stupid arse at the same time. A rare beast.
    For this, I am forever grateful to the brilliant and funny Ms Dunham. Pure joy.
    If the artist has since become a bit of a bore, so be it. Don’t search for reasons to tear another woman down. The quality of the art that she has left behind, excuses all in my book. If you want to know what “the youngsters” are on about, ask THEM!
    Political? shlomitical? Fuck off, let’s dance!

    1. So. Critique of widely expressed thinking if it is performed by a woman is “tearing a woman down”. I am unable to analyse anything uttered by a woman in case you think of me as anti-feminist? Thank goodness you stepped in to correct this error.
      If I did not now know that it is wrong for a woman to speak about another woman’s ideas, I’d say it wasn’t me urging my peers to vote for Clinton on network TV, on my online newsletter and at the DNC. It wasn’t me that has said that the personal is political on a large stage and so, the only thing to do is vote for Hillary, a political figure who is personally female . But. Sure. Let’s agree that Dunham hasn’t done anything political and that I should simply celebrate her. And Hillary. Because they’re women.

      1. Thank you, Helen, for this reply. I know some feminist journalists that are excited about Hilary, you know, first female president etc. Or who are troubled that there are not more women in Federal parliament as if the women behind Malcolm and the one next to him are there, because the personal, ie. they are female, is political. Equally it is ridiculous if this woman Dunham (I have no idea who she is nor what she produces on TV) maintains that anything you do for yourself, you know as a woman, getting a fashion shoot or spending time on yourself “because you are worth it” is a positive sign of your political power, or bake a cake, for God’s sake!
        It makes this female dinosaur weep, if it wasn’t that I think young women are not so easily fooled to confuse the personal with the political in this way.

  8. Born in 1945; Read The Female Eunuch, Betty Friedan etc., Ms Magazine etc in the 70s. The expression, “the personal is political”, was a life-changer for me. However, I like to keep up with feminism as it evolves. I am sure many of my contemporaries do also. I enjoy your work.

  9. Lets assume that Lena (whom I, in the interests of full disclosure, think is a talentless bore who has been fortunate to be born into a privileged family in entertainment and has fully exploited the concept of nepotism) is genuine about political discourse. Lets assume Lenny and its ‘ideas’ are not just Goop by Gwyneth with different formatting and a less expensive design and PR team. Lets assume she actually buys what she’s selling. Be political by acting personally.

    Here’s my issue: how the f*ck does that actually create systematic change? How does it address structural inequality? How does that demolish capital distribution systems that are primarily founded on the exploitation of labour to pass monetary benefit and power to the wealthy few? Obviously, it doesn’t. But more importantly (and this is where I think Lena and her ilk are incredibly harmful) is that it distracts from the ever grinding machinery that further entrenches social and economic inequality.

    Whilst Lena et al say ‘woo boobs are great and self-care is great for your soul’, we fail to stop the companies and lobbyists that are actively shaping policy to further their aims. At the expense of the very people that Lena is purportedly helping. And being so detached from the day to day issues of say, the working poor who don’t have rich showbiz parents to land them an apparently good series, Lena ends up using what I assume Marx would call the ‘opiate of the masses’ – not religion but the cult of personality to distract from the real problem: exploitation and corruption and corporate greed..

    Whether she means it or not, Lena is an incredibly insidious and unhelpful force in terms of making the world a fairer and better place. In my opinion, she’s worse than a kardashian. At least they know they are there to distract and separate people from their money. Lena is a whole new, and apparently oblivious, level of evil.

  10. Yes and i and i have to say Russell Brand’s abscence during Brexit was peculiar, never was a platform more suited to a branded character ( pun entirely intended) such as Russell. I always knew that Tariq Ali saw the inevitability of Corbyn, he spotted it 3 years ago , just would have loved to see my mate Brandy add some fire,brimstone and Branding to this evangelical movemement which has been a very long time coming .

    1. That *is* kind of interesting, actually. Why was Brand, so vocal on so many issues, inclined to abstain here?
      Unlike others, I do not entirely loathe Brand. I mean. I thought his “don’t vote” thin was appalling. I know it came from a good place; he was so (and not unreasonably) convinced that the state functioned chiefly to protect private property, that he said “abandon the state”. For mine, this is a bit too naively revolutionary. We have nation states. They’re not going anywhere soon. It seems to me that to hold these institutions accountable and to demand that they serve all their citizens is our only hope. With no nation state, then capital is “freer” to dominate us than ever before.
      But, he had acquired a certain economic understanding and as much as he grandstanded and benefitted personally from exactly the kinds of tax concessions he protested, I thought he was a sort of a kindergarten force for good. That, at some point, he would have a really long talk with a really sensible Keynesian or Marxist (things are so crap, I am no longer fussy about which) and come up with something better than “fuck the system”.
      Brexit was, for the left, a great conversation. Tariq vs Yanis was something wonderful to behold. (My heart is with Tariq. My head is with Yanis.) I mean. It was actually fantastic. Sales of left wing books are up. Membership in Labour has never been higher. Young people are, with little thanks to Russell, reading books about actual economics. Poor bastards. How boring.
      And where is Russell in this pivotal time?
      My guess is that he didn’t want to risk imperlling the Brand brand. Remain has become fr so many a cause that is, somehow, on the side of anti-racism. It’s so weird. Remain is not an anti-racist cause. To add confusion, it’s not, strictly speaking, a finance sector cause, either. Don’t all these neoliberal guys want “freedom” in the market, not cast expensive machinery to uplift it. (You and I know this is their central hypocrisy, of course. They want a “free” market entirely regulated in their favour by a state. It doesn’t work, otherwise.)
      Anyhow. He was gutless. That’s the answer. He wasn’t prepared to go to the edge of complex thinking to address the concerns of young people, who have now out-read him in any case.
      All is chaos under heaven.

      1. “My guess is that he didn’t want to risk imperlling the Brand brand. ”

        He’s off having a baby. He finished up his political news show almost a year ago, said he was sick of him being the news, rather than the stuff he was talking about. I imagine his thinking on Brexit was as nuanced as his view on voting (ie, don’t vote, unless there’s something or someone to vote for).

        This article is great, btw (that’s Youth for ‘by the way’). I would pay money to watch you and Zizek in conversation. Although not as much as I would pay to watch Lena Dunham read this article.

  11. Dunham’s politics remind me of the postmodernist wankery I studied at uni in the 90’s, which I enjoyed when I was 21, but now view it for its individualistic bullshit which did not help the feminist (or ‘progressive left’) cause at all. How is covering yourself in flour going to help single mothers who got financially shafted by Gillard or suffer domestic violence? Get real Lena!

    Mark Petrolo – give me Russell Brand’s politics over Dunham’s, any day!

  12. ‘The personal is political’ makes intuitive sense when discussing fair allocation of domestic duties in the marital home, but it falls short the way it has been exemplified by Helen here. I don’t wanna get political here (by which I mean ‘expressing an opinion’, not crossing the floor or voting on something like in actual Politics) but oh that reminds me of something I read in a Feminist treatise once.. ‘Boredom’, the author lectured haughtily, ‘ is a form of Violence’. I remember thinking.. fark.. what ISN’T violence? Is violence just your new favourite word for something you no likey, lady? I think English is a bit prone to word fatigue and clearly the word Political has just meandered so far and wide from its original etymology .. that we need to reign it back in again. Thanks Helsey! May I call you Helsey? No? Oh… sorry..

  13. I must be old or oldish because I fail to see the importance of remarking about Dunham and her feminist ideology when it has such a small following. Am I missing her self importance or the false hood of trumpeting such that is popular ? As for the young Brits; if that is true bummer they couldn’t stop brexit & any way what will it equate to in political action ?.

    1. She appeared at the DNC. She us regularly reported on in news. Her newsletter is widely distributed. You may find her and her regular political pronouncements unimportant. Many don’t. She’s significant. That’s why I chose to focus on her very common ideology.

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