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.