Why people love to hate Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke and Allison Williams (the cast of Girls) filming on the Streets of Manhattan.

Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke and Allison Williams (the cast of Girls) filming on the Streets of Manhattan. Photo: Aby Baker

Despite the romanticized images portrayed in film, television, and of course books, being a writer actually means spending most of your time doing one of six things: writing, thinking about what you want to write, thinking about what you actually have to write to make money, chasing payment for what you have written, agonizing over the fact that another writer is possibly being paid more than you are for his writing and, obsessing over whether that writer is more, or less, talented and deserving of said payment than you are.

This means that thanks to her multi-million dollar book advance, not to mention her hit television show Girls, (which aired it's second season finale in Australia last night), Lena Dunham has driven plenty of writers to a level of resentment bordering on mania that makes Salieri, the mediocre composer driven to an insane asylum by the not-at-all mediocre talents of Mozart in the film Amadeus, look sane by comparison.

Even though writers and artists are generally thought of as the emotional and temperamental opposites of those who inhibit hyper competitive fields like professional sports, law or investment banking (which is so competitive studies have deemed it physically unhealthy), the truth is plenty of artists are even more competitive. After all, I don't think I've ever heard a tennis player ranked number 10 in the world complain in interviews about how incredibly overrated that Roger Federer is. Of all of the lawyers I've met, I can't think of one who's talked my ear off about how insane it is that another attorney with celebrity clients is pulling in a ridiculously unfair hourly rate. Yet these kinds of conversations consume writers. I've had them with writer friends. They've had them with other friends. We've all had them with our agents, husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, or parents. And many have had even more of those conversations in the last year, and a lot of that has to do with the success of Lena Dunham.

A google search of "I hate Lena Dunham" now produces more than a million results, (summarized here) which is quite a lot for someone who entered the public consciousness less than two years ago. The question is why? I asked a mental health expert. Dr. Jeff Gardere, said in his experience professional jealousy among writers, and other people in the arts and entertainment can be more common than in other professions, because the same traits, and ego, that attract people to fields in which their work will be the center of attention are the same traits that drive someone to intense competitiveness that can manifest as professional jealousy. (Ouch. But, hey, this writer did ask.)


Now before the eye rolling and angry comments from my writer colleagues begin, I want to be clear: not every person who is a critic of Lena Dunham is jealous. But the level of vitriol she has inspired in some corners signals that there is more to the story than some simply not agreeing her talents are up there with Tolstoy -- and Dunham is not the only writer to inspire such reaction.

When literary wunderkind Jonah Lehrer's career imploded the undertone of glee with which some in the media seemed to be celebrating was palpable. For some it wasn't just celebrating, but a sense of relief, like a baseball player learning that his teammate who was breaking records, while he was stuck hitting singles, had actually been using steroids. (At the height of the Lehrer scandal writer Jonathan Shainin tweeted: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice knows that he's actually in the schadenfreude business.")

Danielle Belton, a former print journalist who launched a successful career as a blogger before transitioning to television as head writer for the BET talk show Don't Sleep, with T.J. Holmes said of professional jealousy among writers, "A lot of this stems from what measures a 'good' writer is really rather abstract... Writing isn't like sports. It's very subjective, like art." Belton went on to note that because the definition of what constitutes great writing (and other art) is essentially indefinable, writers will always resent certain writers who receive more critical acclaim or financial success because no matter what others may say, that writer might consider his or her peer less talented than he is. To her point, even his competitors who loathe him (I'm looking at you Isiah Thomas) can't say Michael Jordan had no talent. His professional record beating them speaks for itself. But there is some writer out there who is convinced Ernest Hemingway was a hack and Mark Twain was an amateur.

As a black woman who has written about diversity in the media and entertainment, I am certainly sensitive to legitimate criticism of Dunham's work, particularly the lack of cast diversity in the first season of Girls. (Something Dunham herself appears to have discovered a newfound sensitivity about as well since she is attempting to remedy that this season.) But the most vocal criticism of Dunham has boiled down to this: Dunham is from a privileged background (she is) and the cast is comprised of other people from privileged backgrounds (they are.)

The thinking goes: privilege is the only reason she got a show in the first place. Oh and by the way her book advance is too big.

Dunham is from a privileged background. Her book advance is big. Really big. So big it will take a miracle for the publisher to recoup it and as a result there are some other authors who may not get signed for a book this year, or next, because of the millions going Ms. Dunham's way.

But that doesn't change the fact that if someone offered me $3.7 million for a book deal, I would take it, and let the publisher worry about the money. There are few people on this planet that would do differently.

Just one small detail. Most of us have never been offered $3.7 million for a book deal, and never will.

That's not Dunham's fault though. Most writers know that, but a good number seem to resent her anyway.

My thoughts on the role of privilege and nepotism in society, particularly in competitive professional environments are pretty well documented. In a nutshell, privilege and nepotism are bummers for the rest of us, but not going anywhere, but at the very least beneficiaries of nepotism should be gracious and acknowledge the benefits of being born on third instead of acting like they hit a triple. They should work their tails off and justify being given the opportunity that they may not have earned to prove everyone wrong who believes they don't deserve to be there.

I'd say Dunham did that with her Golden Globe wins speech earlier this year.

While I certainly wish I had her book advance I don't hate Lena Dunham. The main reason I don't hate her is because after five years working in media as a minority from a non-privileged background I have finally accepted that privilege gets most people in the door -- particularly in fields like media, fashion, entertainment and even politics. But it's no longer enough to keep you there. Just ask Pippa Middleton about the future of her writing career.

But the main reason I don't hate Lena Dunham is because resenting her career does nothing to help my own. As Gwen Cooper, New York Times bestselling author of Homer's Odyssey and of the forthcoming Love Saves the Day: A Cat's Novel, put it, "I will occasionally envy another writer's talent, but that doesn't make me feel bitter -- it makes me feel that I need to work harder on my own writing, so I won't have to be so dissatisfied with it."

And Dr. Jeff Gardere said this is ultimately the key. If you not only want to survive, but thrive in extremely competitive fields, professional jealousy can be healthy, if you channel it the right way. "It can be helpful if someone says, 'I want to be better than that person,' then they may push themselves to go even further... Professional jealousy is okay as long as you don't allow it to consume you and become feelings of hate for the other person. Use it to help you get to the next level so you can be the best that you can possibly be."

Cooper went on to add that the other reason she doesn't dwell on writers who may be less talented but more financially successful is because, "there are at least ten other writers who are more talented than I am, doing more artistically important work than I do, who will never even be published."

Susan Fales-Hill, a former writer for The Cosby Show and the author of Imperfect Bliss said in lieu of jealousy she tries to channel the words and spirit of the late African-American opera singer Camilla Williams. Williams, a predecessor of Marian Anderson's watched as her friend's career eclipsed her own and she was largely forgotten by history. When asked if she was bitter, Williams replied, "I don't believe in bitterness. Bitterness shows up in your song."

It can also show up in your writing.

This piece was first published on The Huffington Post.

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Political Correspondent for The Root.com.


  • I like Lena and her show. I just can't stand the fact that she or Girls appears in Daily Life so frequently. Don't you have anything else to write about?

    Date and time
    March 20, 2013, 8:44AM
    • Spot on. If I go by the number of times Girls or Lena Dunham get mentioned in Daily Life (and I've never heard of it otherwise) the show or Lena must be the most important thing in feminism today. I'm sure it's a good show but surely there must be plenty of other things to write about!

      Date and time
      March 20, 2013, 10:43AM
    • I agree. I just did a search for 'lena' on DailyLife and no less than 66 articles came up. So obviously, DailyLife love to love Lena. I enjoyed the first season of Girls, but I've found the second to be tedious and lackluster. It's so "real", I find it to be quite unreal. ie. every guy the character Hannah encounters seems to find her utterly irresistible. I mean, a few is reasonable...but every single one, come on. However, I think Lena Dunham's achievements are phenomenal and she should be celebrated as a young person who is striving in a highly competitive industry, in the face of (apparently) so many haters.

      Date and time
      March 20, 2013, 11:52AM
  • I dont hate her so much as her character and indeed GIRLS show as a whole, which is her brainchild, therefore i dislike her. Sorry thats harsh, i find her uninteresting. I sat through all of season one and find it all very pretentious in that typical American "Look at us, our cast isnt pretty models but normal looking women (etc), we are doing tv the unique, blah blah, arent we so clever". But its something UK tv has been doing for ages. They cast who is best for a role above all else unlike America.There is just something artificial and try-hard about GIRLS that really rubs me up the wrong way. It doesnt help that i find her character one of the most unpleasant people to watch and indeed in real life I would never spend time with such a person.

    Date and time
    March 20, 2013, 8:52AM
    • You say you don't hate her, then spend a paragraph explaining why you hate her.

      Date and time
      March 20, 2013, 11:27AM
    • Actually it was a paragraph about how much i hate the entitled character she plays and the show she has created and how that makes me less incline to find her interesting as a person off screen. The author pondered a question and this is why I (and sure others) believe i have a unfavorable reaction to her. Silly and flaw I know. True none the less.

      Date and time
      March 20, 2013, 11:51AM
  • Not seen Girls and i've no opinion on Lena Dunham either way but i am starting to get annoyed at the sheer amount that i hear about her in the media.

    Yeah Yeah Yeah
    Date and time
    March 20, 2013, 9:57AM
    • That so much has been written about this woman speaks volumes about the female voices on television and the movies: basically, she and Kathryn Bigelow are it.

      Date and time
      March 20, 2013, 10:12AM
      • What about poor Tina Fey? I'm not sure if it was Daily Life or its predecessor platforms, but at one point a whole story was beaten up about people saying women aren't funny just because she isn't and is over-exposed. The message was that if you don't find Fey funny, you are a misogynist. There is nuance in all of this, but most of it seems to lie in decoding the passive aggressive gushes about Dunham et al. from women who don't actually find her funny either.

        Date and time
        March 20, 2013, 2:51PM
    • This is an excellent article.

      Possibly the key reason artists and writers are so hyper-critical and competitive is because their work is not judged on any objective KPIs, rather people subjectively judge their work based on their personal likes and dislikes. As the author mentioned it is immediately apparent who is a better sportsman by who wins the race and more often than not the better lawyer or banker is based on seniority and experience. It is unfair as many talented musicians, actors, artists and writers will disappear in the mix but unfortunately life is not fair.

      Date and time
      March 20, 2013, 10:21AM

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