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Don't Call Lena Dunham a Genius

Posted: 21/01/2014 16:03

The deluge of profiles, the magazine and newspaper hagiographies, and the red-carpet-bombing of our fashion pages recently all tell us one thing about Lena Dunham. The filmmaker and director/actor/creator of the HBO show Girls is a genius.

Publications describe the 27-year-old in the most breathless prose, buoyed by quotes from her admirers. She is "that rare literary talent that will only grow from strength to strength...." says Susan Kamil, editor in chief and publisher of Random House.

She's "one of the most powerful women in TV," American Vogue asserts in its cover story, out this week. "Since Girls launched in 2012, the 27-year-old Dunham has become to comic television roughly what Bob Dylan was to sixties folk: She's not the first person to wield her form and her subject (middle-class postcollegiate life), but she does it with such unmatched skill, charisma, and vision that she's now the genre's uncontested master, the standard other people strive to reach."

In short, the Best Thing Ever.

Let's get one thing out of the way: I like Dunham. I think she's smart and talented. I find her show fresh, fun to watch and thought-provoking, yet not flawless. I was disappointed I didn't catch her film Tiny Furniture when it was playing in London.

I know not everyone is a fan. Some consider her airbrushed image in Vogue a betrayal, some maintain that the Girls world is too privileged and white. James Franco thinks "the guys in the show are the biggest bunch of losers" he's ever seen. (James, call me. We'll discuss.)

But leaving aside the specific praise and criticism of Dunham's work, the genius label is a bigger issue. We need to stop crowning her, in one way or another, with it. It's not good for her and it's not good for us either.

First off, it does Dunham no favours.

It sets off the wearily predictable boom-and-bust cycle we put our celebrities through as we build them up then tear them down again. The bigger the hyperbole, the nastier the backlash.

Yes, you might say, but when it comes to her work, it's the highest compliment. Not really. It actually reframes Dunham's accomplishments not so they're based on hard work and years of creative successes and failures but instead are creative masterstrokes, effected solely by God-given talent, blowing our minds in one fell swoop.

The label is frequently invoked to extol her ground-breaking move of featuring nudity and sex scenes with regular-people wobbly bits and icky emotional dimensions. But that's really just letting us off the hook for accepting the sanitized alternative. After all, if this wasn't a genius idea, we would be shallow jerks for all these years only accepting TV sex that was powerwashed clean, exclusively featuring thighs as taut as cheesewire, right?

That's why ultimately the biggest problem with invoking that word is that it allows the media and us to pop her up onto the pedestal entitled "Woman Describing the Modern Female Experience" then return to our regular lives. We don't have to listen to other women with alternative experiences because, look, we've already got that one over there and see how much we idolise her?

The adulation doesn't inspire other voices; it tamps them down. She is the "uncontested master", the model, the prescriptive standard other people should strive for - although they haven't a chance in hell in achieving such lofty heights unless they too are "genius".

It could turn out that with the benefit of time and perspective Dunham is upheld as a performing, directing, and writing talent like no other. In the meantime, let's applaud - or debate or disagree with - what she really is doing now on its merits and leave the G word alone.

 

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