The Empress, Quite Literally, Has No Clothes


I’ve been putting off writing this essay for some time, waiting for the ‘right moment’ I guess. As though there is ever a ‘right moment’ to write a scathing criticism of an individual and their artistic output. It’s kind of a dick thing to do, I’ll admit. But god dammit, when it comes to Lena Dunham, it really needs to be done—and done by smart ol’ me. Because even though there is plenty of distaste out there for her and her work, it seems no one is really getting to the root of exactly why she should be despised. So, over the course of this essay, I will break down, on a deep, intellectual level, exactly why she is a counterfeit artist, and why Girls is a hazardous product that goes against the proper functions of storytelling.

My first encounter with Lena Dunham’s work was stumbling on a link to the trailer for Tiny Furniture. It had just been acquired by IFC, and said link was making the rounds as a ‘dude what the fuck is this piece of shit’-type curiosity. The line delivery was so amateurish, the dialogue so faux-witty, the plot so narcissistic, the directing so non-existent, the cinematography so mishandled, the characters’ eye lines so blatantly incorrect, that I absolutely could not wait to see it—and, see it eviscerated by critics.

But critics, as so often happens, dropped the ball. Not all critics, mind you, but most of them. The film currently holds a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. Some of the critics who contributed to this unwarrantedly high score are probably just morons. But to assume they all are would be unfair. The truth is that most critics who gave it a positive review are probably mildly-observant enough to see that this is a very flawed film. They just felt like giving it a passing grade anyway, out of pity for the sad, lost, dumpy girl.

Like a too-forgiving mother, they mistakingly believed that if they helped her out ‘just this once’, she’d change. She’d break from her mopey rut, comb her damn hair, wear things that are not embarrassing, eat with regard towards food’s effect on one’s body, move around enough to burn off her lazy jiggles, surround herself with mature people, truly hone her craft, and maybe one day even make a real film.

These assumptions were and are all pipe dreams. Lena is perfectly content being an irresponsible, warts-and-all pig wallowing in her own filthy arrested development—and, with the success of Girls, has now built a powerful career around it. She’s an affluent, all-grown-up, liberal ‘Honey Boo Boo’—and similarly, a sensation. However, the toddler queen of TLC is accurately seen by most people, including her viewers, as emblematic of a growing national problem. Lena, on the other hand, is seen as positive, strong, fearless, a feminist icon, a role model, the ‘voice of a generation’—all this despite having absolutely nothing of substance to offer her audience.

Although lost chicks may enjoy her work, and dig that someone is finally speaking ‘for’ them, and ‘gets’ their ‘struggle’—and maybe even, as a result of this, they feel slight relief from the pain of their life—this is actually the absolute worst possible entertainment for them. It provides nothing they truly need: no wisdom, no rationality, no objectivity. It’s the blind leading the blind. She’s the pied piper of frumpy 20-somethings.

Her goal is not to help her fans transcend their shittiness and become awesome people—if they did, they’d no longer enjoy her insipid works anymore. Instead, her goal is to keep her audience just the way they are: infants, sucking on her teat for ever and ever. Because so long as women have no idea what the hell they are doing, Lena, the profiteer, profits.

Does this sound like an artist to you? Does this sound like art? Of course it doesn’t. It isn’t. It’s a deception. Like a crack dealer selling to their own neighborhood, their own brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles and next-door neighbors, Lena may be ‘just providing what her customers want’ but it sure as hell is not what they need.

The purpose of art is to make people’s lives better. To help them see the world in a new way, and understand more, and feel more, and do better things. That is the power of myth. Of storytelling.

Girls exists to do none of these things. Its goal is to be your pseudo-life, and for its characters to be your pseudo-friends that you must catch up every week on the gossip of. No actual story is being told, and there are no actual character ‘arcs’—just character ‘straight lines’, so to speak. Things happening.

No one grows—neither the characters, nor the viewers. Which I guess is like the ‘point’ or something. (And the only ‘point’ Lena Dunham seems to know how to make.) How much longer she’ll be able to get by on this ruse, I have no idea. But the public is bound to wake up at some point, realize they’re being sold empty boxes, and take their business elsewhere.

Look, there are plenty of brilliant works of art out there about lost girls. Works that have actual nutritional value, and depth, and will forever stand the test of time. There’s no reason to waste your hours watching drivel. That time could’ve been spent way more wisely. But it’s not too late. I’m here to help.

Cody’s Fantastic List of Ten Fantastic Films About Lost Girls:

Fish Tank (2009)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Rosetta (1999)
The Last Days of Disco (1998)
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
The Match Factory Girl (1990)
Another Woman (1988)
Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1976)
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
Brief Encounter (1945)

Any one of these films are light years, galaxies, universes better than Lena Dunham’s work. Knock yourself out. And if you have ideas of ones you think might fit the bill, leave ‘em in the Comments section.

30 thoughts on “The Empress, Quite Literally, Has No Clothes”

  1. Another superb read, Cody. Every word suspenseful. Can Lena’s works possibly still be considered ‘art’, albeit banal? P.S. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” has been compared to my own personal life by several unbiased persons. After watching on DVD, I respectfully must agree.

    1. Thanks a lot, Mary!

      I think her work can be considered ‘art’, but I personally don’t put much stock in the word itself. Art is like anything else—it can be used for good or for bad, so to speak. Much like how a gun, a hammer, a fist, and many other things can be used for self-defense or murder.

      Girls is a ‘work of art’, simply because it exists and is technically an ‘artistic expression’—but who cares? If it sucks, it sucks. A person that is shot by a robber doesn’t wanna hear about how a gun is technically a ‘tool’. I feel similar when it comes to being harmed by bad art. You feel the pain on a visceral level. (Which isn’t to say you should always trust your gut—sometimes a great film can make you feel awful because it throws a wrench in your world view. There’s a great movie about this very topic called ‘Spirit of the Beehive’ that I highly recommend.)

      Basically, Lena Dunham is a ‘counterfeit artist’ much like you would call a chef a ‘counterfeit chef’ if they brought you a plate of food that looked like a plate of food, but tasted awful and was in fact quite bad for you.

      Great to hear you’re a fan of ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’! One of my favorites, for sure. I think everyone on some level can relate to that movie. School is brutal.

  2. Cody, my friend – I am so luving your fantastic personal reply to me – thanks! I have not seen “Tiny Furniture,” nor do I happen to have HBO by which to analyze “Girls.” Speaking of “Girls,” however, I Wiki’d it this a.m. and find myself feeling a bit queasy from the apparent ‘storyline’ – aside from its high degree of triteness. And yes, school can be brutal – but did it or did it not help to shape our wondrous outlooks and insights, heehee?! For that I am eternally grateful – it was worth a few finger fucks.

  3. My boyfriend is 9 years older than me and pretty much despises what I guess is our generation (20-somethings today, as portrayed in Girls). Sometimes I try to explain, but mostly I just agree because I kind of hate them too. He’s also really smart and insightful and shit and I take his opinions seriously.
    So the other night we marathoned Season 1 of Girls at his request. I had seen the first two episodes and wasn’t planning on watching the rest but I did. We both thought it did an amazing job at portraying these people – maybe it was even more interesting to him because I live in this muck to a greater extent (he couldn’t get over the scene where Hannah takes a long time to craft the perfect tweet about how she has HPV). I’m sure there are a lot of girls watching it because finally someone “gets them” but we both thought it was a fairly critical look at things. Or maybe that just depends on how cynical you are.
    It’s also a modern day version of Sex and the City, except actually much better and more realistic. I know both of these shows aren’t high art or have much artistic merit, but SatC shaped a lot of the cultural landscape during the time it was on, and you can’t just dismiss that as people being stupid. Also, I think all the subtle allusions to it are pretty cute.
    Two more things:
    1. The other day I was thinking about TV shows where you start talking about the characters’ personalities, like “That Hannah is so fucking frumpy and weak, she needs to just get her shit together already.” That’s a good sign, when you start giving advice to the characters. Of course, if she smartened up, lost some weight, brushed her hair, dumped her retarded boyfriend and got he life on track, there’d be no show. Maybe what’s so annoying is that her problems are so easy to fix, and she isn’t doing it. But my first point rests.
    2. The soundtrack is pretty good. In the closing scene, they played Lady (chorus: “My pussy be yankin'”) who I never realized anyone’s ever heard of.

    1. Yana,

      The show is pretty good at showing what a particular breed of 20-something is like. Everyone knows some people that are somewhat like these characters, or maybe even sees a few qualities in themselves that are similar. I don’t fault Lena there. I fault her at the stuff that truly matters: plotting, storytelling, character arcs, actual character depth—the list goes on. Basically, these characters may resemble people we know, but they are crude, flat portraits. And behave as such.

      What she has constructed is essentially a soap opera. Cardboard cutouts going through situations that are shocking and gossipy and addictive. (Although, as opposed to actual soap operas, the characters somewhat resemble people we know.) Its only goal is to keep going, and going, and going, like the Energizer Bunny, and for you to keep watching.

      I too have watched the entire first season of Girls. I didn’t enjoy it, but I found it very educational as far as ‘what not to do’ when it comes to writing. A course could be taught on its poor construction. The way you feel about Hannah, that you wish she’d just get her shit together, I feel about Lena. And in both cases, she never will—if she did, as you said, there’d ‘be no show’.

      1. More thoughts:

        When we talk about shows changing the cultural landscape, what are we really talking about? Usually what we’re talking about are sensational, surface aspects. Sex and the City drew a lot of attention because it showed female characters talking on TV about topics related to sex and relationships in a very frank manner, and engaging in sex acts without it being about eroticism. That was an alleged ‘milestone’ that pushed the ‘boundaries’ of TV. Same goes for Girls, for it showing ugly, awkward sex and having a frequently nude protagonist with an odd, conventionally unsexy body. But, as the late great Andrew Breitbart might retort—”So?”

        No battle is being won by some trivial surface thing happening on TV that doesn’t ‘normally’ happen on TV. No one is being liberated. No one is truly being empowered. If a person feels liberated or empowered by the mere fact that Lena’s bare jiggles are jiggling on TV, and feels like that’s some sort of Feminist victory, they have been successfully tricked into thinking that. It is an illusion that there is some anti-woman ‘Man’ in charge of TV who is seeking to keep women down by not having frumpy nudity on TV. Really, all that ‘Man’ cares about is your dollar and your viewership.

        The way to truly win a battle, and break ground, when it comes to TV, is to create great TV. It is remarkable that great art can ever make it through the gauntlet of Hollywood. That ‘The Wire’ exists, that ‘Deadwood’ exists—these are true victories.

        1. Cody: This question has been clawing at my cranium for a week, but there is no delicate manner in which to phrase it, but here goes: do you believe that Lena Dunham’s “Girls” might solely, purposely exist to force us, the viewers, to accept the fact that flabbity girls enjoy pressing the flesh, too? Eeek! Well, there, I’ve released the Kracken. Let me know.

          1. I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I think Lena Dunham’s intention with the show is to create something ‘real’ and ‘now’ that accurately represents people like her and people she knows. But the execution is poor, and she has no real wisdom to offer, because she herself has not yet transcended the phase all her characters are stuck in. (And, it seems she has no desire to.)

            Her work is potentially dangerous not as a result of malice, but ignorance. And she may see herself as a champion in promoting more realistic body images on TV or whatever, but like I said in an earlier comment, none of that really matters. It’s a meaningless victory. It’s something that might make a fellow frumpy chick feel good for a few minutes. (Like M&M’s.) Great art will make you feel good for a lifetime.

  4. My main thought, while reading this well-crafted essay is, every time you mention her “dumpiness,” every time you mention her physical appearance as a reflection of her character or ability as a writer, you lose your higher ground.

    1. She wants to be seen as dumpy. That’s her whole schtick. Her costume. It’s an attention-getting device that she has chosen for herself. I can’t not address that.

      However, I don’t think I ever mention, in this essay, that her physical appearance necessarily reflects poorly on her character or ability as a writer. Sure I call her a pig, but that was in regards to her wallowing in her own arrested development. It wasn’t specifically about her looking like a pig. (The fact that she is a little chunky and unkempt is just a wonderful little coincidence that helps make the metaphor that much better.)

      So, to be clear—I don’t believe that being physically unfit, or not caring about your looks, has anything to do with a person’s character or their ability to make art. Nobody in their right mind could ever hold such a stupid opinion.

  5. While I must agree with your assessment of the characters and the story and the artfulness of the show, I think you may be getting ahead of yourself by trying to fit Lena’s work into the category of high art. Maybe the fact that they are whiny hipsters tricks us into assuming that there must be something deeper to the show than there actually is. Maybe there is some latent racism in all of us that assumes that affluent college educated white women are automatically interesting people. Maybe because it was picked up by HBO we assumed it would be at the level of the Sopranos, or Boardwalk Empire. I don’t know…

    What I do know is that I was entertained while watching tiny furniture and the first season of girls. I never made the assumption that this show was intending to be anything more than what it was. Honey boo boo might be a good comparison, but I can’t stand that show. But as a I can relate to some of the themes in Girls, it is accessible to me.

    I feel like most of the scorn for Lena’s work comes from the artistic community. Maybe she is fooling all of you, but the rest of us just want some cheap, relevant entertainment.

    Thank you for the essay!

    1. Thank you for the comment. We clearly have differing views on the ‘obligations’ of art (as a hopeless idealist, I believe it should strive to be both nutritious and tasty) but I’m sure Girls is not having a detrimental effect on you. You seem to have your head on straight about it, and I’m glad you’re able to derive some enjoyment from watching it. It’s not people like you I worry about. I worry about the corrosive effect it could have on younger, more malleable minds (but I worry the same thing about most popular TV shows.)

  6. First of all, the purpose of art is not to “make people’s lives better”. Secondly, this is hardly an intelligent essay. Thirdly, a TV show is not art, it is visual culture made for consumerism. The words you have chosen to use are masongenistic and chauvanistic and are not helping your cause. I’m under the impression that if one looks more closely at the themes of this show, one would find that is could serve as excellent commentary on contemporary (stagnant) youth.

    1. First of all, the purpose of art is to “make people’s lives better”. Secondly, this is a very intelligent essay. Thirdly, a TV show is art, not “visual culture made for consumerism”. The words I have chosen to use are not masongenistic (SP?) and chauvanistic (SP?) and are helping my cause. I’m under the impression that if one looks more closely at the themes of my essay, one would find that [it] could serve as excellent commentary on a contemporary (stagnant) TV show.

      1. The United States does NOT represent the public service model as most of the world does. We live in a market-model consumerist society; the point IS to make money. The six huge conglomerations feel no obligations to make shows that are educational, intellectual, informational, or ‘rightly’ representative of our cultural values. As Michael Eisner, former CEO of the Disney corporation said, “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. Our only obligation is to make money.” So yes, television and all media are “made for consumerism”.

        I agree again with “thisiscray” in the way that I think your essay is misogynistic. Want to know what that means if you have not googled it yet? It means women hating. The absolute opposition of progress for the women’s movement forward. This essay pushes so many opinions, but they are never backed up with examples. The only examples here are just of shaming her appearance, “She’d break from her mopey rut, comb her damn hair, wear things that are not embarrassing, eat with regard towards food’s effect on one’s body, move around enough to burn off her lazy jiggles”. I think it is wonderfully progressive that women who might not be considered beautiful by conventional societal standards are being represented as successful, smart, loved, and relatable! Lena offers a more accurate depiction of young womanhood.
        I disagree with you in your claim that there are no character arcs or plotlines. The first season might be somewhat stagnant, but so much changes in season 2. Relationships and friendships flourish and fail. Marny certainly is different: she has left her long term boyfriend, and has begun messing around with an artist. If you were to compare her “current” second season self to her “former first season self, you would see drastic differences in her personality. She has become a more open-minded and adventurous character.
        As another example, Jessa has changed as well. In season 1 she was ‘worldy’. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t try and she could never foresee herself settling down. Well she did. She got a babysitting job, got married, then divorced, and in the process has become more mature.
        If you believe “Lena may be ‘just providing what her customers want’ but it sure as hell is not what they need”, you have to remember that is not the point of television. “Lena the profiteer profits”, yes, that is the point. HBO did not pick this show because they thought it would be educational and nutritional, they chose it because it would sell. Now if you’re just criticizing a show based on it’s lack of creative value, character arcs, and content, why did you choose Girls?

        Maybe, because Girls is about girls, and created through the perspective of a girl, it is scary to men who are seeing their androcentric system challenged. Maybe that’s why Girls and Lena Dunham have fostered so much controversy.

    1. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to Google them. Sorry. I will get to it soon. They seem like interesting words, and I’m sure you used them accurately to describe me. Can’t wait to find out what they mean!

  7. Can you please explain why you dislike “Girls” and recommend “The Last Days Of Disco” when they are essentially the same thing?
    also i would say that all art is deception.

    1. Are you saying this without having seen The Last Days of Disco, or with having seen it? Because to say both are ‘essentially the same thing’ shows a sheer lack of comprehension for the film, and its remarkable depth, as compared to the vast shallowness of Girls.

      Yes, both works focus on a group of lost, incestuous, spiteful, hypocritical 20-somethings, but whereas Girls is written by a girl who is still very much an ignorant adolescent, The Last Days of Disco is written by a mature adult with a fully honed craft, who is able to look back on that time of his life with true perspective and objectivity—and thus, craft a well-rounded story that enlightens as well as entertains. Would ‘Stand By Me’ be as good if it were written by a 12-year-old? No. Similarly, Girls suffers primarily because Dunham is as lost as her characters.

  8. I think it is what it is. Nothing more and nothing less. At the end of the day she’s a smart business woman who’s milking this demographic for what it’s worth. AND who wouldn’t? If I could make chicken salad out of chicken shit and have you still eat it up why would I change my recipe? The more you hate her boobs, the more she’ll show them. The more you find her writing flat, the harder she’ll push to write better. Controversy is free publicity. There is no “ism” in what she’s presenting because if there was the viewers watching the show wouldn’t watch it. It’s entertainment. This show just wants to make you laugh that’s all. She’s smart; she’s sticking to a formula crafted by HBO. Machiavelli said it’s better to be feared than loved, if not both. She has both and her reign will prevail until we the people boot her our with poor ratings. She’s famous, rich and gets to be popular for once in her life. We should all let her have her Cinderella, prom queen, belle of the ball moment because isn’t that at the end of the day what we all want? To be recognized for something? To stand out amongst the crowd etc…..

  9. I get the feeling that you havent actually watched the show past the first season (being generous here, it sounds like you watched a couple of episodes and made up your mind about it)

    1. Watched the whole first season, and the first episode of the second season, and half of the second episode of the second season. Gave it an honest shot because I wanted to see how the arcs were handled. She’s a terrible juggler. Maybe if she had someone from Treme helping her with the arcs, the show would’ve been a lot better.

  10. I decided I was going to comment before I read Cody’s review because I have a strong opinion about this one. I read it now and I see that he has covered most of what I was going to talk about so I will focus on a few subtle points that were briefly mentioned but not analyzed in the depth that they deserve. Killer title, btw!!

    I only watched the first 3 episodes but I don’t think that I need to watch the rest in order to form a definitive opinion about the show. It’s predictable, not in a bad way necessarily but not in a way that will change my opinion either. Let me guess – Hannah will only find odd jobs and barely make the rent every episode, meet new people but keep going back to her horrible boyfriend and be the laughing stock of many awkward social situations. Her hot roomate will eventually break up with the nice boyfriend but not before many episodes of hearth-crushing drama. The wild British girl will get herself into horrible situations and only manage to float on top by making more stupid life choices. If I got something wrong please let me know, I will go watch the rest.

    “Girls” is not a breakthrough in art and should not be judged as such. It gets a B- from me and that’s a generous score because I judge it from a unique perspective and not against other great TV shows. The pilot episode is horrendous and I would not have watched it if my girlfriend didn’t insist we do. It’s an example of how not to do film on all levels but admittedly the next episodes get better. Maybe Lena wrote the pilot on her own and then had help from professional writers for the rest or maybe she wrote everything but TV executives re-wrote the pilot to their liking. Whatever the case the pilot episode and the rest of show were written by different people. It’s obvious in the dialog, the way the scenes are set up, the lack of nudity in the pilot, etc. I wish the pilot didn’t deviate so far from the rest of show because it sets the premise – for Hannah to be the voice of a generation, or at least “a voice”. And she delivers, for which it gets the favorable grade from me.

    In the rebuttal Greg talks about how one masterpiece movie does something revolutionary and defines a genre. I will not call ‘Girls’ a masterpiece by a long shot but both reviews are wrong for writing it out so quickly. ‘Girls’ defines this generation and later movies with a similar goal will be judged against it, the way for some dumb reason we now judge every smartphone against the iPhone. I hate the iPhone as you can tell but I admit that it does many things right. So let’s look into ‘Girls’ and see what makes it a hit.

    In order to analyse ‘Girls’ the viewer must realize the second premise to the show which is more subtle but also revealed suddenly in the pilot. ‘Girls’ sets out to be ‘Sex and the City: the youth edition’. The original ‘Sex and the City’ became one of those defining works of an era but for all the wrong reasons. It was a horrendous piece that came to glory by employing shock. To achieve that it blatantly objectified men, personified every male stereotype, went head on with every taboo in the book and plowed through all moral obligations that make a decent woman. Before I get accused of being a male chauvinist or a misogynist for my comments let me state that nothing will make me more happy than to live in a society that empowers and respects women for their contribution and sacrifice. I believe in the ideal image of the intelligent professional woman, the accomplished female scientist, the doctor and the judge, the strong mother that raises a family even the policewoman/soldier/truck driver that carries the foundations of our society with her labor. But you won’t find those role models in ‘Sex and City’ and it’s malignant themes are such a lasting disservice to women that I fear it’s effects will linger for decades to come.

    ‘Girls’ is not really a leap in the right moral direction but it has something unique – honesty. Carrie’s narrative is so artificial that while watching it all I can see is the image of the stuffy writer’s meeting at the corporate TV office where this garbage came to life. On the other hand Hannah’s journal reads like a real journal. Cody’s strongest objection to the show is that it lacks a story and character development. But in actuality there is a story, although a shallow one and a TV show does not need character development through episodes to make it successful. One of the best TV shows of all time ‘Seinfeld’ has no main story – it’s a show about nothing and none of the characters develop at all. They go through some tribulations each episode in order to give us a fresh and funny perspective on something and then go back to their regular selves at the end of the episode. Lena Dunham follows that formula well but the ‘Girls’ story arc breaks at a crucial point – the flawed self-analysis. Since it’s a journal entry, every episode is set to enrich the character’s experience and help her move up in life. That’s how character building works in real life and that’s how real people become the ideal role models I talked about earlier. But we already know that Hannah will never find a good job or a nice boyfriend because that will end the show. Those things require hard work and personal sacrifice that vastly limits one’s social circle and free time. Hence no opportunity for comic disasters and epic social failures that the TV viewer hungers for. To that end Hannah’s journal reads like “I’m a failure but I recognize that I don’t have what it takes to change so I’m just going to ride it out and try to have fun with it”.

    It’s this interesting disconnect, triggered by the author’s honesty that makes ‘Girls’ prolific, to it’s generation at least. I didn’t find the sex scenes, characters and journal entries after the pilot overdone for the purpose of shock, in fact they might be honest.

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