Lena Dunham: Angsty is Sexy

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A fan letter to Lena Dunham

Dear Lena,

I am a few years older than you and I am your fan. Not as much as I am an Audrey fan, but yes, a fan. I will speak of you in third person for parts of this letter—hope that is okay. I am Indian, born and raised, and spent six years in the US pursuing a PhD. At the fag end of dissertation writing, I was suffering from poor mental health and fatigue. I met a man who brought much solace into my life during that time. Additionally, he brought me into the world of Girls. On cold mornings, we’d binge-watch Girls at home. It was like watching an apartment sitting inside a similar apartment. There are four girls, there is sex, there is art, angst, love and New York City. They are White. Their personalities and worldviews—like all White theorists and poets we swear by— have multiple versions across the world.

The show hit me. I had many problems with it. D and I talked about it endlessly. Was it too risqué? Why was there so much sex and nudity? What is this obsession with New York? I liked Jessa and Hannah the most. Hated Marnie. But then grew to like her. And then hated Hannah for her writing angst. And then loved Adam. Then, found Adam in many of my exes and hated him. And hipsters, hipsters … and Brooklyn. We endlessly laughed about how we could be versions of the characters we were watching. If you are 20-something (which I once was), consider yourself well-read, have reading-writing-art-politics angst, wear cool cigarette pants, love odd-looking shoes, wear nerdy glasses, endlessly analyse relationships, Lena Dunham has you down pat. She knows you inside out. She knows how deeply you consider yourself a wronged genius. She knows how acutely you still love someone you don’t admit to loving anymore. She knows your particular urbane, indulgent, late-capitalist-world problems. How is it possible to get a register of 21st century youthful ennui so right? And how is it possible to spread that spatially across the heart of a city with such brutal precision? And how is it possible to be self-deprecating through all of it? Lena Dunham, you must be 29 now, you are a phenomenon. We even watched the ‘Girls’ documentary where Dunham talks about Dunham.

Your critics however, are still getting there. And you have many. You knew you would—Nora Ephron must have warned you. I noticed one particularly sharp piece by Rafia Zakaria, around which a Twitter debate had ensued. Zakaria was calling her critics either ‘white’ or a ‘man’. I intervened saying I was Brown and Lena had resonated with me. I was promptly blocked. But I don’t mean to go on about her. Because she isn’t the phenomenon that she reprimands like a schoolmistress. I will quote a bit from Zakaria’s piece in The Guardian’s books section: ‘There is a lesson for all women here: declaring a woman’s sovereignty over body and mind must not be reduced to a willingness to be naked, to prurient confessions or anecdotes of despair and self-doubt. These books may sell well in their “empowering” packaging, but accomplish little and may even hurt the cause itself. If dominion over the self is one feminist imperative, so too is dignity. Claiming one should not mean—no, must not mean—relinquishing the other.’

Dignity and dominion are separately sketched. She is Pakistani, I presume. In India, we have socially-produced codes of honour and dignity which are stifling and used routinely to silence anything women might want to express, let alone their bodies. I take Zakaria’s to be a mundane, matronly rebuke. Pooh-poohing at your lack of sharam or lojja or shame, and taking you to be devoid of a brain because you stripped on TV. You have been asked not to get naked as often, and not to make naked your feelings and desires in such a ‘ribald’ manner. But my purpose here is to talk about you, Lena Dunham. You, who made angst sexy again. Like good old Victorian poets. Like us melodramatic Bengalis. You gazed at your navel through layers of tummy fat. You brought the navel up to the mind. And then you wrote a book: Not That Kind of Girl. I don’t know if it is published in India. D brought it for me when he visited last year. And we binge-watched the last season, sitting up in cold Coorg. The book is a Hannah-monologue version of the TV show, I’d say. It proceeds as a string of aphorisms. Making light of hurt. Making weight out of the trivial. Love lives, internet boyfriends, sisters, parents, haircuts, cats, weight loss, mental health are picked up, played with and thrown aside. The book would make a great podcast. But Lena would have to speak it. In her baby voice. A baby voice that emits great thoughtfulness and brutal scrutiny unto the world. A literary voice that rings in that particular faint thread of pain generated from being born in the latest leg of capital’s journey. It is particularly urbane. It is not a ‘White’ worldview though Lena may be held guilty for introducing tokenising Blackness into the show. The pain of not knowing what is enough, what one should live for, a moral and aesthetic limbo—that is what Lena Dunham touches on. The book is no literary classic, but it provokes one to think of the condition of urban beings.

We don't need your saving, Lena. But we certainly could do with your astute humour in assessing patriarchy

But listen, Lena, I want to talk to you of the censure that I and other women face in living lives that invite moral scrutiny. Not different from your battles. But our Indian ones, nevertheless. Where our biological clocks are matters of party-conversation, our loves and hates are contested constantly through the rubric of propriety. The West has its code of propriety too. And many of these codes are controlled by capital. Hence, the criticism of your show and your person is often along that line. That it’s comfortable, marketable feminism. But at least you have that. We don’t even have that. We don’t need your saving, Lena. But we certainly could do with your astute humour in assessing patriarchy. Our Brown-ness is colonially coloured. So we know how to be Brown even through the lens of a dead White man. We know how to be sexy through the sepia lens of Western photographs. We crave Orientalisation in the name of Brown-ness. That is our burden. We pick up some White boys along the way.

And listen, Lena, to the censure my mother offered me yesterday. I run in a staid pair of pink shorts; I love them, but they are not good for a sweating butt. Being inside a somewhat permissive, upper-class gated community, I know I am safe. I won’t get raped for wearing shorts, at least I have security guards watching over me. There goes my class card. But I never dare to wear the really tiny black Nike running shorts that D had bought me when we lived in Connecticut. One morning I wore them. It was rainy, I knew not too many people would be out. So I could revel in feeling my slowly toning thighs. My mother said, “Not here, my dear, I am not saying don’t wear it. Wear it when you’re abroad.” I want you to know Lena, that is how ‘abroad’ came to be a place where desire goes to complete itself. That is how Girls came to me at a point where I was beginning to re-desi-ise myself, thinking all of this sex business is all capitalism and ‘Western culture’. You made me think—but no, capitalism tells this story easily and makes the ‘ribald’ into a commodity, but the ‘ribald’ exists everywhere, in wedding songs, in hushed gossip, in afternoon diaries. You were using capital to tell a story which is hidden under the carpet in most societies, especially WASP society.

To the matronly censure you’re encountering these days, Lena, I give you a character like my mother. Who quietly turned her eyes away from the hidden locker of ‘skimpy’ clothes, knowing she had to protect me from the patriarchy of our family. Knowing, as well, that I would craft my own way out of it, she just had to look away at the right times. She often tells me, in amusement, what The Guardian matron has told you, “lojja nei” (shameless)! And she looks into the horizon with a triumphant glint in her eye for the shameless feminist monster that she has carefully raised. n


That Kind of Brown Girl