By Phoebe Maltz Bovy
PRIVILEGE-CENTRIC ARTS CRITICISM began to take off around the same time as online social-justice YPIS (Your Privilege is Showing). The two phenomena act in synergy with cultural production itself, which now must preemptively deflect these accusations. Privilege checks have been appearing for a while in A. O. Scott’s movie reviews. In 2010, he took on the Sex and the City movie sequel in explicitly YPIS terms:
[T]he ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense. Over cosmos in their private bar, Charlotte and Miranda commiserate about the hardships of motherhood and then raise their glasses to moms who “don’t have help,” by which they mean paid servants. Later the climactic crisis raises the specter either of Samantha going to jail or the friends having to fly home in coach, and it’s not altogether clear which prospect they regard as more dreadful.
It’s not clear what it means to accuse escapist entertainment of “unexamined privilege.” Nor is it evident who Scott hoped would do this examining. But so it goes with the dubious awareness requirement.
Scott went for a deeper privilege critique in his December 2012 review of Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, which, as he describes it, “is all about Pete and Debbie, who, along with their two daughters, occupy a big white house in one of Los Angeles’s nicer ZIP codes and who, in the course of a hectic week, undergo—well, what, exactly? A matched set of midlife crises? A rough patch in their marriage? A flurry of ‘first-world problems’ so trivial as to be an insult to the planet’s struggling masses?” Scott spells out that “for all its crude jokes and on-the-money observations of the tastes and consumer habits of aging white Gen X-ers (we still love the Pixies!), This Is 40 should not be mistaken for satire.” The film’s problem, in other words, isn’t its depiction of privilege, but its lack of self-awareness. It’s good and well to make a movie about rich white people with nonproblems, as long as you, perhaps, affix a disclaimer?
While variants of it appeared slightly earlier, the “privilege” critique as we know it today—where “privilege” is the only lens through which a work can be discussed—began in the spring of 2012, with the backlash to Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls. Just about everything written about the show—and even in its defense—addressed the “privilege” question, which had not really been a question until that point. Dunham, it was generally agreed, should be, must be, referred to as “privileged”; failure to mention Dunham’s privilege, and to do so with the term “privilege,” was tantamount to declaring one’s support for injustice. Dunham’s Fresh Air interview about the show, the month after Girls first aired, wasn’t the usual promotional introduction, but was presented, instead, under the heading, “Lena Dunham Addresses Criticism Aimed at ‘Girls,’” that criticism being “that the show is narcissistic, lacks racial diversity and showcases whiny, privileged millennials complaining about topics only relevant to whiny, privileged millennials.” The only thing everyone could agree on about the show was that it and its creator embodied “privilege,” and that to discuss the show was to discuss that aspect of it.
Given that Girls was the ten-trillionth show about a group of white friends living in New York and trying to make it in glamorous professions, it’s not immediately obvious why this one set forth the privilege critique. If we want to pin this on Dunham’s own “privilege”—and what notorious “privilege” it is—we still come up short. In an industry filled with nepotism, the specific variant she benefits from—she’s the child of successful artists—puts her ahead of most, but hardly makes her success predestined. And the show’s New Brooklyn setting, while overrepresented in the cultural sphere, is far from the most posh onscreen setting. (Half of American entertainment takes place in enormous California beach houses.) If “privilege” is spectacular wealth or unearned advantage, surely better examples could be found, even in 2012 alone. (The “Housewives” franchise comes to mind.)
The explanation for the Girls-as-privilege meme lies in a convergence of the content (especially of the pilot); the marketing of the show; and the broader culture in which it first appeared, namely a post-recession America not inclined to sympathize with the non-problems of a group of broke but safety-net-having young Brooklynites. The show opens with Dunham’s character, Hannah, learning from her parents—at an upscale New York restaurant—that they’re about to cut her off. A no-longer-so-recent college grad, her parents had been supporting her as she interned for free at a publishing house. An indictment of the times, but mainly one of the sort of recent grad who doesn’t at least try to find paid work. We watch Hannah whine and plead for her parents to keep supporting her. The episode ends with a still-more-cringe-inducing version of the opening scene: Hannah notices and pockets the money her parents have left for the hotel housekeeper. Insofar as “privilege” is brattiness, it’s certainly privilege being depicted. Some kind of messy conflation of Hannah the character and Dunham the person, and of the portrayal of a behavior and the celebration of the same, led to a collective—mistaken!—belief that the show was not just about but created by the unapologetically spoiled.
The show was presented as an anti-Sex and the City, offering a grittier, more authentic portrait of single female friends in New York. This promise of social realism set the show up for a certain kind of criticism. Without the scrappiness promise, it seems unlikely anyone would have found the show all that “privileged.” As New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum pointed out in an early review, “like SATC, Dunham’s show takes as its subject women who are quite demographically specific—cosseted white New Yorkers from educated backgrounds—then mines their lives for the universal.” The difference, Nussbaum argued—justly—lay in the “very different stages of life” depicted, rather than in the two shows’ socioeconomic worlds. Something similar could be said about the furious response to the show’s lack of nonwhite characters. As writer Anna Holmes pointed out in The New Yorker, some of the backlash was simply about the times (“this is 2012”), but I’d say it stemmed at least as much from Dunham’s own self-presentation as a progressive, and the breathless treatment of “Girls” as “groundbreaking.” A female creator, and so young! And so clearly not chosen for her adherence to conventional beauty standards! Holmes wrote that the show’s whiteness was “all the more surprising because Dunham, a self-described feminist, seems unaware that the progressive gender politics she embraces have a long and frustrating history of relegating race to the sidelines.” Indeed, if liking Girls hadn’t been presented as almost a progressive requirement, it seems far more likely it would have been permitted to just be a show.
I’d pause, for a moment, on two words from Holmes’s assessment: “seems unaware.” The conversation about Girls ended up hinging not on the show, and not even exactly on the identity of the show’s creator. Rather, the central concern was Dunham herself—her own relationship to privilege, and her ability to satisfactorily perform privilege awareness. The question, when it comes to Lena Dunham, is always this: Does she get it? Has she, Lena Dunham, properly reckoned with her place in the world, and properly conveyed the fruits of said reckoning to the appropriate commentators? The far bigger question, namely of who gets to make a show in the first place, took a backseat to questions of whom Dunham chose to cast, and what sort of stance the show was taking. Consider writer Max Read on Gawker, posting in response to a tweet of Dunham’s he felt didn’t come across quite right:
I used to think that [she] just hadn’t learned her lesson about treating minority groups as subjects for the children of privilege to strike poses over at dinner parties or make jokes about on Twitter, and that eventually she would stop saying stupid things and hanging out with stupid people. But, no, as it turns out, she’s just an asshole.
For a time, it seemed as if social justice itself hinged on this one woman “learn[ing] her lesson.” There’s surprisingly little hint, actually, of this pattern letting up.
Dunham, herself, I’m not too worried about. She’s made unexamined privilege (which is to say, painstakingly examined privilege) her brand. Maybe it helped that she was already getting this label in the years before her privilege went viral: A New Yorker profile of her from back in 2010, pre-Girls, ran with the subhead, “Lena Dunham Cheerfully Exposes Her Privileged Life.” She’s the think-piece face of millennial entitlement, which, if nothing else, keeps her in the news. “Is Lena Dunham too privileged to fail?” asked a Daily Beast writer, in reference to does it even matter at this point? “Lena Dunham apologizes for…” is a veritable genre. To be the symbol of the issue of the moment is surely exhausting, but she has, if not sought that out, found a way to make being so profitable.
Copyright © 2017 by Phoebe Maltz Bovy
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer born and raised in New York City, now living in Toronto. Her essays on privilege have appeared in The New Republic and The Atlantic, among other publications. She has a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University.