Is Lena Dunham Really the Millennial Woody Allen?

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Lena Dunham has a book out very, very soon, and you know what that means: it’s time for cover stories and blog posts and an entire cultural conversation about the auteur of an HBO comedy series, so let’s strap in. First out of the gate is the New York Times, with a cover story entitled “Lena Dunham Is Not Done Confessing,” which has prompted a bit of hand-wringing around the ol’ Twittersphere — not because of its generally Dunham-positive tone, or for any particularly reward-worthy photos, but because profile writer Meghan Daum had the audacity to (frequently!) compare Ms. Dunham to Woody Allen, and how dare she.

Daum writes: “She is perhaps to the millennials what J. D. Salinger was to the post-World War II generation and Woody Allen was to the baby boomers: a singular voice who spoke as an outsider and, in so doing, became the ultimate insider.” With the kind of predictability you can set your watch by, Jezebel leaped upon analysis in its five-minutes-tops roundup of “notable lines” from the piece, snorting sarcastically, “Girls is Catcher In The Rye.” And the ever-reliable anti-Dunham brigade on Twitter went into overdrive, with even the Times’ own political reporter Michael Barbaro snidely tweeting that the comparison to Allen “[s]eems… slightly premature.”

Is it? Taken out of the context of the piece — as it’s necessary to do in 140 characters or less — Daum’s thesis actually sounds like the kind of thing Dunham herself has joyfully sent up, from the first episode of Girls on (“I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation”). But two paragraphs later, Daum makes the case, and it’s a good one:

With her awkward screen presence, her preoccupation with sex, her frank exploration of her own neuroses and, above all, her willingness to play the part of herself almost to the point of caricature, Dunham has ensured that her work be guided by her own persona, which in turn has been shaped by the twin forces of profound anxiety and exhaustive (though, again like Allen, somewhat roving and undisciplined) intellectual engagement. Plus, of course, extensive therapy.

As someone who spent the last year exhaustively studying pretty much everything Allen’s ever done (plug!), I gotta say this: Daum’s comparison holds water. Frankly, it’s not just the surface, positive attributes (New Yorker, chatty style, unassuming aesthetic, intellectual references) that match up, but even the criticisms. Both have been accused — though Dunham far more frequently — of wish fulfillment in their onscreen match-ups, of pairing themselves with partners whose attractiveness is far more conventional than their own. Both have been accused of self-indulgence in their work, of crafting personae that, in time, critical viewers blanch at the mere sight or mention of. And most strikingly, both have been accused of an insularity in their worldview; the criticisms of Girls’ lack of diversity are of the same sort that have circled Allen’s filmography for decades, both speaking to a homogeneity of their creators’ experiences in even a melting pot like New York.

At the heart of the resistance to the Dunham-as-Allen (or Salinger) idea seems to be Daum’s framing of them as contemporaries — she does not use the phrase “the next Woody Allen,” but constructs the claim as generationally analogous. It seems a knee-jerk reaction to the contention that, as Jezebel snarks, Girls could possibly be the equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye. But Dunham is at the distinctive disadvantage of creating works that are (particularly compared to Catcher or Annie Hall) new, without the decades of contextualization and canonization an older artist benefits from. And, as A.O. Scott points out, it’s easy to forget the kind of breathless praise Allen and Salinger’s earliest works were greeted with (without, he notes, the complaints of “unearned” success that this young woman has encountered from word one, mostly based on the “nepotism” of being born to visual artists that 99 percent of HBO’s audience had never heard of). Hell, in Allen’s very first film as a director (1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?), his short, redheaded, glasses-wearing persona was already being immortalized in a Pink Panther-style opening-credit cartoon.

Will Dunham’s subsequent output prove the comparison apt? It’s hard to say. Other filmmakers have been dubbed the new Woody Allen; some have prospered (Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Whit Stillman), some have not (Edward Burns). When it comes to Dunham’s prose — the ostensible reason for the NYT profile — the comparison is actually more of a stretch; Allen’s prose is all literary parody and absurdist wordplay, with none of the autobiographical tension of either his best films or what we’ve seen thus far (and heard about) of Dunham’s written work. That voice seems much closer to the oft-stated influence of Nora Ephron (though that thread leads back to Allen anyway). Wherever you fall, this much is certain: as long as Dunham keeps working, people will continue to have capital-O opinions about her. And who’re we kidding — if she suddenly stops working, they’ll probably complain about that too.