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.