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Comparing Lena Dunham to Woody Allen Is Unfair — to Lena Dunham

Comparing Lena Dunham to Woody Allen Is Unfair — to Lena Dunham

The New York Times Magazine’s Meghan Daum has taken some heat for suggesting in the Grey Lady’s most recent profile of the “Girls” auteur that Dunham 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.” But Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey, who esteems Allen highly enough that he wrote a book about the him, thinks there’s something to the comparison:

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.

As I pointed out recently, I think Dunham, and “Girls” in particular” owes as much to Whit Stillman as Woody Allen, although that comparison may not cause the same kind of Pavlovian response in the Times’ readership. But it’s worth pointing out that at 28, which is Dunham’s age now, Woody Allen was a successful but not widely known comedy writer and standup comic who had yet to release his first album, and J.D. Salinger was still four years away from publishing “The Catcher in the Rye.” Try and imagine where Dunham might be when she’s 32, which is how old Salinger was when “Catcher” was published, or 35, Allen’s age the year “Bananas” was released. Daum is stretching a tad when she anoints Dunham their generational equivalent, if only because their positions in the canon have been hallowed by time — and in Allen’s case, by the dozens of movies he’s made since growing out of his “voice of a generation” phase. But in spite of the hundreds of thousands of words written by and about Dunham, it’s important to remember that, as a person and as an artist, she’s still very, very young. “Tiny Furniture,” her first feature, is only four years old, which means if her career were a person, it would be in pre-K.

Daum makes a similar point in the Times profile, although she only compares Dunham to other women of letters, namely Nora Ephron and Dorothy Parker:

But even if she doesn’t tackle the Big Issues for a few more years, the fact is that she’s still just 28. When Ephron was 28, she was a reporter for The New York Post, “specializing in froth,” as she once noted. When Didion was 28, she was editing at Vogue; she had quietly published her first novel and was nowhere near the sensation she would become. When Parker was 28, she had finished a stint as a drama critic for Vanity Fair, and she and her compatriots were still working out seating arrangements for the Algonquin Round Table. None of them at that point had totally found their way to the issues that would come to define them. And despite the monumental platform Dunham has been given, that’s probably true of her too. She’s everywhere, but she’s still not there yet. That might have a lot to do with why people find her at once so exciting and so exasperating.

(Those comparisons, by the way, don’t seem to have rankled anyone. Could it be that people only get upset when Dunham is compared to accomplished men?)

That’s not to say we can’t, or shouldn’t, judge the work she’s made — by all means, judge away. (This is the internet, after all.) But if you compare what Dunham’s accomplished in her 28 years to where Allen and Salinger were are the same point in their lives, the comparison starts to seem unfair — not to Allen and Salinger, but to Dunham.

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