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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Comments

D

Bailey: true, Dunham’s parents are not literally "in the business." But having successful artists for parents does open doors, especially when one is a descendant of the mayflower colonists. Going to a five figure private school and Oberlin doesn’t hurt, either.

D

What had Salinger done by 28? Only killed and interrogated a few nazis and helped liberate one of the death camps.

bob

Both overrated. But at least Allen has made at least one film I’ve enjoyed.

benxpete

@advil …and Dunham’s work isn’t a required taste? I like it, dont get me wrong, but when she wins multiple oscars and has a film that actually makes money, that argument is void.

Bailey

"Maybe if Allen and Salinger had parents in the busness that would have allowed them to skip over the part of a persons carrer where they have to establish themselves…"

This is funnier than anything Dunham or Allen has ever written. Please, GO ON, TELL ME MORE about her "parents in the business."

Katie

One only needs to watch the first episode of Girls, specifically the dinner scene with Hannah’s parents to understand the (very large) generational voice she is conveying. Dead. On.

Gab

Lena Dunham is a prodigious hard worker who has created a pretty enjoyable tv show. She deserves to have hundreds of thousands of internet words written about her and her work because she works in an internet culture.I think it’s as ludicrous to think of Woody Allen or JD Salinger as voices of a generation as it is to think of Dunham this way. They are all pop artists writing about privileged lives. Let’s just crack a beer and enjoy a good tv show that lets us shake off a day that bears virtually no resemblance to the days spent by Hannah, Holden or Annie Hall.

Anthony

Well, different times, not like Woody Allen had Youtube, cheap prosumer cameras that could allow him to make lots of professional-standard feature films on pretty much no money like Tiny Furniture.
And, ignoring the obvious similarities in the tone/flavour of their "New York intellectual" style work – I’m assuming Lena Dunham was very familiar with Woody Allen’s work as she was growing up and therefore had precedent and influences to build upon when she was creating her own work. I don’t think you can deny the impact of Woody Allen’s work for so many comedians/creatives.
In the same way Ricky Gervais created a hugely significant work in The Office/the David Brent character but that owes debt to Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge.
Or how Zach Braff’s (now much maligned) Garden State contributed to the "alternative"/indie" movie as commercial genre.
I think the age argument isn’t that relevant when talking about comparisons.

CrazyXCrazy

all future indiewire correspondence can be sent to indiewire@Dunhamscolon.c.om

ludicrous article

bryan

This is comical to say the least. ‘Girls’ is a sitcom without a laugh track and while it strikes a chord with some, it’s not anywhere near the level of quality, insight, or intelligence of Woody Allen and Salinger’s work. This is another case of wish fulfillment, perhaps Dunham’s PR people are the ones who set these ludicrous comparisons in motion.

Jonathan

At 19 Salinger was fighting in a world war.

Jonathan

Maybe if Allen and Salinger had parents in the busness that would have allowed them to skip over the part of a persons carrer where they have to establish themselves, make a repeutation, support themselves finatialy, then they would have Dunham’s early success. Youth, I add, is not a talent, and without her leg up where would she be as a writer?

Kevin

She’s seen tremendous success and it’s both impressive and inspiring since she’s so young, but let’s cool it on this ‘voice of a generation’ talk. It takes a lot of time and a lot of continued success to make a claim like that. Let’s check back in 20 years and see.

Nancy

Her first feature which screened at SXSW was called Creative Nonfiction.

advil

This is definitely unfair to Lena. Woody Allen’s writing and films are a required taste. They couldn’t pay me to watch one of his dull and pointless films.

Aaron

Did we somehow jump forward (or back) in time to April 1st? People still read Salinger in school. Allen’s filmography is one of the most important in the century-plus of the medium. Parker, Ephron, Didion — giants in their respective fields. Does ANYONE really believe that in 50 or 70 or 100 years people will be studying and discussing and revisiting the work of Lena Dunham? Really? The only reason so much has been written about her and about her work is because of the Internet. That’s it.

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