Opinion

Hate Lena Dunham? You’ll love Llewyn Davis

A case study in sexist double standards

February 4, 2014 7:00AM ET
Lena Dunham in “Girls” and Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
HBO/Everett Collection; CBS Films/Everett Collection

The eponymous hero of the Coen brothers’ latest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is self-absorbed and aimless. He indulges in casual, careless sex, the consequences of which are inconvenient for him and dire for his female partners. He abuses his friends’ hospitality, wanders around in his underwear and loses cherished pets. The film is set in New York in 1961. If it were your sole source of information about that time and place, you might reasonably conclude that there were no nonwhite people living in New York City in 1961. One very minor character is Asian, but she merely serves as a target for bitter Llewyn’s scorn. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane calls Llewyn “a grouch and an ingrate” whose “company can feel like a burden.” “The catalog of Llewyn’s lapses,” wrote The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, “fills the spectrum from casual bad manners to epic jerkiness.” Ian Jack of The Guardian wrote that he is “frankly dislikable” and New York’s David Edelstein dubbed him “an asshole.”

“Inside Llewyn Davis” has nevertheless been nearly universally praised. The film has earned a 94 percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com, with only three negative reviews out of 48 from top critics. Its unpleasant protagonist and whitewashing of New York have not been cited, in any review I’ve read, as reasons to avoid seeing it. Plenty of movies have unlikable heroes, and white directors tend to make movies with all-white casts. These facts don’t automatically mean that their work is without merit. But the praise lavished on “Inside Llewyn Davis” is particularly striking when compared with the critical reception of Lena Dunham’s television series, “Girls,” and its protagonist, Hannah Horvath. Like Llewyn, Hannah is famously unlikable. She is self-centered, obnoxious, incapable of a sincere apology and fails to learn from her mistakes. (The song “Same Mistakes” plays in the background in an early episode, underscoring this aspect of her character.) Apart from her gender, she’s quite similar to Llewyn Davis.

When you look at how these characters have been interpreted, a fascinating double standard emerges: While Dunham’s show has been lampooned since its debut as an insufferable glorification of white-girl privilege and unearned angst, the Coens’ latest film has been acclaimed — and not in spite of its main character’s dislikability but in part because of it.

Things that matter

Cataloging the vitriol Dunham and her show have inspired over the last two years would be a lengthy and futile exercise, so here are some notable highlights. From Liel Leibovitz’s 2012 condemnation of “Girls” in Tablet: “‘Girls’ isn’t a poorly made show ... It’s a poorly made moral decision, a decision to ... retreat into a world that’s hardly larger than a Brooklyn neighborhood where no one has any sense of agency or urgency or dignity or grace.” The New York Times Frank Bruni: “You watch ... the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of ‘Girls’ engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” Not to be outdone, The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever expressed the desire “we” feel for Hannah “to literally choke.” And Mother Jones’ Asawin Suebsaeng joined the parade of hipster boy hand-wringing, describing Dunham’s show as “profoundly bland” and “unstoppably irritating” in his 2012 essay, “‘Girls’: What the hell was HBO thinking?” According to Suebsaeng, Hannah is “an unsympathetic victim of First World Problems who mumbles her way through a Brooklynite’s perdition of unpaid internships and missed orgasms.”

You might infer that someone who felt that way about “Girls” would really hate “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which is about a promiscuous jerk who exploits his friends and refuses to get a real job. Not so! In his December 2013 article, “The 10 Most Glorious Movies of 2013 — and the 4 Most Unspeakably Awful,” Suebsaeng praised the “poignancy” of the Coen brothers’ film and awarded it an honorable mention.

Men write about Life and Art and Things That Matter; women write about domesticity and themselves.

Most critics had no trouble disliking Llewyn without hating either the film or the Coen brothers. Even assuming that Hannah Horvath is odious — which is arguable — why not extend Dunham the same courtesy? One reason is that male writers and directors are thought to be creating characters and art while female writers and show runners are presumed to be passing around copies of their dream journals at staff meetings. At a panel discussion I attended several years ago, the novelist Heidi Julavits complained that no matter what sort of novel she writes, it’s invariably described by reviewers as a book about family. Men write about Life and Art and Things That Matter; women write about domesticity and themselves. And as Emily Nussbaum observed in a New Yorker essay on “Girls,” women’s stories are “critiqued as icky, sticky memoir — score-settling, not art.”

What offends these critics (and dozens more, both male and female) about “Girls” is not that Hannah is awful. It’s that they assume she is a stand-in for Lena Dunham — and the character’s perceived flaws give them license to hate Dunham.

By contrast, Philip Roth has produced dozens of novels, nearly all of which feature a Jewish male protagonist from New Jersey who fears death and thinks about sex compulsively. The same is true of Woody Allen, with Manhattan standing in for New Jersey. It wouldn’t be crazy to assume that Roth and Allen have, to some extent, mined their own experiences and psyches for artistic inspiration. Most critics still think they’re colossally talented, and few people are so put off by Alvy Singer’s neuroses or Alexander Portnoy’s perversions that they would openly insult these men or their work.

Lest anyone suggest that books and screens are incomparable media, consider the example of Judd Apatow. When Apatow, the executive producer of “Girls,” wrote and directed “Knocked Up” in 2007, much was written about the fecklessness and immaturity of Apatow’s male characters, particularly Ben Stone, a sweet-natured but childlike stoner who becomes a father after a one-night stand. But they weren’t treated as facsimiles of Apatow’s innermost self, and although their flaws were noted, they were also described as relatably human. Nonwhite and nonmale characters are rarely considered relatable, on the other hand, because they are usually seen as “others.”

My generation

In an early episode of “Girls,” Hannah utters a now infamous line, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation.” This sentence has been interpreted by nearly everybody as presumptuousness on Dunham’s part. It’s telling that it’s so rarely quoted in full. “I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” Hannah says, “Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” The subtext of the show’s most vicious critiques is always “Who does Lena Dunham think she is?”

Nobody seems to be asking, either explicitly or implicitly, who the Coen brothers think they are. Perhaps that’s because we’re constantly being told that they are geniuses whose latest film is brilliant, deliciously dark and funny, captivating, complicated, haunting and intense; Dunham, on the other hand, is fat, sloppy, disgusting, talentless and spoiled. Her popular, Emmy-nominated show is not just bad but morally offensive. These are adjectives and judgments applied to Dunham with shocking regularity — and not just by random Internet trolls but by commentators for reputable media outlets with large followings.

Of course, Dunham and her show have garnered positive media coverage as well, particularly from female critics. Both she and the Coen brothers have recently been compared, favorably, to Bob Dylan (the Coens in The New York Times and Dunham in Vogue). “Inside Llewyn Davis” has so far earned more than $11 million at the box office, and the first episode of the current season of “Girls” drew 1.1 million viewers. Yet Dunham is routinely excoriated for creating a protagonist like Llewyn Davis in every respect but gender, while the Coens are lauded for their invention.

Dunham is aware of this double standard. “I think there’s ... a lot of license for men to act a lot of really ugly ways on film and television,” she said at a Television Critics Association panel earlier this year. “People say (of my characters), ‘Well, how do we sympathize with them?’ And it’s funny, because you seem to like Walter White.” Walter is the meth-cooking, mass-murdering protagonist of the series “Breaking Bad.” Interestingly, the actress Anna Gunn, who played Walter’s wife, Skyler, on the same show (and was viciously criticized for gaining weight during filming, even though Skyler was pregnant), wrote in The New York Times last year that Skyler “hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter” and that at some point her character “seemed to drop out of the conversation, and people transferred their negative feelings directly to me.”

Walter is flawed yet heroic; Skyler is an annoying bitch. Llewyn is difficult but familiar; Hannah is a sloppy monster. The Coens have artistic authority; Dunham is uppity. Critics don’t hate “Girls” with such venom only because it’s female-centric. Other shows about women haven’t provoked this level of hostility. Although it, too, attracted negative attention, “Sex and the City” had solid ratings and a devoted following — in part because it was a fantasy. The characters lived in fabulous apartments, wore beautiful clothes and slept with handsome men. The characters on “Girls” have normal bodies and awkward sex and apologize for neither. Hannah spends a lot of time naked. She makes people uncomfortable — not because she’s a woman but because, as Gunn noted of Skyler, she doesn’t “conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female.” Hannah’s not there to titillate straight male viewers or model designer clothing. She’s just herself, fat tummy, questionable haircuts, weird outfits, solipsism and all.

Maybe some viewers really do hate Hannah because she’s a selfish brat. But there’s no better explanation than sexism for so many critics’ willingness to tolerate and even sympathize with Llewyn Davis and Ben Stone and Walter White — while openly yearning for Hannah Horvath to choke. And there are few standards more punishing than the one by which we judge female artists.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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