Lena Dunham has a problem. She has lots of problems, actually, which she doesn’t mind sharing with us. From traumatic encounters with puppies (in the The New Yorker) to struggling with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (in Rolling Stone) to defending her title of feminist (in Metro), to her recent defense of some of her more controversial — to put it mildly — childhood exhumations (summarized in Buzzfeed), we are all witness to her struggles, munching popcorn as we watch: self-revelation as entertainment. And we are not ashamed of this, in spite of all the grease and voyeurism involved, because Lena would not want us to be ashamed — either of our voyeurism or our fatty snacks. This is the new frontier of the culture wars: the progressive-conservative clash resounding in personal experiences of twenty-somethings, each blow landing with a dull thud.
I am one of those popcorn-eaters, watching even as I am alternately repulsed by and attracted to her mania for sharing. I’ve seen Lena in all her glory in her 2010 film Tiny Furniture and in all three seasons of her critically-beloved show Girls. While Girls is not explicitly biographical (just explicit), its themes and plot points echo the life of Dunham, who created, co-writes, stars, produces, and sometimes even directs the show. Dunham documents her character Hannah Horvath’s coming-of-age for viewers, proceeding through various stages of development, or at the very least, various stages. We know a lot about Hannah and a whole lot about Lena too.
As a follow-up to the last several years of essays, interviews, films and TV shows, Lena Dunham just released her first memoir: Not That Kind of Girl, in which she gives an account of her life experiences for her readers, one painful memory at a time.
“I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you,” Dunham writes, “But if I can take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine will have been worthwhile.”
In other words, she is telling us all of this — letting the cat out of the bag, spilling the beans, letting it all hang out, oversharing — for our sake. Lena Dunham is baring it all for us.
This brings to mind Jill Duggar, one of the oldest Duggar daughters in the conservative mega-family made famous over the last several years on their show 19 Kids and Counting. Just like Lena, Jill released a book this past year: Growing Up Duggar, which she co-wrote with three of her sisters. In the book they all “open up about their own personal faith and convictions, boys, dating, manners, living in a large family, politics, and much more.” The girls also detail what they “look for in a man”.
Jill Duggar’s own coming-of-age has also been chronicled for a television audience, one hungry for the escapades of a homeschooling brood of conservative Christians. And TLC, the network which has aired the show since stumbling across the Duggars, has met the demand by offering us everything the Duggars have been willing to share these last ten years — which is more or less everything.
As one of the first wave of Duggar children to leave the 7,000-square-foot nest, Jill has broken away from the muddle of general Duggars to let viewers in on her specific life as she met, courted and married Derick Dillard, a former missionary to Nepal, all in a matter of months. In the current season of the show, TLC recounted the ballad of Jill and Derick in episode after episode, depicting with enormous detail (as the titles suggest) everything from the couple’s initial chaperoned Skype sessions, to Derick asking Jill’s father for permission to marry her, to the proposal, to Jill’s choice of bridesmaid dresses, wedding dresses, wedding shoes, wedding cake, engagement pictures and bridal shower — finally culminating with a marriage ceremony conducted in front of 1,000 witnesses in real life and millions more at home. And this just in: eight weeks after the wedding and eight weeks into the first trimester, Jill and Derick are expecting a baby, announced exclusively in People Magazine. She took three pregnancy tests just to be sure, reported Us Weekly in another exclusive. More breaking news! The baby, now 18 weeks along, is a boy. Jill wore a blue dress to celebrate the news in a recent appearance on the entertainment show Extra.
In response to a question in the Chattanooga Times Free Press about why she and her sisters wrote Growing Up Duggar, Jill said, “We’re human just like everybody else, we make mistakes and have challenges and we want people to see how God’s ways work. We live our life on television and, Lord willing, everybody will be able to see Christian values that we hope will point other people to God.”
Jill Duggar is baring it all for us. She might have grown up in rural Arkansas, several states away from Lena Dunham in geographical terms and several planets away culturally, yet the two women have a few things in common — starting with a shared zeal in offering their lives for our consumption. They also share a zeal for the same media platforms of TV, books, Instagram, and Twitter. Each one shouting a strangely similar message to the same target audience of young women. “Accept yourself!” Lena says. “Accept yourself!” Jill says. Or, more pointedly in her interview with the Times Free Press, “If you can accept yourself, who God has created you to be, that will reflect in your other aspects of life.”
This is the new frontier of the culture wars: the progressive-conservative clash resounding in personal experiences of twenty-somethings, each blow landing with a dull thud. These experiences may seem like the front lines, but this is only true to the person actually living the specific life. Being a young adult is inherently banal and harrowing all at once as the foundation is laid for the decades to follow: leaving home, finding (or not finding) love, finding (or not finding) a job. And in the specific lives of Lena Dunham and Jill Duggar, we — their audience — watch their every move, expecting them to not only share it all with us, but to tell us what it means, to give us the key to the good life. Lena and Jill are the heirs to Aristotle. Not that Kind of Girl and Growing Up Duggar the sequels to Nichomachean Ethics.
In the contemporary account of growing up, self-revelation becomes not only entertainment, but a stand-in for Thoreau’s idea of the examined life. I went to the woods to feel. I went into the woods to escape inequality. I went to the woods to be celibate until marriage. I went to the woods until I came out of the woods and discovered that I had three million twitter followers. #deliberately #yolo
We take Lena Dunham and Jill Duggar seriously as arbiters of how to live because so many of us, religious, secular, conservative and progressive alike, have sacrificed the medium for the message. As long as one of the many, many people cluttering pop culture in the digital age says something we agree with, we don’t care how she says it. And while we watch from our respective corners, cheering or jeering as the case may be, each woman sacrifices her sense of self and the freedom to grow up in private on the altars of ideology and politics and commerce.
Having been repeatedly accused of offering too much information about herself, Lena Dunham objects to the phrase in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. “Too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information?”
I’d like to take a crack at answering Lena’s question. What, exactly, constitutes too much information? Too much information becomes too much information when it is the sum total of information, when a person is nothing more than a collection of situations, sensations, dictates, status updates and aphorisms — all of it regurgitated before even being digested. We watch as Jill Duggar and Lena Dunham, their book deals and Twitter followers predicated on continual self-revelation, are reduced to the sum total of their parts. As they give parts away, episode by episode, one candid appearance on the Today show and illuminating interview on NPR at a time, what exactly will it all add up to in the end? Accept yourself, they each say, but they don’t finish the thought: and hope there is a self left when nobody is watching.
Note: The original version of this article included a reference to a scavenger hunt proposal, but that event featured another recently married Duggar daughter, Jessa.