Lena Dunham has been coming up a lot lately in my therapy sessions.
I don’t feel safe in the world now that she’s out and about. Let me clarify: my work is not safe- my potential career is in jeopardy. We’re too damn similar and she beat me to the punch.
It seems inevitable that upon hearing of my upcoming feature film, DISPOSABLE LOVERS, people draw parallels between myself and Dunham. We’re both comedic writer/directors from New York who star in our own work, do not conform to the normal standard of beauty and take pleasure in exposing the humiliating/ non-glamorous elements of being young, impulsive and sexually adventurous. An old professor summed it best she exclaimed, “You’re the gay, Iranian Lena Dunham! That’s what you need to say when pitching yourself!”
All along in my pursuit of becoming a filmmaker, I’ve been blindly confident about one thing: the authenticity of my voice. But does Lena Dunham’s rise to rock-star level fame mean there’s no room for me in the mainstream? Does her existence automatically turn me into the cheap off-brand Lena Dunham? Will DISPOSABLE LOVERS end up premiering at the Hoboken Film Festival for Ambiguously Ethnic Women & The Gluten Intolerant and then be banished to the Gay & Lesbian section of Netflix? What is it about other people’s success that indicates your own failure?
Every season it starts with Sundance, then Berlin, SXSW and now even the Oscars. I’m watching, hoping more women are featured and given the attention they deserve and then when one shows up that resembles me in the slightest I’m filled with horrifyingly competitive negativity. The emotional journey starts “Yay! You go girl!” and drops down to “Yeah, the film was ok, but I could have done it better.”
Oh god, am I the next Toby Jones? Toby Jones is that actor who played Truman Capote in that 2006 Truman Capote movie. No, not CAPOTE, the one that was nominated for all those Oscars, the other Capote film that came out that year- the one that nobody saw. He went on play Hitchcock in the Hitchcock film that came out a few months ago. No, not the one called HITCHCOCK with Helen Mirren- the one that was made for TV and co-starred Sienna Miller.
Here’s the thing: I respect Lena Dunham’s work, when I’m not so busy envying the position she’s in and justifying why she’s there and I’m not. At first I went through a stage of searching for reasons the show isn’t worthy of the hype. The biggest complaint people seem to have is that the cast is entirely white and straight. I milked this for a while, but is it Dunham’s responsibility to make a series that represents the world as it should be? Her work is authentic to life as she experiences it and that includes a lot of white girls with a certain level of entitlement, naiveté and privilege. It’s true that most stories told on film and television speak to that audience exclusively, but I can’t blame Lena Dunham for that. Do I like the characters on the show? No, I think they’re all asses. But I see that as the point of the series, the humor of it. I’m along for the ride, I like how icky it gets and I’m compelled to see what’s going to happen next.
I’ve experienced female filmmakers play a very strange push/pull game with each other. It goes: “Yay, I’m so happy for you, congrats! (Please die!)” There’s a passage from Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants that stuck with me, “People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. ‘You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.’ Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.”
This competition, is it self-imposed? There’s no cap on the number narrative films that depict the plight of the slightly overweight, average-looking middle-aged curmudgeon who can’t seem to make it work with the women in his life. Yet the moment a female-driven project begins to garners major attention there’s a silent understanding that there’s less room for the rest of us.
I can only speak for myself here, I don’t know if other female filmmakers feel this way. Perhaps I’m insane and this is just my own neurosis, which has flourished under the tutelage of my very competitive family. This year, during the Oscars memorial montage, my father turned to me with tears in his eyes, “Desi, they died to make room for you!” This is his way of showing support, but in my mind it’s confirmation that there are a limited number of spaces in successful adult world and others must DIE to enable me to reach the top.
Instead of holding myself up against her, perhaps I need to focus on how inspired I am by her journey. Lena Dunham is a hard worker. She made a film (for peanuts) that was compelling and funny enough to garner the right attention, and she did it on her own. Perhaps if we were to put in just a little of the energy spent in this unspoken dick-measuring-contest into being fans of each other’s work and then minding our own fucking business then this feeling of jealousy/competition would dissipate.
Being who I am, I never imagined it would be possible to experience world-wide success. The fact that someone whose work parallels mine is on the cover of Rolling Stone scares the shit out of me- the fantasy is both so close and so much farther away. You make the work you do on blind faith that if it’s good enough, you can carve out a space for yourself as a working filmmaker. If it’s good it really won’t have mattered that Lena Dunham dealt with similar subject matter, because that’s what good work does, it stands apart.
That said, thank god she’s not Iranian or bisexual otherwise I’d have to cut her.