There’s a cat fight on magazine row in New York, sort of. There’s nothing ladylike about it. Jezebel magazine is the online gladiator, a feminist David with sling and arrows aimed at gorgeous women in expensive clothes. Vogue magazine, the target, is the glossy Goliath of svelte high fashion with lots of blush and eyeliner. This time Goliath wins.
For readers who have a blurred focus on the popular culture, the issue goes to the latest phase of American feminism, which has been diminished to debating media nudity and the aesthetic appeal of the chubby female body, so revealed.
Jezebel paid $10,000 for raw photographs that would prove that Vogue trimmed the curves of face and form of its February cover girl, Lena Denham, the writer and star of HBO’s popular and seedy sitcom “Girls.” Hannah, the show’s protagonist, abundantly exposes the folds of her naked belly and fleshy bosom. Few readers expected to find her image in Vogue, but women of imperfect bodies have rallied to her defense. When Jezebel posted Vogue’s unedited photographs of Lena, it got millions of Internet hits, but many viewers were outraged that Jezebel had lost its feminist edge by trying to put the newest feminist heroine to shame. Fat chance. Jezebel soars; Vogue roars.
If all this should be relegated to the department of feminist trivia, we can pause for a moment to appreciate founding feminist Gloria Steinem, closing in on 80, for moving on with the times. While Jezebel was decrying Vogue’s exploitation of women, the founder of modern feminism was talking to women in India who face rape and violence in everyday life, no matter how they dress or what they look like. To be “nude and safe” in public is fantasy. Ours is an imperfect world, where gangs of young men become violent to prove their manliness and superiority, and such violence happens the world over.
American women, with their ascending triumphs, are in another “stage of awareness,” which testifies to the popularity of the show “Girls.” No pop-cultural phenomenon can be emblematic of the female culture, but “Girls” captures the overripe and restless boredom of educated middle-class women with a premature approach to dealing with life’s disappointments. It’s very sad. If “Sex and the City,” the sensation of several seasons ago, was about fun and fantasy, single women liberated with money and careers in a fashionable hedonistic lifestyle, “Girls” is about young women who live a tawdry sex life, dress in dowdy thrift-store hand-me-downs, live in shabby digs bearing (and baring) it all, and trying to persuade themselves that they’re living an exciting life in the latest phase of sisterhood.
The sexual revolution of women who fought the hard, early fight delivered a heady change for privileged women, who lived through it along with the pain of discovery that nobody can have it all. That revolution, a creative challenge, is decades old.
Ms. Dunham exposes the inheritors of that revolution, the millennials who live without glamour, glitz or even something to rebel against. They smoke, drink, take drugs and have casual hookups with impunity, and they’re bored out of their minds with no other purpose in their lives. In the first season of “Girls,” Hannah, the writer and narrator, envies a college classmate whose boyfriend kills himself because at least he gave her something tragic to write about.
One of Hannah’s friends dumps a guy who loves her because he’s too nice, too smart, too competent for her to love back. When he’s successful and finds a new girlfriend, she luxuriates in an obsession over her mistake. Episodes take place in an abortion clinic, a seedy bedroom, a bar where men brawl as in the old movie westerns. One female character fakes a pregnancy to get back the man who abandoned her. Hannah’s boyfriend, whose name is Adam, has no paradise to lose, but he’s his own snake in the grass.
Ms. Dunham is not “the comic equivalent” of Bob Dylan for her generation that Vogue boasts she is, but she touches a nerve worth thinking about. Why has the Sexual Revolution turned tawdry and trite, bringing grief to so many single women who find it hard to find meaningful work or a mature mate. Liberation in this scenario depicts a life of despair, insecurity and ennui, whether the character is fat or thin, clever or dull, dressed up or dressed down. Life without style.
Lena Dunham the author can be an acute observer of her generation, a creative workaholic far more successful than any of the characters she draws. What does that tell us? You’ll probably find the answer in Vogue, not Jezebel.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.