The Cut published a long feature Monday on Lena Dunham, best known as the creator, writer and star of HBO's "Girls." The long read dominated conversation for the day, igniting dialogues about entitlement, class privilege, white privilege and the willingness by many media personalities to build their personal brand around tone deaf public statements.
— ilana kaplan (@lanikaps) November 26, 2018
"Lena Dunham Comes to Terms With Herself" has already been praised as a masterclass in feature writing by many journalists who note author Allison P. Davis' ability to be unflinchingly honest in reporting Dunham's many, many PR mistakes while also treating Dunham with dignity and respect.
Davis' story also has its fair share of lessons for communicators, especially those in media working to build out their personal brand. The piece artfully uses scene, narrative and exposition to demonstrate the blind spots that Dunham, and those caught up in the digital generation's 'cult of personality' can easily miss. Here are a couple:
Just because your content is clever doesn't mean people will like it
At one point in the story, Davis joins Dunham for dinner at her family's Connecticut residence and witnesses a strained family dynamic. After recounting an instance when Dunham trolled her mother on Jimmy Kimmel Live by texting her increasingly hideous dresses she planned to wear on camera, Davis describes an intimate scene at dinner wherein Dunham asks what her mother thought of the prank. Unsurprisingly, her mom was not amused.
— Jaya Saxena (@jayasax) November 26, 2018
The Twitter user's point—that many viewers feel the same way about Lena Dunham's incendiary public persona as her mother did about that prank—deserves closer scrutiny. In an effort to rise above the noise of an ever-accelerating, 24-hour news cycle, many take on a "there's no such thing as bad publicity" approach to their public behavior. It's under this attitude that certain YouTube celebrities like Jake Paul have built their entire brand.
But in an age when a digital footprint of all your missteps exists online forever, audiences want to support personal brands that demonstrate mindfulness and purpose, ethical values and consistency. In an age of radical transparency, it seems there may be such a thing as bad publicity, after all. In this day and age, your reputation has more value—and longevity—than any fleeting attention from an incendiary comment or provocative piece of content.
The style that built your brand should evolve to consider time and public perception
Considering that today's audiences value transparency and authenticity, Dunham's refreshingly honest schtick worked for many years. Her semi-autobiographical character on "Girls," Hanna Horvath, frequently engaged in real talk about millennial struggles facing young women, financial, relationship-focused and otherwise. This approach was no longer effective once Dunham's real life crept into the image she cultivated—though she was heralded as the voice of a struggling millennial generation, the character's financial hardships and pressures of an increasingly expensive Brooklyn were not authentically understood by their creator.
Similarly, Davis' feature portrays a disconnect between Dunham's stated desire to curb assumptions about her life and image while pithily dismissing major complaints about how she communicates ("Race is a chronic blind spot for her because she didn’t grow up with a lot of diversity in her New York City private school, she explains.")
Though a detailed feature inevitably increases Dunham's brand's share of voice, advertisers are only attracted to a voice in line with their values. While Davis' piece has been universally lauded as a piece of fair and balanced reporting, Dunham condemns herself through her inability to consider the optics of her behavior. She speaks freely about her hysterectomy, other health issues and substance abuse problems that inspire sympathy but don't thematically explain why she says the things that she says.
At one point, Dunham debates not naming a black, hairless cat "Rosa" out of concern that she will be accused of disrespecting the memory of Rosa Parks, “bc I have to consider those things,” she writes to Davis. At the aforementioned dinner she bluntly asks Davis, who is black, if both of her parents are black, too.
Honest, frank conversation and oversharing may have been how Dunham built her brand, but when the social water cooler is all saying the same thing about her lack of mindfulness for other races and classes, it's high time to reconsider the strategy. An unfiltered personal brand can still be a great tool for publicity, provided the naked narrative contains more positive depictions than negative ones.
Keep people around who will be honest with you, even when it's uncomfortable
That said, it's hard to have that birds-eye view of your own story and predict how such a revelatory, intimate portrait about yourself will actually read. Presumably, Dunham could have more closely moderated her texting (both to Davis herself and Amy Schumer, ex-boyfriend Jack Antnoff and more). Similarly, she dismisses stories about her negligence as a pet owner (several of her pets have died suddenly) while treating a cat like a toy in front of Davis.
this chunk from that new Lena Dunham profile really captures it all pic.twitter.com/dHqoyxY29H
— Emma Niles ???? (@emmalorinda) November 26, 2018
More beguiling, though, is how everyone who comes in and out of Dunham's life during the story—Jack Antonoff, her parents, Amy Schumer, etc.—fail to impart any lasting perspective to Dunham on the consequences of her behavior. After she writes Antonoff to complain that people hate her for something she's said, Antonoff reassures her with a blanket statement on self-worth atypical of an ex-boyfriend. In the same vein, the piece ends with a bit about Dunham having recently signed on to write an adaptation of "A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea," a true story about a Syrian refugee named Doaa Al Zamel who was stranded in the Mediterranean, which is being produced by J. J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg.
"It seems like a fairly extreme version of attempting to get outside her own perspective in her art — there are smaller steps she could have taken first," writes Davis. "But she tells me she has a multipoint plan to avoid stepping into it again." Despite Dunham's assurance that the project will be respectfully rolled out, every shred of her behavior in the piece contradicts this, and the reader is left to wonder who possibly thought Dunham adapting this story was a good idea.
It's possible that Dunham's family and friends have done all they can to help her (this is implied at several points in the story), but the story nonetheless underscores the importance of keeping people around you who can give you honest, real feedback. Every instance of offensive brand messaging or poorly conceived content could have been avoided with someone in orbit to question the judgment of Dunham's decisions. Just because it's called a personal brand doesn't mean you have to manage it all by yourself.
Follow Justin: @Joffaloff