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lena dunham and meritocracy

By now, just about everyone in the feminist blogosphere has seen and/or read about Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, Girls. This is because we feminists in particular get super excited about anything that might change the representation of women in the media. And Girls, with its awkward self-awareness and even more awkward sex scenes, seemed like it might be the beacon of light we’ve been waiting for.

But of course, as with anything popular, there has been backlash in addition to the praise. About the show’s lack of cultural diversity, its nepotism, its hype … you name it, it’s probably been written about. Although there are certainly some valid criticisms to be made, its overexposure is essentially because no publication wants to get left behind; if something is topical and you have a unique opinion on it (or even if you don’t), people will probably want to read about it.

This goes some way to explaining how things get popular.

We like to think that we live in a meritocracy. If you work hard and are good at what you do, you’ll be duly rewarded. This is true to some extent, but it’s certainly not a direct correlation. If you work hard and are good at what you do, you have an exponentially better chance of being recognised for your work than if you’re lazy or uninspiring. But being thought of as the best in your field has as much to do with luck, networking and timing as it does with sheer talent.

This is where much of the criticism around Dunham has come from. She is certainly not without talent, but undoubtedly some of her success can be attributed to the fact that her mother is Laurie Simmons, an artist and photographer who I had never previously heard of, but who has her own Wikipedia page. Of course, this would mean nothing if Dunham wasn’t good at writing/acting/etc, but having well-known parents, particularly in a field related to your own, does open doors. It makes it easier to get things done, and to be introduced to people who can help further your career.

I don’t want to suggest that Lena Dunham or any of her fellow “well-bred” cast members are only successful because of their parents. Girls is a good show, and it’s better than most shows on television and probably better than most shows that are sitting in aspiring screenwriters’ bottom drawers. Having hype around what you’re doing makes it more likely that people will pay attention, and it’s far easier to get hype if you know “the right people”.

This is endlessly frustrating if you’re in any field that isn’t really based on what you know but who you know (which is every field I can think of, except for maybe sports). Even if you are the best at what you’re doing, somebody else might become better known for it for reasons that are entirely arbitrary or unfair. Thinking that we’ll be rewarded as long as we do our best, and as long as that best is better than others’ best, is far more comforting than knowing that even if we do everything “right”, we still might not get to where we want to be. The belief that we live in a meritocracy is essentially a form of self-preservation, and is a fake reassurance that life is fair.

So what is one to do?

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have the answers. But I do have some advice, based on Paul Graham’s excellent essay, ‘How to Do What You Love’.

  1. Do what you love
    If you’re doing something for recognition, fame or prestige, then you’ll likely be disappointed. But if you derive satisfaction from your own sense of accomplishment (and perhaps some kind words from loved ones), you’ll be far more motivated and happy.
  2. Do the best you can.
    If you do your work well, there is a chance that people will appreciate it. If you don’t, there’s no chance.
  3. Get over it
    Harsh I know, but others’ success, however unjust it might be, is not an excuse for you to give up. There will always be hoards of terrible books/tv shows/whatever, but the people who created them still finished their work, and that may be the only thing that separates you from them (that, and the fact that you’re obviously brilliant).

Lena Dunham’s success may not entirely correlate with her talent but she’s created a show in which her female characters are different to the norm, and though it may not be the game changer we were all hoping for, I still see Girls as a welcome addition to our television screens. There are countless people whose good fortune it is worth getting far angrier over. Tucker Max, anyone?

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