Lena Dunham, You Kind of Broke My Heart

Lena Dunham on Vogue

Lena Dunham on Vogue

Dear Lena Dunham,

Listen, I love GIRLS. Have loved your show from the beginning. And up until the last episode, season three just kept getting better. The comic timing remains whip smart. The characters began as comical caricatures and are evolving into complex people. Each episode combines outlandish dialogue with poignant emotional gestures, delivering stories that are hilarious and human and touching. And I know you’re “tired of talking about your body,” but the beach house episode in which Hannah sports a string bikini in every scene was revolutionary for me. Years of feminist critique haven’t had the same impact on my brain and body image as watching Hannah rock a skimpy bathing suit all around town, from day to night.

But “the body and its representation” seems like an apt topic on which to turn toward the real reason I’m writing. The heartbrokenness. And not, “Oh, squee, what will happen to Adam and Hannah’s love story?” heartbrokenness—that delicious, vicarious kind that drives a person to watch shows and read books and listen to music in the first place. I’m talking stunned-raw-in-the-chest kind of heartbroken.

It was a Sunday afternoon. I was watching the final episode of season 3 with my husband. We’d already met the marginal artist character, a gray-haired, husky-voiced woman in a wheelchair.

Oh good, I’d thought when she’d first appeared in episode 11. A person with a visible disability. That’s a first for this show. To boot, she was a famous artist. No mention was made of her wheelchair. The wheelchair was a side-note. An afterthought. Unimportant to the storyline.

You’re wicked smart, adept at flipping the script on countless expectations, which is probably why I was taken so off-guard by what came next in the artist’s storyline. And then I went numb, heavy with the realization that even one of the smartest artists of my generation still toted the Ableist Party line.

The artist wants to kill herself. That’s her primary reason for existing in the season. To place one of the characters in the moral conundrum of helping her die.

I didn’t just sigh with disappointment. I went heavy with a deep fatigue.

“The only character with a visible disability,” I said to my husband, but I didn’t need to finish the sentence.

“I know,” he said.

I’m not even an optimist by nature, but I love your work so much I held out hope. Waited for the artist to give her reasoning. Surmised that maybe you’d reveal some unexpected, non-stereotypical, non-wheelchair-related motivation behind the artist’s suicidal urge. Maybe she’d had a tawdry affair and couldn’t forgive herself. Maybe she just hated her art these days. Any reason but the old “A disabled life isn’t worth living” scenario. Instead, I watched this:

Artist, gray-haired, in a wheelchair: “Do you know that I wake up every day disappointed that I didn’t die in the night?”

Jessa, twentysomething and beautiful: “I don’t blame you.”

Artist: “I hired you because I thought you were the only person who would see how necessary this was. Listen to me, I’m tired. My body is gone.”

Jessa: “And I am compassionate to that.”

Artist: “I’m in so much pain, Jessa.”

Jessa: “I can see that.”

Artist: “Just do it. For me.”

And so Jessa does. She administers the pills to the artist in the wheelchair. We don’t know much about the artist’s life, about her pain, about her body and why she calls it “gone.” But we see she’s in a wheelchair. Thus, the wheelchair in the episode becomes an icon for the life not-worth-living. The wheelchair is the magnet of meaning onto which we are meant to project tragedy, despair, uselessness. The message is as cliché as it is simple:

A life in a wheelchair isn’t worth living.

A life with a disability isn’t worth living.

Lena, the other day a stout man pushed two wheelchairs through my front door. Back when I was the age of your characters, back when I was writing overly-dramatic, narcissistic work you have the impressive, wise distance to mock, I never imagined I’d become a parent to a child who might benefit from a wheelchair. But here I was, opening my door to a wheelchair salesman, who pushed two of them into my living room.

Which is why an otherwise intellectually offensive representation—one I would have easily critiqued in my pre-parenting grad-school days as ableist—turned personal. Turned heartbreaking. Someone once said that having kids is like seeing your heart walk around outside your body. But in this case, my heart will soon be sitting in a pop cultural icon for tragedy. For uselessness. For Just-End-It-All.

I’ll admit—and this is more than you’ll ever want to know—but I’ll admit that at first I didn’t like the sight of those wheelchairs in my house. Something guttural and defensive inside me reacted when I saw their complexity, their bulk and spokes and shine. No, this guttural response said. Not my daughter. I looked warily at the wheelchair saleseman, unconvinced about the virtues of his wares.

wheelchairs in my living room

wheelchairs in my living room

My reply surprised the hell out of me. My daughter’s physical therapist and I had already agreed weeks ago that the wheelchair was a good move. Fiona, not quite three, has a while before she will be able to walk safely and independently. But she’s three: she’s got urges and orneriness, calculations and curiosities. She points and demands to be carried in the direction of whatever she finds interesting. An ultra-light wheelchair would give her the ability to propel herself. It would give her the power to get around on her own. It would enable her to live a more empowered and independent life. A better life.

The wheelchair, in other words—in your show the icon for a sadder life—could make hers a happier one.

It didn’t take long for me to see this. I watched the wheelchair salesman and the therapist discuss all the ways the chair would be optimally designed for my daughter. A seat just her size, made from exactly the right material for her body. Wheels chosen for her small hands. Nothing extra on the chair, not even “skirts” to keep the grime from the wheels off her legs. Because what matters isn’t cleanliness. What matters are ounces. Every ounce counts, said the wheelchair salesman. We want it as light as possible. The chair will be designed precisely to maximize her ability to push it. Precisely to optimize her empowerment and her embodiment.

You know about empowerment and embodiment. I know you do. No woman of average size and shape, with average supply of cellulite, is taught that she’s allowed to bare all before others. To ride a bicycle in a string bikini. When your figure isn’t 34-26-36, when your breasts aren’t the perfectly cylindrical softballs of Victoria’s Secret models, the media scowls. Lena, while loads of viewers scream at you to Put your clothes on! I delight that you are reclaiming who’s allowed to be naked. Who’s allowed to be bold. Who’s allowed to be fully and courageously embodied.

But the same goes for other types of bodies. Older bodies. Wheelchair-using bodies. Disabled bodies.

At 16 pounds, my daughter’s body confuses the world. “How old?” people ask, and then furrow their brows at the answer. The world is not designed for her.

Fiona in a baby swing.

Fiona in a baby swing.

Toys, kid-chairs, baby swings, clothes—none of it is designed for her. But the 12-pound, ultra-light, super smooth wheelchair will be designed just for her. It is not a vehicle of limitation. It is not an imprisoning chair of despair. It is not a sign that her life is not worth living. When she sat in the sample for the first time, with the slightest pressure of her newborn-sized hands, my daughter was able to move the chair back and forth. Back and forth. She could make the thing go herself. And she smiled.

Lena, she smiled.

It matters what you write. It can revolutionize our thinking, or it can re-draw the same tired, damaging story. In this case, the story about which bodies are allowed to rock it and which ones are wrecked. You regularly show us that your own body can rock it on TV. I hope you’ll show that other bodies can, too.


Heather Kirn Lanier


7 thoughts on “Lena Dunham, You Kind of Broke My Heart

  1. Thank you for writing this. I hadn’t seen Girls or the episode you reference, but this post resonates so deeply with me. I will remember it for a long time to come. And blessings to your daughter on her new wheels!

  2. I love the way you take Lena Dunham though the process, step by step, starting with admiration, moving on to optimistic assumptions, and ending headed out over the cliff of massive, devastating disappointment. Best journey possible. If the letter reaches her and she reads it, it’s one she’ll never forget.

  3. I love that you wrote this, and I saw the episode and I am ashamed that I didn’t get outraged. My daughter is disabled as well. Thank you for educating me.

  4. Thank you so much for this incredible piece of writing. It is evocative and heartbreaking. I especially loved your description of having children as being akin to having your heart come out of your body and walk around.

    I think we’re all coming around to the fact that Dunham has some serious problems with privilege. Some have arrived here later than others. When black feminists accused her of whitewashing Girls I thought they were right and was disappointed. I am ashamed to say I continued to watch Girls though because I enjoyed some of the issues it was grappling with itself.

    This sibling abuse thing has broken now and I’ve started reading into her (which is how I came upon your article). Strangely, I don’t even remember the episode with Jessa “assisting” the disabled woman. I’m disabled and have written medical law essays about the “life not worth living” aspect of the assisted suicide debate that nobody ever seems to touch on when advocating the right to die. I wonder if I missed the scene, the episode or that I watched it and bizarrely wasn’t triggered by it. In any case, I am 100% supportive of your conclusions and feel heavy hearted like you did. It reminds us that the image of the wheelchair is something so ingrained in society’s psyche as an object of fear and disdain – that just he mere use of it as a prop for a character to sit in, is enough to explain why the woman wants to be dead. No explanation needed. No further questions asked by Jessa. In some ways I’d like to go and see that scene but it’s too depressing and I’m certain there is no other way of reading that scene.

    Also, I wonder if you noticed the episode in Season 3 in which Gaby Hoffman plays the obnoxious sister of Adam. She feeds Hannah this lie about how her cousin died a horrible death caused by muscular dystrophy when she was a child (I think to make Hannah upset or something, which doesn’t work). My sister who used to love Girls warned me about it because it had offended her to see them name drop a disability like that and tie it in with death. I have a type of muscular dystrophy that isn’t life threatening so it was pretty disappointing to see it portrayed as a terminal illness. I’m aware it can be terminal if it is a certain type (e.g. Duchenne) but that is a type that only affects boys and the cousin in the ‘story’ was a girl. I have difficulty sometimes telling people what my disability is when they predictably think the prognosis is dire. In fact, I have in the past said “it’s not terminal, I can see from the look on your face you think it’s much worse than it is.” And it’s Lena’s lazy writing that perpetuates this – just like the “life not worth living in a wheelchair” myth. There’s also something on Twitter about how she said she had AIDS one summer.

    I think this callous way in which she drops disability and illnesses into her work for jokes is offensive. I’m certainly not supporting her anymore.

    Wishing you and your beautiful daughter all the best.

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