We’ve Got to Be Artists of Some Kind

by Jen Paton

Chimamanda Adichie has a talk called “the danger of the single story.” She says, the “single story [that] creates stereotypes…that are not untrue…but incomplete.”

ScreenHunter_08 Apr. 16 10.03
Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture

I watched three stories about American women this weekend: Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture (2010), the Diablo Cody written Charlize Theron “comedy” Young Adult (2011), and the blockbustering, blistering Hunger Games (2012). I suppose the latter is only tenuously about an American woman, as it takes place in a dystopian post war America called Panem where teenagers fight to the death on national television. But anyway.

Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture takes place in the now, and is about a girl named Aura who rather than fighting to the death posts semi-nude videos of herself on Youtube in a bid at artistic expression. Aura, who comes home from college in Ohio to crash in her artist mom's (amazing) Tribeca apartment and figure out what to do next. (Artist Mom on film is Dunham's IRL Mom, as is the apartment her IRL apartment). Aura has her liberal arts degree, and in college made aforementioned arty Youtube videos where she undresses in fountains. Now she finds work as a restaurant hostess and flirts with lackluster dudes. Tiny Furniture is, as Glenn Kenney put it, “a largely adroit film concerning largely insufferable people.” Not a lot happens. But it does rather capture a certain kind of inertia of a certain kind of kid, someone really smart who doesn't really have the tools to get their act together because the consequences of not doing so are minimal. Dunham contends that her friends say the apartment looks smaller in real life, but in spite of this, she rather gets the smallness of the world she portrays, and pokes some fun at it.

And yet, and yet – it is so hard to get beyond our single stories. Dunham, whose TV show, Girls, about young women in Brooklyn premiered yesterday, made the Girls characters from Ann Arbor because “I was trying to choose places that felt like they weren’t New York but had weirdly analogous intellectual communities, so that if these girls appeared and they were quipping their heads off and they’d watched certain kinds of films since they were three, it would make sense.” Because of course, nobody else watches “certain kinds of films” or experiences culture except New Yorkers, and those lucky enough to live in a distant archipelago of college towns.

Jemima Kirke, Dunham's friend and an actress in the film, says Tiny Furniture describes “kids who are trying to figure out what they want to do but they've got to be artists of some kind.” Also, it is noticeable, does it matter (yes…) that none of the Girls, or the boys they date, or any of the young people in Tiny Furniture…are not white?

Mavis, the self-destructive narcissist at the center of Cody's Young Adult, writes young adult fiction, and is trying to live her own romance novel- to return to her boring hometown and “rescue” (steal) her high school boyfriend from a life of boring married-with-babyness. She bitches to her friend in the city (an Asian-American!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) tears into Mercury Minnesota in her red Mini-cooper, generally acts a fool, shames herself terribly, and may or may not grow as a person because of it. She is definitely not the kind of girl who would “quip her head off” and she likely does not keep the Criterion Collection on her nightstand.

Mavis, instead, is a white-middle American idea of glam, an idea she herself painstakingly created in direct opposition to everything Mercury, Minnesota, is not. While Aura's apple didn't fall far from her mother's tree – in terms of aesthetic and indeed life possibilities – Mavis made it her mission to get as far away from her mother, her father, and her hometown as possible. She lives in the big city – of Minneapolis. She wears amazing clothes – but they are not Vogue “cool”, just In-Style “chic.” She has a seemingly glamorous career. She is gorgeous, because she is Charlize Theron.

Girls like Dunham's New Yorkers, and maybe even the Ann Arborites of Girls, would certainly make fun of Mavis' Diet Coke drinking, un-ironic reality TV watching ways (The Kardashians or The Hills is droning on in the background whenever Mavis is alone), and the way she still wears velour track suits. Mavis only writes her novels on a MacBook, whereas the girls in Tiny Furniture use MacBook Pros. But to some of the women in Mercury – those she hasn't shown her raging alcoholic, depressive side to – Mavis is a heroine, an icon of escape. But one who is about to be out of a job, with an uncertain future looming.

And then, there is Katniss, the final heroine in my weekend troika, the heroine, no the hero, of the real YA fiction turned mega- blockbuster, The Hunger Games. While Aura/Lena turned her life into a film, and Mavis keeps the Kardashians on in the background to remind her how to behave (badly), Katniss lives in a world where teenagers fight to the death on national television. Parochial concerns like clothing and boyfriends loom minimally. There has been some internet debate about casting a white woman as Katniss, as her character in the book is fairly ambiguous. Worse, there has been a lot of cranky racism over the casting of two principal characters – one quite clearly described as “dark skinned” in the book – as black. But anyway!

Katniss lives in District 12, a run down Appalachian area, but travels to the Capital to prepare for the Games. In the Capital people are wearing bright colors, overly concerned with their clothing and their makeup, pungeantly over-made-up. The allusions to ancient Rome (panem, gladiatorial fights to the death, plenty of columns, plenty of decadent feasting) are legion. Katniss, meanwhile, through manly American cunning, fights her way to the top of the heap.

I've feel I've experienced, with my small, woman-centric film festival, an odd time capsule of America's present this weekend: the stories are different, but they share some singularities – a concern with the media, about public and private, about the constructing of a public persona for art and 'self-expression' (Aura) or to feel onself better than others (Mavis) or simply to survive (Katniss). A reticence to reflect the economic and cultural complexity of the America we live in.Only Katniss – and barely, at that – looks beyond her own concern to the wider world of “America” – increasingly impoverished, and locked in brutal war – two facts that don't exist in Aura or Mavis' America.

At the opening of the Hunger Games, the president – a sinisterly Santa Clausian Donald Sutherland – intones: “This is how we remember our past. This is how we safeguard our future.” In today's America we build our past through our films. I wonder how much we've already forgotten.