Lena Dunham is television’s It Girl of the moment. She is also probably the most public sufferer of foot-in-mouth disease in recent memory. The 26-year-old actress and director skyrocketed to fame last year with the success of her HBO show “Girls” and has been a mainstay at award shows and on magazine covers since then.
Tucked away towards the end of Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on Dunham is a lengthy passage on the spiritual mini-tour of India the star took with her mother (artist Laurie Simmons) late last year. From the article:
“I had this dumb, Western idea,” says Dunham. “Like, I’m going to go to India and it’s gonna be so transcendent that I’m not gonna be afraid of death anymore, and I’m going to lay down so many of my Western anxieties and embrace a new kind of knowingness and bring it back to the U.S.”
At age nine, Dunham had started following her mother’s practice of Transcendental Meditation- she stopped for many years, until she picked it up again with the help of a teacher [Judd] Apatow had met. It helps with her fear of death, which she describes as “a very primal, ‘I will be alone and unheard and everyone will be together somewhere else’ kind of feeling.” Somehow, she thought a trip to the birthplace of Buddhism would complete her journey.
Emphasis mine. The article doesn’t say it outright, but you can’t blame Dunham for wanting to go somewhere completely different after bursting onto the American public consciousness (and enduring what must have seemed like relentless criticism) the way that she and her artistic creation did. After all, it’s not unheard of for older, more established stars to flee to a different continent to find peace (see Chapelle, Dave.)
Of course, there have been countless travel narratives by Americans that have gone to India seeking spiritual enlightenment. Oftentimes in these stories there is an awkward moment when the devotee is forced to contrast the beauty and intensity of her faith (and it’s almost always a she) with the graphic reality of life in India. In her best seller “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth Gilbert solved this problem by barely mentioning Indians or India at all. “Outside the walls of the Ashram, it is all dust and poverty,” was Gilbert’s only real description of the country.
Dunham, however, doesn’t gloss things over as she speaks to Rolling Stone at her “favorite Soho macrobiotic restaurant.” And because this is Lena Dunham in interview mode, things get awkward and semi-offensive pretty quickly.
Instead, it was overwhelming on every level, an “onslaught of pure humanity” that was a big challenge to her OCD-driven germ phobia. She ended up leaving early. “We do a really good job in this country of basically sealing off sick people and sealing off toilets and sealing off everything that lets us know we’re animals. And in India not only do they not do that, there’s no interest in doing that.”
Gah!!! Lena, Lena, Lena. I can’t even begin to express how frustrating and wrong that last sentence is. There’s so much interest in fixing all of those things. A quick Internet search comes up with these examples and I’m sure our readers can add countless others to the list.
But there’s more. We also learn that during her trip she sympathized more with “the stray dogs she saw than the poverty-stricken people.” This despite the fact that she thought those same people had “the most beautiful culture.” (As an aside, I can’t be the only one that naturally thinks of signs like this one whenever Indian people are being unfairly compared to dogs. And it also feels like she maybe didn’t learn from the uproar caused by that infamous burqa tweet she sent out last summer.)
Perhaps there’s hope for Dunham yet. The article concludes with her still “processing India; she’s still processing everything. There’s so much left to write, so much to learn, and the clock’s ticking.” Maybe one day as she settles into brunch at that very same macrobiotic restaurant she’ll realize that nobody in India or Brooklyn or anywhere else wants to live surrounded by disease, bacteria, or dirt. Rather, it’s just that progress can be agonizingly slow.