As you might have heard, last week Lena Dunham sold her first book for $3.7m, far exceeding the paltry million her agent asked for.
The internet response to the news was instant and predictable: a mix of excitement and incredulity, quickly followed by a backlash against anyone who dared to suggest that over two million quid might be a lot of money for a 26 year old’s memoirs.
The word “haters” was bandied about on Twitter and in hastily scribbled blog posts, as in, “What have Dunham’s haters done with their lives that’s so special?!”
But… we’re not haters. We’re just jealous.
I can’t speak for the whole internet (although if that job ever opens up, I’m available) but I don’t think anyone in my social network hates or even resents Dunham for her success. We’re just a bit bummed out that an equally fabulous publishing opportunity hasn’t come our way (yet) . And we’re allowed to feel like that.
Or are we? American site xoJane is famous for its over-sharing (full disclosure: I’ve contributed a couple of articles), with recent pieces admitting everything from racism to digging out a girlfriend’s tampon. But one of the very few that founding editor Jane Pratt saw fit to sprinkle with scolding comments was a self-deprecating piece by Ella West [http://www.xojane.com/it-happened-to-me/lena-dunham-girls], a former classmate of Dunham, who admitted she felt some angst over her peer’s stratospheric success.
A lot of commenters responded harshly, accusing West of whining and a sense of entitlement and telling her it’s not Dunham’s fault she feels bad.
Of course it isn’t — but no one suggested it was. It’s possible to want to experience a fraction of Dunham’s success while also admiring her ability and achievements. As one of very few young women at the helm of a hit TV show, Dunham’s breaking new ground, and that’s great for all of us.
But it’s worth considering that, although she’s no doubt worked incredibly hard, she also has great connections through her parents’ work and enjoys a lot of privilege. I know discussions of the p-word can quickly become heated, because it’s too often used as an insult rather than an observation. But as a disabled woman, I find it essential and helpful to recognise that society operates under power structures that make it easier for certain groups of people to access certain opportunities.
In fact, I think jealousy is a natural reaction to inequality. When Jane Pratt told West, “Someone else’s gain is not your loss” she may be right, but it doesn’t always feel that way. There are still fewer opportunities for women in every field, so it’s understandable if it sometimes feels like there isn’t room for all of us. (While it’s flattering to Dunham, it’s also telling that she’s being hailed as the voice of her generation, as if one female voice is all that’s needed.)
My envy of Dunham is triggered by her career success, because as a writer and a narcissist, I can’t imagine anything more gratifying than being paid millions to turn my life into a television show and book.
But when I conducted a totally unscientific poll on Facebook, my friends admitted to mostly feeling envy around other women’s looks or perfect-seeming relationships/homes/children. It can’t be coincidental that these are the areas society encourages women to base their self worth on.
One woman messaged me privately, saying she felt too ashamed to publicly admit to her jealousy. Some women claimed not to experience it, while others called it a useless emotion, as if there’s some kind of emotions economy where jealousy isn’t legal tender.
Perhaps one reason women don’t like to discuss it is that envy (of men, and of each other) is an accusation often flung at feminists by our opponents as a derailing technique. But there’s a big difference between tearing each other down and talking honestly about our emotions.
I recently listened to an interview with comedian Sara Schaefer where she talked about sometimes feeling jealous of her podcast co-host, Nikki Glaser. Her honesty and vulnerability in admitting to an emotion we’re not encouraged to talk about was refreshing, and only made her seem more relatable.
Sure, I grumbled a little about Dunham’s book deal on social media sites, but sharing my jealousy and laughing with other writers who felt similarly allowed me to move on rather than wallowing in resentment.
Maybe jealously is only destructive if we repress it — or if we try to stop other people from expressing it. It’s just the result of neurons firing, after all. It doesn’t make someone a bad person, or a terrible feminist. And it certainly doesn’t make them a hater.
What do you think? Are you dead jealous of Lena Dunham? Do you think you could do the whole voice of a generation thing better? Or is Lena Dunham your spirit animal? Let us know in the comments.