Lena Dunham and Miranda July Talk Taboos
"I was like, wow she just went there—in the best way possible."
On Wednesday night the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted two of the most controversial, multitalented women in media: Lena Dunham and Miranda July. The occasion? July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, which was released in early January to mixed reviews.
Dunham and July are longtime pals, which is a fact that if you didn’t already know, you are probably not shocked by. Each has their own brand of uncomfortably honest, sometimes intentionally off-putting humor and an unapologetically “hip” aesthetic that people either love or hate. In fact, I’ve met so many people who fall into the latter category that I was shocked by the swarms of die-hard fans who showed up at BAM, cheering at the mere mention of July’s most famous work, the film You and Me and Everyone We Know. July later admitted that while touring, she often runs into people with tattoos that reference the hilarious (if, again, off-putting) scene from the movie in which a young boy, attempting to engage in a sexy online conversation with a stranger, suggests that his partner should “poop into my butt hole and I poop into your butt hole…back and forth…forever.”
July’s new book (which, full disclosure: I have not yet read) appears to be in a similarly unabashed vein. As some critics have pointed out, the trademark “quirky” or “twee” style that July is often deplored for has taken a backseat this time to content that’s more shocking than warm and fuzzy. The basic plot is that a lonely, slightly obsessive-compulsive middle-aged woman and the beautiful but cruel and slovenly daughter of her employers are forced on one another as roommates. Initially, they despise each other, but this soon morphs into a sexual, consensually violent affair that turns gender norms on their head.
Part of the inspiration for the plot came from an experience she had several years ago on a silent meditation retreat, in which, during the ten-day period of being in the presence of others but not allowed to speak or interact with them, she became sexually obsessed with an older woman on the program. “I just got so obsessed with this Butch woman,” she confessed. “It was just building and building, and I was like, at the end we’re going to get to talk, and I’m going to get to hear what her voice sounds like…she was this like, powerful butch woman, who just was very good at meditating.” But once the retreat was over, the woman donned “a pink sweatshirt with an applique, mom jeans, and some white tennies, and hopped into a mini van with her husband.”
July describes this as “the kernel of how if you wanted it bad enough, you could completely misread someone.” If this situation sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because it also inspired an episode of Portlandia after July shared the incident with her friend Carrie Brownstein (see Take an Exclusive Look at Shepard Fairey’s Portlandia Cameo).
While July is captivated by the idea of her own misread of someone else, the fact that both she and Dunham are often victims of a more overarching societal misread isn’t lost on her either. Towards the end of the program, Dunham (who was recently scandalized for a chapter of her own book, Not That Kind of Girl, in which she discusses an early childhood memory of watching her younger sister stick pebbles in her vagina) asked July which groups of people she was most concerned about offending or confusing with the book, as though this was some inevitable consequence of creating art in our time. July admitted her concerns that some of the raw, violent sexuality described in the book might be “triggering” for some, and also conceded that she was worried the “adoption community” could also be incensed by a part of the book that deals with the logistics of adopting a child.
Dunham also commended July on her willingness to touch on taboo topics (like going to the bathroom) that women are often taught to shy away from in their art-making. “I was like, wow she just went there…in the best way possible,” Dunham remarked, though she herself has received both criticism and accolades for some of the same behavior.
“You always know there’s going to be something [that offends people],” July replied. “Post you (referring to Dunham), I pretty much worry about everything all of the time. Everything you’re wrongly accused of, I’m pretty sure I did do, so…yeah, it’s just terrifying out there.”
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