As an actual male fan of the writer/director/actress Lena Dunham, I subscribed to her new email newsletter—called “Lenny”—almost as soon as I heard about it. Dunham’s fame stems from having created the HBO program “Girls,” a critically acclaimed but only marginally popular sitcom that nevertheless serves as one of the primary totems of Millennial culture. As a sort of youth ambassador, however, Dunham herself is by now more famous than her show is and has sought to solidify her status as the “voice of a generation” (as the “Girls” pilot put it) by authoring a Nora Ephron-style book of essays, writing pieces for the New Yorker, starring in a high-profile political advertisement, and now lending her name to an email newsletter (“Lenny” is a slightly botched portmanteau of “Lena” and “Jenni”—Jenni being co-publisher Jenni Konner, Lena’s best friend and TV producer).
Email newsletters exist, surprisingly, and for some reason they seem to target women almost exclusively. I’m subscribed to two others: the “Skimm,” a light-hearted daily summary of current events aimed at fast-paced corporate women who don’t have time to read an actual newspaper but still want to appear informed during the 20-second chats that take place on the elevator rides to their high-powered business meetings (it spends a lot of time reminding us which countries in the Middle East are or are not “BFFs”); and, of course, “Goop,” the infamous Gwyneth Paltrow lifestyle brand and medical myth purveyor.
Why not just make a website? I think the newsletter form exists primarily as an acknowledgment of limited content and a consequent inability to compete for page views with around-the-clock news websites and large-scale opinion-generators like Slate and Salon. If “Lenny” were a website, it wouldn’t update often enough for us to add it to our hourly Facebook/Twitter/HuffPo web rotation; sending it directly to our inboxes ensures that the onus is not on us to remember that it exists. The format also restricts the audience to a self-selecting sympathetic group—the articles are not something that random readers stumble upon—thus making it the perfect “side project” for a vain, insecure celebrity with a preexisting fan-base. The main problem with “Preserve,” the recent failed “Goop” rip-off (itself a rip-off of a Martha Stewart catalogue), was likely that it dared to be a website, thus attracting the ire of snarky passersby who never would have subscribed to a newsletter by Blake Lively.
“Lenny” is actually pretty different from “Goop”: less commerce, more writing. According to its mission statement, “Lenny” is your over sharing Internet friend who will yell at you about your finances, help you choose a bathing suit, lamp, president . . . AND tell you what to do if you need an abortion.” Although it makes no promises as to a schedule, it so far looks like a twice-weekly product: an official issue on Tuesday with a supplemental interview on Friday. Dunham has released a total of eleven ““Lenny” Letters” thus far, including three preview issues.
“Lenny” urgently wants to help young ladies of various backgrounds become fabulous, powerful, confident women. To that end, it has featured articles about physical fitness, negotiating maternity leave, menstruation, Hillary Clinton, and gender-based pay inequality—all rooted in a relentlessly positive, empowering outlook. Its sole article about an expensive new type of beauty treatment was commissioned not to promote said beauty treatment but to tell readers that it probably isn’t worth their time and that they’re surely just fine without it.
Which is not to say that “Lenny” philosophically rejects the traditionally “frivolous” content of less explicitly feminist women’s magazines: within the contemporary feminism of this newsletter, the media-borne forces of female oppression—namely, fun fashion tips and recipes—are “owned,” reinterpreted, and interwoven with the butt-kicking attitude of the modern woman, whose female pride allows for no shame over her internalized interest in “fierce jumpsuits,” purses, horoscopes, celebrities, or any other product forced upon her by a sexist popular culture. It feels kind of paradoxical, but what can you do?
What’s most interesting about “Lenny” is how different it is from Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” While “Girls” is a funny, often mean satire on “first-world problems” with an all-white cast in an exclusively affluent setting, “Lenny” talks earnestly about issues of social import and is careful to reflect a diversity of racial and socioeconomic perspectives. Where “Girls” is largely negative (making fun of the cluelessly overprivileged), “Lenny” is entirely positive, a self-esteem boost for the overprivileged and underprivileged alike. “Lenny” does not use the term “girls”; it uses the term “women,” doing so in a way that suggests a kind of achievement.
“Lenny” also isn’t very good: it’s well-intentioned, but it doesn’t stand out in a crowded market of feel-good, left-leaning Internet articles for the Upworthy crowd. It’s deliberately lacking in edginess, seeking to create a “safe space” for readers rather than to challenge them. Its politics are lightweight; the writers, for all their diversity, feel interchangeable. Operating fully within a niche where everybody already agrees with one another, the newsletter is necessarily devoid of real insight.
But by virtue of engaging with important issues of the day from a sensitive, sensible, liberal point of view, “Lenny” is virtuous; the insular comedy of “Girls” is not. “Girls,” however, speaks—in a way more inspiring than anything “Lenny” has to offer—to the liberating power of art. On HBO, Lena Dunham plays a fictional character named Hannah, through whom she’s able to engage genuinely with her personal flaws and heartaches, whereas, within the context of “Lenny,” she’s forced to play “Lena Dunham”—ostensibly her real self—and thus, without the protective guise of fiction, can project only a politician’s idealized self-image. The impression one gets is that Hannah is a dramatized version of who Dunham believes she really is, while “Lenny”—socially engaged, intersectional, empowered, essentially an apology for Hannah’s selfishness and ignorance—is who Dunham wants to be. Ironically, the person she wants to be seems a lot less interesting than the person she is.