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Lena Dunham’s depraved comeback The filmmaker has apparently given in to the patriarchy

"Just try it once" (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

"Just try it once" (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)


July 29, 2022   6 mins

Lena Dunham made her name pushing back against the extremes of sex positivity. In the second episode of the TV series Girls, which she wrote and starred in, her character capitulates to a sex partner’s insistence that they act out a nymphet fantasy. At the time, Lena said: “It’s definitely going to evoke the feeling like, ‘Why is this self-respecting woman doing this, and if so, is she a self-respecting woman?’” But then she explained her motivation: “relationship statuses are becoming more and more ambiguous in our modern Facebook, texting, Twitter world. And [it] can be really interesting and can also be damaging … you don’t understand how invested in you they are.”

What has happened to Lena? That is one of the questions that rushed through my head when, after two attempts, I made it through Sharp Stick, her first feature since 2011. Others included: what is wrong with this film? Is it a test of the inanity of contemporary critics? Or is she baiting us to cancel her? Or has she, all along, been just as idiotic, just as narcissistic, just as myopic as her crudest haters insisted?

I feel insane even describing the film’s plot. The protagonist Sarah Jo, a 26-year-old caretaker for a child with Down’s Syndrome, begs his man-child father to take her virginity (she had an emergency hysterectomy at age 17, which sexually stunted her). This causes her to instantly transform into an infantile nymphomaniac. Soon enough into the sometimes mushrooms-fuelled, sometimes porn-fuelled, affair, the mother — a sharp-tongued and overbearing businesswoman portrayed by Lena herself, in some strange self-hating gesture — finds out. (Actually, she finds out on the floor of the kitchen after she slips in a pool of her own amniotic fluid.) Sarah Jo is fired — and finds solace in an ethical porn star who resembles her ex-lover. (He addresses the camera with words like “I feel so connected to you” and “I admire your commitment to women’s personal expression”.)

Worried she’s bad at sex, Sarah Jo embarks on a journey of self-discovery that involves hanging elementary-school arts-and-craftsy checklists of extreme sexual acts around her room and soliciting men on fetish apps to participate in them. At one point she jumps out of the bushes and screams at the family she used to work for, “I did bukkake!” The disabled child and newborn react with distress.

The film has received some praise, which has appeared in Instagram ads featuring suggestive photos of the film’s completely conventionally attractive star, Kristine Froseth, who has modelled for Chanel, Armani and Prada. Vanity Fair called it “Supremely Funny”; Rolling Stone claimed it was “both absurd and enlightening” (in fairness, they were running an interview with Lena; to be honest might have been impolitic). But, in a refreshing show of lucidity in the face of a star-studded film that was very diverse — perhaps to clumsily rebuke critics of Girls’s whiteness — most outlets have panned it. To quote The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis: “There’s no point in enumerating all the reasons I dislike it”. 

Perhaps critics feel unusually free to be honest about this awful film because of a perplexing controversy around its creation. Apparently Forseth, who plays Sarah Jo, reached out to Amy Gravino, the autism activist — known for her “Why Autism is Sexier Than You Think” TedTalk — about consulting on the film. Then the creators suddenly decided that Forseth’s character would not be autistic. According to Gravino, though, the character is “clearly” coded as autistic, and the “dehumanising” film participates in the “infantilisation of people on the spectrum”.

Sarah Jo is certainly childish: she’s constantly smearing yoghurt all over her mouth, and a baby-talking bartender has to teach her how to drink as she holds a wine cup with two hands like a sippy-cup. She dresses in the kind of upmarket baby clothes that are now so often found draped on the underweight and affluent. When her sister asks her to stop openly scratching her genitals, her mother asks: “Is it a wiping issue?” And it goes beyond credulity, into broad comedy, for this 26-year-old — adoring daughter of a potty-mouthed, aged-out tart and loyal sister of a viral TikToker who can’t identify the father of her child — to respond to “Can I go down on you?” with (bug-eyed smile, high-pitched squeal): “Down where?!”

Along with a screener, the film’s marketers sent me Lena’s “Director’s Statement”: it was, I was told, “worth reading”. The last three films I’ve written about have brandished a similar exegesis: is this phenomenon an expression of condescension toward audiences, or fear of their wrath? Appropriately, the Statement revealed that this is an ideologically unimpeachable film: during the pandemic, the chronically ill Dunham came to reflect on her life. In Sarah Jo, she developed a character who experienced her physical challenges — a complete hysterectomy due to chronic endometriosis — and emotional challenges — “often feeling as if life and romance, and womanhood on the whole, are a secret that everyone is in on except for me.”

Contemplating the portrayal of sexually active women in film, Lena thought about how they so often end up either murdered or at least subjected to “a torture of judgment, of questioning, of self-doubt and loneliness and regret over choices that should ultimately just be part of the fabric of self-actualisation in that same way it can be for their male counterparts”. So, she “began to imagine a character whose sexual journey would be totally unique, unmarred by shame or self-hate or the projections of others. She would use sex not to destroy her body but to heal it from a history of medicalised trauma and cultural projection”. Hence, Sarah Jo’s “private and judgment free sexual journey”.

How to portray that? As Lena concludes: “I pushed myself to write this script with honesty and a certain demented purity. When I asked this story what it needed from me, I simply heard Sarah Jo telling me ‘Please don’t try and make me cute.’ And so, I let her rage.”

I suppose there is a certain “demented purity” to Sarah Jo — but is it truly countercultural to show a woman empowering herself through watching porn and speedrunning through the “categories” with faceless strangers? In a world where yonic prosthetics are advertised on public transport, do contemporary media narratives actually discount female pleasure? Is it all that subversive to show a Scandinavian model begging for another go in up-to-the-minute fashions? Girls, by contrast, was brave enough to show Lena Dunham naked — naked and dismayed.

Indeed, Lena’s brilliance has always been her attention to the disappointments of sexual liberation. I remember seeing her first film, Tiny Furniture, at the local arthouse theatre when I was 17;  amid so many EU-funded multinational WWI dramas and mumblecores about dumpy Portlanders with regrettable tattoos, it was shockingly relevant. Its last scene is one of the greatest portraits, today, of the false promise of hook-up culture: Lena’s character finally seduces the hot guy, which means him pulling down her pants and using her for a few moments in an abandoned drain pipe. 

What happened to that Lena? Of course, she’s always seemed like a terrible person — but her early work portrayed her failures with a clear-eyed precision that cut through the noise. She seemed to know that all her characters were awful. Why is she now saying, “I think we have enough messaging in society, and probably in my 20s I contributed to it, that said, like, ‘porn is ruining sex, and it’s making it so hard for people’”?

Sharp Stick is entertaining in the sense that it offers the rubbernecking fascination of the worst trainwrecks. But the coming-of-age via kink here is so devoid of any plausibility, let alone subtlety, that this seems almost like a dystopian send-up of a 2010s sex romp. If this bizarre, borderline paedophilic fantasy is a failure, though, it’s not a vindication because Lena has always been so awful; it’s a shame because she used to be so exceptional. Either Lena is truly the most brilliant performance artist of a generation, or one of its biggest casualties. 

Wherefore this fantasy of frictionless sex, of anonymous encounters with randy internet strangers? Why on Earth would this be the way to heal from sexual injury? I suppose the director of Sharp Stick couldn’t really convince herself either: the film concludes in textbook white knight fashion. Sarah Jo’s saviour is a handsome porn-industry PA who won’t have sex with her without getting to know her (which she’s not interested in). Instead, he goes to epic lengths to “heal her trauma”. In a gesture of saintliness, he shares her fan mail with the ethical porn star she’s obsessed with, who tells her to be “proud of your fucking scars”. Finally, she accepts his love: going off-checklist and allowing him to gently caress her. 

I suppose this is a familiar problem with feminist art: do female characters really want the hyper-efficient, attachment-free anti-intimacy of their masculine counterparts? As Lena bemoaned in her Director’s Statement, women don’t get an Alfie — but do they want one? Even Carrie Bradshaw ended up with Mr. Big, and in Sally Rooney’s latest, a few hundred pages of light BDSM neatly tie up in two couples, plus a baby on the way. The marriage plot certainly originates in a world of primogeniture and patriarchy; but perhaps abandoning all sentiment and sensitivity is a patriarchal fantasy as well.

I don’t believe Lena could resist a little nuance: the free-wheeling mother here is a cautionary tale, as is the sister who, as her mother callously acknowledges at what appears to be an abortion party, can’t bring a baby into the “living realm”. The (lazily repetitive) montage of Sarah Jo and her multitudinous partners is far from alluring; the film’s only erotic scene is the final, tender, vanilla one. 

Perhaps the title, here, is a giveaway: as Sarah Jo says of her sexual quest, it will be like “When I was a kid and the doctor was taking blood and the doctor said ‘This will just be a sharp stick’, and I knew it would hurt more than they said, so I beat them to it in my mind and that was my power”.

“I knew it would hurt more than they said”: this, I think, is Lena’s final assessment of so-called sexual freedom.


Ann Manov is a writer living in New York. Visit her website here.

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Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 year ago

All my life I have hated feminist propaganda, I have just realised why – feminists are sexist and equally abhorrent and destructive as sexist men. Reading this article brought to mind Toby Young’s autobiography and his realisation, after many wrong turns and mistakes, the best sex is an expression of love.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aphrodite Rises
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Excellent comment.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago

They are worse.
Traditional “sexist” men who existed in Britain say a century ago, at least lived up to their beliefs of being stronger and superior to women, and didnt start whining when things got violent or they had to put their lives on the line to protect women, children and nation. No sexist man shirked when asked to charge machine guns while the women stayed safe at home.

Feminists are supremacists, they believe women should always be treated as better than men…while also expecting to be treated like children, and not to bear any of the responsibilities men bore. Of the many feminists I have met, not one chose to be a breadwinner, run a business or take up a job that wasn’t cushy and office based.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I totally agree. The traditional roles for men have many benefits for women – equally, the traditional roles for women have many benefits for men, whereas contemporary feminism is almost entirely destructive. Quotas are wrong as they promote the incompetent, equally, excluding people on the basis they possess particular physical characteristics is wrong and detrimental to society.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aphrodite Rises
Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

Feminism is not liberation – it’s a power play.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

It has to be a part of love. Sleeping around is a dead end and leaves a lot of guilt. You have to quench that guilt by mixing with those who are as bad as you. An honourable woman would resist it.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

Oh for heaven’s sake. Have we reached peak bourgeois decadence yet?

Last edited 1 year ago by polidori redux
D Walsh
D Walsh
1 year ago

Lena Dunham is the archetype of the modern feminist. Shallow, annoying, ugly, and dumb

Last edited 1 year ago by D Walsh
Paige M
Paige M
1 year ago

Awwwww Lena Dunham. She goes beyond question mark to full blown puke in mouth when thinking of her career. If one actress could encapsulate the sheer non-sensical, disgusting, insanity of our current age, it would be her.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

Could it be much simpler than all this? Could Lena just be acting out her exhibitionist fantasies?

j morgan
j morgan
1 year ago

LD went wrong when she began to listen to her critics. Not the ones who thought her characters were awful (as the writer says, Dunham knew that, and they could be glorious in their grotesqueries). She listened to the critics who said her characters weren’t diverse enough or unproblematic enough to warrant attention.

Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
1 year ago

Good God.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago

“has she, all along, been just as idiotic, just as narcissistic, just as myopic as her crudest haters insisted?”

Read again the first 2 paragraphs. Gives a good summation of the rest of the article.

Laney R Sexton
Laney R Sexton
1 year ago

My life is so much better since I stopped thinking there was some sort of ‘trick ‘ to being loveable or sexually viable. I wish more young people, boys and girls would realize it’s actually not that complicated.

Bev Von Dohre
Bev Von Dohre
1 year ago

Lena Dunham has always been a female-hating, male-worshipping sell out. Why on earth is she associated with feminism in any way? Her “Girls” was so disgusting, including her showing her boyfriend slapping a woman as he rapes her. Nothing about her is remotely feminist. It’s all about money and career. But she still is incredibly boring. Hate her for so glorifying girls and women pornifying themselves.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

So, if I understand correctly: Dunham has moved from attempts authentically to portray the struggles and traumas of sexually actively young women as they seek to form relationships with themselves and others with perhaps a romantic ideal of marriage and, possibly, children in mind as an end goal (at least in principle), to attempting to promote a less realistic, idealised, didactic narrative of guilt-free, frictionless sex with strangers in which women are pretty much indistinguishable from men in terms of their desires and needs, in which procreation does not feature at all?

Is it a coincidence, then, that the image for this piece shows Dunham with only one eye fully visible, and heavily accented with make-up? cf https://vigilantcitizen.com/vc-resources/the-one-eye-sign-its-origins-and-occult-meaning/

Maybe, maybe not 


Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

I see that the image has now been changed 


Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

I find this confusing

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Jeez, made it to the end of this article on a crazy subject. Box ticked for trying to be open minded.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 year ago

“has she, all along, been just as idiotic, just as narcissistic, just as myopic as her crudest haters insisted?”
Yes.

Vince B
Vince B
1 year ago

I find Lena Dunham an absolutely repulsive person, inside and out. I wish she would keep her inside in.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago
Reply to  Vince B

Lena gives new meaning to the expression, “Let it all hang out” : )

Big Kagi
Big Kagi
1 year ago

Once again, Manov shows that she’s the best reviewer writing in English today. Keep it up, Ann!

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 year ago

I see the reviews paint this film as awful. This article tells me why.

Dr. G McIver
Dr. G McIver
1 year ago

Gosh that sounds dreadful. Thanks for watching it so I don’t have to.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago

Women – Sex – Remuneration. That’s life. Prostitution is just a tiny part of one corner of that eternal triangle.

Paula G
Paula G
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

It’s a Quadrangle: It didn’t happen if you don’t publish your experience.

Try to not see things, because it is hard to unsee them. From the 90s, I recall a woman with a rocking body in a see through dress, angry because everyone was looking, not just those whom she gave permission. And a wildly popular young dominatrix, letting the world know that SHE was the exploited one, because her “arms hurt” as the laborer in her voluntarily entered into remunerative contract.

I hope we are bad television for alien viewing.