Bascom: Celebrities should use their positions for advocacy

Bascom: Celebrities should use their positions for advocacy

Jordan Bascom, Columnist

You might be surprised to hear that Lena Dunham spoke at Northwestern on Monday night (kind of). In promotion of her new book, “Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned,’” Dunham addressed her fans at NU School of Law’s Thorne Auditorium. Her talk, however, was not affiliated with the University – rather, it kicked off the 25th Chicago Humanities Festival, a program designed by the organization of the same name to celebrate the influence of culture on the humanities.

As a big Lena Dunham fan, I had high expectations for the event, and on Monday night, she didn’t fail to captivate the Chicago audience with her high-pitched voice and trademark wit. Sporting a new platinum ‘do, she quite literally shined under the yellow lights of the stage.

The event was not your average book tour meet-and-greet — it functioned more as a variety show than anything. Before commencing her 11-city tour, Dunham advertised an open call online, looking for artists of any kind to join her each stop of the way. Out of the hundreds who submitted video auditions, she selected an amateur comedian (his name was Patrick) to open the Chicago show. I could easily see why she picked him, as his humor was similar to Dunham’s own brand of self-deprecating comedy. He was noticeably nervous, which only made his performance all the more endearing.

Since the meteoric rise of “Girls” in 2012, Dunham has not ceased to be accused of narcissism for using her own life as the inspiration for her art. But by engaging the community and providing a platform for new artists, Dunham deftly dispelled the uncomfortable aspects of self-promotion inherent in any book tour.

Following Patrick’s brief act, Dunham appeared from backstage to the sound of thunderous applause, and after a few introductory remarks, she delved right into a reading of her new book. It became clear just how rare a celebrity Dunham is, for her public image is indistinguishable from her real-life personality.

While speaking, she would interrupt herself to note a passing thought or self-aware witticism, which amounted to a series of hilarious, stream-of-consciousness asides. In the midst of reading an essay on her nonexistent sense of personal boundaries (to which her younger sister was often subjected growing up), Dunham stopped to joke that her editor had counted how many times she used the word “vagina” in her book — so many times, she teased, that she refused to reveal the number to the audience.

The sections of “Not That Kind of Girl” which Dunham read aloud were well met by the crowd in Thorne Auditorium, which was cowed to uproarious peals of laughter more than once. She delivered each punch line with the proficiency of a veteran stand-up comic and the distinct flare of a fully realized personal voice.

Her material, however, possessed more than humorous value. Dunham’s clever observations demonstrated a wisdom most often absent in the recent crop of celebrity memoirs.

She put this intelligent perspective — especially as it pertains to women’s issues — to good use midway through the show in a plug for Planned Parenthood. Dunham is accompanied on tour by her younger sister Grace, who helped incorporate a political element into the programming and arranged for this aptly paired partnership. The elder Dunham sister reminded us to visit with the Planned Parenthood representatives waiting outside the auditorium, who later handed out condoms in little cloth bags emblazoned with the book’s title. She also urged the audience members to exercise their votes in favor of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a staunch supporter of women’s reproductive rights.

In the final segment of the show, Dunham brought out writer/producer Jenni Konner, her fellow show-runner of “Girls,” for a brief Q&A. Their sharp rapport — evidence of their strong friendship and undoubtedly a great benefit to their television show — delighted the entranced fans as they discussed things ranging from their passionate love for Shonda Rhimes to the ignorance of young feminist-denying celebrities (Konner exclaimed, “Do you believe in equal pay for women? Then you’re a feminist”).

While her television show reveals an intimate understanding of issues faced by modern young women, it is Dunham’s book tour that translates her knowledge into advocacy. She joins the likes of Emma Watson and Angelina Jolie, who have capitalized on their celebrity to raise awareness for social issues and advance means by which the public can provide support for their causes.

If celebrity is good for anything, it’s good for advocacy. Though on tour to promote her own work, Dunham harnesses the power of her position to focus the attention on causes greater than herself.

Jordan Bascom is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].