In Defense Of Dunham: Is Lena Just Giving An Opportunity To Pay Dues?

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Lena Dunham’s book “I’m Not That Kind Of Girl” was released this Tuesday, but not before brought an expose from Gawker revealing that Dunham had elected to have her opening acts for the tour, perform for free. Dunham, who received a $3.5-to-3.7 million advance for the book, was promptly subjected to vicious Internet backlash, and has subsequently agreed to pay opening acts on her book tour.

But is the money the most important thing?

Prior to a brief and nerve-tinged reading of her hotly anticipated memoir, Dunham welcomed BU a cappella group Chordially Yours to the stage of the Wilbur Theater in Boston, Massachusetts. This group of young women regaled a crowd with a short selection of songs. They did so enthusiastically and competently; but, up until last Monday, was one of 11 slated opening acts that would have done so for free.

The uproar that followed the Gawker exposé is not new to Dunham, who is accustomed to controversy surrounding her actions. But it did rankle the sensibilities of comedian and actor Roy Wood, Jr., no stranger to the culture of performing sans compensation:

The conversation went beyond this exchange, but the thesis of his argument is this: the exposure that comes with an opportunity to perform alongside a talent such as Lena Dunham is its own reward. It presents a chance to showcase a craft in front of an audience and prepare content for a prominent stage; in some cases, this may be the largest such opportunity that her openers have had.

Indeed, some acts who applied for and accepted the chance have said exactly that. When contacted by Gawker, Caroline Bassett (who was awarded the coveted opening stint for the Austin show) shared, “I’m fine with not being paid because of the circumstances surrounding the event — I essentially volunteered by applying. I have a chance to work with someone whom I respect and who’s highly accomplished, which is rare for someone at my level. It’ll be a unique addition to my credits.”

So if this form of compensation is acceptable to those participating on the tour — an issue that was raised a few years ago on musician Amanda Palmer’s tour — where does the outrage come from? In some ways, it’s an argument that closely resembles arguments that surround the decision to pay or not pay interns.

That argument is predicated upon the question of if the exposure and experience that these sorts of opening slots and learning of the roles is enough. But Wood’s argument hits upon an interesting element: the entertainment industry, particularly where the talent is concerned, operates differently from many other industries where such free work would be deemed exploitative. “Paying dues” is part and parcel of working one’s way to success, each night of “volunteer” work counting toward the controversial 10,000 hours popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.

The very nature of Lena Dunham’s background (she considers herself a writer first and foremost, and a great deal of writing happens for free before deals are made) and relatively insular rise to success makes her initial neglect of the potential controversy understandable; in a way, her response underscores that fact:

As a creative who classifies herself in a similar camp as Dunham, that of a writer, I’m inclined to believe that her first instinct (as well as Wood’s thesis) is correct. Looking back over my early written work, as well as my current aspirational comedy writing, I am self-aware enough to recognize where money shouldn’t have yet entered the equation. With that said, when given the opportunity to hone my craft in a highly visible arena, I have done so for free knowing that the chance could serve as a bridge to bigger chances as my talent continues to develop. The talented, but clearly still-learning women who applied to work with her appear to recognize that fact. I was excited to see Dunham’s selection for Boston, and look forward to following the burgeoning careers of her other selected talents in the years to come.

Whatever your take on the issue, the tour will either be a memorable chance to see how Dunham interacts with her legion of fans, or another reason to dislike the woman and her take on life. But paid or not, the tour will be most memorable for those getting to share the stage with her this fall.

Amma Marfo is a writer, higher education administrator, and popular culture enthusiast dedicated to the idea that our leisure pursuits can inform and enrich the work we do. She writes often for her own blog (“The Dedicated Amateur“) and is a contributing editor to the Niche Movement. Her first book, THE I’S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs, was released in January 2014. Her other interests include running, yoga, surfing, trivia, comedy, and gluten-free cooking/baking. You can follow her on Twitter @ammamarfo.

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