Lena Dunham has a lot to tell us about politics. The creator of “Girls” and poster adult for Millennial sexual freedom wants us all to vote, and to vote the right way. In 2012, her disturbing ad for the Obama campaign urged young women to lose their political virginity to our dear leader. Now on a Planned Parenthood website she has provided us with five reasons to vote. Kevin D. Williamson has pilloried the piece to an extent that makes piling on the equivalent of running a flea flicker with a six-touchdown lead.
But now we can add hypocrisy to the criticism of her inane ramblings. It has come to light that Dunham has hired performers to entertain the audiences at her new book tour. She told The New York Times, “I wanted it to have an arts festival feel, which is why we now have all these remarkable, special weirdos who I found on the Internet.” What a hoot. But here’s the problem: prior to a Twitter storm, Dunham planned to pay her special weirdos nothing.
According to Gawker, Dunham has sold 8,000 tickets at 38 bucks a pop to her bookpalooza, but had not planned to pay the performers anything. What is remarkable here is not the greed involved, but rather the fact that Dunham, in her Planned Parenthood reasons to vote, she specifically refers to the minimum wage. Part of her fourth reason reads as follows:
And then there’s Joni Ernst running in Iowa who has tried to block women from getting cancer screenings and HIV tests and whatever else they need at Planned Parenthood health centers; she wants to repeal the ACA, including the birth control benefit that helps millions of women take charge of their fertility and their lives — oh, and while she’s at it just straight up abolishing the minimum wage. (emphasis mine)
Apparently Dunham wasn’t down with the whole “be the change you want to see in the world” thing until Gawker pointed out her miserly tendencies. As a result of the controversy, Dunham tweeted: “some good points were raised and I’ve ensured that all opening acts will be compensated for their time, their labor and their talents.” The rate of compensation was not mentioned. But the fact is this genie really can’t be put back in the bottle regardless of Dunham’s reaction to the scandal.
Dunham’s Actions Aren’t the Problem—Her Words Are
According to Dunham, we all need to vote for Democrats to protect and enhance the minimum wage but as far as the business of her book tour goes free labor was totes cool. Presumably, the tour’s merry band of performers are required to be at the events at certain times and to perform certain duties. In other words, they are there to do a job, albeit a creative job. These performers are adding value to events that will make Dunham and her publisher Random House a lot of money. It is very possible that not paying them is illegal, but it is absolutely certain that deciding not to pay them was an act of incredible hypocrisy.
So how could this have happened? How could a smart woman like Dunham and all of the smart people working with and for her fail to see that they were doing exactly what she decries? How did they wind up contracting labor for events and deciding not to pay for that labor? The answer is actually pretty simple. In the entertainment industry, specifically for live events, it is very common for performers to go without pay. The idea is that the exposure of the event has value and serves as compensation. This is a notion Dunham embraced minutes before her mea culpa, with this tweet: “This feature of the tour was meant to be a way to showcase local talent and I could not be more excited about it.” This concept is not entirely without merit. It is certainly possible that putting the Lena Dunham Book Tour on their headshot and resume could lead to future work for these performers. It is also almost precisely the argument made by opponents of increasing the minimum wage.
Take Sen. Rand Paul’s recent comments about his son’s pizza delivery job: “It’s a chance to get started. I see my son come home with his tips. And he’s got cash in his hand and he’s proud of himself. I don’t want him to stop there. But he’s working and he’s understanding the value of work. We shouldn’t disparage that.”
Low Pay Includes Other Compensations
It seems that Dunham takes pretty much the same view. These performers on her tour are just getting started, and this is a great thing for them. Sure, Dunham could hire Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman for her book tour, just as the pizza place could hire UPS or Fed-Ex employees with great delivery expertise. But in both cases it would be much more expensive. For the purposes of the book tour it made more sense to use unknown, unpaid talent. For the purposes of the pizza place it makes sense to use inexperienced, low-paid delivery people.
This kind of unpaid work is remarkably common in the entertainment industry, its general embrace of Progressive policies notwithstanding. Soon after moving to New York, I was accepted as a member of the acting company at the Flea Theater founded by Jim Simpson. The Flea regularly features Simpson’s wife, Sigourney Weaver, or John Lithgow or Bill Murray. But the acting company, who perform in the vast majority of the theater’s work, are not only unpaid, they do five hours of unpaid work a week for the theater. This work includes everything from stuffing envelopes to moving pianos. But I worked with great playwrights and directors, I did shows reviewed in The New York Times, I enjoyed every minute of it. Just like Lena Dunham’s book tour troupe, I made a decision to give my labor for free, and that was ok. It was my decision.
But according to the policies Dunham preaches without practicing, I was badly taken advantage of. The poor people working at fast-food restaurants absolutely must make $15 an hour, by her logic. The trained artists on her tour on the other hand, many of whom I imagine are burdened with staggering student loan bills, should be happy just to be in the room with her. This is important stuff. Here in Brooklyn where “Girls” takes place, our lone Republican congressman Michael Grimm is under indictment for allegedly paying employees at a juice bar under the table. Dunham, who is celebrated and is telling us how to vote, planned on paying her employees nothing.
Lena Dunham believes that proximity to herself, proximity to celebrity is its own reward. And she may be right. The performers who lined up to work for free in her literary Woodstock may have been making good career decisions. But what about the guys who stand outside the Home Depot or the U-Haul lot trying to get $5 an hour for hard work? Is the opportunity to get picked up as a day laborer any different? Couldn’t that also lead to better, more sustained employment if they are good, or learn to be good at what they do? Couldn’t they get exposure to people with full-time jobs to offer?
Thus far we don’t know if Dunham plans to pay her opening acts minimum wage. In fact, we have no idea if she even plans to offer them free health care or birth control. But then again she doesn’t believe that’s her responsibility. The man she lost her voting virginity to has already taken care of that.