Sure, there’s such a thing as too many Lenas — but, come on: what would drive someone to say, “I want to kill Lena Dunham?”
That’s the provocative title of one of the pop-culture-inspired productions at this year’s Fringe Festival. The ominous threat serves as a canary in the coalmine of modern American culture — an attempt at an artistic antidote to the whimsical Williamsburg of Dunham’s Girls.
This may all sound a bit lofty for a small theatrical production (one of 200 taking place throughout Fringe NYC) but it’s precisely such heights that playwright Sergio Castillo believes art should aspire to reach. “Looking at American culture with respect to art – which is supposed to be a reflection of the times – we’re living in an age right now where generally [culture’s] being used for mere entertainment,” Castillo told us over the phone. “When Lena Dunham makes a show that creates a narrative that is entirely false to what New York is actually like, it doesn’t really serve any kind of purpose except for her own self-indulgence and the audience’s.”
By contrasting social reality with Dunham, a symbol of America’s co-opted consumer class, Castillo hopes to highlight this broad discrepancy and draw attention to the cracks that have begun to appear.
True to form, I want to Kill Lena Dunham, takes place in present-day Brooklyn and follows Nora, “a left wing political radical who is morbidly obsessed with Lena Dunham.” Set against a backdrop of live jazz music (“another prominent American culture also kind of in decay”), Nora narrates her inner thoughts, vocalizing the societal tensions Castillo seeks to evoke. We caught up with Castillo to unpack the angst, his own political leanings and establish just how Dunham is perpetuating the patriarchy.
Tell me a bit about your background and how this shaped your political convictions and artistic direction?
I grew up in suburban Los Angeles, raised in a very politically conscious household. My parents were both political activists and communists who actually worked with the guerrilleros in El Salvador in the 1980s. Vladimir Lenin hung in our dining room, so being socially and politically aware of the world was kind of a priority. We were also a Latino family in a predominantly white neighborhood, so I didn’t experience much diversity until high school. Growing up feeling so ethnically isolated shapes your way of thinking in terms of how you view yourself and how the world views you. I think a lot of that has translated into my work and how I perceive the world… I know my subjective experience is not the only experience of the world and that there are other voices that are more marginalized than mine that need to be heard. I believe art should be a medium where these voices are heard.
So then what’s your beef with Lena Dunham all about?
I am not of the opinion that representation necessarily equals progress. I feel Lena Dunham — in representing this kind of upper-class, educated, white, cisgender female who doesn’t really have any problems — is creating a false narrative about our society and I think it’s an irresponsible thing to do as an artist. I think Lena Dunham personifies everything that is wrong with film and television in the world today. That’s not to say it’s her fault entirely, it’s a systemic problem. Had I written this play 10 years ago it could have been Sarah Jessica Parker or someone like that, I don’t necessarily think it’s so much [Dunham] as an individual as it is a question about American culture.
How is Dunham specifically, then, a symbol for this “systemic problem” you’re trying to reveal?
I’m attempting to get a conversation going around several different subjects. As millennials we can’t get real jobs and the economy for our generation has basically been destroyed, so we don’t really have a future in the current way of doing things. There’s also this stigma around millennials being spoiled and entitled and I really have a strong issue with that because as a generation we’ve also created things like Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement. So depicting millennials as spoiled, entitled narcissists is a disservice and in a way disgusting because it’s a false narrative. Even if Lena Dunham is being true to her own self, I don’t see why it matters? Why do her problems matter more than other people’s? There’s a long list of issues that need to be explored through art and Dunham doesn’t seem to really want to explore any of these beside her own petty self-indulgences.
But couldn’t you say that she’s representing empowered creative women?
That to me is not feminism. She needs to find another word because I think she’s caught up in this mindset that representation is power and I come from a radical political point of view where I think it shouldn’t be about getting women into the board room so much as it should be focusing on setting the board rooms on fire –metaphorically. We should be looking to smash the patriarchy, not get over it.
You’ve got all these ideals in mind and central to that strategy is calling your play “I want to kill Lena Dunham.” There’s a lot of violence in this title and I assume in the content of the story. Why?
The core of the play is about showing how an oppressive society can make individuals commit violent acts in order to achieve personal freedom. In an age when we’re seeing gun massacres almost every month now it doesn’t seem like an irrelevant point. As to the issue of violence and why and how it’s used, the big question is can it be used for a moral cause or is it completely immoral? This is a complex open question I hope the audience will engage in.
In other words, by presenting a protagonist who gets driven to a point of considering murder you’re opening up the question of what drives people towards such violence?
Right, and what would drive a person to do that or drive a whole demographic of people to do that? There’s no simple answer.