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Come on, Lena Dunham: Gwyneth Paltrow is Not a Realistic Role Model

Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner made “entrepreneurship” the theme of their September 20 Lenny newsletter. In an introductory email to subscribers, Dunham begins by ‘fessing up to her own past internalized sexism, recalling the time when she assumed a well-dressed college classmate “had been given an all-access pass to her father’s gold card,” only to learn that the young woman had her own fashion business. The point of the issue, then, is that women can be entrepreneurs, and —relatedly — that girly-seeming businesses count. Hear, hear!

At which point the Dunham-skeptical will be asking, what about women who don’t start out with the same opportunities as Lena Dunham’s classmate? Is this just going to be another Lean In-style celebration of rich white women?

In the intro email, Dunham promises a racially and socioeconomically diverse portrait of female entrepreneurship, and acknowledges her own privilege. Alas, she also offers, as Exhibit A of an admirable businesswoman, a woman who far exceeds Sheryl Sandberg in obliviousness. One minute, Dunham’s asking, “So how can we move toward solutions that make it possible for people born without the kind of connections that yield capital to follow their unlikely dreams?” The next paragraph begins, “For our inaugural celebration of women doing business for themselves, Jenni and I interviewed Gwyneth Paltrow […].” Gwyneth Paltrow, a movie star turned rock royalty wife/lifestyle blogger/cookbook author regularly parodied for the unaffordable lifestyle she promotes.

There’s more to this story, however, than Lena Dunham and Gwyneth Paltrow co-branding their profitable cool. “Lenny’s first entrepreneurship issue” comes just a day after Hillary Clinton, whom Dunham famously supports, published a letter of her own in Mic where she praised “millennials” as “the most open, diverse and entrepreneurial generation in our country’s history.”

Clinton’s use of “entrepreneurial” in this context received pushback from, among others, Connor Kilpatrick, of the socialist publication Jacobin, who tweeted “i would guess the average millennial would prefer to take a unionized, well-salaried job than try to ‘entrepreneurialize’ a decent living.”

While I am, unlike Kilpatrick, enthusiastically pro-Clinton, it’s a fair point. It’s also a different one than Dunham makes in her intro letter, where she somberly notes that the underprivileged face unique obstacles to starting their own businesses. The issue isn’t just that entrepreneurship isn’t a path open to all who wish to pursue it. It’s also that self-employment has often become the only option. At its worst, entrepreneurship enthusiasm leads to those who can’t find work getting blamed for their own predicament — that is, for not creating their own jobs.

As for Clinton’s use of “entrepreneurial,” was she making light of the structural inability of millennials to find good jobs? It’s possible she was just complimenting young and youngish adults for making the most of a weak economy. That she was using the term “entrepreneurial” as a way of telling millennials that they’re (we’re) not lazy, contrary to popular opinion. As she notes later in the piece: “Many of you entered the workforce during the worst recession since the Great Depression.”

However, Clinton – like Dunham, like Paltrow – faces accusations of being elitist, and of representing an outdated brand of feminism. Praising millennials for being “entrepreneurial” might be offering too upbeat of a spin on the college grad who moves back home and can only find work mowing neighbors’ lawns. That’s the kind of business most millennials start, not television production companies or lifestyle websites. Regardless of intent, “entrepreneurial” was, in this context, an unfortunate choice for Clinton, and a notion clumsily handled by Dunham and Paltrow. (Do like Dunham anyway and vote for her.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy is an American writer living in Toronto. Her book, “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’” will be out with St. Martin’s Press in Spring 2017.

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