Fame Shame

Cyrus Dunham’s debut memoir, A Year Without A Name, tells the story of his gender transition. He slowly allows himself to embody a gender other than cis womanhood, and then to pursue gender-confirmation surgery and hormone-replacement therapy. This is the book’s narrative structure: moving toward “alignment,” where previously there was only a “misalignment that [was] unbearable.” A Year Without A Name, however, has a second identity-driven narrative, one that Dunham intertwines with his experience of gender self-actualization but that felt acutely distinct to me, and perhaps even more fraught. “I thought I’d be famous when I grew up,” he writes. “At the very least, I would be great. That’s what happened to special people. And I had been told, again and again, that I was one of the most special of all. I had a special family and I lived in a special world. Everyone in it would, should, be remembered.” Dunham’s twin desires are manhood and celebrity, and he feels profoundly ashamed of wanting both. 

I’m much more interested in his struggle with the latter. The way Dunham wrestles with his desire for fame is familiar to me: craving and pursuing recognition and accolades from the dominant culture while acknowledging and distancing oneself from all things evil that prop up said dominant culture — specifically, white supremacy and capitalism. But his exploration of this struggle felt disingenuous, perhaps because his memoir formally reproduces celebrity, even as the content of his book denies it. To be clear, Dunham is not alone in concurrently using his social positioning to gain mainstream recognition and denouncing that very social positioning. Such choreography is used by many white cultural antagonists these days — myself included — leaving us to replicate what we simultaneously profess to disdain.

Dunham and I move through social circles that sometimes intersect. Our milieus are largely made up of white, coastal rich kids who went to private schools their whole lives, who have ambiguous relationships to work because it’s never clear whether or not they need to, who also happen to be queer and, sometimes, trans. They often perform self-conscious vulnerability on social media. “Care” and “community” are popular terms to throw around; it’s cool to be freaky and weird, and to expose one’s neuroatypicality. I don’t doubt that a lot of us truly did feel ostracized growing up, ashamed we wanted to kiss the people assigned to our same bathrooms, our same bunks at summer camp, our same attendance lines in elementary school. We wrote about our deviant desires in our diaries, did Google searches for “gay,” played the gender we “weren’t” in fantasy games. But the world has changed, and what once lived on the margins of cultural production is edging slowly towards the center.

We now have queer and trans celebrities, and, like all celebrities, they are featured in magazines and ad campaigns, have brand partnerships and platforms. Many, but not nearly all, are white, cis passing, and able-bodied. Many also tout ideas that come from queer and trans resistance history: Heteropatriarchal capitalism is insidious and alienating; prisons should be abolished and harm reduction uplifted; queer family is everything; we should always amplify the voices of the most marginal people in our movements; we have to take care of each other, because nobody else is going to do it. Those of us who are queer or trans but white and wealthy are much less marginal than we once were; in fact, I’d say we possess a new kind of cultural capital. We bring these radical ideas into proprietary spaces of cultural production that fold us easily into their ranks, offering them a diverse sheen that doesn’t trouble their class and race allegiances. It’s not to say that we, too, aren’t usually exploited by these spaces, offered low wages in exchange for exposure, or tokenized in dehumanizing ways; it’s just that it’s more possible for those of us with preset access to wealth to translate the cultural capital we gain into actual capital, a translation that’s often less accessible to poor QTPOC moving through these same spaces. In other words, we — the white, wealthy, and deviant — occupy a unique position wherein we are often able to malign institutions while gaining institutional clout. We don’t pretend that these two stances are not in conflict with one another — we’ve all read enough Foucault to talk about the insidiousness of institutionalized domination convincingly — but we sometimes pretend that they are not in irresolvable conflict with one another. I fear they are.

I’ve thought a lot about why I want to write this and whether or not it’s a good idea. I’m cis, and hate my body in mundane and livable ways but nothing more. I’m queer, but I have a straight boyfriend. I’m white. I went to public school my whole life, but my parents probably would’ve paid for me to go to private college, had things turned out that way. I’m very much of the social class I’m indicting. But it is striking to me that these circles — mine and Dunham’s — so often seem to reproduce the very power structures we claim to abhor: We glorify some people at the expense of others, enforce silent social rules that our peers must implicitly fall in line with, hoard wealth and opportunity within exclusive cliques — and we refuse to talk, publicly, about how social capital now works in these circles, the way it’s gleaned from a combination of dominant and marginal identities, with the possessors of the right combinations floating to the top like so many apples in the water.

Dunham’s political and social position, unfortunately for him, exemplifies the way this marriage of privilege and marginality manifests in our contemporary moment. His debut book was positioned to succeed: published by a big-five house, excerpted in the New Yorker, blurbed by respected authors like Mary Karr (“unputdownable”) and Olivia Laing (“raw, beautiful and uncompromisingly honest”), and attached via authorship to one of the biggest names in entertainment — Lena Dunham, his famous older sister. Dunham knows all of this, and throughout the book is ashamed of his proximity to fame and conflicted about his desire to be recognized in his own right, about whether he deserves to be. I feel for him. His plight, even if inflected very differently from mine by his secondhand celebrity, is relatable: wanting to claim a voice and shyly hoping for recognition but trapped in a system he fundamentally rejects, knowing that producing work and seeking valor within this system tacitly endorses it, constantly anxious and self-critical. At times I wondered if I disliked the book because it was simply unpleasant to be inside someone else’s neurotic head when I’m always already inside my own — the same way I can’t watch Curb Your Enthusiasm because my own irritating Jewish family is enough for me.

A Year begins with Dunham psychologically lost, traveling in India — “Whenever my bodily claustrophobia grows unbearable, I seek new lovers, new locations, new friends” — about to turn 25 and falling in love with a smart and beautiful writer he meets on the trip, Zoya. We learn that falling in love is, for him, a grounding act: “Devotion is the closest thing I’ve ever known to a stable gender,” he writes. On page 48 comes the first of few mentions of money: “I’d have more money soon,” he writes cryptically, funds he hopes to use to visit Zoya. How he’ll have more money soon never gets explained. I’m not sure if I was meant to assume Dunham’s year was lived out on the profit of selling this book, and if that’s why work never comes up. The stories, in any case, continue in a similar vein throughout: Dunham falls in love with various people and develops deep friendships with others. Friends fly to visit him; he flies home to bring his mother a new dog. He has conflict with his family but feels love there, too. 

Dunham frequently recalls childhood memories of feeling evil and alienated, of anxious and obsessive thought patterns. He begins the book known not as Cyrus but as Grace, which doesn’t fit because of the girlhood it signifies. He’s afraid to relinquish the name, though, afraid of facing the depth of dissonance. Eventually, he becomes Cyrus, first to his partner, then friends, then, finally, family. “Cyrus” was the only name in the boy column on the paper of names his parents were choosing from at his birth. “Cyrus,” he writes in a beautiful passage, “is a sign and he may not last . . . I choose to move toward something like manhood . . . because, for reasons I still do not know, it makes me feel closer to earth, to everyone and everything else in the flood.” He writes best on this subject: affecting reflections on the depth of his yearning for manhood in spite of fearing what it might mean, or who he might become.   

But: a year without a name indeed, except for the one that signifies his lineage. It’s not that Dunham doesn’t address the weight of his surname; repeatedly, he does. But his ruminations on the evils of knownness, and thus celebrity, were for me undermined by the fact of the very memoir I was holding, a memoir I continued to read about on each new platform of an extensive publicity circuit. He writes, “My proximity to fame made me cynical and that cynicism made me suspicious that the purpose of a name is simple: We require a stable identity so that we can be known . . . I wanted to be nameless, nothing, the opposite of known. And yet I had no idea how. To aspire to be known was the only way I’d ever been taught to be alive.” In moments like this, I wished he went further, disclosed even more. Did he consider getting rid of his last name, as well? Did his publishers force him to keep it, for exactly that stable recognition he sought to reject? The desire for both fame and anonymity isn’t uncommon; each has its own appeal, and it’s fine to exist in a messy in-between. But Dunham’s explicitly harsh judgment of chasing acclaim and recognition, constant throughout the text, feels impossible to reconcile with his decision to publish this book. We learn that Dunham ardently feels celebrity culture is destructive, that it reinforces, precisely, the world he doesn’t want — a world defined by scarcity and devoid of care — and yet he pursues something approximate to celebrity anyway. But if one truly wants it, it seems so easy to be the opposite of known: Just don’t write a memoir.

I think I was supposed to see Dunham’s becoming comfortable with transitioning, and thus more comfortable being seen in his everyday life, as his becoming comfortable with recognition on a larger scale. I was meant to realize that it wasn’t namelessness he actually wanted, but to be named in a way that felt truer to him. But I can’t accept this explanation as sufficient, because this isn’t simply a memoir of a personal journey; he makes it overtly political, until he doesn’t. He laments constantly the evils of whiteness and celebrity culture — the draw of the power they afford a person, and his revulsion toward that power. At the New York City premiere of his sister’s television show Girls, he has a panic attack, describing his inner monologue at the event in this way: “White aliens. White aliens. White aliens. The words made it hard to breathe . . . White aliens taught other aliens to succeed at all costs, to put the dissemination of one’s own message above all else. White aliens taught white aliens that to die alone or a nobody was the worst thing a woman could do.” It seems that moments like these are exacerbated by Dunham’s gender dysphoria; the world around him is oppressive, racist, and unreal, and grounding himself in his body is not even a viable option. But they are just as much about his grappling with what he’s been taught by his white forebears: “The myth that we deserved what we had. The myth that the lives of people who make things are more significant than everyone else’s.” He feels fame is “a toxic substance that oozed into everything”; he expresses “need[ing] to know [people] could be honest about the power [fame] had over them, over everyone”; to deal with jealousy toward his sister’s fame, he tries “to eat alive the part of me that had always believed I’d get what she’d already gotten. Preeminent known-ness. And I ate it alive by deciding it was evil . . . the sibling of the processes that locked people away in rooms so they’d be forgotten.”

Dunham’s hatred of fame — his reasons for denouncing it — is perhaps too convincing for his own good. His distrust reads not as an irrational fear of celebrity culture specific to a person who grew up too near to its seductive grasp but as cogent and universal condemnation. Fame does seem like the sibling of the processes that lock people away! We dehumanize and disappear some, and we lionize others — it’s not outlandish to find these to be cultural counterparts. And without some more pronounced political turning point — realizing it’s okay to seek fame because life is short and the heart wants what it wants, or grappling in a more nuanced way with whether his specific story is worth telling — those passages read like a desire for absolution after committing the sin, like the friend who, after hours of monologuing, adds in how much they hate talking about themselves. When Dunham asks and answers himself, toward the end, “Did I think a new name would cut the cord between me and my whiteness, my power, my access? I would always be what I’d always been, no matter what I called myself,” it reads like a cop-out. Did he think a new name would cut the cord between his new self and his old privilege? Because, of course it wouldn’t. But does he actually want to cut that cord, and is he trying to accomplish that cord cutting by any other means? It doesn’t seem like he wants to; it seems like he thinks he should. 

I don’t judge Dunham for lacking genuine desire to give up his privilege, any more than I judge myself — we don’t often want things that would make our lives materially harder. I just don’t understand why, then, he keeps bringing it up: We all know he’s white; we don’t need him to tell us every few pages that he knows, too. There’s a meme where a Band-Aid labeled “Queerness” is put on a bleeding arm labeled “White Guilt.” Dunham has taken the Band-Aid off — he’s not trying to cover anything up, and that’s admirable, in its own way. But there are so many opportunities that he neglects to be clearer about his decision to become “known” in spite of his suspicion that such a pursuit is irrevocably tied to confirming the specialness of his whiteness, his education, and his family. Instead, what he does amounts to showing off the wound just so that he can’t be accused of not knowing it’s there.

In one such passage, Dunham writes, “I saw myself as a physical embodiment of a hierarchy in which some people’s lives are considered more valuable than others, and as a corrective for that violence, I wanted to disappear entirely.” But of course, he doesn’t disappear. His greater struggle is in actually wanting the opposite, and having enough of a political education to know that he shouldn’t take up any more space. And that’s the problem we all face in these queer, creative circles of great privilege that we both move within. We know that white people should pipe down, but we don’t want to. I know that I don’t deserve to take up space any more than anyone else, that I deserve it a lot less than more marginalized people with less access and privilege than me. But I write anyway, because I want to, not because I think it’s ethical, or good. The least we can do is own the fact that, on the culture-producing left, the marginal parts of ourselves can sometimes function as a new form of currency, lending us the credibility to speak when the dominant identities we possess — whiteness and wealth — imply we shouldn’t.

Self-flagellation is, if nothing else, boring. Many have made the point that desire rarely conforms to political ideals: All of us who believe another world is possible have nonetheless been socialized in this one, and what we want flows from this socialization. I don’t think a privileged person’s desire for renown is itself morally good or bad; it only becomes dicey when pursued, and therefore buoyed by that person’s particularly receptive circumstances. And at that point, anyone in a position like Dunham’s simply must decide: Do I allow myself to foreground my desire, in spite of my politics? The feeling I get is that he can’t fully grant himself permission, ultimately to the detriment of the quality of his work. I wish he could have — it’s not his fault that we’re living in a cultural moment that rewards the hyperconfessional and demands and glorifies the personal narratives of anyone deemed remotely marginal by the dominant culture, at the expense of anything else they would prefer to write about. But I feel that if we take the bait — any of us — we shouldn’t then, in the moments just after, disavow the upward rise, expounding on all the ways we might feel guilty for getting hooked, all the ways that we’re ashamed our proximity to power gave us what we secretly wanted.

Granted, my perspective is skewed. Perhaps the narrative of celebrity stands out to me so much more than the narrative of gender transition because I’m surrounded by people who celebrate one another’s name changes and gender journeys, leading me to underestimate the importance of mainstream narratives of marginal experiences. I’m certain narratives like Dunham’s make young trans readers feel less alone, which is immeasurably important when the lives of trans youth are consistently erased and devalued. But I’m alarmed by the swiftness with which the things on the margins can move to the center, by the mainstreaming of ideas about queerness and care that once felt radical, and by what, inevitably, gets lost through their absorption into dominant and marketable culture. I’m not sure we can profess our commitment to radical community while pursuing personal recognition in mainstream creative industries as white and wealthy people, or rather we can — and I continue to — but the two will remain irreconcilable. As insiders selling outsider narratives, we might be narrowly expanding the diversity of the insider realm, but we are certainly also fortifying its walls.

The social circles I exist within, the ones populated by me, and my friends, and the people in Dunham’s memoir, still uphold the stratifications of power and the modes of gatekeeping that allow for celebrity worship in the first place, in spite of being populated by “freaks.” Friends with clout publish one another, put one another in shows, travel together on unacknowledged dimes. Many of us may have felt alienated and monstrous growing up, frightened of ourselves and the ways we felt different, but we’re still aliens and monsters with significant institutional access and, as far as I can tell, we’re always clamoring for more. I admit I’m a cynic, but as a symbol, Dunham’s work reads to me as simply another example in this vein: a book centered around marginality and privilege shame that, however genuine, ultimately earns him more cultural clout while doing little to trouble the whitewashed fame machine he professes to hate.