Lena Dunham Isn’t As Bad As We Want Her To Be, But God We Can Do Better
Lena Dunham is not the voice of a generation. Her recent, tone-deaf interview with comedian Amy Schumer, published on the Dunham-backed site Lenny, is but a continuation of her prolific slime-trail that includes, among other things, “humorous” mentions of sexually abusing her sister, heavy tokenism present on her show Girls, and selected Tweets such as a 2010 gem that involves dreams of “molest[ing] a little African American rodent” (yeah, I know there’s a lot to unpack with that last one).
She is a problematic figure and one who has admitted to her own shortcomings (though, not in a way that has ever directly addressed many of the accusations against her character and politics). Yet, the feminist sphere continues to react with surprise and outrage when Dunham says or does something that is inconceivably foolish. I wonder: are we genuinely surprised, or are we enjoying the sensation of tearing her down? After all, has she not already sufficiently proven who she really is?
In regards to the recent Schumer interview, Roxane Gay provided a sage perspective — citing her own familiarity with being a woman whose body has the ability to make men uncomfortable, while recognizing the dangerous methods Dunham used to make this point:
“Dunham was clearly projecting and speaking from a place of knowing what it’s like to receive that look, to be seen and unseen,” Gay Tweeted. “BUT. To use a black man and to name him is such a mess. Her point could have been made without him. But it wasn’t. And it contributes, intentionally or not, to really damaging ideas about black men and sexuality.”
Gay goes on to say she is exhausted as opposed to outraged. Much of Dunham’s work, and in particular the Schumer interview, represents a type of self-congratulatory feminism, one more focused on the comfort of white women than the eradication of gender-based power structures. At the same time, she’s the only feminist celebrity that your dad might recognize. Who wouldn’t be exhausted by this? Is this really the best that we as a society can do? That we as a cohesive feminist front can do?
In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, scholar bell hooks comments on the divisions within the feminist movement as its greatest weakness; the thought that there are “many feminisms” as opposed to a unified goal. The thought that feminism can quickly and easily “adapt to a pre-existing lifestyle.” The thought that stereotyping a black man is just a “sense of humor” as opposed to a symptom of a non-intersectional mentality that has plagued feminism’s progress.
It seems senseless to expect more from Dunham at this point. In the scheme of progress, she is irrelevant — she is not a policy-maker, a scholar, or an activist. She is an entertainer, a representation of capitalist interests more occupied with self-protection. She has built her brand and has remained firmly committed to its tenets. But it is the culture, specifically the culture of White Feminism, on which she and her brand thrives that is problematic. She is not alone in her ideals, and it is the active, vocal audience that embraces her who will continue to divide the feminist movement among itself. Yet, Lena Dunham would not be receiving such intensive scrutiny — specifically from the feminist community — if that same community did not place her on such a political pedestal in the first place. Or, more accurately, if she was not placed on a pedestal for specifically for us. Can we really do no better?
The unfortunate truth is this: people like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer have been branded as faces of the contemporary feminist movement — labels that are indeed unwarranted and undeserved. Yet, the scrutiny placed on these labels can easily compound itself into excess and drift into dangerous waters that evoke misogynistic and body-shaming language.
Though cathartic, breaking Dunham down is unproductive. There will always be media to comment on her words, her clothing, her actions — as there will be for any high-profile woman. Ridiculing her existence to pieces is highly gratifying, and gives one the sense of being superior to another woman — a power structure which the feminist movement has struggled against for many years. Dunham deserves criticism, certainly. She deserves to be held accountable for racist and misogynistic words and actions in addition to her hearty embrace of a steaming mix of White Feminism and Marketplace Feminism. But this criticism should not take place at the expense of the larger movement.
Women like Dunham will continue to be heralded as the faces of feminism until Hollywood decides it is time to provide us with something else. My guess? It won’t be better — just different. Therefore, it is up to the movement itself to name its own leaders to the media. Just because Dunham is referred to as “everyone’s favorite feminist,” on a blog or in a magazine does not make it true. Just because she is pushed so heavily as the face of the feminist “brand” does not mean we need to accept it.
The feminist movement has many enemies, and many battles to be won. The struggle will only perpetuate itself if the movement refuses to acknowledge its own internal discrepancies. Dunham is a flawed entertainer who does not represent the struggles of the average woman against a patriarchal system. She does not deserve to be represented as such, and she also does not deserve to be criticized as such. I invoke the irrelevancy of Dunham and her like-minded camp, and I invoke the destruction of woman-on-woman hate that draws its structure from the very structure that we, as a feminist movement, aim to eradicate.