Let’s concede, for a second, that Grace Dunham was indeed the victim of Lena Dunham’s predatory sexual behaviour. That Lena masturbating next to her in bed was an overt display of power, that bribing her with kisses was a form of grooming and that finding pebbles inside her was driven by misconduct. (Let’s also note, but set to one side, that in many cases this is what predatory behaviour looks like, which is why many survivors reacted so intensely to Dunham’s memoir, Not that kind of girl.)
Grace Dunham herself has denied any wrongdoing on Lena’s part. Her reasons for this could be complicated (a desire to be kept out of the spotlight, a conflicted desire to protect her abuser, a desire to have control over her own narrative), but by repeatedly referring to Lena Dunham as a paedophile, we are complicit in denying Grace Dunham agency, and deeply disempowering her by repeatedly and vocally making her violation public. To dismiss Grace Dunham and overwrite her version of events is, in fact, gaslighting.
In the fallout surrounding Not that kind of girl, I saw survivors of child abuse – ones who are open with this information – skewered for siding with Grace Dunham and for questioning the mob-mentality driving the critiques around Lena Dunham’s actions. These are the lengths we will go to in order to perform our hatred of Lena Dunham.
Recently Lena Dunham had another critical failure by relaying an encounter with Odell Beckham when they were seated together at the Met Gala. As Dunham told it: ‘The vibe was very much like, “Do I want to f*** it? Is it wearing a … yep, it’s wearing a tuxedo. I’m going to go back to my cell phone”.’
I am not here to defend the comments, or to challenge the valid critiques of how Dunham clomped all over the long, ugly history of the sexualisation of Black men. What concerns me is the subtext that came across in some of the ensuing discussion.
On a macro scale, Lena Dunham needed to have better awareness and engagement with her place in the political context of what she said. On a micro scale, it is troubling to assert that Dunham can’t interpret someone’s body language towards her. None of us were in that room: to dismiss her interpretation of events treads the same lines that people use to invalidate survivors of assault – it implies the woman doesn’t understand what is happening.
Some went further, implying that Dunham made up the exchange entirely – a chilling claim. I am mentally ill and it terrifies me to talk about it because I understand how someone can leverage that information to gain control over me (such as the police, and other state or medical institutions). Part of the reason they have this power is because of the narratives around mental illness, including an emphasis on the idea that those with mental illnesses have an unreliable grasp on reality that makes them, at best, dismissible, and at worst, dangerous.
Ana Maria Gomides wrote about her anxieties around being a Lena Dunham fan in her article Why It’s Okay To Love Lena Dunham: The Evolution Of The Girl Everyone Loves To Hate. Acknowledging the failures of Dunham’s work, Gomides also hits on the contradictions that Dunham brings about.
That being said, I don’t think I’ve actually had to defend the show to a single woman of colour I have spoken to about it. Sometimes I’ll blurt something out about ‘the whole whiteness thing’, but most women just shrug like, ‘Why is Girls different from all the other shows that don’t represent us?’
Even prominent feminist professor and writer Roxane Gay has said, ‘I actually talked to Lena Dunham about my essay, about Girls, and we had a really productive conversation. And she totally understood where I was coming from.’
So if some people of colour hate Lena Dunham and some people of colour like or don’t mind her, how is it that certain white folk are able to prioritise one narrative over another?
Polarising people like Lena Dunham throw into the spotlight the practices of allies and the nature of ‘callout culture’. There is an often unexamined power and social capital involved in calling out – particularly being an ally who engages in calling out towards individuals (as opposed to communities or corporations). The more someone calls out, the more people live in fear of being called out. The more allies call out, coupled with how ‘pure’ their politics are seen to be, the more their opinions are revered, making them ‘untouchable’.
The ethos of ‘shut up and listen’ that many activists hold dear is too often used as a silencing technique, a way to perpetuate untouchable-ness. This is deeply fraught when we stop to consider that we often don’t know the context of the person we are speaking to – not to mention the problems of ‘legitimacy’ that are fostered by expecting or demanding a white-passing person to announce their non-white-ness in order to be taken seriously. The way white people disseminate the arguments of people of colour are often used as a way to sidestep accountability on how things are said and what damage that might cause.
Perhaps I am in the minority, but the sacrificial lamb-slaughtering that is the critique of Lena Dunham feels wildly disproportionate. She is not more flawed or imperfect than any other white, afab, cisgender woman. She is no more ‘white feminism’ than any other white people are, or were, at one point or another. She is some of us, or at least a version of some of us. She is aware of this – it comes out in the self-deprecating, self-reflective nature of her work. You can see this when the lead character of Girls, Hannah, says to her parents, ‘I don’t want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation.’
So what compels allies to abandon critical examination of what allies – of survivors, of the mentally ill, of people of colour – do in order to maintain a frenzied hatred of Lena Dunham? From the media’s point of view, it makes perfect economic sense: the zeitgeist is something that leads to clicks. But as individuals, as activists, and as people engaging in the political activism of our everyday actions, perhaps it’s time to start being more self-aware.
My feeling is that the intensity of brutality is an attempt to gain approval – a performance broadcasting allyship. It displays an adherence to rigourously policed politics, but also works to distance the ally from ‘the problem’. I can’t shake the feeling that the severity of many reactions to Lena Dunham are a symptom of white guilt, a literal expression of the phrase ‘I’m not with her’.
Dunham has also become a lightning rod for the frustrations of many on the Left. She has become a strawman, a figurehead, a stand-in, a poster-girl for the power structure crushing us. But Lena Dunham is also a person, and reading her responses to each outcry always triggers anxiety in me. I have been in my fair share of abusive relationships and increasingly Dunham’s responses to the latest outcry read like a person elbow-deep in an abusive scenario.
Every time I see backlash, I feel disconnected from my communities. I am reminded of their dangerous and toxic underbellies, and that they could turn on me at any moment. I feel like a coward writing this piece anonymously, but in truth I don’t trust Lena Dunham critics; I don’t trust their ally-hood and I don’t trust their motives. I don’t trust that they won’t use me as another strawman to leverage their own social status in the ever increasing one-up-man-ship of Lena-hating.
Criticism is the bedrock of progress and something I will defend to the death, but without self-examination and mindful engagement in our own practices, we will continue to prop ourselves up in an effort to manifest power.
Image: still from Girls.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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