Dunham has shown us who she is, and white women have continued to support and uplift her as a feminist hero.
by Sherronda J. Brown and Lara Witt
This essay contains discussions of sexual violence, including r/pe and molestation
Last week, a writer at The Guardian posed what she no doubt thought was a poignant question: “Lena Dunham is a hugely original writer. Who cares if she’s a good person?” Before you ask—yes, she is. See, Martha Gill is deeply invested in protecting a fellow white woman from the consequences of her actions, and she is willing to tell lies about Lena Dunham’s talent, ignore truths about her poor character, and gaslight the people who have and continue to rightfully criticize her and her dangerous white feminism in the process. Just a few days after Martha’s contribution, Katie Herzog wrote “The Pleasure of Hating Lena Dunham Is Less About Her And More About Us” for The Stranger. All things considered, it looks a lot like Dunham or someone close to her enlisted white women writers to do proactive damage control ahead of her latest apology in a long, long string of apologies for shitty behavior.
Even more frightening than the idea that this might be premeditated apologism on her behalf, is the fact that white women reflexively feel the need to defend Dunham in the first place, because like so many terrible white men artists and literary figures, she is a terrible white woman who makes media that they enjoy. So they stand by her in the name of abusive white feminism, and perhaps like the terrible men, they feel that she too deserves a chance to stand separate from her art, able to continue succeeding while she uses the bones of Black and Brown women as her throne. Gaslighting us, shifting the animus for the criticism of Dunham onto people of color rather than Dunham’s proven record of investment in white supremacy, is easier than interrogating themselves and the white womanhood that connects them.
When Aurora Perrineau revealed last year that she had been raped by Murray Miller, Lena Dunham called her a liar. Dunham, who has long used “feminism” as a platform for herself, her voice and her work, issued a statement along with Jenni Konner, co-showrunner and writer of “Girls” stating, “While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year. It is a true shame to add to that number, as outside of Hollywood women still struggle to be believed. We stand by Murray and this is all we’ll be saying about this issue.”
But it’s Dunham who was lying. As part of her recent PR run—which comes after the death of her website, the dissolution of her production partnership with Jenni Konner, the very public and controversial resignation of a Lenny Letter writer, and a call for women of color to no longer work with/for her—she has now apologized for this damaging lie one year later. And in classic Lena Dunham form, she centered herself and her own feelings in her apology for a lie that harmed a Black person who was sexually assaulted at 17 years old: “I didn’t have the ‘insider information’ I claimed but rather blind faith in a story that kept slipping and changing and revealed itself to mean nothing at all,” writes Dunham. Aurora Perrineau deserved far better, but women like Dunham are only consistent in perpetuating white supremacy and, in particular, misogynoir.
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White women lie. We been knew this. White women lie to protect white men and themselves, and white women lie to bring direct harm to people of color. This kind of harm is the one source of power that white women have, and they exert it as much as possible, from calling the cops on Black children and adults minding their own business, to actively supporting racist and misogynistic policies that sometimes end up hurting them too. Dunham’s support of Miller is not shocking within the context of American history. White women will continue to lie to protect white men and their crimes against women of color.
From her objectification of and outright anger at Odell Beckham Jr. for not hitting on her during the 2016 Met Ball, to admitting to molesting her younger sibling and masturbating in bed next to them within her own book, as well as her tokenism of Black and Brown people within “Girls”, Dunham has shown us who she is, and white women have continued to support and uplift her as a feminist hero. When Martha Gill asks, “Who cares if she’s a good person?” she’s being too much of a coward to say what she really means. The truth is that Martha doesn’t care that Lena Dunham isn’t a good person, and she wants the space to be able to support her without criticism for her alignment with a disgusting individual. With her accusation that the Lena Dunham Problem lies with us, Katie Herzog does the same kind of gaslighting and misdirection. Both of these white women attempt to mold the conversation in ways that afford even more privilege and leeway to Dunham, by suggesting that it is we who have failed to think pragmatically about her. If we squint our eyes just right, we will see that they are the rational thinking ones and our perspective has been fundamentally wrong from the very beginning. It’s more of that classic dog whistle white woman aggression, the same kind of rationale that many abusers use to psychologically disarm their victims, and part of the dazzling array of mental gymnastics that white women so often do when their narcissistic white supremacist feminist faves are rightfully criticized.
This continued support for Dunham is indicative of the fundamental problem with white feminism: it has always been about shifting power to white women, and no one else. It says that white women should be empowered and praised regardless of whether or not they are ethical, moral, or decent. White feminists have been vapid white supremacists, nationalists, and xenophobes. Supporters of eugenics, forced sterilization, genocide, and colonization. Parishioners of doctrines that promote slavery, prison industrialism, and other exploitative capitalist interests. Purveyors of misogynoir, fetishism, dehumanization, and cultural appropriation. Active deployers and celebrators of white violence. These women don’t deserve a platform for their ideas, but the basic tenets of white feminism tell us they do, even as they have consistently provided footing for the white heteropatriarchal structure they claim to want to dismantle.
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Despite what many pink pussy hat-wearers may tell you, white feminism is simply a hop, skip and jump away from far-right and conservative women like Megyn Kelly (who failed her attempt at a liberal rebrand), Ivanka Trump, Melania Trump and Tomi Lahren. White feminists will co-sign white women on the far-right and uplift them as feminists, even though they hold staunchly oppressive and white supremacist views, and sometimes because they do. But it is easy to see how the two can co-exist, given the history of white feminism and its intimate relationship with white supremacy. Even Hillary Clinton, the liberal white feminist icon, has used slave labor and referred to Black children as “super-predators.”
But white feminists consistently love things that are problematic and vaguely racist, if not blatantly. They adore “The Handmaid’s Tale”, a show which lacks both historical and literary context, allowing white women to view it as a future dystopia rather than a record of a history that people of color have known intimately. It foregoes aspects of the novel that call back to the eugenics movement’s mission to bolster the white race while suppressing others. But even the author Margaret Atwood has contributed to the erasure of sexual and reproductive violences against people of color, confidently claiming in a recent interview, “Everything I wrote in that book was happening at the time, or had already happened. It just wasn’t happening in America.”
The co-opted #MeToo phenomenon operates in the same way that “The Handmaid’s Tale” does, as well as Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” which intentionally erases a Black woman, in that the patriarchal violences that each of these hold record of are the kinds of violences that Black women (and non Black women of color) have historically experienced systematically, but that only truly become visible on white women’s bodies and resistances against these violences only become validated through white feminist iterations. And some of the loudest voices among them have demonstrated how white feminism so easily separates womanhood from Blackness.
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Rose McGowan and Bette Midler both strongly and wrongly tweeted similar versions of using “the n word” to talk about how women are treated by rape culture, revealing quite clearly how they conceive of sexual violence and who it happens to.
White feminism will always, always fail us, because it has never been what it always should have been. Imagine if white feminism created spaces dedicated to combating white supremacy and its connections with sexism and misogyny. Imagine if the white feminists who are obsessed with Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” quote were just as concerned about Hillary calling Black children “super-predators.” Imagine if the white feminists who have raved about “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “The Beguiled”, and the co-opted #MeToo movement also cared about the sexual violences inflicted upon the Black people who have been conveniently erased and overshadowed by each of these. Imagine if white feminists held themselves and each other accountable for their own investment in white supremacy, actually evolving from the trash heap of a stolen movement that it began as. Imagine if the white feminists who charge the world with raising fewer Harvey Weinsteins, Louis CKs, and Elliott Rodgers were also invested in raising fewer Lena Dunhams.
Lena Dunham, her career, and the passes she is routinely afforded by her peers are all products of white feminism. White feminism is violence, it is narcissism, it is opportunistic and manipulative. It unapologetically uses the labor of Black and Brown folks and paints itself as original brilliance when it is nothing more than the pavement leading to castles of white supremacy built by white men. Dunham is indeed a terrible person, and her creative work doesn’t deserve more consideration than her personality—she is the latest in the long line of white feminists who have willingly harmed Black women for the sake of protecting white men. And Lena Dunham learned how to do that from all the white women who came before her.
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