What Not to do When ‘Feminist-ing’: The Lena Dunham Guide

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock (9696424bv) Lena Dunham Lincoln Center's American Songbook Gala, New York, USA - 29 May 2018

I live in India, which means that I can comfortably spend my days without wasting any frowns on Lena Dunham. But I would be lying if I said that I have not been attracted to her displays of weirdly self-aware hubris. In 2016, as part of her usually problematic discourse on her podcast “Women of the Hour,” she blithely recalled saying, “Now I can say that I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had” during a visit to a Planned Parenthood branch. It’s the kind of statement that becomes even more offensive when placed in the larger context of women she must have met there and claimed to understand.

That same year, she went to town dragging football player Odell Beckham Jr. for “ignoring” her at the Met Gala. She made it up in her head that his silent refusal to pay her any attention was because of the way she looked and was dressed, and that she didn’t match his “type.” Beckham Jr. had said nothing. All this incident did was reveal Dunham’s penchant for piling her own insecurities on unsuspecting men of colour and lamenting about not getting the attention she thinks she deserves from them. Previously, she also claimed that her attraction to singer Drake meant that she isn’t racist.

The more Dunham has spoken over the years, the more she has become the stock photo for “white feminism”—the highly suspect strand that cannot exist unless the white person in question is speaking about herself, no matter about what larger issue. Dunham, in effect, cannot talk about abortion or racism, unless she makes it about herself and annotates it with an example, no matter how inane, involving her. She was in the news again in December this year when, in a baffling editorial move, The Hollywood Reporter invited her to guest edit its “Women in Entertainment” issue and she wrote a letter apologising to actress Aurora Perrineau in it. Dunham had openly, and without any evidence, called Perrineau a liar when the latter had accused “Girls” writer Murray Miller of raping her. Dunham’s letter included this line addressing Perrineau:

You shouldn’t have been given that job in addition to your other burdens, but here we are, and here I am asking: How do we move forward? Not just you and I but all of us, living in the gray space between admission and vindication.

As infuriating as it is to read Dunham’s words and ruminate over the space she continues to get in popular (by that I mean “mainstream”) discussions, I see an opportunity here as well: to learn and revise what it means to be an intersectional feminist in today’s world.

1. Don’t protect someone accused of rape just because (especially because) they are a friend.

You know a person, you love them as a friend, you work with them, you socialise with them, you admire them. But you don’t get to use any of these facts to justify the blatant lies you tell to “protect” them when a woman lodges a case of sexual violence against them. Period. 

2. An ‘apology’ is pointless if it’s self-absorbed.

Setting aside the fact that what Dunham offered to Perrineau was miles away from a real apology, any retraction, confessional or mea culpa must absolutely not be a woe-be-me exercise, but a genuine effort at reanalysing one’s biases/ignorance. It is worse if your offence is against WOC and you bring out a white woman as proof of your repentance! No one is perfect and there is no perfect feminist out there. Your commitment to constant unlearning and relearning is what makes the difference.

3. You are not (always) the victim in the scheme.

Playing the victim of circumstance is an old ploy of the one who doesn’t want to change. If your response to every instance of whitewashing, rape apology, racism, what-have-you is to throw more attention-seeking excuses, then you don’t deserve a public platform.

4. You will be called out, so stop acting surprised.

If you benefit from a public profile—a hit show, a book deal, etc.—then you risk being burned publicly as well. You won’t be granted special privileges when your feelings are hurt. Almost every backlash will have an underlying message that you will have to heed, especially if it is questioning your privilege, your deliberate ignorance of the experiences of persons of colour and your role in perpetuating rape culture.

5. What doesn’t happen to you, can still exist. 

You may never have experienced a lot of things—sexual assault, rape, abortion—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to other persons, no matter what gender. You have no right to belittle it, to diminish it, to use it as a self-serving fiction plot or to claim a grander understanding of the issues just because you identify as a woman and have access to precious media spaces.

6. Get off your high horse.

This may seem churlish, but claiming limitless excuses for mistakes just because you grew up a certain way is the textbook definition of privilege. Beyond a certain age, none of these excuses carries weight, and it is especially unfair (to put it mildly) when POC are expected to bend over backward to get recognition while you get hailed as the next feminist heroine with your first “indie” project. The world is ridiculously unequal; you would do well to be aware of that all the time.

7. Pass the mic.

This is the cornerstone of intersectionality in an unequal world. If you have the platform and the megaphone, remember to share them. There are multitudes of experiences out there that deserve to be heard. Yours is just one of them.

Lena Dunham finds fodder for her feminism on social media, in its short fuse, when it comes to celebrities. For public figures like her, all furor is fantastic because their names remain in circulation. Her privilege is such that she can say all that she has said and still be picked by Steven Spielberg and J. J. Abrams, no less, to write a script based on the book about Doaa Al-Zamel, a Syrian refugee. For the people living outside of this ring light of privilege, however, the challenge is to see through all the blather and remember what feminism truly means and how the concept of intersectionality truly translates into our lives. It starts with all of us owning our stories and telling them ourselves—not with having to “show the way forward” after we have been the ones whose experiences have been rejected.

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By Shruti Sharada

Shruti Sharada is a freelance writer, editor and social media strategist based in Bangalore, India. She is also the Communications … Read more ›