*UPDATED September 4th 2016
Lena Dunham has been heralded as the feminist icon here to save a generation. While it cannot be denied that her breakout HBO hit Girls is a seminal work that didn’t shy away from conversations about important women’s issues (abortion, body positivity), the comedy was plagued from its outset by cries that it failed to accurately portray New York’s racial diversity. Girls writer Lesley Arfin responded to the backlash thus “What really bothered me most about Precious was there was no representation of ME.” Dunham herself took a more measured approach, claiming that she had learned a “painful” lesson and the experience of being corrected had “made me stronger as a feminist and an activist and a thinker."
Fast forward to a discussion she had with longtime friend and sister in Problematic Feminism, Amy Schumer in her most recent Lenny Letter and the stronger feminist she evolved into seemed nowhere in sight as she sexualised an innocuous encounter she had with Odell Beckham Jnr.
‘I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr., and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards. He was like, "That's a marshmallow. That's a child. That's a dog." It wasn't mean — he just seemed confused.
The vibe was very much like, "Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a … yep, it's wearing a tuxedo. I'm going to go back to my cell phone." It was like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie. I was like, "This should be called the Metropolitan Museum of Getting Rejected by Athletes."’
Twitter came out in full force to voice their concerns Dunham was applying to antiquated, dangerous, racist stereotypes to a black man who did nothing wrong. Alas this is nothing new, she has a documented history of sharing problematic views surrounding race and sexuality and every time she is challenged she and her supporters site her right as a feminist to express herself. In a series of tweets following Odell-Gate, Dunham let us know that we are all reading the situation wrong and fuelling the “outrage machine” because this is simply her “humour.”
Listen, Lena Dunham, you have a problem. You have accepted this mantle of the Messai of All Things Feminism and we, as fellow feminists, are telling you that you are wrong. And all you have to do is apologise and say “You know what? Fuck, I didn’t see how what I said inadvertently fed into a racist narrative that perpetuates a myth that all black men are sexual predators. I’ll do better.” No, you double down on your fuckery. And you will be praised for it, for your strength under fire, your courage in the face of adversity as you have been before. The truth is, sis, your myopia, your inability to acknowledge wrongdoing and apologise for it is white feminism’s greatest weakness. And I make the clear distinction that the brand of feminism you fight for is white feminism and not feminism for all because when you ignore the people of colour but especially women of colour who voice our disappointment in your actions, you erase us from the narrative. Therein lies the toxicity of white feminism.
When Ellen made the woeful decision to tweet a photo of her superimposed on Usain Bolt’s back during the Olympics this summer tweeting “this is how I’m running my errands from now on” her defence was simply “I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the furthest thing from who I am.” Dunham and Ellen exist in this vacuum where they make poor choices, take offence to our offence and make the offence worse, never quite taking the time to understand why we feel the way we do or have said the things we say. It’s almost as if our realities are based on nothing because they cannot see it and have never experienced how the shit they say has real life consequences for black people and specifically in this situation black men. They believe the good they do advancing women’s causes means they are above reproach, transcend criticism but they don’t. And it’s not because they are women, it’s not because they are white that we correct them, it is simply because they are wrong. And to cite their womanhood as the reason they are set upon conflates the issues and detracts from what we are trying to say.
Lena Dunham’s solipsism is galling. Until she accepts that her feminism isn’t a license to say whatever she wants with impunity and in this digital age she will be held accountable, this cycle will continue to exist, this chasm between white feminists and feminists of colour will continue to exist. The onus is on her and her kin to adjust their words and actions, not on people of colour to adjust our realities to suit her expressions of free speech.
Bless Odell Beckham Jnr, an innocent bystander in Dunham's diatribe.
Yesterday after a boozy brunch (Hot Box in East London- so good), I logged back onto twitter and saw Lena Dunham had issued an actual apology after she and Amy Schumer had a meeting with Xavier Burgin.
"I owe Odell Beckham Jr an apology. Despite my moments of bravado, I struggle at industry events (and in life) with the sense that I don't rep a certain standard of beauty and so when I show up to the Met Ball surrounded by models and swan-like actresses it's hard not to feel like a sack of flaming garbage. This felt especially intense with a handsome athlete as my dinner companion and a bunch of women I was sure he'd rather be seated with. But I went ahead and projected these insecurities and made totally narcissistic assumptions about what he was thinking, then presented those assumptions as facts. I feel terrible about it. Because after listening to lots of valid criticism, I see how unfair it is to ascribe misogynistic thoughts to someone I don't know AT ALL. Like, we have never met, I have no idea the kind of day he's having or what his truth is. But most importantly, I would never "
Yes. This is what I wanted. An apology, and some accountability. I rubbed my hands together and decided I'd sleep off my pounding, Prosseco induced headache and update the post this morning. But upon reading between the lines and critiques of her apology, it's clear that despite the thoughtfulness of her statement, from its inception there were problems.
I initially thought it was apt Xavier Burgin had a meeting Schumer and Dunham because Dunham's comments were about black men thus having a black man correct them both on their nonsense was impactful and important. However I quickly reminded black women have been attempting to correct these two women in particular for years via social media. They were ignored or simply blocked and those black women (Roxane Gay, Eve Ewing and countless others) were never met for a meeting, their feelings were never heard, they were never offered lengthy, thoughtful apologies. For those women who have engaged with Dunham and Schumer this apology could ring as hollow. We have been taught by the media that these women are our feminist icons, the standard bearers- if that standard means that you're willing to accept correction from a black man more readily than you are from a black woman your feminism reveals itself as toxic. Its toxicity is compounded by its insidious nature- its ability to appear good, fair and kind, yet mask its prejudice and misogynoir.
Writing for Medium.com, Anthony J WIlliams lays out his critique of the situation and ends with a call for how black men and white women can "do a better job of listening to Black women in the moment, rather than after the moment?... And how do we use what we learned from Black women responsibly...?" Until there is an effort to include black women in conversations about race and gender feminism will continue to experience these problems.
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