White Girls Watching Lena: What We Can Learn From Dunham’s Flawed Public Feminism

By Jael Goldfine

I’ve never known what to think about Lena Dunham—what to make of her, how to speak about her, how to relate myself to her, or whether I should at all. As a millennial woman, I’ve felt obligated to have an opinion about Lena Dunham—a strong one—but have skated by with a variety of mumbled, non-comments, requested mostly by women whose opinion I respected, and boys I didn’t want to talk to. I’ve largely avoided her work and the 14 million Google hits associated with her name in order to procrastinate having to make one—to avoid having to reckon with Lena Dunham. However, as Lena Dunham’s legacy has grown messier and more fraught, and become more intimately attached to the emblem of white feminism, negotiating my own position within her orbit began to seem more urgent.

This November, Dunham, in a Q&A with Amy Schumer, took public aim at Odell Beckham Jr., the wide receiver for the New York Giants, dismissing him as a misogynist because he chose not to spend the night talking to her at the Met Gala.

Dunham said of the Gala: “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.”

Commenters across the Internet took her to task for the racialized implications of a white woman publicly sexually villainizing a black man. Twitter users explicated the various problematic moves of her statement: the instant sexualization of Beckham Jr.; the assumption that Beckham Jr. should have been interested in her; and her failure to connect these racist narratives about black men as hypersexual, aggressive, and predatory towards white women before she published her rant to millions of readers. Many of her critics acknowledged that of course, to her point, lots of men do objectify women, and decide whether they are worth speaking to based on the shape of their body. However, it’s impossible to separate Dunham’s comments from the power structure underlying her interaction with Beckham Jr.

Initially, she dismissed the criticism via Twitter, writing, “My story about him was clearly (to me) about my own insecurities as an average-bodied woman at a table of supermodels & athletes. It’s not an assumption about who he is or an expectation of sexual attention. It’s my sense of humor, which has kept me alive for 30 years. Glad the outrage machine roars on though, right, @amyschumer?” Later that day, she posted an apology on Instagram.


This is not the first time Dunham has been criticized for her racism, but I was struck by this particular incident and the cultural moment that followed. I was struck by the reckless, feminist outrage-mongering of Dunham’s comments; by her defensiveness; by her shame and guilt, and the disbelief of many, that her apology was sincere. I was struck by the way the way that there both were, and were not two sides to the story, and by the obvious fact that Dunham didn’t intend to do harm and didn’t mean what her words expressed, juxtaposed with the equally obvious ugliness of her comments. I was struck by the fact that Dunham is still fucking up this badly.

Lena Dunham is a white girl who messes up—loudly, grotesquely, and often. However, this legacy of mistakes is, I believe, fundamental to her mode as an artist. Her artistic and political project has always been about nakedness and hyper-transparency, about ripping herself open, forcing us to look inside of her and see her instead of what we expect to see. Arguably, she does this brilliantly, and even her most ardent critics tend to qualify their arguments about her, praising this sensibility in Girls. However, she seems unable or unwilling to switch off this sensibility off-screen. In the overlapping contexts of race and feminism, Dunham has unwittingly achieved the raw, hyper-visibility that forms the base of her brand. She sheds the devices that white feminists use to shield themselves from that same title, parading her ignorance and blind spots for everyone to see.

In this sense, Lena Dunham is the id of white feminism—a finger on the unfiltered, primitive pulse of modern American white girlness, and all the complicated power and terror that goes along with that identity. There is something profoundly crude and raw and pleasure-seeking about the way she makes these ugly mistakes over and over again. She reveals a certain set of instinctive tendencies of the white feminist, among them a tendency to erase, to center herself in a conversation not about her; to project; to self-victimize; to attempt edgy, selfish comedy, and to think of no one but herself. For exactly this reason, I think Lena Dunham is culturally important, even crucial.

We, white women, created Lena Dunham. In all the ways that that is a good thing, in that she is speaking on-screen to women’s experiences in powerful, cathartic ways, she also is performing a kind of burlesque of white women’s biases, ignorance and inclinations to politicize only that which appears relevant to them.

There are plenty of people who have seen enough of Dunham to know exactly what they think about her. But for me, ignoring and rejecting her completely doesn’t seem like a viable option. Rather, her failures and mistakes and the harm she has done, and the conversation she ignites, are what make her someone worth paying attention to.

As a white woman, I feel the need to engage with, linger upon, absorb, and parse Dunham’s mistakes and failures—because inevitably, they are also my mistakes and failures, whether I commit them or not. Since it has become fashionable to hate Lena Dunham, it feels slightly disingenuous for me (and Dunham’s white female audience) to participate loudly in what she calls “the outrage machine.”

I found her comments about Odell Beckham Jr. unsettling. But if I hate and ignore Lena Dunham for her reckless racism, that doesn’t do much good for anyone. This is especially true given the fact that, had I come across her comments before reading a critique of them, I might have found them funny and relatable. Rejecting her would be much quicker and easier, but inevitably, would come from a place of fear that I may be just like her. It is much more challenging and painful, but potentially productive, to try to engage with the ways in which Lena Dunham and I are alike.

As relatable as her brutally raw portrayals of white millennial women have been deemed, Dunham’s artistic and political failures can teach us much more than her successes. Her mistakes reveals what she never meant to show us at all. Her fuck-ups and selfishness and ignorance have the potential to alert white women to our own blind spots, to make us conscious and self-critical as a response to her carelessness.

It is challenging and uncomfortable work, connecting Dunham’s failures to our own. But it is made much harder when we are trying frantically to distance ourselves from her, as if she is an anecdotal stain on the legacy of feminism, rather than revealing fundamental failings of white feminism.

White girls can and should be fierce critics of whiteness, but we will be much more effective in this project if we make space for the ways that we are implicated within it. Facebook posts or tweets about how she is “so problematic,” don’t seem like an productive forum for white women’s opinions. These loud, public statements are inevitably theatre: a performance of intersectional feminism, rather than a practice of it.

For me, Dunham’s story is the story of modern white feminism; not the one she has constructed and packaged for us (Millennial, voice of her generation, modern girl, feminist leader), but what we see when we take a closer look. That doesn’t feel good to say, because in so many ways that story is not a noble or happy one. Hers is a story of trying and failing and being careless and apologizing, being hurt and scrambling to recognize that your intentions don’t matter and your hurt is not really the point at all. Hers is a story of ugly, messy, complicated, exhausting conversations with your friends and families and strangers and the Internet and the world, which often leave you all the more confused. But, whether we like it or not, Lena Dunham’s ugly, messy legacy is one that white feminists must reckon with as our own.

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