In news that should astonish no one, people are angry with Lena Dunham again. This time, it’s for comments she made in defense of a man accused of sexual assault.
On November 17, the Wrap reported that actress Aurora Perrineau had filed sexual assault charges against former Girls writer Murray Miller, saying that he had raped her in 2012, when she was 17 years old. In response, Dunham and her Girls co-showrunner Jenni Konner sent a statement to the Hollywood Reporter defending Miller.
“While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story,” they said, “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.”
“I believe in a lot of things but the first tenet of my politics is to hold up the people who have held me up, who have filled my world with love,” Dunham added on Twitter.
For a self-proclaimed feminist, Dunham’s actions were not a good look, to say the least. The structure of our society and legal system is so stacked against victims of sexual assault that believing the victims is a basic pillar of feminism: If we live in a world where the standard response to sexual assault is to find a way to demonstrate that the victim was somehow asking for it, the basic argument goes, the least feminists can do is tip the balance the other way by giving victims their support as a default.
As a vocal feminist and someone who has made allegations of sexual assault herself, Dunham knows the importance of believing women; as a celebrity who has made feminism part of her brand, she has profited from taking the stance that one should believe women. In fact, shortly after the first accusations surfaced against disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which she discussed a director who had sexually harassed her. In no uncertain terms, Dunham condemned “the response by the powers that be,” which she summarized as: “defend [the harassing director], question the women ferociously and take ages before letting [the director] go from the network” in “a move based less on his skill than on some ancient loyalty.” This, she concluded, was the “kind of behavior that normalizes this abuse of power.”
So Dunham’s defense of Miller looked like the worst kind of hypocrisy. She was apparently willing to publicly state that it’s terrible when people refuse to believe that their friends and colleagues might be capable of hurting women, but if it’s her friend and colleague in question, then everyone should just be cool.
To make matters worse, Perrineau is a woman of color, and Dunham is a powerful, wealthy white feminist using her position to discredit Perrineau’s allegations. In response, writer Zinzi Clemmons declared that she would no longer be writing for Dunham’s email newsletter, Lenny Letter, and encouraged other women of color to do the same. “She cannot have our words if she cannot respect us,” Clemmons wrote, going on to add that she knew Dunham in college and believed her to have a history of racism.
Dunham has since apologized for her statement, but the damage is already done. Her reputation has most likely taken a permanent hit.
And that’s because this controversy is not an isolated incident. Since 2012, when Girls first catapulted Dunham into her current cultural status as a walking think piece topic, she has been plagued by accusations of fake feminism, white feminism, and outright racism. For many, her statement on Perrineau is a last straw of sorts, and Clemmons’s allegations about her past are all too believable.
Here’s an overview of Lena Dunham’s troubled history with feminism and race.
The second wave of Girls think pieces focused on the show’s unrelenting whiteness
When Girls premiered in 2012, it was greeted by legions of positive reviews from critics, outrage from viewers who were disgusted that Dunham so often appeared naked on camera even though she only had a normal person’s body, and acclaim from feminists who saw Dunham’s nudity as a subversive act.
And very quickly, that first wave of criticism was greeted by a second wave, composed primarily of think pieces about the show’s whiteness. Girls’ very title suggested an attempt at universality — not just “privileged white girls,” but all girls. The show positioned itself as progressive. And yet, critics noted, it was overwhelmingly white.
One of the first whiteness critiques to take hold was from Jenna Wortham via the Hairpin. In an essay titled “Where (My) Girls At?” Wortham emphasized the disconnect between Girls’ skilled portrayal of the lived experiences of its characters and its simultaneous exclusion of so many of their peers:
The problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that. And that is a huge fucking disappointment.
It wasn’t that Wortham thought the show was bad. On the contrary: “It gets So. Many. Things. Right. It’s on point again and again, hitting at the high and low notes about being in your twenties, about being on your own and still so far from grown,” she wrote.
But for Wortham, the fact that Girls was good made its overwhelming whiteness even worse, especially since it was set in Brooklyn, one of the most diverse places in the country. “For a show so sharply cognizant of the shortcomings of its characters,” she explained, “it is shocking that the only drops of a black girl is a contestant on a reality show (not pictured, by the way) who spends $1,000 on her weave and describes it as ‘un-be-weavable.’”
“I take that criticism very seriously,” Dunham said on NPR’s Fresh Air as Girls’ first season drew to a close. She added, “Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. … I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.”
It was a mostly graceful response that had the benefit of being mostly true. After all, few people would assume that Lena Dunham would excel at writing a main character of color, much less want to see her try. But Dunham’s response also ignored a central element of the critique against Girls: Not only were the four main characters white, but so were nearly all of the show’s supporting characters. When people of color did emerge in the background, they were treated as flat stereotypes. And Dunham’s writers’ room was mostly white, meaning that she largely wasn’t hiring people who did have the ability to bring that much-sought “specificity” of experience to the table.
n Girls’ second season, Dunham cast Donald Glover as a love interest for her character, Hannah Horvath. He appeared in two episodes, in what was widely read as a response to the whiteness critique (although, according to the Hollywood Reporter, he was cast before the controversy really took off). Glover’s central purpose was to give the show a lens through which to explore the selfishness and myopia of Dunham’s Hannah, a move many critics at the time treated as a sublimely subversive bit of cleverness. “[Series creators Dunham and Konner] accompanied their tacit apology with a moment that challenged not only their own and their characters’ privilege, but, in its deconstruction of what has come to be known as ‘hipster racism,’ that of the show’s core audience,” wrote Judy Berman at the Atlantic, referring to the ironic I’m-not-really-racist-but-maybe-I-am rhetoric that’s common among young, college-educated millennials.
But as the show progressed and continued to fail to integrate characters of color in any meaningful way, Glover’s appearance began to seem less like a mea culpa on Dunham’s part and more like an attempt to have her cake and eat it too: To many, she appeared to be congratulating herself on being progressive enough to critique millennial racism, while simultaneously refusing to do the work necessary to incorporate people of color into her fictional world. “Such figures [like Glover’s character] aren’t really characters after all,” argued Tomi Obaro at BuzzFeed; “they’re archetypes, symbols, soundboards for the white characters’ verbal processing.”
Dunham’s failure to meaningfully incorporate people of color into Girls spurred a widespread belief that she was, in some vague way, bad at racial issues. But that reputation might not have become quite so entrenched if it weren’t for what was happening offscreen.
Dunham’s iffy history with race exists both on and off screen
In August 2012, Dunham posted a picture of herself on Instagram and Twitter wearing a shawl wrapped around her head. “I had a real goth/fundamentalist attitude when I woke up from my nap,” read the caption.
“Think you meant ignorant/racist,” writer Ayesha A. Siddiqi tweeted in response.
“The tweet and pic are not obviously racist to most people, but should be annoying,” Feministing opined. “It’s more like casual racism — or when someone reinforces something that’s inherently racist and rather than question it, they just goes with the flow.”
(To make matters worse, Dunham posted the picture just hours after a mass shooting that targeted a Sikh temple, spurring her to apologize and delete it.)
Over the next few years, Dunham continued to have public moments of what Feministing called “casual racism”: no racial slurs, nothing exactly blatant, but always something just a little troubling. At the Daily Beast, Samantha Allen developed a catalog:
Dunham kicked off 2013 by reportedly telling Rolling Stone that she held more sympathy for India’s “stray dogs” than she did for the “poverty-stricken people.” That same year, she joked that she was “thin for Detroit,” a comment with racist undertones that did not go unnoticed by residents of the Motor City. And earlier this fall, Dunham announced she would be touring for [her book] Not That Kind of Girl with a band of “special weirdos who [she] found on the Internet” who would provide warm-up acts without receiving compensation, despite the fact that she made $6 million in 2013. After a stern media backlash, Dunham decided to pay her opening acts and, predictably, all was forgiven.
By 2016, patience with Dunham’s I-am-always-learning-about-racism syndrome was running low. So when she claimed that football player Odell Beckham Jr. ignored her at the Met Ballbecause “I was not the shape of a woman by his standards” — apparently projecting a sexualized and misogynistic attitude onto a black man when all he did was sit quietly and mind his own business — few were willing to pull their punches in response.
“Lena Dunham finally did it,” wrote Peter Coffin. “She said something so absurd and offensively ‘White Feminist’ (read: racist, but in a feminist way) that everyone noticed.”
“This feeds into a plethora of black male sexual stereotypes and white women as desired objects — even when they are ignored,” wrote Stephen A. Crockett Jr at the Root.
“The way Lena Dunham talks about black men Is peak white entitlement,” wrote Zeba Blayat the Huffington Post.
“Lena Dunham is probably not a bad person,” Blay added, continuing:
There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the reality of white entitlement, even if it complicates a carefully cultivated narrative of oppression which revolves largely around being an average-bodied white woman. This reality doesn’t mean Dunham hasn’t dealt with misogyny, and it doesn’t negate her insecurities and fears. But by her own admission, her lack of self-awareness, coupled with her privilege and platform, can lead to the sort of tone-deaf characterizations of black men that are ultimately more harmful than they may seem.Dunham, as is her practice, delivered a seemingly heartfelt apology, writing on Instagram, “I would never intentionally contribute to a long and often violent history of the over-sexualization of black male bodies — as well as false accusations by white women towards black men.” But by now she had well and truly established a pattern of “casual racism” — and every time she returned to that pattern, critics grew less and less likely to accept her apology.
And in the meantime, she was beginning to face new criticism: not just over the question of whether she was racist, but whether she was a child molester.
People have hotly debated whether Dunham molested her sister, but most can agree that that one passage in her book is a little weird
In 2014, Dunham published her memoir Not That Kind of Girl. Shortly thereafter, conservative columnist Kevin D. Williamson wrote a long takedown of Dunham in which, almost as an afterthought, he accused her of sexually molesting her little sister.
Dunham’s parents were, Williamson writes, “enablers of some very disturbing behavior that would be considered child abuse in many jurisdictions — Lena Dunham’s sexual abuse, specifically, of her younger sister, Grace, the sort of thing that gets children taken away from non-millionaire families without Andover pedigrees and Manhattanite social connections.”
Here, Williamson is referring to a series of passages in Not That Kind of Girl in which Dunham describes masturbating next to her sister, bribing her in exchange for kisses, and, at age 7, prying open the toddler Grace’s vagina only to find a stash of pebbles inside.
The right-wing outlet TruthRevolt aggregated Williamson’s claims with the full passages from Dunham’s memoir, and the story exploded. Gawker picked it up, and multipleprominent feminists wrote articles in Dunham’s defense. As they pointed out, Williamson was hardly an unbiased source: He’s most famous for declaring transgender actress Laverne Cox “not a woman” and calling for the execution of women who get abortions.
And there is certainly room to argue that Dunham’s actions were not inherently sexual. “People who are attaching sex to these stories seem to equate the genitals with sex, but that’s not how young children see their genitals,” Kinsey Institute writer Debby Herbenick told Jezebel. “Dunham’s story is not an uncommon one.”
But even people who weren’t accusing Dunham of child molestation were describing her account as weird. The passage was “to me non-predatory but certainly odd behavior very oddly described,” wrote Jia Tolentino, adding, “Oh yeah, that’s some weird shit.”
“Kids do creepy things but do those children turn around as adults to write about those moments like fond memories?” wrote Luvvie Ajayi. “Especially when those moments involve someone else’s private parts that you ‘spread apart.’ Is it normal to compare what you did to something a sexual predator would as a full grown person? If you’re Lena Dunham the Weird, I guess so.”
And many other progressive writers and thinkers saw something much more sinister in Dunham’s actions — particularly people of color.
“Do I think what Lena Dunham did to her sister was sexual assault? Yes,” wrote Lachrista Greco at Guerrilla Feminism. “And to those of you who have defended her heinous actions, YOUR voice is silencing to many commenters who openly discussed their own experiences of incest, sexual assault, etc.”
“The gap between the attitudes that let R. Kelly prosper & the ones that excuse Dunham is incredibly thin,” Mikki Kendall observed in response. “Nonexistent to be honest.”
“The next time Lena Dunham defenders wonder why it’s so hard to destroy rape culture, all they need to do is look in the mirror,” wrote Yukio Strachan.
At the Daily Beast, Samantha Allen argued that Dunham’s privilege was allowing her to ride out the scandal, and that it shouldn’t. “As activists, particularly women of color, question Dunham’s institutional ties to the feminist movement, the well-worn racial fault lines that have long characterized U.S. feminism are coming to the fore once again,” she wrote. “While white feminists continue to defend Dunham, seemingly out of reflex at this point, non-white feminists are tired of Dunham getting a free pass for behavior that people of color would be excoriated over.”
Dunham’s defense of Miller fits her pattern. That means people are a lot less likely to forgive her.
By the time Dunham made her statement in defense of Miller this past weekend, there were several asterisks attached to her public feminist label: white feminist, often casually racist feminist, feminist who has not embraced intersectionality, feminist who potentially molested her little sister, feminist who gets more passes than she maybe deserves.
Given that history, many people are no longer willing to give Dunham the benefit of the doubt for her actions. Zinzi Clemmons’s newly shared account of Dunham’s college-era racism, meanwhile, contains a ring of truth.
“She and I ran in the same circles in college,” Clemmons writes. She adds, “I avoided those people [Dunham and her friends] like the plague because of their well-known racism. I’d call their strain ‘hipster racism,’ which typically uses sarcasm as cover, and in the end, it looks a lot like gaslighting — ‘It’s just a joke. Why are you overreacting?’ is a common response to these kinds of statements.”
Casual, semi-ironic hipster racism would certainly fit the pattern that Dunham has established for herself. It would also suggest that her chronic scandal problem isn’t just an unfortunate byproduct of her tendency to put her foot in her mouth, but a consequence of a more deeply entrenched worldview.
And Dunham’s knee-jerk reaction to the accusations against Miller would seem to suggest that her feminism is less a philosophy to which she is committed than a brand from which she is willing to profit when it is convenient to her and abandon when it is not. No one’s feminism is ever going to be completely pure — but Dunham’s keeps revealing more and more flaws.