The Lena Dunham Problem
This easily could have been a post on my cosy socks, but I’m drawn to the Lena Dunham controversy. For the past twenty four hours I’ve wondered why Dunham’s sexual assault has been strongly scrutinized; right wing news sites are convinced she weaved a tale of lies. Dunham responded to her critics in a Daily Beast post and while her explanation is reasonable, I doubt she’ll convince her critics that she is indeed telling the truth. Do women lie about rape? It always comes back to two questions: do we listen and accept an account of rape or do we listen and question whether it is in fact the truth. Of course, those conservative writers took an archaic approach; they read Dunham’s story and set out to prove she was a liar. Then there is the larger question of why people tend to dislike Dunham.
I have never been comfortable judging others, determining whether someone was lying or telling the truth; it’s completely subjective. We rely on our previous experiences, past relationships, and encounters; that history makes it possible for us to come to trust or question someone. One woman may read Dunham’s book and think back to a similar situation, only to realize that she, too was raped; while someone else may find Dunham’s encounter unbelievable. I’m not entirely sure how and why Breitbart News set out to disprove Dunham’s story. There is a clear disdain for Dunham, but why? What has she done to the conservative base? No, she doesn’t support their ideology but she’s done nothing malicious to create the response she’s received. The name calling and taunting from conservative writers is disturbing. It’s seemingly unwarranted. Do they believe rape does not exist or do they question the legitimacy of Dunham’s rape? Is it a refusal to believe a Republican man could rape a Liberal woman? Would they have accepted her story without the political labels? Do those labels somehow change the narrative of Dunham’s sexual assault? I don’t know, only those questioning her can shed light on their reasoning.
In all fairness, I read Not That Kind of Girl with curiosity but I wasn’t as invested in the book as her fans. They wonder what chatting with her would be like; which probably consists of dishing about their odd sexual encounters and equally privileged backgrounds. I just can’t imagine us getting on. We’d have a brief but awkward chat and she would move on to someone else. Although most of my conversations with strangers are awkward and brief so it’s probably me. While we live in a world with people who are vastly different from ourselves, there are people who prefer to associate with someone from a similar background. It seems like Dunham is one of those people and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Feminists love her. They claim her as a feminist figure and point to how she challenges the Gaze; women function as more than objects of desire. Žižek’s analysis of the male gaze within the confines of film is fascinating, but I’m not sure the analysis is entirely appropriate for a television show like Girls. Most likely the male viewer wouldn’t approach Dunham’s show with those intentions, seeking a passive female to objectify in a female centric cast is not exactly logical. I’m not sure if Dunham intentionally sets out to make sex scenes uncomfortable to watch or if it’s a portrayal of her previous experiences, but I doubt it has anything to do with Žižek.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the lack of diversity in Girls. Feminists routinely come to Dunham’s defense despite the continued criticism of her show and that may be the problem. Oddly enough, there’s a passage in her book where she describes learning about the Underground Railroad as students were “shackled” to one another, Dunham wrote that she was “too dissociated” to consider the impact that experience had on her African American classmates. In some ways that story is telling, in fact I think that passage may be the only time she discusses people of color. Her critics will continue to say that she comes from a place of white privilege. I broach this topic with a degree of caution because I’m not sure the criticism is warranted.
Oberlin is a fantastic liberal arts college (my aunt is a proud Oberlin alum) but there isn’t a ton of racial diversity. There is a strong social consciousness and students are politically active, but I imagine Dunham found more students reflective of her own background than not. And while many defend the lack of diversity in her show, when I see more diversity in Woodstock footage from the 60s than an episode of Girls, it makes me wonder why the Oberlin alum wouldn’t challenge herself to create the diversity that she grew up lacking. Still the show garners attention and receives positive reviews, Dunham has a strong fan base so she’s doing something right. I’ve glanced at articles on Lena Dunham’s exclusion of diversity, but I have never focused on it. After all, does it really matter at this point? People like to imagine New York City as a reflection of this country’s diversity, but Girls is probably a more authentic portrayal of Dunham’s world than people want to believe and that makes them uncomfortable. It is impossible to force a writer to be inclusive and she doesn’t seem to care what people think, which seems to further upset her critics. They want to shame her and she won’t be shamed, so the cycle continues.
MFA grads and students point to Dunham’s famous connections as the sole reason for her success. Who knows, maybe they’re right. My friends have only achieved marginal success with their short films, but without famous connections is it even realistic to expect the same level of success as Dunham. Critics see her as a representation of nepotism. People want to believe that it’s possible to achieve her level of success on hard work alone, but Dunham’s well placed connections challenge this belief.
Critics argue that a memoir at 28 makes no sense, but I question that assertion, if Stephen Tennant had penned his life story at the age of 28, I’d read it. His life was fascinating. As a rule, I avoid celebrity memoirs (this was likely my last one), but I was curious; the reported book advance and its surrounding publicity were reasons enough to give it a look. It’s not something I would typically read (I prefer novels). Perhaps the real problem with Lena Dunham is the perception that her success came too soon and too easy.