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Freedom From Entitlement: How I Learned to Embrace My Disdain for Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham in season six of HBO's Girls

In my lifetime of watching white women have excuses made for them, none has reached the levels of peak eye-rolling the way Lena Dunham has. The same generation that has had no problem throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it came to Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, and Amanda Bynes, who have had a mockery made of their public lives due to mental health issues (and problematic behavior).

Yet, there has always been a camp willing to excuse and prop up Lena Dunham because she represents the same mainstream soft-wave New Yorker feminism that is popular among white women just learning to “rebel.” Her failures as an ally are just met with sighs of “Oh, she’s doing it again,” rather than a real callout by her white feminist sisters.

This problem isn’t just Lena Dunham herself; it’s the way society portrays her ignorance as a sorry side effect of privilege. When women like Cardi B live their truth, as problematic as it may be, the fact that she did not have access to education and language in her life doesn’t stop people from calling her “ghetto.”

Despite her putting herself in position to be lionized, Dunham wants to cry foul when she is held to any sort of standard. That’s because Dunham is the kind of person white feminists want on their side, to the point that they will light a candle to invoke wisdom for her every few months, but will mock other, less privileged women, who try to find ways to make feminism work for them, though the movement has rarely ever taken the time to see them as people, let alone as equal women worth educating or protecting.

Back in 2017, when Girls was ending, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the cast was going through the show’s history, and the criticism it faced the issue of race, naturally, came up first, followed by nepotism:

DUNHAM The race stuff blew up first. [The series was criticized for having an all-white cast.] The second night we aired was the first time I met my boyfriend [musician Jack Antonoff]; we were on a blind date. I had been metabolizing the criticism all week, and I made a really, really dumb joke that I’m perfectly fine to repeat now ’cause I was f—in’ 25. I said, “No one would be calling me a racist if they knew how badly I wanted to f— Drake.” He said, “Don’t say that in public; that’s not going to help you.” I just didn’t get it. I was like, “I have the three most annoying white friends, and I’m making a TV show about it.”

KONNER I knew [the lack of diversity] would be an issue, but I didn’t think the criticism would be at the level it was …

DUNHAM … Or that the conversation about race would turn into a conversation about racism.

KONNER But at the time, we were so focused on the struggle of women and the fact that we’d gotten four women on TV.

DUNHAM We had four real women who weren’t famous. I remember Jemima going, “I just had a baby, and I have two different-sized boobs, and I’ve got a huge butt right now because I’m f—in’ breast feeding and I’m the hot girl.”

BLOYS We knew we were doing something that was provocative, but I was still surprised [by the criticism]. There was the diversity stuff, the charges of nepotism [all four lead actresses have famous parents in the arts and media world, including Dunham, whose mom is a renowned photographer], which never made sense. … I think some of it had to do with the fact that Lena represented a new generation breaking through, and that can be unsettling for people, especially because she was a woman and she was someone who was comfortable not being a rail-thin actress.

Yes, the reason black and brown women were criticizing the show’s whiteness was because … we are not comfortable with her not being a rail-thin actress? We who have embraced Queen Latifah as a romantic lead without fat-girl angst and showed Monique, Amber Riley, and others as dynamic, charismatic leads?

Calling out the show for nepotism or its lack of diversity is valid when Dunham’s career is built on her parents’ wealth and access, which … you know what? Do you, girl. If my parents could fund my writing career, I wouldn’t cry over it.

Do you see Willow and Jaden Smith crying over the access attained by being related to two of the most noticeable people on Earth? No, they have used that privilege to carve out their own identity, separate from their parents, and have taken heat for that very reason. They know their father is Will Smith, and that will always be a factor in their lives.

Dunham’s 2010 directorial debut, Tiny Furniture, with a budget of  $65,000, is what allowed her to get mentors and become the star and writer of Girls in 2012. Two years and a career that was made up of cameos turned into an HBO series that went on for six seasons. Compare that to Issa Rae, whose Insecure took years to get off the ground and came after Rae created the web series Awkward Black Girl in 2011, through a through Kickstarter that gained $56,269 from 1,960 donations.

This isn’t to say Dunham doesn’t deserve her success. According to people who enjoy her show, Girls was something that spoke to them, and even I can appreciate her bringing attention HPV, having a character get an abortion on television, and being okay with showing her body. That doesn’t mean she’s above criticism.

Within some (mostly white) feminist circles, there exists an inclination to give Lena Dunham the freedom to fail like a white man: to have mediocre talent, be subpar woke, and promote a brand of empowerment that focused on her own self-esteem. The problem is that isn’t even a standard society normally applies to other white women.

People have no problem crushing women who mess up, even if they never gave themselves a platform the way Dunham has. The elitism that empowers Dunham to be whom she is isn’t just on her, it’s the way people view her. For some reason, people are okay with the fact that, despite living in New York City and being part of the elite, her Girls character had no non-white friends, as if there are no people of color in that bracket she’s living in.

When that’s brought up, people will scream, “But Friends! But Sex and the City!” as if we didn’t have those complaints then (and for the record, Girls is less diverse than Sex and the City).

Last week, The Cut published an amazing profile of Dunham by Allison P. Davis, which was so excellent in the way it allowed Dunham to expose her own bullshit through quotes and pure facts:

“Dunham lists the reasons for the hate — with her explanations for why she is the way she is — as if she were reciting a poem imprinted on her brain in grade school: She grew up privileged in New York, which led to what people perceive as a sense of entitlement. Her parents are Soho art-scene royalty, and she was raised around ‘very specific, liberal provocateurs,’ who taught her she could say things that ‘might now warrant a trigger warning,’ which informs her sense of humor. (For instance: the joke she made on her podcast, Women of the Hour, about never having had an abortion but wishing she had.) Race is a chronic blind spot for her because she didn’t grow up with a lot of diversity in her New York City private school, she explains.

“An incomplete list of things Dunham has been asked to apologize for: the nondiverse casting on Girls; casting Donald Glover as a black Republican boyfriend the season after she got in trouble for having an all-white cast; saying in an interview, ‘No one would be calling me a racist if they knew how badly I wanted to fuck Drake’; declaring herself ‘thin for, like, Detroit’; writing a New Yorker essay called ‘Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz’; constantly being naked; tweeting a photo of herself wearing a scarf around her head like a hijab; accusing a Spanish magazine of airbrushing her photos (it did not); comparing Bill Cosby to the Holocaust; giving Horvath a brown baby at the end of Girls (and casting a baby that was Puerto Rican and Haitian, not half-Pakistani, as the script dictated); comparing the reading of negative Jezebel coverage to getting beaten in the face by an abusive husband; accusing NFL player Odell Beckham Jr. of not wanting to sleep with her; saying she disliked India because of the visible poverty; apologizing but never learning.”

That last part is key: apologizing but never learning. Yesterday, Dunham wrote a guest letter for The Hollywood Reporter, apologizing for her disgusting dismissal of actress Aurora Perrineau, a black woman who accused Murray Miller, a close friend of Dunham, of sexual assault (something that caused Judd Apatow to say, “I don’t think this is what you meant to do. That’s not how, in this day and age especially—this isn’t how we talk about women”).

Dunham speaks about how she internalized the “dominant male agenda” and it led her to make her statements against Aurora, calling the woman a liar:

“My job now is to excavate that part of myself and to create a new cavern inside me where a candle stays lit, always safely lit, and illuminates the wall behind it where these words are written: I see you, Aurora. I hear you, Aurora. I believe you, Aurora.

“This space is yours to do with as you please, when you please. I will keep holding this space—it will always be here.”

She says in the guest letter that she is sorry, but to me, it just continues to feel like her typical combination of self-flagellation mixed with trying to redeem her space. It’s not Aurora’s responsibility to turn her experience into a way for Lena Dunham to know not to lie on behalf of someone who is accused of sexual assault. (Dunham claimed that she had inside information when the claims were initially raised against Miller, but now admits that was a lie).

It is fair to say that Dunham has to earn that confidence and faith that she wants the general public to have in her, because she squandered it, and she, of all people, should know better. White feminism allowed Dunham to use that as shield despite not fully earning that status, and that’s because Dunham, with her whiteness, privilege, and “sense of humor,” embodies the same middle-class aesthetic feminists have loved for generations. White feminism does not give less privileged women the same space to err the way it gladly gives it to Dunham and asks all other non-white feminists to cosign.

I can empathize with Dunham in many ways—as a weirdo, as a writer, and as someone deeply wants to be adored and understood. I can also say that it’s gross and unproductive to mock her about her weight, mental illness, and health issues. I have made mistakes, I have been dragged, and I have had to learn, but I also do that with the full knowledge that feminism will not be there to dust me off and restore me to some unseen pedestal.

I don’t have her freedom to fail. Most black women don’t, no matter how high they have reached, and as long as Dunham continues her feminist version of arrested development, we have the right to say that she is not entitled to our forgiveness, because she’s fully earned our distrust.

(image: HBO)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.