Lena Dunham has been accused of racism and sexism over the years since “Girls” -- HBO’s supposedly edgier “Sex and the City” -- made her both an A-list voice of the millennial urban hipster generation and a target for detractors. Dunham has always been able to let it roll off her back, but when right-wing online journal Truth Revolt wrote a piece about her new memoir, “Not That Kind of Girl,” titled “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister,” her lawyers threatened the site with a lawsuit and demanded the removal of the article and “a prominent public apology,” reported Time.
An Internet firestorm ensued, with Dunham detractors and defenders alike going at it. But is the controversy really about the possibility that Dunham molested her sister? Or is it simply backlash against the hipster irony that suffuses “Girls” and Dunham’s language when she talks about loaded subjects such as race and sex? Or maybe the controversy is about her privilege as a young white woman who can say outrageous things and then get to claim she’s “not that kind of girl.” Or is it run-of-the-mill misogyny, with Dunham as a target, because she’s a young, provocative woman who's being called out for saying some things that most men would get away with?
“I think she wrote something that was in questionable taste, and it is being misread,” said Alissa Quart, author of "Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels. In a 2012 New York Magazine article, Quart coined the term "hipster sexism" in response to Dunham's provocative un-PC language and comments, defining it as “a distancing gesture, a belief that simply by applying quotations, uncool, questionable and even offensive material about women can be alchemically transformed."
Although Quart said she does not believe that Dunham's “sexual predator” comment qualifies in this case, she does believe that Dunham is sort of a performance artist whose success and privilege make her a lightning rod for critics and whose irony is misunderstood. “She’s from an art background and made an indie film and performance videos," Quart said. "But with 'Girls' and her memoir, she now has a mass audience. Some of them are conservative, even militantly so, or are super-literal or simply don’t appreciate her vigilant irony or emotional admissions. That cultural gap is part of what is going on."
In “Not That Kind of Girl,” Dunham describes her childhood bodily explorations with her younger sister, Grace, and in the passage that both Truth Revolt and Kevin D. Williamson in the National Review home in on, she describes giving her sister “three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds ... anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.” It was not her first molestation joke.
Dunham apologized after an initial "rage spiral" on Twitter and said, "[I] do not condone any kind of abuse under any circumstances. Childhood sexual abuse is a life-shattering event for so many, and I have been vocal about the rights of survivors.... I am also aware that the comic use of the term ‘sexual predator’ was insensitive, and I’m sorry for that as well.”
We're Not In A Postfeminist Era Yet
Although not a Dunham detractor per se, Emilie Zaslow, associate professor in communication studies at Pace University and author of "Feminism, Inc.: Coming of Age in Girl Power Media Culture," does think Dunham's apology was necessary.
“I’m not going to speak to the charge of sexual molestation against Dunham,” said Zaslow. “Psychologists have already noted that what she describes is consistent with childhood body exploration. But I do think she was right to apologize. I think we need to remember that words carry a whole cultural history. The idea that a hipster comedian can play with these words that are packed with pain, power, injustice is ill-conceived. I have to remind my students all the time that words have a history and a meaning that cannot be removed, especially since we haven’t moved beyond that history.”
Dunham is one of many millennials who have grown up reading Vice Magazine, which helped make ironic racism and sexism fashionable, and whose rhetoric is often indistinguishable from actual racism and sexism. The belief that we’re in a “postfeminist” era, a time when feminism isn’t needed because women have achieved everything that the women’s movement fought for, is very much a part of that millennial ethos.
“It is people who are anti-feminist," said Zaslow, "who believe that we are in a postfeminist moment or who believe we’ve arrived at a time when the sexualization of women’s bodies and children’s bodies is in the past. The fight to end the oppression of women’s and girls’ bodies is very much in the present.”
Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice and largely responsible for the politically incorrect hipster rhetoric of the online mag, was recently asked to step down when a transphobic article he wrote on Thought Catalog was deemed anything but ironic.
Critiques From The Right And The Left
Dunham's defenders and detractors are so fractured in political and ideological affiliation that the only thing that can be said definitively about this controversy is that there isn't a right/left ideological split.
Right-wing conservatives suspicious of Dunham’s privileged, left-wing artsy background (National Review) stand alongside feminists who are critical of Dunham's privileged "Teflon" position as an affluent white woman (Daily Beast). And female bloggers siding with Dunham who are outraged that she is being vilified for describing her experience (Jia Tolentino on Jezebel, Emily Gould on Salon) commingle with supporters who still scorn her white privilege (Roxane Gay).
And in all of this, there’s her now-adult sister, Grace, who offered her implicit support with tweets such as: “2day, like every other day, is a good day to think about how we police the sexualities of young women, queer, and trans people.”
Ultimately, perhaps Dunham's biggest boundary-crossing taboo is in being an unashamed woman, who, thanks to both privilege and talent, speaks her mind in sometimes unfiltered ways.
“She’s a performance artist," said Quart. "But unlike the ‘brocolage’ artists like James Franco or Ethan Hawke, who get away with it because they’re men, she's being punished in some quarters for crossing over in so many genres successfully. Most likely, she is being policed because she is a young woman.”
As a queer person: i'm committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful
â€” Grace Dunham (@simongdunham) November 3, 2014