The Problem With Girls Like Lena Dunham » VSB

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The Problem With Girls Like Lena Dunham

There are a lot of reasons not to like Lena Dunham. The way she’s chosen to cast Girls isn’t one of them.

Dunham is one of those people most folks either love or hate; she’s seated squarely in the cross hairs of many writers of color. Personally, I don’t really care for her writing, which is why I’ve never chosen to write about her at length. In short, it’s not for me. And that’s okay—somebody likes it.

Dunham, like most writers, is telling her story or some version of it. The characters in her HBO series Girls are people that I’ve known in my life; a vapid privileged reality I’ve observed from the sidelines as a woman of color in a liberal high school, through college and grad school. I never understood the push to make Girls more inclusive. I wouldn’t trust Dunham to write Black female characters in a nuanced or interesting way, and she shouldn’t be forced to.

There has been a lot of internet bandwidth dedicated to the idea that Dunham somehow owes us something, that the title “Girls is so all-encompassing that her show should reflect that, not just White girls, as is parenthetically implied. That she has a “race problem.” While I’m not a Dunham fan (more or that later), I’m not sure that’s fair. As Ta-Nehisi Coats put it, “It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively White world—certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exist.”

Frankly, I don’t give a shit if Lena Dunham has brown people in her show or not. Sex and the City made an empire in depicting a New York City that was devoid of brown people. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we will realize that outside of the office, most of us live segregated lives. I can’t fault Dunham for writing what she knows.

And she doesn’t know us.

With respect to her artistry, there has always been something Woody Allen-like about her content, something I could never quite put my finger on. The narcissism? The neurosis? The nagging preoccupation with sex that dots the margins of the show’s framework. The extent at which she is nude on her show is less “admirable” or “audacious” as some have suggested previously, and more like a crutch to make us keep watching. Dunham has been pretty successful at courting attention and feigning displeasure when she gets it. A reporter once asked Dunham about the artistic reasons behind the abundance of nudity in the show (a fair question from a television critic, I think) and things went left.

This is a habit of Dunham’s. And here’s where we get to the part about her that doesn’t quite curl all the way over to me. There’s the casual bigotry that litters her Twitter page; her comments about sympathizing more with “the stray dogs she saw than the poverty-stricken people.” And then there’s that dust up from this weekend.

Truth Revolt published a story about Dunham sexually abusing her little sister. Full stop. The basis of this story was an excerpt taken directly from Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl. True to form, Dunham is upset because the cheeky little story she included in her book has been taken at face value and not applauded for its bravery, sharp wit, or self-awareness. In fact in the fall out since Saturday, Dunham has threatened to sue and sent the site a cease and desist letter.

There are lots of reasons to have beef with Lena Dunham, public figure. Let us not forget that she is sitting at the dais of (White) feminism because of her visibility as a young woman at the head of an incredibly successful show of her own making about White Girl Problems. This, in spite of her repeated transgressions and this now casual admission of violating her sister.

At the time of this writing, there is a story taking up prime real estate on the Jezebel homepage about Chris Brown (really, are they ever going to leave that boy alone?), with nothing to be said of Dunham. Similarly, there is no new content surrounding Truth Revolt’s article on Dunham featured on Feministing, The Hairpin, or xoJane.

Curiouser and curiouser.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike Dunham, most of which are Dunham’s own fault. The rest, the part that I think really infuriates people, is how permissive Whiteness tends to be. Rolling Stone’s “Girl on Top” “turned a life of anxiety, bad sex and countless psychiatric meds into the funniest show on TV,” in a redemptive, charming, profitable way that isn’t allowable for content creators of color – especially not women. We don’t get a lot of room to be imperfect, even in the telling of our own stories. But Cat Marnnell can do it. And Elizabeth Wurtzel did it 20 years ago with Prozac Nation.

Girls will be girls, I suppose. But us? We know better. And that’s frustrating as a motherfucker.

Maya Francis

Maya K. Francis is a culture writer and communications strategy consultant. When not holding down the Black Girl Beat for VSB, she is a weekly columnist for Philadelphia Magazine's "The Philly Post" and contributes to other digital publications including xoJane, Esquire, and Sometimes TV and radio producers are crazy enough to let her talk on-air, and she helped write a book once. She cites her mother and Whitley Gilbert as inspirations.

  • I too have met people like Lena Dunham. In a certain way, she’s that New Racist. They are perfectly fine with integrating people of color into their existence, but only on their terms and so long as they recognize Whiteness as Better than Them. Like the New Black thing, it’s the product of a younger generation who is exposed to and associates with people of color on a certain level because they have to, but they don’t want to give up the benefits that Whiteness clearly provides.

    As to her assault story, it reminds me of an aside brought up in, of all things, a biography of Mickey Mantle. Long story short, the female sports writer who wrote the book related how she was able to relate to Mickey Mantle because of their shared histories of $exual abuse by women. She then went on to relate a story of how she was plied with liquor and abused during international college studies in Belgium. We live in a world where stuff like that isn’t on anyone’s radar, but it does happen. The scary thing I’ve noticed is that they’ve been on the Sandusky plan of using their position and politics to cover for them before the man ever thought of it.

    • Folasade

      Todd, I agree 100% on the “new racist”. I’ve too dealt with
      people like that and for me, what’s more mind blogging are the people of color
      in their “circles” that allow this to happen. Lena Durham and people of her ilk
      are, in their minds, the gatekeepers of feminism and hold them themselves as
      standard of feminine beauty. And that’s why as a black woman I don’t think I
      will ever classify myself as a “feminist”.

      On another note, I was a heavy Jezebel reader up until about
      6 months ago. I realized their rhetoric when it came to black women (and black people
      in general) did not sit well with me. But that’s another story for another day.

      • I think that people of color who tolerate the new racism are either naive or are so desperate to try something different that they don’t want to see what’s going on. I understand the impulse, but what good does it fir a man who gains the world and loses his soul? There’s a difference between being open minded and being foolish.

        • BlueWave1

          “…or are so desperate to try something different that they don’t want to see what’s going on.”

          ^It’s mostly this one.

          • I understand the impulse, but I won’t let my desire for new ish threaten my dignity. As different as I may be, when the deal goes down, I’m still a Black Man, with all that phrase entails.

            • Folasade

              Man, there was a situation with my uncle and this white lady he dated… she got pregnant and point blank told him she was having an abortion cause she didn’t want a black baby. And my foolish uncle (as much as I love him) still STAYED with her after and was heartbroken when they broke up. I could NEVER and I mean NEVER desire so much for something different that I find myself in a situation that resembles that in the slightest. I know my self worth both as a human being and a black woman.

              • o__________0

                I don’t shock easily but this has to be the most bugged thing I’ve heard in a long, long time.

              • iphone300


        • NomadaNare

          The New Racist go hand and hand with that New Black ish, Pharrell and Raven Symone are pushing. Two sides of the same coin.

          • Hey, I’ve had to check some 2520s on that ish. Don’t let the smooth taste fool you. I’m open minded but I’m not a fool.

        • RINGMASTR

          Agreed. Naive, sheltered and inexperienced. Also agree with your observation above, “…she’s that New Racist.”

      • Meridian

        The mind frame he spoke of about new racists is the mind frame I’ve naturally developed towards white people. There’s always this nagging sensation or belief that you have to conform into the societal expectations, but there’s just so much to create and establish as black people that I feel like we can have a bit of a God complex. You don’t have to be accepting of anyone or anything as you’re establishing presence and precedence.

      • Taz

        Im sorry but i dont see her a racist just because she dosent have many black friends or on her show. If I had my own show I wouldnt have white people in it because I dont hang with white people like that. Im not getting where people feel as though we have to be apart of everyone’s “circle” or else they are a racist.

        • Etecia Brown

          After the first season received criticism for lack of racial diversity. She opened up the second season with a big “fuck you” and eroticized the Black male- showing that the only racial inclusion that White women of her status is capable of is screwing a big black penis

    • Neptunes presents The Clones

      Abuse by women does not seem to elict much outrage ey.

      • St Martyr

        Because women are perfect. And victims. Pleease.

      • LMNOP

        Like the boys who get raped by teachers or other authority figures and people are like “well thats every boys fantasy.” No, no it’s not. No one wants to get abused or raped and that can really fuck a person up, the gender of the person who abused you doesn’t change how badly it can impact someone for their entire fucking life. This kind of stuff just leaves me wanting to stab someone.

    • Taz

      But whats wrong with her sticking to “her kind” or social circle? why is this even a issue. This is a class issue. Not race. Upper class more wealthy blacks have a bubble around them too and only associate with other blacks when need be. Thats life. There is fuss about nothing here

      • That’s the thing about New Racism though. They make an active point to NOT stick with their kind. It’s colonialism of a sort. They’re only OK with stepping out if the end goal is to have outsiders recognize that they’re better and reframe their lives that way. And while you’re right about Upper Class Blacks, they still tend to associate with other Upper Class Blacks. Remember the book “Our Kind Of People”?

        • Beauty In Truth

          Stealing comments. Lol. I posted about this in an older post. But yes!

          “High Class negro over a low class imposter.” Hair fFlippin’ On iit!

          But don’t give them negroids too much credit now, lest we forget Ms. Debra Lee and her wondrous BET networks…

  • Elowwole

    Salon even did a piece defending her for the right wing attacks. Attacks?? Using her own words is an attack?

    I can’t with whiteness today.

    • In Salon’s partial defense, I read that piece, and all of the comments can be summed up at “Aww HELL NAW!” I think Fonzie is putting on his leather jacket and revving up the motorcycle, because they have officially jumped the shark.

  • Epsilonicus

    “I never understood the push to make Girls more inclusive.”

    I was in the same boat. I was not surprised that people lived in all White worlds. And then some research ( demonstrated that White people have almost no Black folks in their circles, it made sense to me because that is what I noticed anecdotally

    • PBS is coming out with a series about Whiteness where they ask White people what it means to be White and how they perceive race. That should be interesting to watch. And you’re right about what I’ve also noticed about White people and their social circles on a day to day basis.

      • Nick Peters

        “The Whiteness Project”?

        – They just spend the whole time talking about Minorities (black people) and how they don’t have any real advantages in life and just throwing up more white supremacy

        • That’s the point though… To show how many white people think that there’s equality when it isn’t. More importantly, knowing specifics on what they get wrong can point out where we as a people have to work. I’d rather hear this than mealy mouthed pieties to tolerance.

          • Nick Peters

            That is a tactic to protect White Supremacy…deny,deny,deny.

            A lot of black people don’t want to accept that white supremacy is extremely logical and based around maintaining as much wealth and opportunity as possible and that it is not just random ignorance

            • Let’s keep it 100. Let’s say Black people had the money and power? Do you think we’d be magnanimous and give it up? LOL

              Hey, I’m glad it’s out there in the wider world that reg’lar White people can be racist. A lot of people think it’s Billy Joe Bob and Misty May in the trailer park, when we know that isn’t true.

              • Nick Peters

                We wouldn’t…but that doesn’t mean the solution is to create dialogue to foster understanding or to pray with white people every time they do something crazy

            • LMNOP

              There is some ignorance involved, but I think it’s a cultivated self-serving ignorance, not random ignorance.

        • Thanks for sharing this, it will be interesting to watch. You should read the comments section on the website.

          I love watching House Hunters International and I find it quite interesting how there are all these older White people who love to move into these culturally and racially diverse places only to see them by the end of the episode hanging with other fellow White expats. It always cracks me up. Why did they even bother moving? It surely wasn’t to integrate and definitely not assimilate!

          • I think it’s the idea of “different”. They don’t really want to be different as much as symbolize that they are. Think about it. All they have to do is walk outside their tight circle, and they can tell their friends about how “adventurous” they are. They aren’t really ’bout that life.

          • Folasade

            This is so funny and accurate. I am a huge HGTV fanatic (that’s probably all I watch) and I have also noticed this too. I always said that the reason white people colonized the Caribbean and parts of Africa is that they realized they needed vacation homes in warm climates…..

    • Neptunes presents The Clones

      Most of the shows based from interactions in NYC rarely had blacks,Friends and Seinfeld come to mind. If that is how they see life,its cool

      • Epsilonicus

        What I am saying is that it is not just how they see life, it is how they experience life.

        • Neptunes presents The Clones

          Then the whole NYC is a melting pot thing is a farce.

          • Actually the truth is somewhere in the middle. People have casual and business interactions with all sorts of groups. Then they go home and have intimate and close dealings with only their own kind.

          • Folasade

            Agreed. I lived in NYC for a year and the only time that I hung with non-black and brown people was at work. Even now, I live in another large city and don’t really interact with white people outside of work and school. As someone who has lived in the ‘burbs most of her life and went to mostly white undergrad and grad schools, its rather surprising how segregated my (personal) life is.

  • JAC

    Maya–I always enjoy reading your articles! I am not familiar with the Lena Dunham abuse story (because I don’t like her and don’t care about anything she does), but I do think it’s interesting that other feminist blogs don’t mention her in a negative light. However, it’s not surprising: feminist blogs such as these always take care to protect White feminist, while turning a blind eye from issues WOC experience.

    • Maya K. Francis

      Thank you!

    • Meridian

      It allows people to be human within the movement and around each other. There’s a such thing as being around other women and you simply accept the good and the bad about them. You embrace them, look out for each other, put your best foot forward and champion that foot. It isn’t attributed to race so black women should do this for one another as well. It’s a choice. Even WE have a tendency to gloss over our experiences because we’re so focused on the flaws and differences of the person next to us. Black feminism and sisterhood in general is probably the best vehicle for our stories. We need that element of internal support.

      • LMNOP

        It’s all well and good to embrace the good and bad when the bad is like you’re always running late or talk too much, but chexual abuse? no

        • Meridian

          No argument from me there.

  • gabeh

    Wow, talk about black racism!

    • Meridian


    • LMNOP

      This comment makes no sense.

  • Meridian

    The only thing I know about her is that she has a tendency to be naked on the show Girls. I don’t even pay attention to her so this was my intro into who she is and what she’s about. She allegedly s*xually abused her little sister and the white feminists are looking over it because they’re already pretty low on the totem pole of people to take seriously. They can’t afford to be honest about such a scandal. Olivia Pope is not here for them and neither are any other professional black women.

    I don’t see why we need to be. I guess I get that such a close minded group of people should have more realistic stories to tell and should include women of all cultures in their movement. I just don’t see how we expect them to properly represent us in such an endeavor. Is the inevitable training of them in that regard even worth the time and energy? It probably is. It’d be like training interns on the proper way to write about womanhood in urban environments and in representation of the gender in political/economical movements. Still though, I wouldn’t want to be part of something or associated with something that’s handled so poorly. I think black women should be more accepting of one another and understanding of what we all go through, of what is so envied and desired and copied, then sisterhood would be its own source of getting ahead. Is it possible to make ourselves the cool kids?

  • Skegeeaces

    I didn’t even know who this woman was before yesterday. Having read only five minutes of things she’s thought/said/done, I already can’t stand her. Ugh. Who, as an adult, could so casually recap diddling her little sister and then get upset when people aren’t like, ‘OMG! So inspiring, funny, and insightful!”?! A sicko, that’s who. A privileged sicko, even scarier.

    • Bananadrama

      And she publicly criticized Woody Allen! I mean, hello, what a hypocrite. She lives in such a bubble of artsy privilege that her sister and parents both proofed her book and didn’t see a thing wrong with it, apparently. Like, a typical parent would advise her child to respect her sister’s bodily autonomy instead of blowing this thing off like it’s typical. It isn’t typical in most people’s experience.

      Now it’s being argued that her sister doesn’t consider it abuse. Okay, that’s good and all, but the sort of thing Dunham writes about is the sort of thing abusers say to make what they do sound like normal business as usual. No, it isn’t.

  • “…the part that I think really infuriates people, is how permissive Whiteness tends to be.”

    Include me on that list. I just can’t find much redeeming about Lena Dunham, and I’m just baffled by the tongue baths she’s received. Art is subjective, and I won’t begrudge those who think that she’s creative and witty and producing some sort of feminist art with her show, but I can’t help but feel like with her it’s the tail wagging the dog. She’s showered with award accolades just because.

    If you’re critical of her “all nudity, all the time…even when it makes absolutely no sense” tendencies in Girls, then it’s turned into accusations of misogyny. That said, those are my initial annoyances with her, and that was before what I’ve been reading about her memoir.

    People can get upset at the review on National Review Online (it’s not a site I ever visit except that the piece was linked to on Twitter), but I have say I couldn’t get worked up over how the review went down. She makes casual mention of sexually abusing her baby sister and she’s surprised that people aren’t all, “That Lena Dunham! She’s so brave! So courageous! Hilarious, that one!”? GTFOH! Instead she’s sent a cease and desist letter to another site that ran with the story? This is what happens when people prop up mediocrity, I guess.

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  • Rachmo

    I have a ton to say on this one and will do so later.

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