The Problem With Girls Like Lena Dunham » VSB

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The Problem With Girls Like Lena Dunham

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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.

  • pls

    white feminists are waiting on beyonce to drop delux album in a couple weeks so they can attack her brand of non-feminism. meanwhile this lady can abuse her own sister, tell the world about it, and nobody bats an eyelash -___-

    • Folasade

      Are you kidding me? The white feminist LOVE Beyoncé and her
      creole (giggles) ass. A black woman who doesn’t consider herself “black black”,
      married to a former drug dealer who’s loves to shake her ass in leotards? They
      are salivating girl. The minute Beyoncé starts talking about real feminist issues
      is when she will be persona non grata.

      • Skegeeaces

        Actually, she’s been attacked by many feminists as being “sold-out” because she actually likes her husband, likes sex while liking her husband, and wears sexy clothing. The double-standard of white feminists can be nauseating at times.

        • St Martyr

          She has NEVER called her self a fem. Don’t look at some product BS. Show me the RECEIPTS. Nina Simone would be spinning in her grave at you black women supporting a bleached faced blonde wig wearing capitalist who worships her bullying husband who NO ONE likes in that industry. WTF??!!

        • Taz

          There is no standard white or black feminist. Some feminist think x rated movies is liberating. Some think its degrading. Some think this and that and the list goes on. What you described isnt what a feminist is.

          • Ambiguity is a virtue in the pursuit of power.

      • Beauty In Truth

        Here we go: First of darn all! Beyonce is nothing but black, and mo’ black! She ain’t never denied being black, as it is clear and obvious. She’s just a light one.

        Aliciia keys, Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams (THEY) are biracial black women, Beyonce is simply a light Black Woman. She doesn’t count? Does Jada Pinkett, or Regina King not count because they have green eyes (Cause you know black people can’t have a diversity of genetic expression of phenotypes)?

        Please stop.

        • Etecia Brown

          Beyonce has definitely referred to herself as Creole or mixed race many times. Being Black sounds too not-white for her.

          • SororSalsa


            Beyonce did a L’Oreal ad, in which she clearly identified herself as African American, Native American and French. Not to fault anyone for calling out their 4,134 Lever racial parts, but really? Do we all need to go around claiming all the random races/ethnicities that we are due to slavery/miscegenation???

          • Beauty In Truth

            Someone is bored….

    • St Martyr

      Because a bleach face blonde wig wearing b*tch who uses sex to sell to make her and her thug husband money IS feminism??!! No wonder so many of us crave the Lupita’s of this world…regardless of our skin color. FACT.

      • okay.

        how feminist of you to call another woman a bitch.

        • khamprincess37

          How feminist is it for Beyonce to sing about “bitches bowing down” or referring to women as hoes in her music

    • St Martyr

      And who the F likes Lena? Do you KNOW feminists? I talked about fem as a kid in school-yes got bullied-and even went to Parliament about it. Do not EVER call that b*tch that f*cked over the rest of Destiny’s child a fem. Just don’t.

      • pls

        0__0 i didn’t call either one a feminist. boo

        i wouldn’t exactly call bey a feminist, but she does represent professionalism and autonomy IN HER CAREER FIELD while at least pretending to stay humble. she does what she wants, how she wants. she quite regularly talks about how proud she is to represent her race as a strong independent woman. she’s not perfect, but she’s def not what’s wrong with feminism.

        mary j been wearing blond hair since the 90s and i’ve never heard anyone accuse her of self hate.

        also, funny how nobody blames mj for putting his own family out of work to pursue the solo career he was destined to have.

      • La Negra Bonita™

        Is @stmartyr:disqus Farrah or Latoya ???? lolz

  • amina

    I’m just giving this post one big “Yup”

    • OSHH


  • afronica

    The silence from feminist sites is loud as thunder.

    After binge watching a little more than a season of Girls, I knew it wasn’t going to work for me. She’s the creative daughter of extreme navel gazers who get lost in their own excrement like John Updike, Philip Roth and Susan Sontag. Yes, write what you know. But somehow, you’ve got to be incredibly specific in your work while finding the common and universal at the same time. Rough trick to pull off, but that’s the game. Dunham never comes close to doing that for me. But her stuff worked for the literati, so *shrug*.

    But this stuff with her sister? I’m having trouble buying the “Ï was just exploring” bit. Can’t swallow it. What’s getting me is that her book’s been out for more than a minute, and it took this long for anyone to point this out. I’ve seen so much coverage of her book, she’s been on her book tour/PR swing for what’s seemed like three months at least, and no one saw this, hiding in plain sight? That’s really disturbing.

    • Word. Let any person of color, regardless of gender, say something like this, and the explanatory news conference would be set up in 72hours. Like where is it OK to casually mention molesting your sister?

      • afronica

        I think I have to agree with you. In this case, it wasn’t someone else “telling” on Dunham. These were her own words. Hard to think that Issa Rae, Angela Bassett, Shonda Rhimes or Beyonce would get these same, oddly silent, few news cycles.

  • I don’t think it’s surprising really. Feminism, like many of our postmodern substitutes for self-identification, is tribal in it’s nature. And tribes are impervious to accusations of hypocrisy from non-kinsfolk. (Not to mention that substitutes never truly satisfy us anyways.) They might disapprove, they might have problems with what was done, but it’s better to look the other way, than throw your own under the bus, and risk self-destruction.

    The more interesting thing is why did Dunham choose to write that in her book? When you’re writing a biography, it’s not like you’re putting your whole life out there in writing, you’re trying to sell a view or philosophy of yourself, and so you’re going to put the bits and pieces of your life together that help solidify that philosophy. I don’t really know, but a part of me thinks it’s the same philosophy behind the show “Girls”, that we’re all just kind of f*cked up anyways, and the world is a better place and has meaning when we expose our demons.

    I tend to disagree, which is why I won’t be reading her book.

  • CamCamtheGreat

    Meh, miss me with all that. No one’s going to tell OUR story for US but US!!! Let that girl be great.

    Edit: I feel like the real problem with people like Lena Dunham is that others think she owes them something. She doesn’t owe anyone anything. She makes HER show the way SHE wants to. It is what it is. Don’t like it? Make your own damn show.

    • Sasha

      Ummm….ok. Her being “great” includes molesting and admitting to while comparing herself to that of a molester. For me the issue is that no one is discussing the fact that she molested her younger sister and called in affection. And I dont think she owes anyone anything except her sister with whom she molested for years but hey let her be great.

      • CamCamtheGreat

        Seriously? Curious kids do curious kid shxt. All she did was share, but she’s not the only one. She doesn’t even owe her sister anything because her sister has gone on record saying that it’s not that serious. Don’t we have better things to do than to worry about this?

        • brownstocking

          there was more than that excerpt, but we get your overall point and considering how many gatekeepers there are in “Hollywood,” it’s pretty trite to say “make your own.” How’s Issa Rae doing on cable?

          • CamCamtheGreat

            Trust me, I know. I’ve been reading the book. About halfway through now, to be honest. So don’t tell me about excerpts; I’ve got the full story. And I’m not sure about cable, but Issa’s doing phenomenally on YouTube. Best Buy has HD cameras for a couple hundred bucks. YouTube is free. MAKE. YOUR. OWN. Stop with all these excuses.

  • Muze

    i’ll be honest. i was dismissive of the attacks on her when i heard what the cause of the latest rage was. as someone who has babysat a ton of kids, ran a day camp for a few summers, 7 years olds STAY looking at each other’s privates. kissing cousins and all. then i actually read her words and …ew. being a curious 7 year old is one thing. what she said is a whole other level.

    that aside, i’m a fan of Girls. i think Adam’s character is one of my favorite male characters of all time, though that may speak more to Adam Driver’s ability than Lena Dunham’s. i lived in NYC for several years and people pretty much live segregated lives. it’s an oddly separated melting pot.

    you’re right though, black “girls” on TV are not given this same space and forgiveness to be f*ck ups, be angry, be sad, be contradictory, be weird. be human. that is the truly frustrating thing.

    • Andrea

      That is why I am really loving Viola Davis and HTGAWM. She is Black. And a HUMAN!!! And as someone wrote “Annalise Keating seems more than capable of being both Sherlock and Moriarty. Backward, in Heels.”

  • LadyIbaka

    What is so brave about admitting to being a sexual predator? What is so feministic of having sexually abused a baby?

    Lena is the white folks Ray J. Doing the most with the least. Unnecessary most times. She nothing but a toe.

    • He who thinks before he speaks

      “Lena is the white folks Ray J.”
      It’s over

      • LadyIbaka

        LOL! she really is…

      • Epsilonicus

        “”Lena is the white folks Ray J.” ”

        I love that analogy

    • tgtaggie

      She’s aesthetically challenged. That is why she is overcompensating by being so extra.

      • miss t-lee

        “Aesthetically challenged”…you’re so nice.
        You know dayum well she’s anti-cute.

        • tgtaggie

          She really ain’t that cute. lol….actually the majority of the cast ain’t all that cute. They kinda average. Brian Williams’ daughter is probably one of the best looking girl on that show.

          • miss t-lee

            Brown paper bags all around.

            • LadyIbaka

              Lord Jesus.

              • miss t-lee

                “I’m not a nice person.”-Earl Simmons

        • She is pulchritude deficient

          • miss t-lee

            Bless her heart.

          • Lea Thrace

            You used pulchritude.

            Actually had to restrain myself from throwin pannies at you. The young ones stay trying to get me caught up…

  • Neptunes presents The Clones

    How is she able to get away with abusing her younger sister. That just aint right

  • Ray Jefferies

    I am honestly indifferent to the lack of diversity on her show… I don’t watch it, and to the author’s point, it does represent a facet of some people’s lives. Attribute it to whatever you like, but we (human beings) do have a tendency to self-segregate.

    And while I was initially shocked by the sustained apologism excusing Dunham’s abuse, I reminded myself that I am a misanthrope and I don’t believe in the inherent goodness of humankind. Therefore this is just one more brick in a well established wall.

    I have long since disabused myself that an ideology, belief system, philosophy, or culture ever results in a better brand of human being. It simply results in a human being with a different outlook very much capable of the same bull$h!t of which they accuse others.

    So for me, feminists haven’t suddenly today cornered the market on hypocrisy with their silence on this issue, they were already in the market place with everyone else. No better, and no worse. I will give some credit here (because I think it is worth noting) that some feminists “threw the flag on the play” immediately, and called the bull$h!t for what it was… not surprisingly most (but not all) were women of color.

    But I think there’s a lot of truth to Negro Libre’s comment about tribalism. The inability or unwillingness to see “the sin within” is at work here. The problem is that it’s at work in EVERY tribe. It is part of the reason why campaigns that ask all members of a group to police the actions of the few will probably never produce appreciable change.

    Most white feminists would never do what Lena Dunham has done, but I doubt they will feel compelled to condemn and shame her; because at the end of the day, she is one of them, and that is bigger than any sin she may have committed. Eating your own just isn’t an option. That same tribalism works against them when they ask men to collectively be responsible for the few. Same circling of wagons, same propensity to overlook the sin and excuse the perpetrator. Same tolerance for the untenable. Same mechanism at work.

    • Well, not necessarily, tribes at times do see the sin within, since their survival is dependent on it. I think the difference is between when a tribe is natural vs. when it is artificial aka a substitute.

      Tribes that are natural, are founded on the fear of ostracism: the greatest punishment is to be exiled. However, modern artificial tribal identities like feminism, are not founded based off the fear of ostracism, but rather are founded based on opposition: the greatest punishment is to be aligned with or contributing to the opposition. A feminist existence is dependent on it’s antithesis which is a patriarchal existence. Thus anything that benefits the patriarchal system must be opposed, even if it comes off as being hypocritical or contradictory.

      • Ray Jefferies

        Have to agree to disagree here. Tribes are not solely based on fear of ostracism; that is one dynamic at work but it is not necessarily the tie that binds. Survival of the tribe (particularly a tribe at war) is dependent on maximizing that which aids you, and minimizing that which hurts you. And the same exigency that suggests that you protect one of your own regardless of their sin for the sake of the tribe, can a short time later instruct you to sacrifice one of your own, because survival of the tribe supersedes the protection of one member. This kind of thing happens all the time in politics.

  • NomadaNare

    Yep. Go head and tell it.

    Edit: Maya, I’m really happy to be seeing someone doing in depth critical analysis of our cultural landscape on VSB, even if it isn’t completely “academic” and what not. I’ve been looking for this site to do more like this for years and I’m glad you’re doing it.

    • Maya K. Francis

      Aw, thanks very much. I’m glad you are enjoying!

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