Lena Dunham and the White (Feminist) Elephant in the Room
For a long time, when I thought about feminism, I thought of Lena Dunham. Lena Dunham is the star and creator of the HBO series Girls, an author, and a vocal feminist. On the surface, Dunham seems like the kind of woman I would really like. A Jewish, feminist, comedian? What’s not to love? Unfortunately, Dunham has some very problematic views that make it impossible for me to support her. She’s frequently accused of being a “white feminist,” and I agree. A “white feminist” is a feminist who doesn’t acknowledge that the life experiences of white people are different from those of people of color, and therefore doesn’t practice what is called “intersectional feminism.” Dunham doesn’t acknowledge the fact that even though she’s part of an oppressed group as a woman, she still benefits from white privilege, and that isn’t inconsequential.
Recently, Dunham made some very careless comments that I would like to unpack. Earlier this year, in an interview with Amy Schumer, Dunham described an interaction she had with football player Odell Beckham Jr. She said, “I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr., and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards. He was like, ‘That's a marshmallow. That's a child. That's a dog.’ It wasn't mean—he just seemed confused. The vibe was very much like, ‘Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a … yep, it's wearing a tuxedo. I'm going to go back to my cell phone.’ It was like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie.’”
Now let’s be clear, Beckham said none of this. In this interview, Dunham is recounting a fabricated thought process that stemmed from her own insecurities. Many people were upset that Dunham used Beckham as a prop to push her narrative as a feminist trailblazer, and to paint herself as a victim in this encounter. While Dunham was trying to prove how progressive she is, she failed to recognize both her privilege as a white person, and Beckham Jr.’s oppressed status as a black man. Besides wrongly setting herself up as the oppressed and Beckham Jr. as the privileged, she also played into stereotypes about how black men perceive and treat women. In order for white women to practice intersectional feminism, they must get past only taking gender into account, and consider the opposite party’s full identity.
Dunham has also made some controversial comments about abortion recently. On her podcast, she said, “Even I, the woman who cares as much as anybody about a woman’s right to choose, felt that it was important that people know that I was unblemished in this department.” She concluded that she had since banished this feeling: “Now I can say that I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had…” This is very problematic because it trivializes the experience of having an abortion. It’s very clear that Dunham isn’t aware of the privilege she has. She’s lamenting that she isn’t able to join in an experience that is often the most painful and difficult decision a woman has to make in her life.
While Dunham romanticizes having an abortion, women in Texas are forced to have funeral services for the aborted fetus. Dunham has since apologized for both of these comments, but I don’t believe that she should be forgiven. I believe the only reason Dunham has made these apologies is due to public outcry, and it’s impossible for me to believe that her knowledge of intersectionality is any more nuanced than it was before she got called out. This is not the first time Lena Dunham has said ignorant things, and to accept her apology every time, only to be greeted with another ignorant statement, leads me to believe she hasn’t learned anything.
It’s difficult for me to write this because I feel weird about condemning feminists. There’s pressure to show solidarity with every high profile feminist in order to strengthen the movement. This is silly though. We can’t sacrifice what’s important in an effort to include views that simply aren’t valid. Feminism is about equality for all women, not just white women. If Dunham can’t understand how to lift up people of color and other oppressed groups with her white privilege, she shouldn’t be a prominent member of the feminist movement.
I understand how easy it is to be unaware of your privilege, and to say ignorant things. Before I started learning about intersectionality, I had no idea how privileged I am. Now I know that despite the fact that I’m part of an oppressed group as a woman, I’m also very much privileged because of the color of my skin. I now know that it’s not ok for white women to try and speak for all women’s experiences. It’s easy to sweep the more problematic aspects of someone's character under the rug in an effort to highlight the good work they’ve done. However, all this does is send a message that unacceptable behaviors are acceptable, and ultimately it weakens the feminist cause.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Ronkin, Katy. "Lena Dunham and the White (Feminist) Elephant in the Room." 10 February 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 6, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/lena-dunham-and-white-feminist-elephant-in-room>.