Lena Dunham has pale skin, green hair, tons of tattoos, and a TV show on which she frequently appears nude. She has 1.2 million followers on Instagram and 1.86 million followers on Twitter. Her memoir is a New York Times bestseller and has been reviewed by—among others—Roxane Gay and Michiko Kakutani.
That means she has a voice, and a loud one at that. This is one of those privileges that, wielded carelessly (as it has been by CeeLo Green and Artie Lange), becomes something of a double-edged sword: Lena Dunham can publish a memoir that people (famous people—other people with voices) will read, review, and recommend—and, when they deem it necessary, critique, criticize, and condemn.
Dunham should probably not have called herself something akin to a “sexual predator” in her memoir. She probably should not have talked quite so much about her sister’s vagina. She probably should not have so uncritically dismissed accusations leveled against her. That she did is a product of the carelessness that comes along with her privilege, the belief that because she cannot see the harm in her words, that harm does not exist.
However, it’s true that, based on the dismissal of claims of abuse by all child-development psychologists who have been consulted, as well as by the so-called victim herself, the attack on Dunham appears to be nothing more than an attack on someone outside the norm of a “successful woman.” In fact, the incident only became an incident weeks after the book’s publication when Truth Revolt, a right-wing blog, posted about Dunham’s apparent admission to having sexually abused her little sister.
In fact, the accusation seems to have initially been a way for the right wing to criticize someone for whom the usual primary criticism (her failures in understanding either diversity or her own abundance of privileges) is something that the right wing doesn’t usually seem to care much about. But the issue snowballed from there, sparking backlash against Dunham from the left and right wings of the Internet and eventually the now-customary backlash against the backlash.
But I’m not a Dunham apologist (mostly because that phrase sounds ridiculous). It’s obvious that her tone in discussing her nonsexual-but-still-weird-enough-to-be-creepy experimentation with her sister has been needlessly blasé and careless where it should not have been. For many survivors, the experience she described is similar to something that actually would take place between them and a sexual predator. The comparison of herself to one later in her book thus becomes chilling and makes it seem like she actually was sexually abusing her sister rather than engaging in what initially reads as something typically weird in that Dunham-y way that her show is weird: ignoring boundaries, rejecting any notion of privacy, exposing to the public things that nearly everyone else keeps to themselves.
The thing is, women of color don’t get to cross those boundaries without ample criticism. Take, for instance, the responses to the black woman photographed breast-feeding at her graduation as opposed to the responses to the white woman doing the same. The photo featuring the black woman was called inappropriate; the photo featuring the white woman was called inspirational. The photos are nearly identical in everything other than the skin colors of the women pictured, which means the differences in comments surrounding them must be based on these differences in skin color. But if it’s inappropriate for one woman to be photographed breast-feeding in her cap and gown, then it must be inappropriate for the other woman to be photographed breastfeeding in her cap and gown, too—unless, of course, white women have some sort of privilege that women of color do not have.
Now Dunham is being called inappropriate, but her response, rather than taking on the self-critical tone it perhaps should, expresses the sort of dismissive disgust you only get to openly express and be defended for when you’re someone with the wealth of privileges that Dunham has. Dunham is not unused to criticism—she has even taken some of it to heart. (There are actually black characters on Girls now, which is very exciting.) And so it would be nice to see her acknowledge her precise combination of privilege and power and learn from this particular branch of criticism instead of rejecting it out of hand and telling her criticizers to “back the fuck up, bros.”