Lena Dunham and the '80-Cent Wage Gap' of White Feminism
Lena Dunham just won’t stop. Moments of clarity and self-awareness are either too brief or fabricated, and far outweighed and outnumbered by an almost parodical level of me-me-me toxic feminism (remember that time she made and distributed T-shirts for Planned Parenthood with her own name above and in bigger font than the organization she was attempting to draw attention to?).
Dunham’s pathological need to be self-deprecating and to broadcast her insecurities to the world in a misguided attempt to own them (and I know this because I do the exact same thing for a living and we can smell our own) tends to be done entirely at the expense of uninvolved bystanders, strangers—all too often black men—who become grist for her mill of “this person does not want to fuck me.” But her tunnel focus on herself seemingly renders her incapable of realizing that other people exist, that other people are not mere characters in her life, that there are implications and propagation of stereotypes.
This isn’t merely annoying. This isn’t just a matter of “ugh millennial hipsters, amirite?” The performative allyship of “male feminists” that is very often dangerously sanctified to the point people don’t realize it’s a cover for a predator can also be used to describe white feminism as a whole, most notably its poster child: Dunham.
Her latest example found a way to combine all of her racial blind spots, performative feminism and entitlement into one big dumb casserole. And that is when she (and producing partner Jenni Konner took it upon themselves to release a statement defending their friend and former Girls writer Murray Miller, who was accused by Aurora Perrineau, a black actress, of raping her when she was 17. In the midst of an international movement of victims coming forward, naming their attackers and facing unprecedented support and a massive wave of disbelief, excuses and judgement, purported feminists Dunham and Konner chose the path far, far, far more traveled.
“During the windfall of deeply necessary accusations over the last few months in Hollywood, we have been thrilled to see so many women’s voices heard and dark experiences in this industry justified. It’s a hugely important time of change and, like every feminist in Hollywood and beyond, we celebrate. But during every time of change there are also incidences of the culture, in its enthusiasm and zeal, taking down the wrong targets. We believe, having worked closely with him for more than half a decade, that this is the case with Murray Miller. While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year. It is a true shame to add to that number, as outside of Hollywood women still struggle to be believed. We stand by Murray and this is all we’ll be saying about this issue.”
I shouldn’t have to explain why this is exceedingly dangerous and damaging. I shouldn’t have to explain why this was utterly horrifying and confusing as a public move.
The backlash was swift and Dunham’s apology came quickly.
As feminists, we live and die by our politics, and believing women is the first choice we make every single day when we wake up. Therefore I never thought I would issue a statement publicly supporting someone accused of sexual assault, but I naively believed it was important to share my perspective on my friend’s situation as it has transpired behind the scenes over the last few months. I now understand that it was absolutely the wrong time to come forward with such a statement and I am so sorry. We have been given the gift of powerful voices and by speaking out we were putting our thumb on the scale and it was wrong. We regret this decision with every fiber of our being.
Every woman who comes forward deserves to be heard, fully and completely, and our relationship to the accused should not be part of the calculation anyone makes when examining her case. Every person and every feminist should be required to hear her. Under patriarchy, “I believe you” is essential. Until we are all believed, none of us will be believed. We apologize to any women who have been disappointed.
Notably missing from this statement? The name Aurora Perrineau.
People keep asking regarding this windfall of predators, “He apologized. What more do you want from him?” I feel the same way about Dunham’s apology as I do about all the others, and almost all the celebrity apologies since the dawn of tabloid time. Public apologies are press releases. Public apologies are PR tools. They are designed and crafted to rescue public image and, ultimately, money. That isn’t to say many of these apologies are not genuine. But an apology is cold comfort to those hurt by the original actions, and its release as a result of backlash can be questionable. Are you sorry for what you did, or are you sorry you got caught?
Dunham has presented herself as this feminist authority, as this hero focused on women’s issues. But she’s made it clear the issues that matter most are the issues of only some.
The thing about white feminism is this: by focusing only on the “average” of the female experience, entire lives, entire existences are cast out of the mix. It’s why we are told “women” are paid 80 cents for every male-earned dollar, when that’s actually on a curve anchored by able-bodied cisgender white women. For black women it’s 63 cents; for Latina women it’s 54 cents; for women with disabilities it’s 73 cents on average, while trans women on average lose nearly one-third of their pay rates after transition, and both of those presumably see massive shifts based on race. And while the wage gap is only one piece of the “female experience” it’s a perfect example of how focusing on the women most in need will see gains for what would actually be all women.
As long as Dunham and others like her remain focused only on that average 80 cents, on nice male predators, on themselves, true progress is impossible.