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Lena Dunham and What To Do about White Feminism in the Face of Relentless Misogyny

By Courtney Enlow | Celebrity | September 6, 2016 |

By Courtney Enlow | Celebrity | September 6, 2016 |

On Friday, Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer were a problem again.

In the latest Lenny Letter, the two had a conversation about the Met Gala and Kurt Metzger. Two things stood out: Schumer’s “aren’t there more important things in the world than my garbage rape apologist friend?” and Dunham’s comments about Odell Beckham, Jr.

Her comments:

I attempted to grind my ass on Michael B. Jordan for an additional twenty minutes and then left right after you.

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. I was like, “This should be called the Metropolitan Museum of Getting Rejected by Athletes.”

This led to a larger conversation on Twitter about the sexual objectification of two black men, specifically Beckham. As The Root stated, “Put differently, she weaponized her body against him while centering herself as the victim.” Dunham’s initial Twitter responses were not ideal.

She later apologized.

I owe Odell Beckham Jr an apology. Despite my moments of bravado, I struggle at industry events (and in life) with the sense that I don't rep a certain standard of beauty and so when I show up to the Met Ball surrounded by models and swan-like actresses it's hard not to feel like a sack of flaming garbage. This felt especially intense with a handsome athlete as my dinner companion and a bunch of women I was sure he'd rather be seated with. But I went ahead and projected these insecurities and made totally narcissistic assumptions about what he was thinking, then presented those assumptions as facts. I feel terrible about it. Because after listening to lots of valid criticism, I see how unfair it is to ascribe misogynistic thoughts to someone I don't know AT ALL. Like, we have never met, I have no idea the kind of day he's having or what his truth is. But most importantly, I would never intentionally contribute to a long and often violent history of the over-sexualization of black male bodies- as well as false accusations by white women towards black men. I'm so sorry, particularly to OBJ, who has every right to be on his cell phone. The fact is I don't know about his state of mind (I don't know a lot of things) and I shouldn't have acted like I did. Much love and thanks, Lena

A photo posted by Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) on

There are words and statements that may seem innocuous to those who’ve never had to consider the broader impact of implications of those words, and negative reactions can be confusing. This confusion can lead one of two directions: self-education and a greater understanding of what those words mean to those who speak out against them, or to go on the attack and dismiss it all as “the internet outrage machine.”

I feel able to speak knowledgeably on the subject. Because anyone who was around for ALL-CAPSGATE and was able to wade through all the death threats, #NotAllBernieBro-ery and alt-right fuckery saw many, many accurate and fair accusations of my own white feminism. Several of us at Pajiba have faced similar fair criticism. And when faced with this uncomfortable, crushing sensation that you have upset people through your own ignorance or poorly stated thoughts, the answer is absolutely never to dismiss these criticisms. And honestly, that is more difficult than one might consider when the volume of negativity is so massive. It can be easy to lump it all together, if for no other reason than self-preservation. In all my years studying public apologies with far greater attention than I ever gave any school subject, one thing has become abundantly clear: The only acceptable apology is one of clear and unquestionable accountability. No placed blame, no passing the buck, no blaming “PC culture” or the “internet outrage machine” or, god fucking forbid, “I’m sorry that you were offended.” There is only one way to get out of this(ish): Take responsibility. Never go negative.

But the issue is far greater than bad apologies. We can’t control these people. They’re not our job. But how do we respond? And how do we handle the other responses? Because when a woman is flawed, when a woman makes a mistake, when a woman is a goddamn asshole, the response is greater than is perhaps fair.

And here’s the tricky part, I genuinely don’t know how to discuss this without excusing Dunham, or Taylor Swift, or Amy Schumer or for that matter Hillary Clinton, who is arguably the greatest example of this phenomenon. The failures and actions of these women are deserving of criticism, even outright loathing. But there’s a level of hate that they face that displays an ugliness and hatred, the kind we’ve all been witness to the rising of throughout the Trump presidential campaign. In the case of Clinton, there are generally two camps: The camp whose distrust and negative feelings toward her are fair and based in both fact and personal experience. The other camp piggybacks upon and co-opts that real experience, adding in lies, misogyny, and an obscene level of attack that drowns out everything else, suffocating any real message in horror and awful.

The same occurs to a vastly lesser but still powerful level with Dunham, Swift, and Schumer. And then we’re left with this choice: Do we defend women being attacked with hideous force, thus potentially becoming apologists of their white feminism by doing so? Or do we do nothing, remaining silent in the face of these attacks as though they deserve the level they’re receiving?

Put simply, I don’t want these people to say stupid shit anymore. But I also don’t want them to get death and rape threats. How do we protect women without excusing behavior?

Women always seem to bear the brunt of this kind of hate. And we’re then forced to pick apart their words and actions, rightly or wrongly, with the internet acting as arbiters of what is and is not deserved punishment for wrongdoing. But a disproportionate punishment can’t and shouldn’t excuse the harm that’s been done and the pain that’s been caused.

With great social media power comes a responsibility we should not have and did not ask for. So what do we do with it now that we have it?

Feminism cannot just be for white women. Solidarity can’t be for white women. It just can’t. I don’t want these women being attacked, but what about the women of color attacked every single day who did nothing to incur the slightest criticism let alone the horrific onslaught like Leslie Jones received?

We’ve got to be in this together. But that can’t come at the silence of or acceptance of the status quo by the marginalized. White women, we need to do better. We need to listen, we need to take accountability for our actions and inactions.

It won’t stop the relentless, unbearable attacks on us by men, by the alt-right. But at least we’ll be able to have each other’s backs without compromise.