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Lena Dunham: The Real Bad Feminist

Lena Dunham and friends arrive at the Met Gala

I think in our hearts we all want celebrity women not only to be feminists, but to be good at being feminists. Because of their visibility we tend to hold celebrity women to a higher standard than other women. While there are many examples of excellent feminists in the media, there is also a list of women who could be doing better.

One of these women is Lena Dunham. In the past I’ve been a casual fan of her work, I watched Girls through the 3rd season. I’m going to be honest here: I really wanted to like Lena Dunham. She’s a creative woman in the industry writing about what it’s like to be a modern young woman.

Unfortunately the more of her media I consumed, the more I wanted to forget it even existed. To me Lena Dunham is the ultimate example of someone with heaps of privilege who refuses to examine or even attempt to acknowledge it. She constantly erases people of color from the narrative in her tv show, and blatantly disregards feminist issues like rape culture (see: the time she published a book and talked about molesting her sister and we just all let that happen).

I think one of the best examples of this disregard is in the recent encounter she had at the Met Gala with Odell Beckham Jr. I think the best way to really examine her words is to break them down and do an old fashioned close read of her statement:

“You and I were literally sitting across from each other at the Met Ball, and it was so surreal to get to do that. 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.”

Odell Beckham Jr. Arrives at the Met Gala

We can start by looking at how she describes meeting Beckham Jr. She claims that he simply glanced at her, decided she wasn’t svelte, and went back to whatever he was doing. This is almost a twisted version of catcall culture, Dunham assumes because she exists everyone is entitled to her time.

I’ll level with you Dunham, we’ve all fantasized about some handsome man or another who wanted nothing but to spend a romantic evening together having an intellectual chat. However humans in the real world don’t always work that way, sometimes they simply have other things on their mind.

Further, not to imply that two people can’t have a conversation, but the pair of them are from completely different fields. Dunham is a writer (if you can call what she does writing) and Beckham Jr. is a football player. Dunham doesn’t strike me as the kind of woman who watches football and Beckham Jr. probably hasn’t seen Tiny Furniture. It never even occurred to her that the pair of them might just not have had enough in common to have a conversation. You can’t blame a guy for wanting to dodge a night of small talk.

The part of this that is more offensive is when she pretends to go into Beckham’s mind. She assumes he’s deprecating her by comparing her to marshmallows, children, and dogs. She assumes if he can’t be bothered to even have a conversation with her, he’s spending the time in his head to be cruel about her body shape. While I don’t know Beckham Jr. personally, or at all for that matter, I feel like the kind of man who turns back to his phone after a glance isn’t going to be paying you any kind of attention after that, negative or positive.

The next point she makes is that she was wearing menswear that night and he decided she was unworthy of his attention because of her wardrobe. This is ridiculous for a number of reasons, but mostly because she couches it in with her fuckability.

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This is really where Dunham shoots herself in the foot. She assumes that Beckham Jr. doesn’t find her fuckable and that’s why he’s not interested in talking to her. She’s perpetuating the idea that men, black men especially, are only interested in talking to women if they’re going to fuck them. Further, on the flip side, she’s essentially saying she’s only worthy of a man’s time if she’s pretty enough to be found desirable.

Before I get into her apology I’d just like to mention that Lena Dunham literally gets paid to be a feminist, and to be quite honest she is terrible at her job. Girls has been knocked time and time again for lacking diversity and Dunham’s response is to do nothing. She makes missteps in feminism constantly. Despite talking about the importance of using a position of power for good, she constantly misuses her own position. Don’t Millenials deserve someone who is actually inclusive and intersectional in their feminism to represent them?

A few days after the interview was published Dunham issued her response: a series of tweets that flesh out a bare bones apology. She starts out horribly, claiming that internet trolls are the meanest to women “they want to fuck but know could easily destroy them.” She even has the gall to use the heart eyes emoji.

Once again Dunham is saying that her desirability is the only thing about her that is worth anyone’s time and that men are controlled completely by their own sexual desire. Also, considering the group of people the most angry at Dunham are feminists, she definitely missed the mark.

Her next tweet describes her error, discussing her encounter with Beckham Jr. She calls him “stylish” and “awesome” and says that he “wasn’t super into chatting with her.” Now, we all know every good apology starts by admitting your mistake. Dunham waits until her last tweet to do this. Even then she doesn’t even actually apologize, she justifies her actions by saying it was all a joke in her sense of humor. Seriously, not once in her entire apology does she actually apologize. Never once do the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” appear in her statement.

The most troubling thing of all to me in this piece is that she claims that the whole story is a bit about how she an “average bodied” woman felt at a gala with supermodels. Now, stop me if I’m wrong, but that’s actually a great topic for a fantastic body positivity discussion. Something Dunham has tried to incorporate into her media in the past. To be frank Dunham is no Karlie Kloss, but hardly any of us are. To have a woman who looks like Dunham talk about body positivity and the struggles of not being a straight size woman in an industry that demands women be that way.

However Dunham misses the mark. Instead of discussing how she felt about Beckham Jr. dismissing her out of hand because of her size, she claimed it was because she was wearing a suit. She assumes he is obligated to pay attention to her and see her as a sexual being. Dunham is never really as body positive as we want her to be, her version of body positivity includes appearing naked many times on her show. Granted this is a radical act as she is a deviant from the norm of bodies we expect to see nude, but she never discusses this as her purpose.

Vagueness is something to be expected from Dunham. In the past she’s been incredibly cryptic in interviews and tweets. However in this case she was quite clear, when she was called out on her actions instead of apologizing and acknowledging her mistakes she justifies her actions through vagueness. Claiming that people misunderstood her is clearly easier for her than actually apologizing. I guess we can put this mishap in The Museum of Lena Dunham Being a Shitty Feminist/Person.


Camille Harris from SF Bay Area on September 05, 2016:

What a well-reasoned and well-researched article. I sometimes feel bad for Miss Dunham. On one hand, she's been rewarded for her oversharing (and our culture encourages it), and on the other hand, she's been widely criticized for doing so - sometimes rightfully, sometimes not. I think your argument is a rightful criticism of this incident (and the revelation she shared about molesting her sister - eek). I hope Miss Dunham takes a bit of time out from the limelight to focus on the impact her words have on her persona, and how reactions to those words can (and have, by her own admission) damage her psyche.

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