Photo of Lena Dunham via Instagram.
I wasn’t going to write about the latest Lena Dunham shitstorm.
I don’t know that I have much to add to the “conversation,” such that it’s been — and, frankly, I think we’ve probably reached peak Lena Dunham thinkpiece this week. But, here I am, weighing in on the latest Lena Dunham shitstorm. Not only because I have thoughts about it — which I do — but also because what follows is something of a post-script to something else I wrote.
I reviewed Dunham’s much-hyped memoir (the one that she was reportedly paid $3.7 million to write), Not That Kind of Girl, in the Winnipeg Free Press (where I work). I liked the book a lot — more than I expected to. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the 28-year-old Girls creator; unflinchingly (and often uncomfortably) candid and often funny.
In my review, I complimented her for being uncompromising, even when it makes others uncomfortable. I remarked that her strongest (and funniest) essays mine her childhood; I described little Lena as strange, bright and anxious.
So you can imagine my surprise when, a week after my own review was published, Twitter was blowing up with allegations that Lena had sexually abused her little sister Grace. The evidence? Passages from the book.
My first response, obviously, was to panic. How the fuck did I miss that? I wondered, while frantically scrolling through Twitter. As it turned out, I’m not the only one who “missed it.” The book has been reviewed by many people since its release, with nary a mention of sexual abuse.
We know now that the allegations stemmed from a National Review hit piece written by noted misogynist, transphobic bigot Kevin D. Williamson (a person who believes that women who have abortions should be hanged and wrote an article about how transgender actress Laverne Cox Is Not A Woman), illustrated with a garish, buck-toothed caricature of Dunham. Title: “Pathetic Privilege.”
Williamson highlights a few paragraphs to build his case. The now-infamous one details a seven-year-old Lena inspecting her then one-year-old sister’s vagina, and finding sidewalk pebbles stashed within. Another describes Lena masturbating next to her sleeping sibling* (while Grace slept in Lena’s bed until Lena was 17, we don’t actually know from the original paragraph if Lena was, in fact, 17 when it happened — not that really makes a difference in my opinion — nor does she ever say that she was thinking about her sister while “reaching into her underwear and figuring stuff out”). Another still details Lena bribing Grace with candy for kisses.
While I think the provenance of these allegations is important — Williamson had his knives out with intent to eviscerate Dunham in a smug take-down barely disguised as a review, an all-to-common practice I find appalling every single time it happens to any young female writer (and it’s always young female writers) — many feminists (feminists whose opinions I deeply respect) also read Dunham’s passages to be admissions of predatory behaviour.
The condemnation was swift and intense. As Jessica Bennett notes over at Time:
Dunham was compared to R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, and Jian Ghomeshi. She became the subject of a hashtag, #DropDunham, which called on Planned Parenthood — which has joined Dunham on a number of stops on her book tour — to disassociate from her immediately. And on feminist listservs, Tumblr blogs and elsewhere, the pile-on began. She was “creepy.” “Not normal.” A “self-promoter.” “Full of herself.” A woman who needs to “sit the f–k down and learn something.” She was told to “get some boundaries.” To “stop being weird.” Her story was, as one blogger put it, “best kept in the confines of your family kitchen over Thanksgiving.” This was not the National Review talking. These were fellow feminists.
Now, for my part, I did not infer abuse — or intent to abuse — from those passages in Dunham’s book, where I read them in context, BTW. In fact, I didn’t even read them as particularly unsettling or sexual. It was more like, “Kids are curious about genitals, moving on.”
That said, after reading many, many, many pieces on the subject, I completely understand why many feminists would deem seven-year-old Dunham’s initial behaviour — as well as 28-year-old Dunham’s writing about it — inappropriate or even disturbing. And I certainly understand why people might feel triggered by these stories. (Dunham’s tone-deaf sexual predator joke — “Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl, I was trying” — doesn’t help.) I’m not dismissing those legitimate concerns. I just don’t share them. I do not think that Lena Dunham abused her sister. But I’m not chiding the feminists who disagree with me for acting ‘unsisterly’ toward Dunham. Feminism is not a monolith.
What I find notable about this story is not necessarily the fact that people inferred abuse/predatory behaviour from certain passages of the book — like I said, I get it — but the sheer force of vitriol being leveled at Dunham. I’m not talking about people voicing a concern/criticism; I’m talking about people using that concern/criticism as justification for ugly personal attacks. Because here’s the thing: People really fucking hate Lena Dunham. And not only do people really hate Lena Dunham, they seem to derive great pleasure from really hating Lena Dunham. Like Williamson, they want to see her cut down to size. Dunham’s work can be extremely problematic, to be sure — but there’s a wide gulf between criticism and personal attacks (about her appearance, her family, whatever) intended to silence. But then, the narrative surrounding Lena Dunham has always been one of WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS? (Related: People really need to start moving past that ‘voice of a generation’ line.)
Dunham knows this; in the first few pages of Not That Kind of Girl she writes, “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” (And especially if that person is a woman who refuses to apologize for her success and gives very few fucks about being liked.)
Speaking to the matter of consent (at least where Dunham’s childhood stories are concerned), Dunham issued an exclusive statement to Time, claiming that everything she published was done so with Grace’s permission. For her part, Grace Dunham rebuffed the allegations, tweeting, “As a queer person: I’m committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful.”
If Grace doesn’t see herself as a victim, I don’t think we have any right tell her how to feel about her lived experience. I believe Lena, and I believe Grace. And should Grace ever revise her position and actually come forward with allegations, I’ll believe her then, too.
As a writer who often shares personal details from her own life and opens herself up to judgement — a risk and a reward, both — I have deep respect for those who write memoirs. It takes guts to open yourself up and lay it all out there, even the ugly parts. I mean, look what can happen.
If I’m being honest, I was nervous about blogging about this; no one wants to be called an abuser defender on the Internet, or written off as yet another white feminist defending her hero — although, tbh, I don’t have Dunham on any feminist pedestals. I don’t believe in feminist pedestals because my feminism isn’t all or nothing. There’s no ideal or perfect feminists. Feminists fuck up, too.
To that end, I refuse to be silenced by fear, or by people looking to tear me down. And when we tear each other down with silencing bullshit, no one wins. Tearing down Lena Dunham might feel good to some people, but it accomplishes very little. As Bennett says in her piece, “there is room for more women than Lena Dunham at the top.” Why, it’s almost as if a generation can have many voices. It would be a shame if those voices were muted.
*I feel like this might be a pretty common occurrence for siblings living in close quarters. Also, Cailtlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl opens with a scene in which the main character is also masturbating next to a sleeping sibling.