The undoing of Lena Dunham

It’s a low point.
It’s a low point.
Image: AP/Richard Shotwell
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Lena Dunham was meant to be the voice of a generation. But the 31-year-old American actress, writer, producer, and director—who created and starred in HBO’s dramedy Girls—has gone from critical acclaim to becoming an outright pariah.

Dunham is now as well-known for her extraordinary ability to put her foot in her mouth as she is for her searing and brilliantly satirical portrayal of millennial women in Girls, which debuted in 2012 and ended last year. Still, the past couple of weeks have been a low point, even for a cultural figure who has been buffeted by public criticism for much of her time in the public eye.

When Dunham announced she was splitting with her boyfriend of five years, the internet’s vitriol was unrelentingly harsh: Some congratulated her ex on breaking free, while others expressed dread at Dunham’s storytelling of single life. (There was even a promoted Twitter moment highlighting some of these opinions, which felt unnecessarily mean.)

More striking, Dunham has been thoroughly sidelined from the #MeToo movement, in which women around the world have opened up about their experiences with sexual aggression—a pointed exclusion, especially since Dunham has been telling her own such stories for years, and has focused on the complexities of sexual assault in her show.

The internet pounced when Dunham appeared in a photo with organizers of the #TimesUp protest at the Golden Globes—a group of women in Hollywood who have come together to raise awareness and funding for women who have suffered sexual harassment and discrimination. When the actress Tessa Thompson shared the group shot on Instagram (now deleted), a commenter questioned Dunham’s inclusion. Thompson’s response was cheered by many for throwing “glorious shade” at Dunham (though Thompson later said she had not intended it that way): “Lena was not anywhere present in our group during the countless hours of work for the last two months,” Thompson replied. “We hosted an open house for the actresses for red carpet messaging and Lena’s presence was a surprise to us all.”

The speed and ferocity of Dunham’s public unraveling has been striking. Activists seem to want to keep her at arm’s length from the powerful reckoning sweeping Hollywood, the media, and a number of other industries. And unsurprisingly, right wingers who have always viscerally disliked Dunham for her outspoken feminism, frequent nudity despite a body that doesn’t conform to celebrity beauty norms, and naiveté, have eagerly piled on with their own insults.

What happened to the Lena Dunham lauded for her precocious genius and millennial feminism when Girls debuted? Dunham’s dramatic fall from grace began in real earnest in 2016. There had already been a flurry of criticism of the lack of minority representation in Girls, and she was no stranger to controversy. (There’s even a parody twitter account called “Lena Dunham Apologizes” which I admit, I’ve found myself laughing at.) Still, there was a turning point when Dunham claimed that the black football player Odell Beckham Jr. overlooked her at the Met Ball—attributing to him a slew of unpleasant thoughts about her: “‘That’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog,'” she imagined him thinking in an interview published on her newsletter, Lenny Letter. “I was not the shape of a woman by his standards.”

She’d clearly intended her comments as a takedown of society’s sexist beauty standards, but outrage at her personal attack on Beckham quickly snowballed into a brutal takedown of Dunham herself. She was branded a racist who reinforced the hyper-sexualization of black men, and criticized for projecting her own insecurities on someone who merely sat next to her and took a phone call. Her Instagram apology, in which she admitted that she feels insecure beside the “models and swan-like actresses” at industry events and castigated herself for “narcissistic assumptions” failed to appease her critics.

Dunham quickly became the de facto face of white feminism—a reviled brand of feminism in which white women seek to solely uplift themselves, while dismissing, ignoring, and sidelining women with intersecting oppressions, such as race, sexuality, and disability.

Intersectionality, a theory first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, was meant to help us understand each other better. It pointed out an obvious fact: People don’t go through life experiencing one oppression at a time. Black woman aren’t able to neatly separate the sexism and racism they experience. These issues are deeply intertwined, and so should be the resistance.

The criticism of Dunham intensified in 2017. In the wake of the #MeToo, Dunham publicly accused a women of color, the actress Aurora Perrineau, of lying about rape. Perrineau had filed sexual assault charges against former Girls writer Murray Miller, saying he raped her when she was 17.

“While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story,” Dunham noted in a statement co-written with her Girls co-showrunner Jenni Konner, “our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3% of assault cases that are misreported every year.”

The internet exploded. Dunham released yet another apology, but the damage was done. The backlash against Dunham had taken on a life of its own. But Dunham’s uncanny ability to drop wildly insensitive comments doesn’t alone explain her downfall. Dunham has become a lightning rod, representing all that is wrong with white feminism.

Critical thinking requires critical listening—and Dunham clearly needs to spend a long time listening to the incredible movement around her, and what came before. But there are many who have similar blind spots around race as Dunham does. There’s a temptation to sideline these women completely, but the revolt that led to the women’s march, #MeToo, and now #TimesUp, highlights two important truths: Yes, there are too many damn white women who think and talk like Dunham. But also, there is extraordinary strength in unity. We need as many women as possible in the movement, if we are to enact lasting change that’s felt across the world.

The brilliance of Girls was its ability to hold a mirror to our deepest insecurities and flaws. The ending of the show was ambivalent about the question of whether we ever really grow up—but the transformative power of #MeToo shows that growth is possible, and necessary. It’s time for all of us to grow up.