/ 6 September 2016

The problem with Lena Dunham, white feminism, and the apology industrial complex

Actress Lena Dunham arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala
Actress Lena Dunham arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala

Lena Dunham’s foot-in-mouth disease has made headlines once again after she decided to disparage American football star Odell Beckham Junior for not paying attention to her at the Met Gala.


During a conversation with comedian Amy Schumer, Dunham revealed she was seated near Beckham who ignored because –  she assumed – he did not find her sexually appealing.

“[He] looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards,” Dunham said. “He was like, ‘That’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog.’ It wasn’t mean — he just seemed confused.”

Dunham has since apologised via her Instagram account, saying she projected her personal insecurities onto OBJ and “presented them as facts” and that she sees “how unfair it is to ascribe misogynistic thoughts to someone I don’t know AT ALL”. However, this is not the only social media post by Dunham that has begun to recirculate this week.

Dunham also received backlash on Twitter for other dubious posts which read:

She predictably apologised but went on to say even more horrendous things.

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

Every time women of colour talk about “white feminism” in the context of how the mainstream feminist movement privileges whiteness, out comes a horde of defensive white women insisting that they’re personally not like that. Well, #NotAllMen thrives on the same defence so please step aside. 

The term “white feminism” is not now nor will it ever be an accusation. It is merely a description of an interconnected system that privileges a particular group, just like the word “patriarchy”. It is a term that references a specific set of behaviours and practices. It speaks to a system of oppression, not one individual in particular. Don’t cry, don’t beg.

There are many feminists who happen to be white, who fully embrace intersectionality due to, amongst other things, this influential blog post written in 2011 by Flavia Dzodan entitled, “ My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit“.

The term white feminism was coined sometime around that time, by people attempting to distinguish mainstream feminism from intersectional feminism. It is used to critique some feminists’ tendency to sidestep and dismiss issues and topics that don’t affect them as white women namely but not limited to race and class.

Dunham is one of many rich, able-bodied, white heterosexual women who claim feminism but engage in and further their problematic behaviour under the banner of feminism. She’s one of many white women who have also been in the throes of problematic privilege who say awful things and apologise profusely after being called out for it. 

Mandy Stadtmiller
defending The Onion for calling then 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, a c*nt on Twitter. 

Mindy Budgor
, an American woman who hung out in Kenya for a spell (yay, voluntourism) before saving all Maasai women ever by becoming the first female Maasai warrior (and conveniently writing and shilling a book about it called Warrior Princess).


Katy Perry
tweeted support for Leslie Jones — and introduced “misogynoir” to white mainstream America according to The Washington Post. Did she correct them? Nooope!

And what about the time she presented her dancers with absurdly large posteriors? How about that time she was a sexy geisha? Gwen Stefani dropped the bindi and Spanish chica tropes, surely it’s not too much to ask?

Becky with the Good Feminism
– NOOOOOO you were one of the good ones!

That time Taylor Allison Swift decided to send up ‘hip-hop culture’ by using black women’s bodies as a vehicle to further her image of squeaky-clean purity by positioning herself under the gyrating bodies of women of colour. I don’t have time to get into her pal Miley Cyrus. It’s too early for an aneurysm. 

If you want to learn about intersectional feminism please visit Google.com or alternatively listen when women of colour tell you about their lived experiences. It’s not enough to keep repeating the cycles of saying myopic or short-sighted and hurtful things about black people or other marginalised groups. Ignorance is an easy cop-out, the burden of unlearning problematic beliefs is a personal journey of introspection and admitting mistakes. Just because something doesn’t bother you directly doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.