After publishing an essay about her failed IVF treatments, Lena Dunham tweeted, “Thank you for the kindness & vulnerability so many have shown in response to my @harpers magazine piece about infertility. Once again reminded of how unifying sharing painful truths can be and that we are never uniquely alone in our pain.”
But some members of the extremely online infertility community have a response: Speak for yourself.
In “False Labor,” the former Girls star writes about “giving up on motherhood” at the age of 34. Due to chronic endometriosis, Dunham had her cervix, uterus, and one ovary removed three years ago; since then, she explored the adoption process and IVF. She compares “[scrolling] through adoption websites as if they were furniture outlets” and describes late night searching on the “#IVFWarriors” hashtag.
She depicts women who open up about their fertility on Instagram as cult-like: “the IVF Warriors mourn together, and when they succeed, the women celebrate in a swirl of pink and blue, while allowing that some of their IVF friends may be too shaken by the news to attend the baby shower, or, perhaps, to ever speak to them again.”
As a self-appointed millennial arbiter of privilege, Dunham believes these women live in a rarefied, exclusive, and very white world. (White women are statistically more likely to seek out treatments, though it’s a racist myth that women of color do not experience infertility, and many Black women speak candidly online about it.)
Now, the #IVFWarriors Dunham wrote about refer to her piece as simply “the essay.” If Instagram captions and comments could speak, some of these responses would be a snarl.
“She was so ignorant and lacked basic empathy for those struggling with infertility,” Millie Brooks, a 35 year-old woman from the Bay Area who hosts a “Me, Myself, & Millie,” a podcast about the various pathways to parenthood. “She resorted to this community when she was scrolling and looking for relief, support and comfort. And then [in this essay] she just took a big crap on our chest with the way that she mocked us.”
Like much of Dunham’s work, the essay attempts to explore a community aligned with popular feminism and is supposed to be humorous. But Brooks isn’t laughing. In a widely shared Instagram post, Brooks held up a sign that read: “Lena Dunham is not my voice.”
She first read the piece along with four other women she met online and regularly speaks with through the instant messaging app Marco Polo. “Someone in my group texted, ‘Problematic Lena Dunham strikes again,’” Brooks said. “But this time, it was with a very vulnerable community—one that she happens to be a part of.”
After Dunham equated adoption to furniture shopping in the first paragraph of her piece, Brooks said, “She lost me as a reader. I was like, ‘It’s going to be hard to come back from this.’ It was just a very Lena Dunham-y article; instead of emphasizing, she’s criticizing, and she’s taking off her clothes, putting up her middle finger and saying, ‘Bye.’ It was just a very ‘her’ exit.”
Jess Veit, who goes by @mamainthemaking21.22, said over DM that while she does not want to speak for the entire IVF community, “For me personally, [the essay] was a huge hit to the gut.”
“I didn't like her choice in words, and feel like she was mocking our community,” Veit added. “That’s all I have the energy to say at this point. [It was just a] very distasteful article in my opinion, especially coming from someone who needed medical intervention to conceive.”
Of particular ire was a section were Dunham writes about women who suffer miscarriages purchasing reborn dolls— “hyperrealistic baby dolls... made in the size and likeness of fetuses that have been lost to miscarriage or stillbirth.”
“The dolls are ‘birthed’ in a ceremony called an unboxing and sometimes played with as if they were real infants, a practice that is either therapeutic or delusional, depending on whom you ask. (There are many YouTube videos of the practice—you can decide for yourself.),” she wrote.
Brooks said her DMs “erupted” with questions from women in the #miscarriage community. “There was a mockery tone and quality at which she talked about it that was so insulting,” Brooks said. “Why would she even go there?” (One might answer: journalistic curiosity.)
Since the premiere of HBO’s Girls in 2012, Dunham’s work has been relentlessly lambasted. Many viewers are unable to divorce Dunham from Hannah Horvath, the self-obsessed main character she played on the series.
Compounding the confusion have been the numerous times Dunham has lacked any semblance of self-awareness, making one wonder where the parody ends and the person begins. In 2016, she told a podcaster she “wished” she had an abortion, because then she would be able to help normalize the procedure. Dunham later apologized for making a “distasteful joke.”
Along with Brooks, many women took to Twitter to slam Dunham’s essay. “This is extremely hateful toward other women who have struggled with fertility,” one wrote. “Your article painted the community in a terrible way,” mused another. “I don’t feel supported at all by it. Came off as bitter.”
“The shaming of ‘warriors’ here is disgusting,” one more added. “Your journey is your own but no need to tear down others who are doing whatever they can to get through this.”
Dunham might believe “we are never uniquely alone in our pain,” but now she faces backlash by those who feel that her work reduces a deeply personal decision to her own singular experience navigating a confusing and expensive process as a wealthy celebrity with plenty of material advantages.
Ultimately, Dunham’s words say more about herself than an entire group of women, though glossy coverage of her failed treatments in celeb magazines like People ensures she will become “the face” of that procedure for many.
This all “hurts” women like Brooks, who totes the online infertility faction as a vital presence on the internet. “I have personally never found a more accepting, understanding, supportive, and helpful community in my life—with a bunch of strangers,” she said.