Lena Dunham’s hit TV show, Girls, has a bit of a label fetish. At first glance, it could be easily branded as Sex and the City 2.0: four young women struggle to achieve their career goals and maximize their love lives, all while preserving their invaluable friendships through overpriced brunches and unforgettable nights spent partying in the city that never sleeps. Perusing the pilot or glancing at any number of reviews or recaps, it seems like the characters themselves would be better off dropping the pretense of their inexplicably alliterative names and just going by their archetypal labels.
Hannah is the quintessential insecure writer, constantly blurring the line between self-awareness and narcissism—like if Carrie Bradshaw went to a hipster crash course in millennial exhibitionism and started eschewing nude-colored dresses in favor of full-frontal nudity. Jessa is that girl who’s so magnetic, fascinating, and beautiful that you almost forget she’s a full-fledged psycho with a drug problem, daddy issues, and a questionably fake accent. Shoshanna is everyone’s strangest best friend from Jewish summer camp, and Marnie is the type of beautiful, type A bitch who gets her hair professionally blown out to go to Williamsburg bars.
Following a recent string of tweet gates and pseudo-scandals, it appears Lena herself has been reduced to a string of labels so cruel, they make crazy JAP or druggy dropout sound like compliments. With the premiere of Girls, which presented gentrified Brooklyn as an endless expanse of Aryan coffee shops, she earned herself the title of racist, and became the poster child for misguided, white, privileged feminists. Naturally, her insistence that Girls’ dearth of diversity was a “complete accident” reinforced the notion that in Lena Dunham’s world, non-white girls and their untrendy problems are simply non-entities.
Now, according to new accusations surrounding young Dunham’s intimate relationship with her sister, we’re expected to believe that Dunham, in addition to being racist, classist, and insensitive, is also a child molester. Here are the facts: In her new memoir Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham described bribing her younger sister with candy for the chance to kiss her on her lips, and examining her vagina. She was seven years old. A month after the book’s publication, professional jerkoff Kevin Williamson wrote an article accusing Lena of sexually molesting her sister—not all that surprising of an allegation, coming from the man who wrote an entire piece about how “Laverne Cox is not a woman.”
What was surprising was how quickly many Dunham critics, including other self-described feminists, took up Williamson’s argument, coming together under a #DropDunham hashtag that called on Planned Parenthood to disassociate itself from the vocally pro-reproductive rights star in the wake of these allegations. Unlike others who have weighed in on this debate, I don’t feel as though I have the necessary information or the right to label Dunham’s anecdote as an incident of sexual molestation.
What I can do, and firmly believe that others ought to attempt to do as well, is accept and support the wishes of the alleged victim. If Grace Dunham came forth and labeled her experiences as molestation, that would be one thing—instead, Grace decided to flip a delicate middle finger at the manipulation of her sister’s memoir, tweeting “heteronormativity deems certain behaviors harmful, and others ‘normal’; the state and media are always invested in maintaining that…As a queer person: I’m committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful.”
Without dismissing the seriousness of racism of molestation, it’s important to simultaneously examine the over-corrective cottage industry of media accusations and excessive labeling, especially within the feminist community. Yes, Girls’ lack of diversity is harmful, ignorant, and silly; it excludes a legion of real women, and ought to be corrected immediately. That being said, do we really need to completely undermine all of Lena Dunham’s work, past present and future, by saddling her with an insurmountable label and issuing a feminist cease and desist?
After all, the beauty of Girls is how it provides a window into the surprisingly nuanced interior lives of women we would have previously dismissed as ignorant archetypes. Dunham’s art relishes the messiness behind the labels; by making characters out of caricatures, it insists that every woman has a story—even if she’s narcissistic, or ignorant, or judgmental, or (god forbid!) pudgy. Dunham does intrinsically feminist work by insisting that imperfect women don’t deserve to be silenced—so why, despite her feminist motives and pro-choice activism, are critics attempting to muzzle Dunham, or at the very least shove her off the feminist podium?
Of course, Dunham is not a perfect feminist spokeswoman. That goes without saying, as no one woman could aptly represent everyone who identifies within that category. The fact that Dunham’s status as a wealthy, white, heterosexual, cisgender woman facilitated her expedited ascendency to feminist icon status is undisputed, and deeply troubling. Like the lack of diversity on TV, the lack of diversity in mass-market feminist voices is a huge problem—but it is one that existed before Lena Dunham, and will unfortunately extend long after she cedes her microphone to the next mainstream feminist du jour.
Lena Dunham is a powerful, vocal woman who identifies as a feminist, and who wants to support feminist causes and help other women succeed. That’s a good thing. With her many flaws and pathological desire to air her dirty laundry, Dunham has gone beyond her self-appointed label to show the world what a real feminist looks like: an imperfect woman with a set of deeply held beliefs and ideals, trying to accomplish good, and dedicated to doing better. No one’s saying Lena’s perfect—but isn’t the right to be human and flawed, not some airbrushed sex goddess or silent spouse, part of what we’re fighting for in the first place?
As a feminist speaking from a position of power, Lena Dunham has an obligation to welcome to the table those women whom she does not and cannot speak on behalf of. Dunham could do better in this regard, but we could do better, too. Yes, Dunham is white and privileged. She can be ignorant, offensive, and inappropriate. These labels matter, but so does our over-zealous urge to dole them out and endlessly dwell on them.
After all, self-described feminists have always been rebranded as sluts, man-haters, and bitches—to see other feminists doubting Lena’s pro-women motives and undermining her work through ad hominem attacks seems over-corrective at best, cruel and dismissive at worst. Constructive criticism is one thing, but it’s time we leave the reductive, undermining practice of labeling women and voting them off the feminist island to the misogynistic idiots who do it best.