Welcome to Generation Overshare: Lena Dunham, Taylor Swift, and the Politics of Self-Disclosure

Lena Dunham has been (crazily) accused of “sexual abuse” by right-wing troll sites for a passage in her memoir. But the real issues at hand are oversharing and commodification.

Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Art is parasitic on life, just as criticism is parasitic on art. Those words, uttered by none other than ex-President Harry Truman, sprung to mind in the wake of the latest—and most malicious, and deeply troubling—series of attacks on media punching bag Lena Dunham.

Be warned: it’s not for the faint of heart. On Oct. 29, the right-wing advocacy website Truth Revolt, which is perhaps best known for fanning racial hatred over the (fake) “knockout game” or loudly petitioning to get MSNBC anchor Martin Bashir fired for implying that someone should defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth, ran an item with the incendiary headline, “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister.” They took issue with the following passage from Dunham’s revealing memoir, Not That Kind of Girl:

One day, as I sat in our driveway in Long Island playing with blocks and buckets, my curiosity got the best of me. Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist and when I saw what was inside I shrieked.

My mother came running. “Mama, Mama! Grace has something in there!”

My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things I did. She just got on her knees and looked for herself. It quickly became apparent that Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. My mother removed them patiently while Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been a success.

Initially, Truth Revolt printed that Dunham was 17 when this event occurred (she was 7). Her little sister, Grace, was 1. We all saw this coming from right-wing ideaologues; it's just surprising it took them almost a month after the book's release to cook up this scripted equivalent of a context-free sound bite. After all, it was none other than Grace who, according to The New York Times Magazine, helped to “bring a poitical component to Dunham's book tour” by including on-site representatives from Planned Parenthood at many of the stops. So it's particularly odd for right-wing “bros” to impose victimhood on Grace who, according to Dunham, not only helped organize the tour but also approved of the manuscript (i.e. all the anecdotes) before the memoir was even published.

And to claim that a 7-year-old is even capable of "sexual abuse" is outrageous and yet another example of conservative's fear of the female body. Jezebel, the very site that once put a $10,000 bounty on the Girls creator-star for unretouched Vogue photos in a transparent effort to body-shame her, rose to Dunham's defense, consulting a sex psychologist with a PhD who concluded, "Dunham's story is not one of sexual exploration and she doesn't describe any sexual acts. The story she tells is one of bodily exploration; sex is not a part of it... People who are attaching sex to these stories seem to equate genitals with sex, but that's not how young children see their genitals. Dunham's story is not an uncommon one. The research (and any preschool or home with young children) is full of stories of childhood 'play' not so different than this one."

Meanwhile, Grace Dunham had this to say about the backlash:

The wording here is interesting: “I’m committed to people narrating their own experiences…” This doesn’t necessarily absolve Dunham of any wrongdoing, but rather takes a shot at the media and public for collectively playing armchair psychologist. But the real issue here isn’t one of “sexual abuse”—that’s ridiculous. Rather, it’s about how Grace wasn’t given the opportunity to, as she says, narrate her own experience. Dunham stripped her of that opportunity, and it’s not the first time.

One of the most telling sections of the aforementioned New York Times Magazine profile of Dunham concerns a dispute between the two sisters. When she was 17 and in her senior year of high school, Grace came out as a lesbian to Dunham. She wasn’t ready to tell her parents, but Dunham “was unable to contain herself and came out to them for her”:

As Grace remembered it, Dunham couldn’t last two days keeping the news to herself.

“It was not two days,” Dunham said. “It was a month.” “It was about a week,” Grace said. “It was about two weeks to one week.”

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“You came out to me, like, a week into shooting ‘Tiny Furniture,’ and I didn’t tell Mom and Dad for like a week after we wrapped.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “Without getting into specifics,” she said, “most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property.” “Basically, it’s like I can’t keep any of my own secrets,” Dunham said. “And I consider Grace to be an extension of me, and therefore I couldn’t handle the fact that she’s a very private person with her own value system and her own aesthetic and that we do different things.”

As Dunham admits, this caused “like two years” of discord between the sisters, which they seem to have gotten past. But their relationship illuminates two bigger problems within our culture: oversharing and commodification.

In 2012, Diana Tamir, a graduate student in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at Harvard, along with her adviser, Jason Mitchell, released a study in the psychology journal PNAS. It was called Disclosing Information About the Self Is Intrinsically Rewarding and in it, the two researchers performed functional MRI scans on 212 subjects while quizzing them about their own personality traits and opinions, as well as the personality traits and opinions of others. The fMRI scan measures blood flow in the brain, and can sense when certain areas are activated. Furthermore, they asked participants to complete various tasks in exchange for different amounts of money, and found that subjects would forego 17 to 25 percent of their earnings if they could also engage in self-disclosure.

“When you look at the neural regions generally associated with rewards like money or sex or food, those same regions seemed to respond more robustly when people were engaging in self disclosure than when they were not,” Tamir told Today. “From the evidence we see, there are a couple of different metrics of value—both monetary and neural—that show that self-disclosure is subjectively rewarding to people. It's valuable. It goes towards explaining why people do it so often.”

In short: to overshare information about yourself is both financially and personally rewarding, and since Dunham considers Grace “to be an extension of me,” disclosing information about her stands to trigger the same rewards system in the brain as self-disclosure.

But Dunham is just one very bright cog within our culture of oversharing—and young women are, it seems, more prone to part with certain information than young men.

According a 2008 study published in the NASPA titled, Online Disclosure: An Empirical Examination of Undergraduate Facebook Profiles, which examined hundreds of students at a prestigious Northeastern university, women were more likely to disclose personal and relationship information about themselves on social networking sites like Facebook, whereas men were more likely to share information on activities they’re engaged in, or opinions on politics and sports. It also found that as age increases, self-disclosure on social networking sites decreases. These findings were reaffirmed by another study published in the spring of 2013 in the Journal of Social Media in Society called, Examining Gender Differences in Self-Disclosure on Facebook Versus Face-to-Face.

This predominately female predilection for personal self-disclosure is one minor reason (the bigger ones being online misogyny and iCloud’s bogus security protocols) why “The Fappening” happened.

“The Fappening,” as online pervs crudely labeled it, was the biggest mass hacking of (mostly young, female) celebrities ever. It led to hundreds of nude photos and videos of some of the biggest stars in the world, including Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, and Cara Delevingne, leaking online. The private photos and videos were procured by breaching Apple’s iCloud online storage system, which automatically backs up iPhones and other Apple devices.

Since much of these young female celebs’ information was out there online via interviews, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc., hackers were able to try out thousands of possible security passwords and gain entry to their iClouds.

Another young star—and friend of Dunham’s—who could serve as a foil to the TV actress in the self-disclosure department is pop princess Taylor Swift, who’s made a brilliant career out of crafting addictive, Easter egg-filled albums about various exes and frenemies, from Jake Gyllenhaal (the entirety of Red, pretty much) to John Mayer (“Dear John,” of course). Her recent, excellent album, 1989, contains two such songs: “Bad Blood,” presumably about her falling out with Katy Perry, and “Style” (or is it “Out of the Woods?”) on her well-coiffed ex Harry Styles.

But how—or why—have we convinced ourselves that these songs are about these people? Swift has a longstanding policy to whereby she “doesn’t go into the personal details” of any relationships and “lets the songs speak for themselves.” It’s more of a commentary on us than it is on her that we know exactly whom these songs are about; that we’ve been able to, through our respective tabloid knowledge, keep track of all her rumored trysts and turns and crack her coded tunes.

So it ultimately seems odd to blame these celebs for disclosing personal information when the public is just clamoring for it. We consume these interviews, Twitter blurbs, and Instagram posts with such demented fervor that “Rihanna's back on Instagram” actually qualified as a news story recently—on CNN. We purchased 1.287 million copies of Swift’s 1989 in its first week for the biggest sales week since 2002. We made it practical to give Dunham a $3.7 million book advance for penning her memoir—at 28. We ask our celebrities to pour their hearts out, and then chastise them if they stain our buttoned-up shirts.

Lena Dunham has, on numerous occasions, been called “the voice of a generation.” Well, as this generation’s preeminent oversharer, she may very well be. She’s giving us exactly what we want.