I am not a fan of Lena Dunham. Her type of humour has never appealed to me and this is without acknowledging the very valid criticisms of her work from Women of Colour. Dunham’s casual racism has been well documented and isn’t something we can pretend doesn’t exist just because, as feminists, we think women’s representation on mainstream television is important. We can believe it is important without ignoring issues of racism (or classism, homophobia, sexism). After all, it’s hardly an accurate representation of women if you create a television program based in New York with mainly white women. Disney isn’t capable of producing television which isn’t full of white middle class kids. Feminists should be held to a higher standard.
When I first read the passages from Dunham’s book listed online, I honestly didn’t even know where to start deconstructing them. At best, they demonstrate some truly problematic behaviour – even if the only problematic behaviour turns out to be what she was written. It is possible that Dunham, who describes herself as an unreliable narrator, has written events that perhaps never happened. Even if it turns out to be all exaggeration, their inclusion and the language used is a problem.
Here’s the thing: children exploring their bodies isn’t new and it isn’t always a sign of an abuser. Baby boys frequently play with their penis when they discover it feels nice. Little girls play with their vulvas for the same reason. Some children are also obsessed with sticking objects in their noses and ears that I’m not overly shocked that a one year old might stick marbles in their vagina as Dunham claims her sister did. I’m also not surprised that a one year old might think it funny to be found out. Children wanting to look at each other’s bodies isn’t exactly abnormal either. There is a power difference between a 7 year old child and a 1 year old baby. This power differential in siblings cannot be underestimated (and I say this as as oldest child). Abusive or manipulative behaviour isn’t uncommon in children either. It doesn’t mean the child is an abuser – or will grow up to be abusive.
What I do find shocking is Dunham’s language when she discusses her treatment of her sister: trying to kiss her and masturbating in the bed beside her. The behaviour Dunham describes isn’t necessarily abuse but the language used in the text is deeply problematic. It is also not unusual for children who have experienced sexual abuse to engage in these types of behaviours. This may be only poorly written descriptions of childhood exploration but it would inappropriate for a teacher or social worker not to raise it as an issue of concern if they had known. I don’t mean every example of this type of incident must go to a full children’s panel but it does necessitate some investigation.
The language used is hyperbolic. It isn’t the language I expect from an adult feminist who understands the power of language. Dunham is a comedian: words are her financial security. To write about these incidents in the manner she did, Dunham has left herself open, at best, to valid criticism from survivors of child sexual exploitation. At worst, Dunham has admitted to grossly inappropriate and abusive behaviour to her younger sibling. I also have to wonder if Dunham asked permission of her sister to write about these incidents. If she didn’t, then Dunham has used her position of power to once again cause her sister potential harm and embarrassment.
This line in particular is deeply worrying:
“anything a sexual predator might do”
Whilst it’s not commonly used in the UK, the term sexual predator has a specific legal meaning in the US and Dunham will have known that. Dunham, regardless of whether or not she calls herself a reliable narrator, will be well aware of the context in which she wrote this text. Even if Dunham felt it necessary to discuss her behaviour as a child towards her sister, this language is unnecessarily inflammatory and, frankly, utterly ridiculous.
What I also find incredibly problematic is the response from some that Dunham can’t have been sexually abusive to her younger sister because she’s a feminist. It is entirely possible for a woman who self-defines as a feminist to be abusive. It is possible for them to be sexually abusive to other women. Labelling oneself a feminist does not preclude taking responsibility for the consequences of our words.
It may be that Dunham made much of this up in order to sell more copies of the book – it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a celebrity has exaggerated their behaviour in order to get more attention. Whatever scenario this turns out be, Dunham needs to step up and take some responsibility for her actions and the consequences of her words.