A couple weeks ago I wrote about Amy Schumer, again, and how she keeps tripping over problems with other women. And now, after a controversial interview/conversation included in last Friday’s Lenny Letter, the conversation is swinging back to Lena Dunham and her recurring issues with race. The interview, which has been edited since Dunham started catching heat on social media, is posted below if you want to read the whole thing, but I want to focus on one passage in particular, in which Dunham relates an anecdote from the night of the Met Gala.
Dunham says: “I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr., and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards. He was like, ‘That’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog.’ It wasn’t mean—he just seemed confused. The vibe was very much like, ‘Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a…yep, it’s wearing a tuxedo. I’m going to go back to my cell phone.’ It was like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie. I was like, ‘This should be called the Metropolitan Museum of Getting Rejected by Athletes.’”
In case you’re not aware, Odell Beckham, Jr. is a professional football player. It is impossible to know, because we are not Odell Beckham, Jr., whether or not he knew who Lena Dunham was on the night of the Met Gala. Maybe he dismissed her because he didn’t want to f*ck her, but it’s equally—probably ENTIRELY—possible that he was in an awkward social situation, sitting at table with someone he doesn’t know at a very public function, and so he just ignored the stranger seated nearby. I ignore people I don’t know at events regardless of whether or not I want to f*ck them, so I give Beckham the benefit of the doubt.
Which is not what Dunham gave him. Dunham projected her own insecurities onto Beckham, an innocent bystander to her social awkwardness, and she did so with no regard to the complicated history of white women sexualizing black men. She has since admitted her ignorance and apologized, but Dunham is thirty f*cking years old, and she’s had issues with race before. How has she not picked up some awareness of these issues? Why does it always take people yelling at her for Lena Dunham to learn a lesson?
Maybe because she’s “opting out” of the internet outrage machine, not unlike Tina Fey, who doesn’t want to participate in the “culture of demanding apologies”. In a tweet to Schumer, Dunham dismisses the scores of people calling out the dumb sh*t she said:
Glad the outrage machine roars on though, right @amyschumer?— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) September 2, 2016
It isn’t privilege that makes a person problematic, it’s using privilege to insulate yourself from the truths of others that does, and it’s the ultimate privilege to say, “I don’t have to listen to you.” People do a lot of yelling on the internet, and most of it is just noise, but the “outrage machine” assumes that all criticism comes in bad faith, and that no one could ever say anything worth hearing.
Opting out doesn’t eliminate criticism, but it does make it more of a one-way street. Lainey asked me why we don’t get “more mad” at Tina Fey, like we do at Lena Dunham. I think it’s because when we do get mad at Fey, there’s nowhere for it to go. There’s no dialogue to be had—she’s not available and she’s not interested in talking about progress (which is what this is, the messy and sometimes combative march toward better understanding). So all we can do is write our thinkpieces, which then disappear into the internet void.
But Lena Dunham is on social media. She engages. Which means the yelling can go on and on, but it also means that learning and understanding can take place, which is what seems to have happened in the case of Odell Beckham, Jr. A black filmmaker, Xavier Burgin, got ahold of Dunham and seems to have gotten through. (Shout out to a fellow Trojan!) And maybe, after all this, Dunham gets a little better about her blind spots. (Lainey: unlike Tina who continues to “opt out” of them.)
It’s not about demanding perfection—that’s the first step to undermining someone. Lainey has discussed it before, in regards to Amber Heard, how not being a “perfect victim” made it that much harder for her to prove her case again Johnny Depp. You can see it in the US election, how Hillary Clinton not being a Perfect Candidate is helping infected wound Donald Trump seem like a viable alternative. And you can see it with Amy Schumer not being a Perfect Feminist and struggling with the expectations of her audience. (Thought: “Feminist comedian” is a label we applied to Schumer and she ran with it because she recognized it as a platform to mainstream success, but the actual Feminist Comedian is Inside Amy Schumer head writer Jessi Klein.)
It’s okay if you don’t know everything. But half the battle is admitting you don’t know everything, and listening when someone else can fill you in. Dunham has been rewarded and celebrated for HER voice, but now we’ve progressed to the point of intersectionality, which is about recognizing that different people have different struggles, and that while all women face certain challenges, some women face more and greater challenges than others. Lena Dunham became a success because she found a platform, but maybe it’s time to let someone else talk for a while.