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It’s time we forgave Lena Dunham

Is one of this century’s most widely criticised women really a ‘bad feminist’?

Does anyone remember Lena Dunham? I mean, you really should given that she’s only been off your telly box for two years, but we all know how fleeting public memory can be. For the uninitiated, Dunham is the creator and star of the hugely successfully HBO show Girls that ran from 2012 to 2017. She’s also one of the most beleaguered and oft ‘cancelled’ celebrities of the modern age.

The impetus to write about Dunham came upon me this week after listening to her and her long-time friend Alissa Bennett’s new podcast The C Word on Luminary (a rather underrated paid-subscription podcast streaming app that I would recommend). The tricky little title (no, not that C word you rascal!) refers to the concept of ‘crazy’, and specifically how the media constructs it around famous women.

The podcast is episodic, focusing each week on a different female figure from the annals of pop culture history. Discussions focus on figures such as the late Johnson & Johnson heiress Casey Johnson, and Mariah Carey during the years of her 2001 ‘breakdown’.

It’s obvious that the inspiration for the podcast is Lena herself. Lena has extensive experience with being labelled ‘crazy’ by the public. She introduces herself at the beginning of the podcast as ‘embattled star Lena Dunham’, trying hard to find the funny in being a widely hated and widely attacked figure in the arts.

Lena identifies repeatedly with the women her and Alissa investigate – they go to great lengths not to defend but to dissect what might cause someone to say or do something inherently strange or chaotic, like show up unannounced on MTV’s TRL show with an ice-cream trolley (Carey), or lie about surviving 9/11 (Tania Head). But what exactly has Dunham done to feel that the dynamics of crazy is now a field in which her voice can be authoritatively heard?

Lena has an extremely acute case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. Whilst so much of what she’s been criticised for boils down to little more than miscontextualisation and hysteria (no, those passages in Lena’s memoir do not prove that she’s a predator) some of it is well deserved.

Undoubtedly the biggest misstep Lena has ever made was when she defended Girls writer Murray Miller against a sexual assault allegation from a young black actress. This was in the midst of #metoo when Lena’s own Instagram featured posts about the importance of letting female voices be heard. It was clearly unideal.

A year after coming out in support of Miller in 2017 Dunham wrote in an essay for The Hollywood Reporter that there were ‘few acts I could ever regret more in this life.’ She added that Perrineau, the actress who she’d accused of being part of the 3% of misreported rape cases each year, had ‘been on my mind and in my heart every day this year’ stating ‘I love you. I will always love you. I will always work to right that wrong.’

There’s a racial power imbalance involved in the Dunham/ Murray/ Perrineau story that I’m sure runs deep, and that I don’t feel qualified to comment on. But the particular brand of vitriol levelled at Lena feels gendered, which is undoubtedly the point Dunham is trying to make with The C Word. There’s a glee the public seems to feel when they’re able to openly discuss a woman as ‘too much’ or unhinged, as if every woman in the public eye is constantly dangling on the precipice of insanity, the public at their backs waiting to assist them with a final shove.

The slew of articles that would inevitably follow a Lena Dunham controversy always seemed smug to me. Many reporters and social commentators (sadly many of them women) would jump at the chance to prove that they’re better feminists because they, realising that feminism like theirs or Lena Dunham’s was ‘common’ or ‘privileged’, never bothered engaging in public discourse at all, offending nobody but also helping nothing.

Independent writer Biba Kang lamented in an article last year with lofty intellectualism that perhaps the whole ‘Lena’ issue was our fault, as we ‘plac[ed] her [Lena] on a feminist pedestal that she was almost guaranteed to topple off from.’ So what you’re saying Kang is that you’re not angry just disappointed?

Sorry, no, Lena’s mistakes are her own and you don’t get to appropriate them for your own brand of activism. Reducing Lena’s agency in her own screw ups is about as anti-feminist as it can get, and it makes it impossible for her to effectively atone for them – how can you make up for a deed that apparently you were barely complicit in in the first place? What’s more, you don’t get to take credit for her success. You didn’t lift Lena Dunham onto that pedestal like a rag doll, she got there herself through true graft and talent. Her mistakes are her own as are her ascension to pop cultural stardom was due to talent not due to the omniscient decisions of some proto-feminist demi god.

Women don’t get a chance for redemption like men do if they’re held up as an example for an entire gender. If we used Clinton’s mistake as evidence that men are too promiscuous to hold office we’d certaintly never have let Trump into power. But his mistakes were paired with his agency and so Clinton, through individual acts of remorse, was able to achieve forgiveness from the American public. Not so Monica Lewinsky, whose name is still synonymous with one of the most infamous markers of female obfuscation in living memory, ‘that woman’. Instead, people like Dunham and Lewinsky are implicitly used as examples of why we should never laud women or give them positions of power in the first place.

The trouble is, no one gets a medal for being the angriest about the extent of privilege in society, and feminism shouldn’t be the same thing as nihilism. Moreover, de-platforming someone who has shown genuine remorse for their actions when we allow convicted violent criminals like Chris Brown to perform at the Grammy’s feels just plain wrong.

Society’s dismissal of Dunham’s remorse has as many complex power implications, as did Dunham’s own interactions with Perrineau’s story. We allow blatantly racist, sexist and fascist artists like Morrissey and Woodey Allen strut around making art all the time because their ‘genius’ insulates them. But women are made of stickier material, and the black marks seem harder to scrub off.

There’s a section at the end of each The C Word episode where Lena and Alyssa talk about what they personally wish for on behalf of women who’ve been called crazy. Lena, for you I wish the grace awarded to men who are unadulteratedly themselves in the public eye. I wish for you to be listened to, and judged based on the weight of your actions and intentions overall, as well as your art. I wish that people would stop taking you so seriously, and that you find a comfortable place between public and private that makes you happy.

Most of all, I wish for another project that’s as resonant and funny as Girls.

It’s time we stopped using the C word as a placeholder for ‘difficult’ when it comes to women. Lena Dunham, I will never call you crazy.