Love Her or Hate Her, Lena Dunham's Problems Are Also Her Power

She’s so polarizing that people can’t stop talking about her—or how sick they are of talking about her. But in her controversies, there’s something we can all learn about abuse, victimhood, and defining our own stories.

Lena Dunham. (Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

Nov 5, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

Actor, writer, and Girls creator Lena Dunham has been called many unsavory things during her short tenure of fame: a privileged hack, a fat slob who should put her clothes back on, a casual racist, and a raving narcissist. The latest is child molester.

Last week, right-wing site Truth Revolt excoriated Dunham for writing in her recent memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, that she touched her sister Grace’s vulva when Grace was one and Lena was seven. The post also highlighted other potentially alarming passages where Dunham relates sharing a bed with her sister until she was 17, masturbating while Grace slept alongside, and using candy to bribe Grace to kiss her on the lips.

Though the anecdotes came straight from her book—Dunham glibly writes that “basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying”—the allegations of abuse sent Dunham into a self-described “rage spiral.” As she explained in a series of tweets, “The right wing news story that I molested my little sister isn't just LOL—it's really f--king upsetting and disgusting.”

Naturally, a media furor ensued—we’re talking four think pieces about Dunham on Salon in one day. While many questioned whether Lena herself was the victim of child sexual abuse, others lamented that it was another example of how women can’t tell their own stories honestly without ensuing attempts to silence them.

Culture critics like Luvvie Ajayi sagely noted that the media would likely be demanding Dunham’s head if she were a man or a person of color. A #DropDunham hashtag also questioned white feminism’s blind heroine worship of Dunham and implored Planned Parenthood to end its association with her. Even that had its own backlash: Prominent feminists such as Katha Pollitt donated to Planned Parenthood in support of Dunham.

Dunham later gave Time a statement apologizing for the comic use of sexual predator and potentially triggering victims of abuse. She also added, “As for my sibling, Grace, she is my best friend, and anything I have written about her has been published with her approval.” Grace hasn’t addressed the allegations directly, but through a series of tweets, she asked the public to “think about how we police the sexuality of young women, queer, and trans people.” Yet despite Grace’s apparent disavowal of victimhood, other victims of molestation insisted that Lena's behavior was indeed abuse.

One of the oddest things about this circus was why the troubling childhood anecdotes all but escaped notice in reviews and other press coverage of the book for nearly a month. Sure, it’s possible that the entire media is an army of Lena Dunham fans. It’s also possible that some readers might have identified with indulging in their curiosity about other kids’ bodies as children, even if they didn’t touch the genitals of a family member six years their junior. A whole Tumblr of stories has even sprung up to that effect.

Also, there’s a measure of awareness in literary circles of Dunham’s well-known artist parents. Her father, Carroll Dunham, is famed for explicit paintings of female genitalia. Maybe critics believe that weird sex stuff is a cultural norm in artsy families, as if they’re somehow exempt from standards of child sexuality. It wouldn’t be the first time people bought into ignorant cultural stereotypes about sexuality and fame.

In any event, Dunham’s behavior did not likely qualify as predatory, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. “In the sexual abuse field, we generally do not consider children age seven as sexual abusers,” he told Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory, adding that a judgment of exploitive or aggressive behavior toward a sibling would “typically require more than a single episode, especially in younger children who may not be aware of norms.”

There may even be a negative consequence in rushing to judge sexual exploration at a young age. As Sharon Lamb, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, told Clark-Flory, overreacting “makes many adults ashamed of what was very normal sexual play in their childhood.”

What should have rung an alarm, though, among readers is the power dynamic that Dunham describes with her sister in her memoir. Dunham writes, “I took perverse pleasure in delivering bad news to her—the death of our grandfather, a fire across the street—hoping that her fear would drive her into my arms, would make her trust me.”

That is some unpleasant stuff but also totally in line with Dunham’s established brand of strange. As Girls costar Allison Williams told Rolling Stone about Dunham’s ability to appear less physically attractive on screen than she is in real life, "I’m mesmerized by the heavy extent to which she’s drawn to the weirder choice.” The same applies to her essays. She doesn’t hide the dark and deviant. She exploits them for a better story, and many people don’t quite know what to do with women who attempt that. It’s rare to hear women disclose baldly manipulating, potentially harmful behavior because they run the risk of being dismissed as unlikable or they get accused of oversharing. That’s something Dunham has acknowledged in the past: “The term oversharing is so complicated because I do think that it’s really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it’s bravery, and when women share their experiences, it’s...‘TMI.’ ”

Dunham’s compulsion to go places others won’t has earned her an enviable literary, film, and television career at a very young age. You have to question, though, whether the uncomfortable experiences she trades for attention are always hers to tell—or whether you’re getting the whole story. That may not be the case in Not That Kind of Girl, as Dunham alluded to in a recent feature in The New York Times. She recounted telling her parents that her sister was a lesbian before Grace was ready to do so by saying, “What I didn’t say in the book is how it messed up our relationship for like two years,” Dunham said, sipping a smoothie as industrial-grade Vitamix blenders roared in the background. 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.”

In the same piece, Grace later adds: “Without getting into specifics, 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.”

If there’s any pattern of abuse here, it’s probably emotional theft. It’s up to individuals to define their own stories, and those narratives are not items to be claimed or mined for jokes. This is something that Dunham doesn’t seem to get. Her “sexual predator” quip in the book isn’t the first time she’s trivialized sexual abuse. After a Twitter user admonished her in March for getting naked so often, she replied, “Please tell that to my uncle, mister. He’s been making me!”

Her pathological need to add inappropriate observations is all the more curious when you consider Dunham’s own experience with her sexual assault. In one powerful essay in her memoir, Dunham writes about experiencing date rape in college. “When my best friend used the term: ‘You were raped,’ I laughed at her and thought, ‘What an ambulance chasing drama queen,’ but later I felt this enormous gratitude to her for giving me that gift of that certainty. When I felt at my lowest about it, those words lifted me up.” Of all people, Dunham should know how to wield them so they don’t wound fellow women.

Ultimately, Lena Dunham is at once the perfect and worst person to serve as a face for debate over abuse, consent, and reliable narratives. While you run the risk of some people automatically tuning out—Her? Again?!—at least it’s sparking conversation about issues that have been roiling just under the surface recently.

From GamerGate to Jian Ghomeshi, our culture is clueless about how to reconcile the objective nature of abuse with the subjective reality of personal experience. How do we hold abusers and other perpetrators of inappropriate behavior accountable when the so-called victim doesn’t even claim that label? And why do we try to push victim status on people who don’t ask for it? We fail women left and right with this, either advocating on behalf of privileged white women who don’t ask for it, like Grace Dunham, or in service of punishing black men, as was the case with Janay Palmer and Ray Rice. At the same time, we barely gave credence to multiple women who accuse luminaries like Bill Cosby of rape. It’s horribly messed up. But it won’t get better until we start talking about it, and for better or worse, we have Lena Dunham to thank for resurrecting the conversation.