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Lena Dunham Uses Feminism to Market, Not to Lead, and Apologies Don’t Fix That — Opinion

The "Girls" creator recently defended former writer Murray Miller from a rape accusation, the latest misstep by an artist who never stops making them.

Lena Dunham


No matter how many times she does it, Lena Dunham doesn’t seem to get any better at apologizing. The “Girls” co-creator and “Tiny Furniture” filmmaker has doled out multiple public atonements over the last decade, with verbal missteps ranging from wishing she’d had an abortion to comparing Jezebel to an abusive husband. Her most recent attempt to make amends arrives at a critical point in Hollywood history and modern feminism, and it’s time to recognize that her political stances are not misguided, or even inconsistent: They aren’t ruled by values, but by what’s good for Dunham and her friends.

The most recent example stemmed from a statement by Aurora Perrineau, who accused former “Girls” writer and producer Murray Miller of raping her when she was 17 years old. Within hours of the accusation on November 17, Dunham and her “Girls” co-creator Jenni Konner essentially called Perrineau a liar. They issued their own statement defending Miller, adding that “sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year,” referring to “insider knowledge of Murray’s situation.”

Later that day, Dunham doubled down, adding on Twitter: “I believe in a lot of things but the first tenet of my politics is to hold up the people who have held me up, who have filled my world with love.” (As politics go, that sounds a lot like “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”) Finally, she brought the cycle to a close with another tweet on November 18 (one, of course, sparked by the backlash that threatened her own stature and brand) that recognized it was really, really bad to disbelieve a report of sexual assault. She closed with: “We apologize to any women who have been disappointed,” while failing to mention Perrineau by name.

Read More: Amber Tamblyn to Lena Dunham: Stop Making Excuses for ‘Girls’ Writer Accused of Rape

Why is she so terribly tone deaf, both in her statements and in the apologies? She can’t blame speaking before she thinks; all of that “insider knowledge” would certainly have given her plenty of time to gather her thoughts to craft an announcement that attempted to turn the tables on Perrineau, and issuing her initial statement so soon after Perineau’s allegations suggests she was well-prepared to respond. Like so much of what she says, it’s deeply myopic: Dunham addresses what’s important to her (her relationship with a friend and collaborator) and is completely oblivious to any larger perspectives — even when she’s claimed those mindsets as her own.

By definition, feminism advocates for all people — not just women — to enjoy true equality between genders. That doesn’t mean feminists can’t screw up, speak out of turn, say something stupid, or otherwise make mistakes, but (like any other leader) feminist leaders need to hold themselves to a higher standard. While Dunham continues to trade on her feminist identity as part of her professional and personal bonafides, she is consistently unable to meet that kind of standard.

She wants the label, but she struggles to do the work. And when it comes to the latest Dunham apology tour, her failed advocacy finally gets to the heart of the real problem: She’s only advocating for herself.

Even in her apology, Dunham couldn’t help but insert herself directly into the incident and the so-called “knowledge” that she still believes is important to spread into the world, even before a formal investigation is launched. “I never thought I would issue a statement publically [sic] supporting someone accused of sexual assault,” she wrote, “but I naively believed it was important to share my perspective on my friend’s situation as it has transpired behind the scenes over the last few months.”

But why is Dunham’s perspective “important” here? “Girls” is no longer on the air, so there’s little business interest for her. If she does have “insider” information on the incident, that public claim can’t help anyone involved, especially as criminal investigations begin. When it comes to accusations like these, the perspectives that are most essential belong to the people directly involved or affected by the accusation and potential crime. Dunham is not one of those people.

That said, Dunham inspired at least one other woman to stand up for her beliefs and speak truth to power in a public forum, and it seems unlikely she will have to apologize for it. Author Zinzi Clemmons, who previously wrote for Dunham and Konner’s Lenny Letter newsletter, took to social media over the weekend to announce that she would no longer contribute to the publication.

In a post, Clemmons didn’t hold back and — as any person who uses words as the bedrock of their entire profession should — delivered a clear message: “As a result of Lena Dunham’s statements, I have decided that I will no longer write for Lenny Letter. For all you writers who are outraged about what she did, I encourage you to do the same. Especially women of color. She cannot have our words if she cannot respect us.”

As the industry continues to grapple with stories of powerful people committing heinous crimes, outrage will not be in short supply, but leaders willing to tackle the tough stuff head on will be. Those are the people to be embraced, to be encouraged, the true advocates for something better — not just the something that makes their own lives easier.

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