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Lena Dunham's brand of feminism is hindering political change

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Lena Dunham is currently back in the public eye as American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy announced she would be joining the show’s cast in the next season.

This seventh season is to be set in the present day, in the aftermath of the last US Presidential election, though it’s not yet been revealed what role the Girls star will play. However, this announcement has caused significant backlash from online communities, once again reminding us how divisive a figure Lena Dunham has proved to be in recent years.

She has been particularly controversial in branding herself a proud feminist, yet making comments that greatly undermine what the movement stands for. She received backlash over a comment she made that she wished she’d had an abortion in order to remove her internalised stigma towards it, making light of a deeply emotional decision many women are forced to make.

She has repeatedly displayed prejudices and made subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – racist comments, the most infamous of which was her post about Odell Beckham Jr., in which she ascribed to him misogynistic thoughts whilst presenting herself as the oppressed and Beckham Jr. as the one in a position of privilege. Simultaneously, she has also played into repressive stereotypes about black men’s perception and treatment of women, and was oblivious to the “often violent history of the over-sexualisation of black male bodies, as well as false accusations by white women toward black men” - an implication she only acknowledged in a later apology.

Those who jump to Dunham’s defence will support her status as a feminist icon because she created and starred in a show led by sexually liberated women; a show in which she herself shows the camera what a ‘real’ woman’s body looks like - an apparently revolutionary act in an industry that pressures women to squeeze themselves into a very strict, and unrealistic, mould of conventional beauty. The issue comes when these progressive acts are used to excuse Dunham’s racist or otherwise problematic remarks and behaviours.

It can feel uncomfortably anti-feminist to call out and shame a woman who is attempting to partake in her own liberation, and who with good intentions tries to popularise the branding of ‘feminist’. But Dunham’s statements do not exist in a vacuum, and she again and again perpetuates a toxic system without facing, or often even acknowledging, the consequences. Her apologies are defensive, as she tries to rationalise her actions and undermines the reactions of those who suffer from her statements, essentially forgiving a culture that systematically oppresses minorities by excusing wilful ignorance.

Now, call-out culture becomes dangerous when it results in the demonization of individuals who are attempting, whether successfully or not, to rectify the status quo into a freer, more egalitarian society. It is important to monitor one another when the feminism being practiced is exclusionary, but punishment is counteractive to this, for it can create self-imposed censorship when people become too afraid of saying the wrong thing and being ostracised for it, and thus stop saying anything, which halts progress entirely.

That being said, calling out such comments as those repeatedly made by Dunham in a manner that is educatory and helps build an intersectional narrative is crucial. Doing so does not undermine the good Lena Dunham has done in creating a show that “despite its lack of a serious class and race consciousness… address[es] other feminist issues currently in play, among them body image, abortion, relationships within a social media age, and street harassment” - which in Girls become everyday topics, as Kerensa Cadenas points out. Where we become at fault is when we herald the likes of Lena Dunham as a feminist icon. It tells society that such behaviours are acceptable, and misrepresents and weakens the feminist cause whilst playing into an oppressive system. 

The dangers that come with having female celebrities like Lena Dunham as the drivers of feminism are two-fold. One, the great majority of these women endorse white feminism, as opposed to an intersectional feminism; Two, these celebrities often engage in what Andi Zeisler coined ‘marketplace feminism’, which does very little to promote real change.

White feminism is a form of feminism rooted in the experiences of middle-class white women, whilst failing to address the distinct forms of oppression experienced by women of colour, and women lacking other privileges. This kind of ‘one size fits all’ ideology, assumes that every woman’s experience is like that of an economically-secure, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied white woman. Critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote that the exclusion of black women from feminist theory would require more than their inclusion into existing theory, but a rewriting of the analytical structure. She explains that because the “intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which black women are subordinated”.

We hence cannot separate multiple oppressions, because they are experienced intersectionally. Therefore, arguments that this kind of catch-all feminism is one that unites all women under the same banner - because supposedly they focus on the common ground between women - are wrong. ‘One size fits all’ feminism is erasing, not inclusive; it fails to acknowledge unique issues that disproportionately affect specific groups of women. In doing so, not only does it focus the movement on those who are already most privileged, but keeping issues vague and all-encompassing for the sake of unity, and treating ‘women’ as a homogenous group, means we fail to recognise the need to dismantle other intersectional oppressions. Feminism is not just about putting an end to sexism, it is about dismantling all interconnected systems of oppression that affect women in various ways.

Many prominent celebrities like Lena Dunham engage in ideology-as-a-brand, which involves simplifying feminism to perilous extremes to make it as catch-all and appealing as possible, and white feminism is the easiest brand of the movement to sell. This falls hand in hand with the increasing corporate exploitation of feminism highlighted by Andi Zeisler, in which this brand of ‘marketplace feminism’ is depoliticised. This kind of joyous, feel-good style of feminism deals with very superficial, symptomatic issues, without ever undertaking the difficult task of dismantling deeply entrenched systems of inequality.

‘Marketplace feminism’ is about defiant attitudes, clothing choices, catchy slogans, and positive body image. It uses the word ‘empower’ as though inequality can be resolved by the oppressed changing their outlook and behaviour, and ignores the change needed in reforming patriarchal power structures. Zeisler desires that we turn our attention back to systems, not individuals. The idea of the ‘feminist fallacy’, explained and undermined by Marjorie Ferguson, implies that changes in media messages translates into changes for women in the real world, when in reality this isn’t the case.

Marketplace feminism does nothing to attempt fundamental, political change, because it is being encouraged by a power system that has every interest in appearing as though it’s changing, whilst really it’s commodifying feminism to its own advantage. Feminism today, due in part to the likes of Lena Dunham, has become an identity to avow, rather than action to be taken.

For too many people, the assumption stands that feminism begins and ends with whatever self-proclaimed feminist celebrity is in the spotlight at that moment. Such women are entryways to feminism, but not the movement itself. They can broaden the message of feminism, but too often this focus on beautiful celebrities avoids doing the real, political work of feminism, or causing real change to this culture.

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