BLACK VOICES

The Way Lena Dunham Talks About Black Men Is Peak White Entitlement

Dunham may be a "woke" feminist, but she has a glaring racial blindspot.

07/09/2016 7:14 AM AEST | Updated September 8, 2016 01:19
Danny Moloshok / Reuters
Lena Dunham poses at The Hollywood Reporter's Annual Women in Entertainment Breakfast in Los Angeles.

Lena Dunham still has a racial blindspot, and it’s time to acknowledge it. Last week, she faced the wrath of Twitter when she implied that black NFL player Odell Beckham Jr. ignored her at an event because she wasn’t f**kable. But this isn’t the first time she’s jumped to conclusions about the inner thoughts and intentions of famous black men. 

Consider the snippet below from a 2013 interview Dunham did with Vulture. In it, Dunham laments a missed opportunity to connect with Drake, after he presumably ignored the chance for a one-on-one conversation with her for Interview magazine. 

“I didn’t expect Drake to care, although I know Drake has a crush on Kat Dennings; that’s his type,” Dunham said. “I had a real moment with him, and it wasn’t reciprocated. But if I run into him now, I’m gonna be nice.” 

What’s fascinating here is that Dunham is trying to be self-deprecating and funny and charming, but instead all that’s coming across is an extreme projection of her insecurities onto someone that she doesn’t know, as well as a profound sense of entitlement.

Her statements also reveal an air of judgement, like, “I thought you were different, but you’re not interested in me, so you’re just like all the other misogynistic black rappers who I can’t connect with.” 

Dunham’s thoughts on Drake take on an interesting new significance in light of her Lenny Letter conversation with Amy Schumer, posted on Sept. 2. Neither Dunham nor Schumer come across terribly well in the conversation. Schumer doggedly defends her professional and personal relationship with Kurt Metgzer, one of the writers on her currently-on-hiatus show who has been criticized for championing rape jokes and rapists, and harassing women online.

Dunham cosigns, complaining about “this new world in which women aren’t just supposed to be protected from actions, they’re supposed to be protected from language.” (As if the language men like Metzger use doesn’t actively perpetuate rape and rape culture.) 

But the part of the candid interview that got the most attention was Dunham’s commentary on her interactions ― or lack thereof ― with football player Odell Beckham Jr. during the 2016 Met Gala. 

“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,” Dunham told Schumer, referencing Odell’s apparent indifference to her presence. 

She added: “The vibe was very much like, ‘Do I want to f**k it? Is it wearing a … yep, it’s wearing a tuxedo. I’m going to go back to my cell phone.’” 

The backlash was swift. Social media users, most of them black, called out Dunham’s sense of entitlement and her assumptions about Beckham’s thought-process ― assumptions that conjured up racialized stereotypes about black male sexuality.

Dunham’s initial response on Twitter was to dismiss the criticism as the typical “outrage machine” of the Internet at work. She explained that the story was about her insecurity over being an “average-bodied” woman surrounded by supermodels, and that the story was “not an assumption about who he is or an expectation of sexual attention.”

But, of course, that’s exactly what the story was ― even if it was indeed fueled by personal insecurity. Dunham chose to publicly dive into Odell Beckham Jr.’s head, and spell out what she believed his thought-process to be; a thought-process that was almost animalistic in nature (”Do I want to f**k it?”). 

There is an enduring stereotype of black men in America as hyper-sexual, aggressive, and predatory. These stereotypes are also what have fueled this country’s long, dark history of white women falsely accusing black men of sexual assault and rape. Dunham’s comments, whether intentionally or not, played into this. It’s a fact she herself admitted in an apology posted to Instagram after carefully considering “valid criticism,” criticism she initially dismissed as blind outrage: 

It’s a pretty decent apology, but one that came after two days of pushing Dunham to reconsider dismissing the online conversation altogether. In the age of the Internet, of “call out culture,” and the so-called “outrage machine,” it isn’t easy to be a highly visible person who makes mistakes, and who is learning. But what the backlash against Dunham demonstrates is that no one is as “woke” as they may think they are.

This isn’t to say that Dunham runs around showing off how conscious or aware she is of feminist issues, or that she believes she has it all figured out. Part of her brand, of course, is her imperfection, the sense that she unabashedly does not have it all figured out. 

But Dunham has a racial blindspot, and not just about Odell Beckham Jr. She’s been criticized for writing a creepily orientalist essay about Japan in 2011, and weirdly tweeting about molesting an “African-American rat” in 2010. In 2013, she was silent for a ridiculously long time after comedian Lisa Lampenelli tweeted a selfie with her using the n-word, and initially defended her silence by saying she didn’t engage in “Twitter debates.”

Of course, since “Girls” first dropped in 2012 and was met with criticism over its all-white cast, Dunham has tried. She’s introduced black characters (to varying degrees of success: see the epic failure of Donald Glover as her black Republican boyfriend) on the show. And with her latest venture, Lenny Letter, she’s provided a platform and a space for black women to talk about issues that affect black women. And that’s great. But there’s always more work to do.  

Her initial reluctance to engage, her dismissal of the criticism and her insistence that her story had no racial implications whatsoever was her way of saying that her perspective and her truth was more relevant and valid than anyone else’s. It’s great that she eventually understood where the complaints were coming from, but it’s unfortunate that that didn’t occur to her in the first place. 

As Culturess writer Ayesha Naqvi points out, Dunham’s experiences as an average-sized white woman seem to “define the limit of [her] empathy.” The Drake and Odell Beckham Jr. stories are evidence of that. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a specific perspective or point of view. But Dunham was so focused on positioning herself as an outsider because she isn’t a size 2, even though in many respects she’s very much an insider, that she didn’t consider all the other ways one can feel like an outsider (for instance, being a 23-year-old black dude from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who has never attended an event quite as overwhelmingly glamorous as the Met Gala). 

Lena Dunham is probably not a bad person. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the reality of white entitlement, even if it complicates a carefully cultivated narrative of oppression which revolves largely around being an average-bodied white woman. This reality doesn’t mean Dunham hasn’t dealt with misogyny, and it doesn’t negate her insecurities and fears. But by her own admission, her lack of self-awareness, coupled with her privilege and platform, can lead to the sort of tone-deaf characterizations of black men that are ultimately more harmful than they may seem.

Part of being a public figure means accepting that your learning is going to take place on a public stage. Dunham and other celebrities who make (even unintentionally) harmful comments should be held responsible for their words ― especially when those words perpetuate damaging ideas about real human beings. Dunham is entitled to her own perspective and story, but not to the minds and thoughts of the black men around her. 

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