Is it easier or harder to write about a subject when you don't like anyone involved in it, when you believe that just about everybody on every side of a controversy is at best operating in bad faith or at worst is being utterly insufferable? Think about that as we dig into the exhausting tale of millennial culture patient-zero Lena Dunham's recent memoir and the backlash one particular segment of it is now receiving. Given Dunham's status as the woman who launched a thousand think pieces, you'd figure Not That Kind of Girl had been pored over pretty thoroughly upon its release about a month ago, but apparently we all missed something. It's something conservaturd Elliot Rodger cosplayer Ben Shapiro'sTruthRevolt site picked up on and called into question. And it's something that now has the internet lit up like a slot machine that pays out pure white-hot outrage.
If you haven't been paying attention, last week TruthRevolt zeroed in on a passage from Dunham's book in which she describes being seven-years-old and opening her infant sister's vagina to get a better look at it. Because Dunham is Dunham and was raised in an environment where her hyper-liberal artist parents not only condoned everything she did but applauded it, she says her mother didn't see anything untoward about this behavior, writing, "This was within the spectrum of things that I did." She goes on to describe using her sister as a kind of beta-test for her budding sexuality, saying that she would bribe her with money for the opportunity to kiss her or put makeup on her. Her description of how she approached these actions is certainly a bit eyebrow-raising when put down on paper: "Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying," she writes. The story culminates with an admission that, at the age of 17, Dunham allowed her sister to sleep in bed with her and at one point masturbated without her sister knowing.
All of this may sound a bit icky, but as a takedown of Dunham falls neatly in line with the conservative entertainment complex's mission to destroy anyone it considers a "liberal activist," the creatures at TruthRevoltand later The National Review quickly pumped the story full of partisan click-bait steroids and turned it into this headline: "LENA DUNHAM SEXUALLY ASSAULTED HER SISTER." Over the past couple of days, the fallout from this accusation has proceeded as you'd probably expect, with liberal social media first defending Lena Dunham then quickly and inevitably breaking off into smaller Third Wave feminist niches and tearing the larger "cause" apart piece by piece. There's nothing quite as enervating as watching the various levels of the Progressive Martyr Hierarchy, all competing for the status of "least privileged," going at each other in defense of their respective grievances and often at the expense of both common sense and the greater good.
Lena Dunham herself has already stepped into the fray to answer the charges, going into a self-described "rage spiral" on Twitter and calling the report "really fucking upsetting and disgusting." Dunham's sister, Grace, has also taken to Twitter to address the controversy -- because apparently that's the only means of communication in existence today -- saying, "As a queer person: I'm committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful." Not exactly a full-throated defense of her sister, but not a giant fuck-you for the years of abuse she supposedly suffered at the groping, prying, masturbating hands of her either. Dunham's lawyers, meanwhile, have sent a cease-and-desist order to TruthRevolt that not only threatens legal action if the site doesn't remove its article but which also, conveniently, offers a "suggested apology" it can publish to make amends for its impertinence in directly quoting Lena Dunham.
If snotty officiousness were an art form, these three sentences would be the Birth of Venus.
"We recently published a story stating that Ms. Dunham engaged in sexual conduct with her sister. The story was false, and we deeply regret having printed it. We apologize to Ms. Dunham, her sister, and their parents, for this false story."
You can imagine what TruthRevolt's response is.
So that's the controversy and the "official" reaction to it, but in the age of social media it's never the whole story. Everybody's got an opinion about this thing and it's kind of a shame that it's managing to occupy both the minds of so many politically inclined people and the copy space at so many politically inclined outlets just one day before a mid-term election. That speaks volumes about where we are now as a culture and I'm certainly not immune from criticism in that regard (although I have such a defeatist view of politics these days that it's tough to work up a will to write about it in direct terms anymore). But any controversy that can bring out the various tribes in our country's ongoing culture war will always get attention and the thought of Lena Dunham using her little sister like a sex toy when they were kids -- and being unapologetic about it now -- is just the kind of story sure to do that. It's catnip for people looking for something to be pissed about or defend.
What it's not, however, is sexual abuse. What Dunham did is absolutely the kind of behavior I would have had a few very candid discussions about were I her parents, but I just don't think it rises to the level of full-on sexual assault. Even Dunham's analogizing herself to a sexual predator sounds more like her usual dry provocation than it does an actual admission that she was grooming or molesting her sister. I just can't understand her actions being interpreted differently.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, there's already a #DropDunham campaign on Twitter that's aimed at getting Planned Parenthood to dump Dunham as a celebrity spokesperson. (For future reference, Twitter warriors, "#DumpDunham" makes a catchier hashtag as it's not only alliterative but it rhymes as well.) As a target for activism, Planned Parenthood is low-hanging fruit since there isn't a chance in hell HBO or Random House would let Dunham go. What you'll find if you run through the #DropDunham tweets are a lot of comments that are the product of a schism in modern feminism. It's the divide that pits women of color against the white feminist movement they claim has done them no favors over the years. The result in this case is the typical devolution into "liberal cannibalization," where opposing progressive factions balkanize themselves then have at it over a topic they feel they're not being served on to their 100% satisfaction. We saw it last week with a viral "catcalling" video suddenly becoming ground zero for an underserved demographic street-fight online and now we're seeing it again.
I get that Lena Dunham might not be the most sympathetic casualty here; she's a profoundly narcissistic child of immense privilege who is in many ways a legacy when it comes to the success and wealth she's garnered. I may have warmed ever-so-slightly to Girls last season but I've never been a big fan of hers and I've got more than a few pieceshere at the Banterthat attest to this. That said, while you can make the argument that Dunham "experimented" on her sister, there's no way in hell that even her worst enemy should be able to keep a straight face while saying she was guilty of sexual abuse. The right is already trying to claim a scalp on this one, calling out the left's alleged hypocrisy for defending victims of sexual assault while refusing to call out one of its "idols," but that's a horseshit argument -- and liberals shouldn't be doing the right's dirty work for it by willingly handing over that scalp.
There's an admittedly delicious irony here that Dunham's seemingly insatiable need to talk about herself is poised to be her undoing, at least temporarily. There's also a very fair point about her insistence that she's an "unreliable narrator" of her own life and how that might come into play both in her story about her sister and, unfortunately, the one she tells about a sexual encounter in college that she says was rape. (I'm not disputing that charge, only saying that if her reliability is called into question on this as a defense, it has to be extended across the entire book, like it or not.) Is Dunham telling the truth in her memoir? Is she exaggerating for dramatic effect? Does she see her life as its own kind of story that's open to interpretation? All of these questions probably matter now a lot more than they might have a month ago -- before Dunham's own words came back to bite her in the ass.
Lena Dunham just canceled her upcoming appearances and book tour dates. Better put on your helmets.
Update 11.4.14: Lena Dunham has released a new, less rage spiral-y statement on all of this to Time magazine:
First and foremost, I want to be very clear that I do not condone any kind of abuse under any circumstances.
Childhood sexual abuse is a life-shattering event for so many, and I have been vocal about the rights of survivors. If the situations described in my book have been painful or triggering for people to read, I am sorry, as that was never my intention. I am also aware that the comic use of the term “sexual predator” was insensitive, and I’m sorry for that as well.
As for my sibling, Grace, she is my best friend, and anything I have written about her has been published with her approval.
You have to enjoy that she made sure to reinforce her Third Wave bona fides by referencing so-called "triggers." Either way, this probably won't salve the wounds of her detractors, but it might win over a few fence-straddlers and it will certainly make her fans defend her harder.
Believe it or not, I actually think it's unfortunate that she had to explain and apologize for a line that was always meant as a dry joke. It's going to be a painful world to live in if we continue to allow those who don't get subversive humor to turn their offense over it into constant demands for contrition and satisfaction. Scratch that -- it already is that kind of world.