Dear Lena Dunham
Dear Lena Dunham,
By now, you’ve been championed as a modern-day feminist icon by media and women’s organizations alike. You’ve been praised for your unapologetic attitude towards women’s rights. You’ve been lauded for your work in the field of entertainment and how you and your show re-wrote the narrative of modern women. You’ve declared yourself the face of feminism, representing millions of women because of it. You say you’ve done so much to progress forward women, when in fact the only woman you’ve progressed forward is Lena Dunham. What’s worse is that your lack of perspective and refusal to understand any experience outside your own has translated to the masses, forcing feminism to become the face of white women who are oppressed by patriarchy alone, but still protected by race and class privilege. You are in a very important position of power in which you have a platform to reach the masses, and instead of allowing women of color to have a stage, you are silencing them as much as the patriarchy you believe to be their sole oppressor. It doesn’t have to be this way, you can change, but before you can change, you must listen. To listen fully, you must understand that not every adversary is targeted against you. There are struggles to which you’ll never know firsthand; struggles that your racial privilege protects you from.
For intersectionality to be achieved, one must not be self-absorbed and focused on self-interest only. You say that you are a staunch supporter of women’s rights, and you claim to know women of color, yet you sat with a successful show on HBO for six seasons without lending that stage to women of color. Rather, you used your influence from said show to speak for them, when they never asked you to do such a thing. Because I want you to understand what I mean by this, I’ll first reference your website. On April 18th, 2015, you interviewed civil rights activist Chenai Okammor about the legacy of Sandra Bland, a woman who wrongfully died in the custody of Texas law enforcement. This was a very important cause to shine light on, and a great use of your website’s exposure. Yet, since April 2015, nothing else has been said about the subject of police brutality against women of color. Sandra Bland was not the first case of this, nor was she the last. Based on data collected by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, “women accounted for 20% of unarmed people of color killed by police between 1999 and 2014.” (Kendall) Missing from the narrative of police brutality is black women. You are an influential figure for women everywhere with a platform on television and on the internet. When I asked a friend of mine who is a black woman what her biggest fears were, her response was “1. Being raped. 2. Police.” I’d be willing to gamble that she is not alone in these fears. There is so much power in media narrative and representation. Unfortunately, you’ve not only omitted this very important narrative, and many others, from your website since 2015, but you’ve also failed to represent women of color on your television show.
When women of color show up in film or television, it is as an attempt to stave off cries of lacking diversity. Often, the characters are a featured comedic relief that is stereotypically black, latinx, or asian. We’ve seen changes since shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away with Murder, Insecure, Empire and Power have all shed the stereotypes and provided a new narrative that black women are so much more than a ghetto, sassy featured character. Even more so, what the success of these shows have taught us is just how much the public craves this narrative. What’s more, because of the nature of HBO’s programming, you, a showrunner, have a lot of authority to push the envelope. Not that we should consider featuring women of color on television to be pushing the envelope, but you had a pretty big opportunity to influence change for the better on your show ‘Girls’ with the actors, writers, producers and directors you cast. Had your show taken place in a small, Midwestern town, your lack of diversity may have made statistical sense. However, ‘Girls’ takes place in present day Brooklyn, New York, a city in which diversity is a cornerstone of the community. After hearing this criticism following the airing of the first season, you stated that “I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak accurately.” (Obenson) If ‘Girls’ is a reflection of your truths, then you must address the fact that your reality lacks as much diversity as your show. No one is expecting you to adequately write the experience of a modern-day, woman of color living in Brooklyn, but there are countless writers who happen to be women of color that could have been hired to do the job. You, the show’s creator, producer and writer, have the power to hire those women. Better yet, perhaps take this as an opportunity to reflect on the fact that you have so few friends of color that it didn’t even occur to you to write any characters of color. If you know no women of color well enough to incorporate them into your personal narrative, how could women of color look to you as a fighter for their equality. How can you say that you are a fighter for all women if you don’t give all women the opportunity to explain what exactly it is that they’re fighting for.
Women of color have been hesitant to join the feminist movement since the term was coined. The very term itself means social, political and economic equality of the sexes. Within each sector of equality, there is an even deeper meaning. In Angela Davis’s book “Women, Race, & Class” she highlights the clear omission of black women from the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movement. White, middle class women would hold conventions to condemn the act of slavery, yet black women were non-existent in this capacity. Instead, white women spoke for black women, and took their narrative, that of newly freed slaves, and made it their own. Going so far as to compare the oppression of the patriarchy to that of slavery to further their own political agenda. Though the restraints of patriarchy remain to be an important fight towards gender equality, there is no oppression that matches being violently stripped of your dignity and humanity and treated as property.
The abolitionist movement opened the door in many ways to the women’s suffrage movement. It gave white, middle-class women a voice. It emboldened them to get organized and address their own oppression, but history rarely teaches us this. To these white women, the only oppression they had ever known was being left out of the conversation, and being caged in by societal norms. In fact, domestic life took on an opposite effect in the lives of slaves. It provided them with a space in which they could exist as human beings. “Black women, for this reason — and also because they were workers just like their men — were not debased by their domestic functions in the way that white women came to be. Unlike their white counterparts, they could never be treated as mere ‘housewives.’ But to go further and maintain that they consequently dominated their men is to fundamentally distort the reality of the slave.” (Davis 17)
Between these two very important movements, black women often were demanded to show their solidarity, but were not promised the same rights. Sojourner Truth represented the plight of the black woman at that time. As a former slave, she lent perspective to what being a woman in the realm of slavery really meant. Though white suffragettes claimed to be anti-slavery, they would convene anti-slavery conventions without a single black person in attendance. I can’t help but wonder what all you know about the roots of the women’s rights movement. In 2012, you partnered with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama and talked about your first-time voting, and how you could feel the spirits of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Statton as you did so, how it was a cathartic experience for you. I have no intention of negating the overwhelming feeling of voting for the first time, and the empowerment it instills. However, you have chosen to be an advocate for all women. By doing so, you must amplify the voices of all women, not just yourself or those who look like you. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Statton are often the poster women for women’s rights, but rarely does history reveal the shoulders they stood on to win white, middle-class women the right to vote. By being an advocate for all women, and claiming to be a voice for marginalized women, you must understand history as they see it, not as it has been fed to you.
Yes, Susan B. Anthony has said things like: “There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” But she also said things like: “The old anti-slavery school say women must stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the Government, let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.” (Pauly 388) There was rarely a place for black women in the movement because of sentiments like this. What category does Susan B. Anthony place them into? This question must have crossed the mind of Sojourner Truth as she crashed anti-slavery and women’s rights conventions alike. In her most famous speech, Truth declared:
“That man over there say a woman needs to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helped me into carriages or over mud puddles or gives me a best place… And ain’t I a woman? Look at me, look at my arm! I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me…”
That is the very basis of intersectional feminism; the notion that a woman faces adversaries other than the patriarchy. That is a concept that neither you, nor Anthony, quite grasped. It is okay to recognize the achievements brought on by women like Susan B. Anthony, but we must analyze history in a critical way, as to not repeat mistakes made that hindered a wider spectrum of progress. More than that, we must be critical in our analysis of history as to not further marginalize those who did not benefit from these achievements.
What the Women’s March on Washington and the Women’s Suffrage have in common, is the lack of seats at the table for women of color. Due to the lack of diversity in the original organizers of the march, women of color were quick to denounce the March as another showcase of white feminism. In the case of the Women’s March, changes were made as soon as the realization of the lack of diversity hit. They regrouped and appointed several notable women of color to co-chair positions. They also diversified their cause and publically owned up to their initial lack of diversity. In the weeks leading up to the march, they ran a social media campaign in which they were very transparent about airing the concerns of the women of color who felt excluded. These were all things the organization itself did well. However, the women who decided suddenly their causes were compromised seemingly stepped over the very women they claimed to stand in solidarity with. Long before Donald Trump became president, women of all races and classes were facing the very adversaries his campaign emboldened.
I get it, as a sheltered and privileged white woman, you don’t know adversity other than your own until you get educated on it. The thing about being and staying “woke” is that it is a constant effort to stay socially aware of things that your privilege often veils from you. When you’re a social figure, especially one who wears the title of ‘feminist’ so unapologetically, it’s of the essence to be even more conscious of every thought have and action you take. Admittedly, it’s exhausting. But it’s the kind of exhaustion that comes after a long and fulfilling days work. The cornerstone of your involvement in women’s rights is your fight to protect access to reproductive care. In Variety Magazine’s 2017 Inauguration issue, you wrote a column titled “7 Ways to Fight for Women’s Rights in 2017.” Though your advice to donate and educate is valid, it’s presented with an extremely narrow point of view. Reproductive rights affects all women differently. There is more to this narrative than the inequity of the government dictating these fundamental family planning choices. For women of color, the autonomy to choose when starting a family is best for them is essential to their economic and social status. (Bond 4) White women, who may not have achieved equal pay with their white male counterparts, still make more money than black, asian and latina women. (Nelson) Where is the narrative of reproductive rights equating to economic justice?
When Michael Brown was murdered in a case of wrongful policing, The Nation wrote an article declaring police brutality to be an issue of reproductive justice. In it, black women and mothers were forced to face the fact that their potential children have a moving target on them from conception. (McClain) These narratives need to be put forth by women in the spotlight like you. Instead, your lack of empathy for any narrative other than your own, you hinder our progress by projecting this never ending need to dominate the conversation. Every single thing you say is being closely watched and scrutinized by those on the other side. We must put forth firm and bullet-proof arguments and facts as to why access to reproductive care and safe abortions is fundamental to a woman’s freedom. Instead, you say things like “Now I can say that I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had.” (Paiella) With that single sentence, another nail was hammered into Planned Parenthood’s coffin. With one fell swoop, you trivialized abortions. Though you went on to apologize and attempt to explain your actions, the damage was done. Knowing that you personally had never had an abortion, this could have been an opportunity to shine a light on the social and economic sector of reproductive justice. Better yet, you could have given that time to speak to someone who had a story to tell. In that moment, you smeared the women’s rights movement and all the hard work committed by millions of women before you.
Lena, my intention is not to belittle you or to bully you. Nor is it to divide the ranks of women’s rights fighters. My intention is to give you, and those like you, another way to look at your power. You have a responsibility to women everywhere. Your influence could not only be used on a public level to better change the narrative of women of all races and ethnicities, but it could challenge white feminists everywhere on how inclusive their thinking and actions are. The attack on women’s rights is simultaneously ongoing and ever looming. Equality is relative to the individual seeking it, and as a leader, your empathy must be vigilant in including every perspective. It is up to you to take your platform and elevate the narrative of women who are currently marginalized by the feminist label. It is your responsibility to educate yourself deeply on the history of women’s rights in America, and the world for that matter, from millions of perspectives of women. Take what you learn and pass it forward. Women’s rights can never be achieved if only one sector of women achieve equality. In 2017, it is not okay to leave our sisters of color behind us and achieve justice in installments. Sometimes, in the case of intersectional feminism, it takes a leader to give up their seat entirely and allow a lesser-told story to take precedence. In fact, for equality to truly be achieved, it is of the essence.
Bond, Toni M. “Barriers Between Black Women & the Reproductive Rights Movement.” Political Environments 8 (2001): 3–5. Web.
Delaney, Arthur, and Alissa Scheller. “Who Gets Food Stamps? White People, Mostly.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 28 Feb. 2015. Web. 22 May 2017.
Delgado, DiDi. “Why I Don’t Like White Women.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 May 2017.
Dunham, Lena. “Lena Dunham: 7 Ways to Fight for Women’s Rights in 2017 (Guest Column).” Variety. N.p., 17 Jan. 2017. Web. 22 May 2017.
Kendall, Mikki. “Black Women and Police Brutality.” The Islamic Monthly. N.p., 16 Nov. 2016. Web. 19 May 2017.
McClain, Dani. “The Murder of Black Youth Is a Reproductive Justice Issue.” The Nation. N.p., 29 June 2015. Web. 22 May 2017.
Nelson, Sophia A. “Equal Pay Day Is Not Equal At All for Women of Color.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 05 Apr. 2017. Web. 22 May 2017.
Obenson, Tambay A. “Lena Dunham Addresses “Girls” Diversity Criticism & Why I Just Don’t Care….” IndieWire. N.p., 08 May 2012. Web. 19 May 2017.
Paiella, Gabriella. “Lena Dunham: ‘I Still Haven’t Had an Abortion, But I Wish I Had’.” The Cut. N.p., 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 22 May 2017.