Welp. Lena Dunham finally did it. She said something so absurd and offensively “White Feminist” (read: racist, but in a feminist way) that everyone noticed. She published a discussion with Amy Schumer in her “Lenny Letter” that Bitch Media was kind enough to contextualize.
A black man not paying attention to her was such a problem, she invented a reason to blame him for it. Sure, he could have been thinking that, but it’s not even vaguely reasonable or considerate to assume something so vile of a person you’ve never talked to before (especially a person with no known history of thinking things like that). There is, however, a stereotype that black men can’t get enough of those white women — and that white women are doing them a favor in gazing their way. This strange misogyny-explanation fantasy of Dunham’s is — in all likelihood — that bit of racism manifesting itself.
Personally, I’ve long held a distaste for Lena Dunham’s feminism-as-a-brand ways. In fact, having white celebrities — people whose job is to appeal to as many people as they can — essentially engage in ideology-as-a-brand is an incredibly bad idea. This is essentially what Lena Dunham is (and always has been) the personification of, and what many have been spending a long time criticizing at this point.
Feminism — complex ideology of equality dismantling patriarchal control Feminism-as-a-brand — THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE shirt, $22
Lena Dunham pretty much the quintessential “Marketplace Feminist,” with her lifestyle-marketing “Lenny Letter” which, in July, “talked about the importance of women in science — thanks to a check from General Electric” in a week-long brand placement deal. I’ve brought the term “marketplace feminism” (and its origin) up on my Twitter about a million times (and a few here on Medium), but I am repeating a point from Andi Zeisler’s fantastic criticism of the phenomenon, a book entitled “We Were Feminists Once.”
What Zeisler calls “marketplace feminism,” one could also call “capitalist feminism,” “neoliberal feminism,” or even just “for-profit feminism,” This version of feminism applies a (ridiculous) free market analog to an ideology that is constantly called “cultural Marxism” by its detractors. It’s an extension of neoliberalism, something people constantly mistake as an insult for “being liberal” — which, as a term, “liberal” itself doesn’t really mean what people think it means (hint: “free markets” are not a feature of leftism). Neoliberalism (simplified and summed up) means “applying free market ideology to all situations, economic and social.”
Do you know whom marketplace feminism targets first? Women of color.
Women of color are more adversely affected than white women by every issue feminism takes on. For them, the wage gap is wider, the harassment is more frequent and more fervent, and the erasure is constant. For this reason, they are often the progenitors of much of what eventually gains acceptance as “feminism,” which then gets stripped-bare to contain the most attention-worthy aspects of to create the “marketable” version.
To give an obvious-yet-astounding example: Flavia Dzodan, the woman of color who coined the phrase “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” has seen nothing for it, despite widespread adoption. You’ve seen that co-opted and used on buttons, shirts, websites (big ones) and other for-profit shit. For more info on that, read this piece she wrote. Simplifying it to make it marketable reduces the value of the words, making it impossible to apply in a manner that doesn’t conjure a person or product.
Dunham is valuable economically and spreading the buzzword version of feminism that fits on shirts and coffee mugs (while, clearly, not deeply considering the implications of things she says; racism isn’t compatible with any ideology of equality). As her popularity rises, so does the demand for meaningless products with regurgitated, oversimplified soundbyte versions of concepts that meant something when they were a complex, important observation or demand when they came out of the mouth of someone with considerably less — often a person of color.
It’s just a matter of time until some “feminist” CEO writes the “Come On Guys, No One Is Perfect” op-ed somewhere. Writer and diversity consultant Mikki Kendal (homepage, PayPal) identified a likely (and egregious) angle many will take in Lena Dunham’s defense — possibly subconsciously. She observed, “for sitting next to Dunham at a ball, Beckham is about to be the subject of fifty-eleven thinkpieces on weight and attraction.” This will direct people who bring it up to frame it the same way Dunham has — as if some person of color she doesn’t know not paying attention to her is a real problem.
But is it really Lena Dunham that deserves all of the ire? I’d say not really really. Lena Dunham is for sure deserving of anger for taking advantage of how things work. But Lena isn’t “how things work.” Lena is not the system she profits from.
Most people who feel they can’t change things say “that’s just how things work.” It’s true, to some extent, but it’s also defeatist. Dunham is probably one of the most visible benefactors of capitalism’s embedded white supremacy, though you’d likely not call her a white supremacist herself — even I wouldn’t (and I’ve publicly stated I have big issues with Dunham for years).
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t benefit from white supremacy (or act in its interests — intentionally so or not). That doesn’t mean don’t be angry at her — I am clearly angry at her.
When people begin saying “change is good. I want change,” it is in the system’s interests to look like it’s changing. That’s all it’s really doing, though; it dons the mask of feminist acceptance to regain its footing and then continue with its original mode of operation: appropriating things and making them into products, services, and lifestyles. That’s the whole of marketplace feminism is: reduction of complex ideology into consumables.
You know what would be really great? If this Lena Dunham explosion evolves into criticism of co-opting feminist rhetoric (and the words of women of color) for capitalist purposes. Neoliberal capitalism (the kind with that extra Free Market on top) takes the parts of the ideology that have the potential to sell well, and represents them as the extent of it. This is the perfect time to bring that up.
Having this turn into a gateway to talk about that would be hugely productive, and I really hope that is what happens. Also fuck Lena Dunham.