Are Feminists Bad Fans? Lena Dunham and Race


The Female Bad Fan: As soon as Emily Nussbaum named her a couple weeks ago, I began wondering if I was her. I had not one week before blogged my disappointment over a rape apologetic episode of The Mindy Project. Now, here was Emily Nussbaum naming a certain type of Mindy-hater, the type who, like all bad fans “shrugs off any notion of complexity.” Specific to the female form is the craving for “not bloodshed but empowerment.” The bad female fan of the Mindy Project wants Mindy to be a role model and wants her to win; the bad female fan just doesn’t get that Mindy is supposed to be a miserable narcissist that we are supposed to be laughing at, not with.

If that’s the joke—even if it would be a far cry from the joke in the show’s pilot– I get it. I get that Mindy Lahiri isn’t Leslie Knope. (But thank goodness for the feminist wonderfulness that is Leslie Knope). The part of the joke that I couldn’t get was the part that trivialized sexual consent. And so I began to wonder, was I another type of bad fan? The bad feminist fan?

One typical feminist fan behavior (though not the one I exhibited toward Mindy) involves criticizing shows for missing opportunities to tell undersold stories about women’s lives. It’s a common criticism of Mindy (why isn’t Mindy Lahiri a role model for women who aren’t a size 2? why are we watching a show about OB-gyns without abortions?)

But there’s nowhere this criticism comes out more full force than in discussions of Lena Dunham on race. Is wishing women of color existed in Lena Dunham’s world a way of being a BFF, a bad feminist fan?

This is the accusation made by Sonia Soraiya in a Salon post this weekend. Soraiya is responding to a Gawker post in which Rebecca Carroll argues that Lena Dunham needs to do a better job portraying women of color and working against racism in Hollywood. We first heard critiques of the whitewashed world of Girls in 2012. Caroll seems frustrated that Lena hasn’t stopped being clueless about race, that all she has to say in her book about black people is that she played a game as a child in which she and her friends pretended to be chained slave children, and that she hasn’t done more with her power in Hollywood to push the work of artists of color.

Soraiya writes, “Carroll’s piece isn’t about Dunham; it’s about herself.” Ouch. The ultimate BFF accusation: how dare you expect television personalities to care about the women’s experiences you care about? How dare you expect them to portray experiences that you identify with?

But are we really off base when we criticize women showrunners for not seeming to care about telling a broader array of stories about women’s lives? I don’t know how to answer this question in general, but I think I know how to answer it about Dunham. If we think the answer to the question is “yes,” I think it’s because we’re in denial about what Dunham is trying to do. Everything doesn’t have to be about everything, it’s true. But Dunham positions herself as telling us stories about what it’s like to be a young woman. The show is called Girls after all. The book is a compendium of advice, subtitled “a young woman tells you what she’s learned.”

All we are doing if we say we fail to identify with Hannah Horvath or Lena Dunham is responding to an invitation Dunham extended. When the party doesn’t go quite right, is it really only on us, the guests? Sure, part of what we are talking about when we say we fail to identify is ourselves, but so what? Soraiya says that that Carroll, a woman of color, is “only talking about herself. “The irony is palpable—that Lena is only talking about herself is perhaps the most common criticism of the show. But both Carroll and Dunham want to tell stories about something more than themselves. All Caroll is doing, when she says she can see only a glimmer of her “emotional self” in Dunham is adding to the conversation about what it’s like to be a young woman right now.

Dunham has also embraced her role as a spokesperson for feminism–she apparently even converted the suddenly edgy Taylor Swift (yay).  She talks about things like why women should vote and young women’s frequent lack of sexual agency in ways I often find awesome. But if she’s going to be a spokesperson for feminism, it’s disappointing that she doesn’t really seem to get racism—especially when the feminism of many young women, is, and should be intersectional. Dunham says she heard the criticism that Girls was too white, but it’s a bit tough to believe her if the only part of her book that mentions African Americans is apparently joke about pretending to be slave children.

I take this point about the whiteness of Lena’s feminism—not Lena’s show—to be a big part of Caroll’s critique. She is upset that Hollywood is so hung up on a “20-something white woman who grew up in wealth, likes to get naked and have sex on TV and call it feminism, and who is almost entirely exclusionary on the subject of race.” And given the lack of mainstream spaces in which to discuss representations of women of color, I don’t see anything wrong with using discussions of Dunham as places to have that conversation.

Now, there are certainly bad feminist ways to say that someone’s view about what young women are like is limited or to say that they manifest race and class behaviors that block us from identifying with her. For instance, we could, as Carroll verges on doing, wish Lena Dunham off TV for taking the space of a woman of color. I’d rather wish off one of the many shows run by the less talented and more misogynistic (like how is Two and a Half Men still on?). We could also suggest that the problem of lack of representation of the realities of people of color is Lena Dunham’s personal fault when we know it’s a structural problem that riddles the vast majority of TV. We could get angry at Dunham for navel-gazing and, in so doing, suggest that discussions of women’s everyday experiences are trivial. Or we could just be misogynists complaining about how we don’t want to see her non-normative body and pretending that this has something to do with her privilege.

So maybe there’s lots of ways to be a BFF. Asking feminist-identified celebrities who say they are telling stories about women to think about why women of color have difficulty identifying with them isn’t one of them. I’m happy about that because, in case I haven’t mentioned it, I adore Lena Dunham. And I’m glad wishing she were a little less racially clueless is just another part of my being a fan.

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