In mid-December 2016, Lena Dunham made international headlines for a comment she made on her podcast, Women of the Hour. The episode, called “Choice,” focuses on reproductive freedom.
Fifteen minutes in, Dunham describes visiting a Planned Parenthood in Texas and being asked to contribute her abortion story to a young girl’s project. “I haven’t had an abortion,” she admits. What starts out awkwardly only gets worse. Dunham closes with a statement that stirred the cringe felt ‘round the world: "Now I can say that I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had.”
The “Dunham Problem”
I am not a fan of Lena Dunham. I don’t watch Girls, listen to Dunham’s podcast, or read her writing. Most of what I know about Dunham comes from my friends. I learned about the abortion comment when someone posted a related article on Facebook with his own caption: “Lena Dunham: ‘I still haven’t been put up against a wall and shot, but everyone wishes I had.’”
The ensuing comments riffed on this theme. In a single thread, Dunham was called a rapist, a racist, and a transmisogynist who “thinks abortions are fun.”
Author Roxane Gay first defended Lena Dunham in her essay “Girls, Girls, Girls,” which tackles the issue of race representation on HBO’s Girls. Gay writes, “It is unreasonable to expect that Lena Dunham would have somehow solved the race and representation problem on television while crafting her twenty-something witticisms and appalling us with sex scenes so uncomfortable they defy imagination.”
And yet, we put so much weight on Dunham, subjecting her to far worse criticism than, say, Casey Affleck or Bill Clinton, both of whom have been the subjects of serious (and multiple) sexual assault allegations.
When Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, was published, she was accused of sexual assault, too. Midway through the book, Dunham provides a candid description of exploring her sister’s body when the two of them were children. TruthRevolt caught wind of this and published an article entitled, “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister.” The Internet went ape shit. For the first time, I came to Dunham’s defense. Roxane Gay did, too.
“What people are construing as a pattern of abuse, I see as an older sibling just trying to get her younger sibling to love her,” Gay writes.
Sexual exploration is natural in children. Not yet attuned to what sexuality, consent, and boundaries entail, kids sometimes cross lines without realizing it. That’s not the same as abuse. It’s worth noting that Dunham’s sister, Grace, does not identify as a victim, try as strangers might to convince her otherwise.
The real issue, Gay writes, “...is an undercurrent of rage that seems to have very little to do with the book, its disclosures or ‘the good fight,’ and everything to do with resenting a privileged young white woman succeeding.”
I agree. This is why we relentlessly hate on Girls while drooling over the Clinton family and Manchester by the Sea.
To Educate or Annihilate
My mother had an abortion in 1984, seven years before I was born. When I called to get her take on Dunham’s “I wish I had” comment, she said it sounded like Dunham was well-intentioned in trying to ease stigma, but that her delivery was off.
“I’d like to think my 24-year-old self would have viewed it as a statement of camaraderie,” Mrs. Eveland said.“I don’t think she meant, ‘[Abortion] is fun and easy and everyone should have one.’”
A few days after the Internet erupted over her comment, Dunham posted a lengthy apology on Instagram. "My words were spoken from a sort of 'delusional girl' persona I often inhabit... and it didn't translate," she writes. "That's my fault. I would never, ever intentionally trivialize the emotional and physical challenges of terminating a pregnancy. My only goal is to increase awareness and decrease stigma."
When I read Dunham’s apology to my mother, she said she could tell it came from the heart. “It really bothers me how brutal people can be when people make mistakes,” she said. “It’s like you get kicked out of the human club.”
There’s a generational gap to consider. My generation has embraced call-outs, virtual witch hunts, and group digs for microaggressions. My mother’s generation enforced silence around all but the most vile acts. Yet somehow, both social climates have yielded similar results: they shut people up. Many of my friends — mostly punks and radicals — are afraid to express their thoughts for fear of Facebook call-outs and excommunication.
The problem is that we don’t always know the right thing to say. It’s not always clear that our words could be construed as hurtful. It takes time to educate ourselves. It takes humility, patience, and a lot of mistakes.
Last summer, after another black man was killed by the police, I wrote on Facebook, “All cops are bastards. If you disagree with this, delete me.” And you know what? A bunch of people did. Instead of carving out a space for open dialogue and the possibility of learning on both ends, I made a door-closing statement and lost some friends.
When we write things about Dunham like, “Let this moldy Wonderbread die,” we are closing the door in her face. We’re telling her that she’s unworthy of educating. We are denying her the right to be thoroughly human. And in doing this, we’re sending the same messages to ourselves.
Fetishizing Female Pain
Dunham is not the first to entertain a thought like, “I wish I’d had an abortion.” This stems from something instilled in our culture — something that dates back beyond our reach. It’s a consequence of fetishizing female suffering.
In her essay, “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison writes, “The pain of women turns them into kittens and rabbits and sunsets and sordid red satin goddesses . . . Violence turns them celestial.” Jamison warns that the danger of “wounded womanhood” is that, “its invocation will corroborate a pain cult that keeps legitimating, almost legislating, more of itself.”
It’s no wonder why we have people like Lena Dunham saying, essentially, “I want in.”
The night after I was raped in my Rochester, New York apartment, my roommate said, “God, I wish someone would rape me now so I could get it over with.” I was speechless. Her statement was macabre and invalidating and, for a long time, I resented her for it. But I’m starting to understand why it happened.
Most of my friends either consciously or subconsciously adhere to a hierarchy of oppression, wherein the “most oppressed” person earns the most social status. This dictates who can and cannot speak on a given issue. Those who comment on things they presumably haven’t experienced are told to sit down and shut up.
In this way, the radical left is as guilty as the right in making surface-level assumptions, forgetting that people of all genders, races, and backgrounds know how it feels to suffer — maybe not in the same way, but with similar results. This isn’t a denial of those uniquely painful experiences, but a reminder that pain is something we’ve all felt. We don’t have to rank it.
Our current approach to handling fucked up shit succeeds in three areas: silencing, dividing, and fetishizing. When we make certain topics off-limits, rank each other based on this hierarchy of oppression, and romanticize the experience of being a victim, people start to wonder what they’re missing out on. This can translate as envy, which brings me back to my roommate.
On one level, I think my roommate truly believed rape was her destiny. She studied mathematics. She knew the statistics weren’t in her favor. But I could also see that she was envious of the attention I was getting, failing to realize that, if given the choice, I wouldn’t be a rape victim.
Dunham, like my roommate, is a product of a culture that perpetuates the myth of the idyllic suffering woman — a myth which, according to Jamison, “...turns female trauma into celestial constellations worthy of worship.”
I know trauma is ugly and that I’d rather it be gone than worshipped, but that’s only because I’ve lived through a lot of it. From what I can tell, Dunham hasn’t. She doesn’t get it. But ignorance can be altered and sensitivity can be learned. Saying something foolish does not warrant being “put up against a wall and shot.”
Ultimately, Dunham doesn’t need our forgiveness. She has friends, family, and fans who will continue to support her, no questions asked. But I forgive her. I know she’s not the enemy, but a well-intentioned doofus who often speaks without thinking. This is a consequence of extreme self-exposure, something I’m all too familiar with as a blogger and aspiring memoirist. Dunham reveals her full self, flaws included, so it’s inevitable that we’ll occasionally hear weird, offensive, and poorly worded opinions escape her mouth. We all have “bad” thoughts. We all say stupid shit.
I’m glad to see a public figure fuck up and take responsibility for it. It makes Dunham seem authentic to me. I recognize her, in all her imperfections, as distinctively human — clumsy, confused, and fallible.