Another day, another incidence of Lena Dunham writing off her racist comments as nothing more than an aspect of her offbeat sense of humor. In an interview published September 2nd in Dunham’s “feminist” newsletter, The Lenny Letter, Dunham spoke to Amy Schumer about her new book and career. The interview itself went on several tangents, at least two of which were bafflingly ill-advised. However, it was Dunham’s assertions that football player Odell Beckham Jr., who was seated at Dunham’s table at the Met Ball, ignored her because he found her sexually unattractive that caused the most controversy.
To break it down, Lena Dunham wore a tuxedo to the Met Ball and thought it so revolutionary as to confuse a straight male into not recognizing her womanhood. Dunham, in reference to herself, puts words in Beckham Jr.’s mouth: “That’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog.” In Dunham’s narration of the events, Beckham Jr. finally stumbles out of his puzzled reflection to decide that he doesn’t want to have sex with Dunham, and staring at his phone is much more interesting than engaging with her. Dunham concludes, “It was like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie.”
There’s probably lots of reasons someone wouldn’t want to talk to an absolute stranger other than their sexual attractiveness, but Dunham ignores this possibility. By speaking for Beckham Jr., Dunham is perpetuating historical stereotypes about black male sexuality. Kirsten West Savali writes on The Root that it is these “assumptions of black masculinity” that result in wrongful convictions and/or deaths, such as in the cases of George Stinney Jr., William Harper, Emmett Till, Brian Banks, the Scottsboro Boys and countless others. Before you argue that Dunham’s rant, which she blamed on her own insecurities in a half-hearted apology posted on Instagram, has nothing to do with race, we should not forget that Dunham’s comments and portrayal of people of color throughout her career in media have been misunderstood– as have Amy Schumer’s.
Dunham, who responded to complaints about an exclusively white cast on Girls by casting Donald Glover for two (two!) whole episodes as her character’s Republican boyfriend; who tweeted she had a dream she “molested an African-American rat;” who refused to comment when tagged in a photo posted by Lisa Lampanelli featuring use of the n-word, needs to be held accountable. Apologizing is all fine and good if you actually learn from your mistakes, but at some point we need to take responsibility for our ignorance. Helen Razer makes a great point in The Daily Review: “Dunham’s subsequent apology, which offered her feminine insecurity as an excuse, doesn’t change the fact that much, much more than most, a filmmaker and publisher is absolutely in the habit of editing.”
It does not matter that this interview was supposed to be a conversation between friends, publishing it online made it a conversation with the world. Public figures need to recognize their influence, privilege, and audience before spewing out whatever hateful thoughts come into their heads. Schumer, who apparently also has not reached this level of accountability, responded to a tweet about the falsehood of misogyny amongst men of color being more prevalent than among white men by asking, “[H]ow would you know? Statistically who is hollerin at you more in the street pa?” and deleted it after a few minutes.
Schumer and Dunham are not feminist role models. They only apologize for or retract their statements when someone criticizes or critiques them. That is not the behaviour of people who want to work towards justice. That is not the behaviour of people who care. This isn’t about political correctness, it is about realizing the harmful consequences of your actions and the insidious nature of ‘casual racism.’