Lena Dunham Talks Rape Backlash on 'Today' & Her Words Are Spot On
I have a complicated relationship with Lena Dunham. Before this post goes any further, I concede that I did not read Dunham's 2014 memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. To not read it was a personal choice, as I don't fully identify with Dunham's experiences. But on Wednesday morning the Girls creator appeared on Today to discuss with Savannah Guthrie the upcoming season of the HBO show, which sees Hannah studying at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and inevitably the conversation led to a discussion about the criticism Dunham received for writing about her rape in her book. I was surprised to find that, whatever my personal opinions on Dunham may be, she responded in a universal and responsible manner to the question that I really agree with and respect.
The story in question is an account in Not That Kind of Girl wherein Dunham describes a sexual assault she suffered while at Oberlin College. The essay, "Barry," led to litigation from a former colleague at Oberlin who fit the description of the assailant in Dunham's book. Eventually Random House, Dunham's publisher, agreed to include a note in future copies that made clear that "Barry" was a pseudonym and that Dunham did not mean to target any one individual. When Guthrie asked Dunham about the backlash, the 28-year old said:
It's a very, very painful thing to share an episode that personal, and receive criticism. But what I received was only a small percentage of the doubt and victim blaming that most women who are sexually assaulted in this country experience.
You know, I am a celebrity with a platform and a lot of incredible support. Most women who come forward with accusations of sexual assault don't have those benefits — don't have my legal and emotional and financial supports.
Much of my personal hesitation about Dunham in the past has been attached to her denial or her privilege or inability to see outside her myopic experience, specifically the now age-old debate about the lack of diversity on Dunham's show. But I applaud her answer on the Today show, which at once acknowledges that she is in a position more privileged than many victims are, and though she did face criticism, vitriol and victim-blaming in the face of her essay, her status still allows her to voice her experience with a certain insulation that provides safety.
Because, as Dunham also notes, not all victims (in fact, very few) have the option to speak out about their experiences. Much of the criticism brought against Dunham's essay employed the argument that Dunham was trying to target and ruin an innocent man's life; a classic turntable of victim-blaming, making the accuser the accused.
Dunham previously clarified her intent (though she had no obligation to explain why she wrote about her sexual assault) in an op-ed for Buzzfeed in December. She said:
Survivors are so often re-victimized by a system that demands they prove their purity and innocence. They are asked to provide an unassailable narrative when the event itself is hazy, fragmented, and unspeakable. They are isolated and betrayed by people close to them who doubt their reality or are frustrated by their inability to move on. Their most intimate experiences are made public property.
And that is exactly the issue: Dunham's claims were almost immediately discredited. And that kind of victim-blaming and questioning of experience is the kind of gaslighting threat that keeps many women silent.
Dunham's response to Guthrie was even-handed and apropro to a morning show. She went on to say that she and her Girls costars have tried to "channel [their] voices into causes, and issues and projects that matter to [them]." I personally believe that celebrities with resources and positions of power have a social obligation to use that platform for good, and for that, Lena Dunham has garnered points in her corner with me. I hope she continues to inspire her fans to speak out about their experiences without fear.
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