Considering All “Sides” Of The Lena Dunham Debacle: A Reading List
I haven’t stopped thinking about this whole Lena Dunham controversy since it first made headlines earlier this week. Not because I feel particularly strongly in either direction about Lena Dunham the famous person, aside from her being a fellow member of the human race who sometimes makes art I enjoy. I don’t care about this controversy because some right-wing, transphobic, misogynist website was the first to sound the alarm that her memoir, Not That Kind Of Girl, contains passages they say describe child sex abuse towards her younger sister Grace. I don’t care about this controversy because Lena Dunham is a feminist, and a white woman, and therefore, by some people’s estimation, “one of my own” who I’m going to defend for that reason alone, or something. I care about it because it has shown a very bright spotlight on something that is rarely discussed despite being entirely universal: how children come to know and understand their bodies and the bodies of other people, particularly other children, and how they learn to uphold and respect the boundaries of those bodies. We have all been children, we have all had to go through this, and what this controversy has revealed to me is how incredibly varied and defining those experiences have been in good, bad, but mostly somewhere-in-between ways. And I care about this controversy because I don’t think children will ever navigate these issues in a one-size-fits-all way. So we’d better get better at talking about it.
Forget the right-wing, transphobic, misogynists nutsos at True Revolt and the National Review who first raised the red flag. Put aside whatever theories you have about their motivations. The fact of the matter is, I don’t think I have ever seen so many women and feminists and thinkers that I respect and admire at such odds and in such an emotional way. There are many who have been vocal about their revulsion towards Dunham’s actions, some of them resolute that what she described in her book — plying her sister with candy for affection and kisses; looking/touching a one-year-old’s vagina when she was aged 7; masturbating next to her sleeping 11-year-old sister when she was 17 — was abusive, the “proof” for some being their own lived experience as survivors of child molestation. On the other end of the spectrum, you had those who read the book and were relatively unfazed by those passages, except perhaps squicked out by some of her word choices and decision to address them with her usual shocking ho-hum-ness. But still undisturbed because what Dunham described as being “within the realm of normal” for her is, like or not, what many found to be within the realm of normal for them too.
“Kids are weird. Kids are curious.”
“Not that weird, not that curious.”
“I was that weird. I was that curious.”
And what’s sat with me the most for these last few days, what’s stopped me from writing this controversy off as ridiculous hysteria:
“Another kid was that weird, that curious with me. And I was harmed.”
I was a curious and perhaps weird kid. I’ve already told you about flashing my vagina on the pre-school playground; taking pictures of my crotch along with a neighbor boy on a disposable camera that we never developed, though they would have been blurry and dark anyway; and playing an embarrassingly gross game with my cousins called Smell Butts, that I have now found myself reevaluating as potentially boundary crossing in light of this controversy. Because I was the eldest by a couple years. Because we were interacting with each other’s bodies, not just our own. It wasn’t sexual, not at all. But Dunham wasn’t being sexual with her sister’s vagina when she looked and touched and discovered the pebbles hidden inside. Could one of my cousins have been harmed by this play and I just never knew? They’re the ones who like to joke about it over family dinners.
I also masturbated in the same room, even in the same bed, as another cousin while she was asleep. Yes, we were the same age. But that was decidedly sexual, though not to the degree that it is now, the masturbating I mean. And her being there had nothing to do with it and I was sure she was asleep and I was very quiet and it wasn’t like I ever ever ever wanted her to know. And then there was another time, when I was on a godawful and boring road trip with my family and I was sitting in the back of the car reading a book that must have had a scene in it that made me feel something down there that I wanted to feel more of, and so I figured out a way to increase that feeling by crossing my legs and squeezing my thighs together, my parents in the front seat and my six-years-younger brother, very much awake, sitting next to me, never the wiser. Was that fucked up? Was that boundary crossing? Was that predatory?
Grace Dunham, while not entirely happy about the ways in which her oversharing sister has viewed and used her life as an extension of her own, has made it clear that she is okay with what was written about in Not That Kind Of Girl, and that should be the final word, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to defining what occurred between them. But that’s not to dismiss that some abuse survivors have characterized Lena’s actions as similar to the abuse they suffered, including at the hands of other, often older, children. But other abuse survivors have said that Dunham’s actions are not abuse. And the experts aren’t necessarily in complete agreement, either, though I suspect all would really rather have more information beyond just three short passages in a memoir from a notorious button-pusher before making a final call. And then there are all the women who were once children who are saying that while Dunham’s childhood behavior as she describes it may not have been exactly like theirs, it wasn’t all that different, and that it was all part of growing up, coming of age, and learning about these mysterious bodies of ours, and in a way, that time was precious, because it was before we were inundated with messages that our bodies are gross or shameful. At some point, in some way, we learned boundaries, what and who it was okay to touch and when. But again, those lessons and how we learned them are varied, and at times they could be harmful as well. There are many, many people, especially women, who were shamed about their bodies and their curiosity and the expression of their burgeoning sexualities when they were children who are still feeling the impact of that shame now. That matters too.
This post is turning out to be an essay when I really just meant to write an intro and then post a bunch of links to pieces I’ve read and enjoyed and learned from and have found shaping my still evolving viewpoint that what really matters about this issue, this controversy, is not specifically Lena Dunham and what she did, but that the behavior exists on a spectrum and depending on all sorts of other factors, many of which are led by ADULTS, which we are NOW, that behavior can either be healthy or harmful or, more likely, somewhere in between. And it’s by listening to each other, even when it makes you question yourself and things you have done, that we’ll be better able to guide the children in our lives when they go through this too. Because they will. And I sure as hell don’t want to leave it up to the fucking dingbats at Truth Revolt to direct that conversation.
So, with that in mind, here are some of the pieces I’ve read over the last few days that have really made me think. They are not all pieces I wholeheartedly agree with, but I found them all thoughtful and important and worth considering.
- On Lena Dunham and All That by Roxane Gay (Tumblr)
- On Abuse, Consent, & Life After Childhood Sexual Abuse by Mikki Kendall (Hood Feminism)
- The Right to a Sexual Narrative: On the Lena Dunham Abuse Claims by Jia Tolentino (Jezebel)
- What Dunham’s Defenders Are Missing: Her Story About Her Sister Could Have Been A Teaching Opportunity by Carolyn Edgar (Salon)
- About Lena Dunham’s Memoir, Overshare and Lack of Boundaries by Awesomely Luvvie
- Is Lena Dunham A Sexual Abuser? by Quad City Pat’s Musings
- Child Therapists: Stop Freaking Out About Lena Dunham by Tracy Clark-Flory (Salon)
- Lena Dunham’s Triggering Art Doesn’t Make Her an Abuser, No Matter What Some Transphobic Bigot Insists by Sarah Seltzer (Flavorwire)