The Complicated Case of Lena Dunham
Just uttering the name “Lena Dunham” has the power to whip people into a frenzy. Whether you love or hate the star, chances are that you are very passionate about that view and think that others should be, too.
Look, it makes sense. To say that Dunham stirred things up when she burst (back) onto the scene at the helm of HBO’s Girls, would be an understatement. From her willingness to bare it all (repeatedly) on the small screen to the honest, feminine POV of the narrative, Girls has ruffled quite a few feathers over the years… But not nearly as many as its creator has off-screen.
Lena Dunham has this problem, you know? People just don’t like her—which is fair. Despite the fact that I admire what she was able to do with Girls and that I think she is a smart, talented woman, she is so, so, so troubling in so many ways. Unfortunately, most of the criticism of Lena over the years has focused less on her truly problematic actions and words, instead focusing on how “annoying” she is, how narcissistic she seems, or how she deigns to be naked on screen all the time.
Take, for instance, the newest “Lena Scandal”—her Rihanna-inspired “tit-chandelier” tattoo.
A few days ago, Dunham posted the above photograph of her new breast-plate tattoo to Instagram… And people were not there for it. Like, at all.
They weren’t there for the tattoo itself, they weren’t there for seeing Lena’s body, and they certainly weren’t there for the Rihanna shout-out, but that’s kind of it. Numerous people called her fat. People told her that calling out Rihanna was attention seeking. People said she looks “like a man.” Some flung anti-semitic sentiments towards her. A few called her useless.
There were, of course, numerous references to the most controversial Dunham controversy—the passages from Not That Kind of Girl that many people thought described Lena sexually abusing her younger sister—but that’s another (non)story altogether. Let’s talk about the fake controversy at hand here. Lena Dunham got a tattoo that was similar to Rihanna’s and mentioned the singer in the process.
Why does that make everyone so mad?
First of all, it makes 100% perfect sense that Lena would give Rihanna a shout-out when getting a tattoo in a similar place to the singer. Imagine the outrage if she hadn’t! It’s one of the only tangible examples of really stellar foresight on Dunham’s part that I can think of, actually. Second of all, Lena, like the rest of us, just likes Rihanna a lot (her Instagram and Twitter will confirm this). Plenty of fans get tattoos inspired by their favorite celebrities, isn’t Lena Dunham just doing the same?
Well, yes. And also no.
On the one hand, Lena is an empowered, feminist, millennial woman and it makes total sense that she would connect with Rihanna. She inspires most of us, for good reason. She’s a total badass. On the other hand, though, Dunham is, herself, famous which undeniably changes the dynamic of the situation. And I don’t think people are sure that she gets that.
And that’s the problem.
That unidentifiable irritation that so many people claim to feel for Lena Dunham stems not from her abrasive approach to her work or her “too honest to handle” take, it comes from her seeming lack of self-awareness about her own place in the world and subsequent hypocrisy. It’s really an ironic twist considering that her work has been described as almost jarringly “self-aware” numerous times.
See, she has had a complicated (non)relationship with Rihanna over the years. The actress famously, publicly, and harshly criticized Riri for getting back with Chris Brown for a time in 2013 in the wake of their domestic abuse scandal which is not cool. As a loud and proud feminist, Dunham should know that criticizing an abuse victim doesn’t help anyone and it wasn’t her place to shame Rihanna for it.
Despite being a talented woman with a specific and valid point-of-view to share with the world, Lena Dunham seems to routinely neglect to acknowledge that her life experiences aren’t the only way to experience life. I want to make it clear that I don’t think that Dunham is a bad person or maliciously motivated in anything that she does, rather she needs to work a little bit harder to understand the nuance of criticisms leveled against her. She has had a tendency in the past towards calling “sexism” on any critique and, on a certain level she’s not wrong—most of the most persistent hate spewed towards her (weight, appearance, abrasiveness, etc) have been motivated by misogyny—but that doesn’t mean that all of it is.
It is, in fact, possible to have concerns about how a person conducts themselves and have it not be about their gender at all.
So, about the tattoo? Lay off of it.
Should Lena have seen the backlash coming? Maybe (almost definitely), but should that stop her from adorning her body the way she wants to? Absolutely not. In the end, that’s the best way to handle a star as controversial as Lena Dunham.
We have to start letting the small things go.
If you have a real problem with something she says or does, by all means, criticize it. Just don’t hide those very legitimate concerns in superficial issues like her weight, the nude-to-clothed ratio of her screen time, her sex life, or the fact that she got a tattoo like Rihanna’s.