Lena Dunham's Race Problem
My relationship with Lena Dunham has always been complicated. I was one of the first writers who took issue with her show Girls for its lack of racial representation, and have since struggled with the meteoric ascent of Lena Dunham as Cultural Icon. But it is hard to deny that the girl is good. The writing on her show is often nuanced, electric, and deeply resonant, and I find she is at her best when it comes to the relationships or encounters she has had, such as they are.
I debated reading her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, for the same reasons I struggled with the show—I see some of my own emotional self in Lena's work, but not the physical reflection. As suspected, the book was no different. Although an engaging read in parts, the only pointed reference to black people in her book is a memory of her third-grade learning activity on the subject of slavery and the Underground Railroad, which involved the kids being "shackled" together so they were "like slave families." Dunham recalls being "too young, self-involved, and dissociated" to wonder what kind of impact this had on her black classmates.
And then I am catapulted back to what it is that bothers me so deeply about Dunham. It is absurd and frankly racist that the literary world's axis is now set to spin based on whatever utterances are made by a 20-something white woman who grew up in wealth, likes to get naked and have sex on TV and call it feminism, and who is almost entirely exclusionary on the subject of race.
Supporters of Dunham's work have said that even as a suddenly famous young writer and director smack dab in the media spotlight, she should not be expected to single-handedly dismantle racism in all of mainstream media. But shouldn't she be?
This is a young woman artist who has gained that rare incontrovertible power in addition to a rapt audience; a first-time author of a book in which chapters include "Girl Crush: That Time I was Almost a Lesbian, Then Vomited," and that prominently features a blurb from George Saunders on its jacket. Dunham uses shorthand in her acknowledgments to thank "David, Esther and the whole Remnick/Fein clan"—as in David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker, and wife, Esther Fein. Among her biggest supporters is Judd Apatow.
Dunham's biggest and most powerful champions, in fact, appear to mostly be straight white men. Jon Stewart all but licked her face in praise of her unbelievable talent when she appeared on his show to promote her book. I'm all for freedom of expression, having sex and embracing your naked self on TV—that's the prerogative of any woman, of any artist. But it's still a young naked woman in her 20s having sex on TV, the image of which, last I checked, is wildly appealing to heterosexual men. There's nothing especially radical about it, and it's as unsettling as Dunham's cultivated narcissism. Still, if Dunham were to say to Remnick and Apatow, "Guys, you know what would be awesome? If we did a movie or an entire issue of a magazine or dedicated the whole New Yorker festival to conversations about centralizing racial representation in media," they would likely listen, and that would be radical.
Is there envy involved in my assessment of Dunham? Of course there is—envy, frustration, fatigue. I wrote stories and plays as a young girl, one in particular stands out and which I performed as a one-woman show in front of my family, about a lonely girl who dusted her bookshelves all day waiting for magic to appear, like a paleontologist dusting a fossil hoping to discover a new dinosaur species. Everyone told me I was destined for stardom, and I believed it, right up until the end of elementary school, when my white fifth grade teacher didn't bother to sugarcoat how difficult it would be for me to succeed at anything given that I am black.
My parents, who like Dunham's are artists, encouraged my independent spirit and creativity, and gave me and my two siblings loads of creative freedom. Unlike Dunham's parents, they were not commercially successful—my father taught high school art and sold the occasional painting, while my mother put her painting aside entirely to raise us. Despite the success I have garnered, and for which I am grateful, I know that I have been held back in significant ways because of my race (and my clear unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to withstand, ignore or accept institutionalized racism in media).
As lovely as it is that the genuinely talented Dunham is white and normal-sized, as opposed to white and skinny, her career trajectory looks a lot different than that of another normal-sized, genuinely talented artist: Issa Rae—who, for the record, is a Dunham fan.
One year older than Dunham at 29, Rae's hit web series Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl has been seen by over 20 million viewers. She's been in development with HBO for an untitled pilot for nearly two years, and has been featured on the Forbes' 30 Under 30 list twice (including this year). Recently she and her business partner Deniese Davis launched ColorCreative.tv to "increase opportunities women and minority TV writers," because: "Sure, networks have diversity programs and initiatives set in place to combat the jarring homogeneity that is the writer's room, but those programs have yielded very few high-profile success stories."
She is an ambitious and hardworking artist writing about her experience as a young woman in the world, and who is also slated to publish a book of essays in 2015. I'm guessing her book advance was less than $3.5 million.
Rae is black; Dunham is white—and black artists, particularly black women artists (see: Shonda Rhimes, Janelle Monae and Beyonce), are rarely afforded the luxury of being celebrated as individual artists. Entertainers, yes. Angry, sure. Afro-futurists, definitely. Feminists, occasionally. Individual artists, almost never.
It is troubling enough that Dunham demonstrates no ready indication that she is any more mature, less self-involved and dissociated than her third-grade self to wonder the impact on her black peers of being excluded from the urban landscape of Brooklyn. But ignoring the fact that Dunham's fame is as much about her talent as it is about her whiteness is not only a disservice to her audience, it is an insult to black women artists.
Rebecca Carroll is the director of digital media and marketing at Scenarios USA, and a regular opinion writer for the Guardian. She has been editor at numerous online and print publications, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, Ebony and the New Republic. The author of several nonfiction books, she is based in Brooklyn.
[Photo by Getty]