Does Lena Dunham’s “casual racism” matter?

Twitter was abuzz over the weekend because of some rather unfortunate tweets sent out by–lady of the moment–Lena Dunham. Dunham instagram’ed a picture of herself with a shawl over her head, writing, “I had a real goth/fundamentalist attitude when I woke up from my nap.”

Arturo Garcia posted the offending tweet and image.

The goth community is outraged.

(Just kidding).

The tweet and pic are not obviously racist to most people, but should be annoying. It’s more like casual racism–or when someone reinforces something that’s inherently racist and rather than question it, they just goes with the flow. The most concrete offense is that she is conflating fundamentalism with veiling. Many women don headscarves who aren’t fundamentalist. And there are people that are very fundamentalist that don’t veil or aren’t Muslim (check out all the anti-choice legislation coming from non-Muslim fundamentalists lately!) So, it invisibilizes these lesser known groups of people. As Hari Kondabolu wrote on Facebook, this lets us know Lena Dunham doesn’t have any friends that rock veils. I’m completely unsurprised by this, I don’t know why anyone would be surprised by this.

It gets worse–she “apologized” or rather, as Katie would call it, she issued a “rushology.”

Pic from Youngdiplomat on twitter.

Well, that’s not really an apology. It’s more like, “this joke would have made more sense if there wasn’t something maybe (?) about Muslims in the news.” Even though there wasn’t really anything about Muslims in the news, unless you are talking about the underlying racism in the narrative that the killer in the Oak Creek temple shooting meant to target Muslims. I mean, Sikh women don’t wear headscarves and it wasn’t a “fundamentalist temple” that was attacked, so it’s conflating a bunch of things that are unrelated. And if you were tapped into any of those worlds, you would know–but as we saw in the coverage of the shooting, most of the country is not tapped into these worlds or aware of these key differences.

Dunham is not and we already know that. Her relationship to race and ethnicity has been aptly called out a bunch.

But, I’m also fascinated by how much people are focused on her political representations since she’s essentially a comedy writer and comedians say racially offensive things all the time. Does calling Louis CK out for his creepiness or the casual racism displayed in his show make it to full columns in the Atlantic and the New Yorker? Generally, no.

And I’m not necessarily saying that it shouldn’t either–humor impacts popular culture and how we think about social and cultural phenomena. It can either work against implicit assumptions and agreements we have about identity or it can reinforce them. In my opinion, really good comics work against the grain and push our thinking about identity and it’s relationship to culture.

By centralizing women’s lives on television in unpredictable ways, Dunham does that and as a result there has been a lot of criticism about her that would have never been written had she been a man. There seems to be a lot of hand-wringing from male writers about how she is a hack, a spoiled brat and not that good at what she does. Some of it is so sexist, it’s embarrassing.

Unfortunately, you can be two things at once, so while she might be experiencing sexism, she’s also a little too comfortable with not questioning race. She seems to espouse a specific cultural moment, one that consistently invisibalizes hipsters of color. And dammit, our lives matter!

But, while the racial critiques are valid, they are not happening in a vacuum. We should absolutely call out people’s ignorance, but I think the outrage ends up scrutinizing her personal behavior instead of looking at the real problem–the lack of diverse representations of women in popular culture. Dunham (and her people) might say things that cause me ire, so while we should call her out, you rarely see male writers with similar tendencies called out to this degree.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t call her out for casual racism, blatant racism or when her friends run around on twitter saying all kinda things. Dunham’s causal racism matters, but it’s only part of the story. The rest is a culture obsessed with individual actions instead of interrogating the larger influences that greenlight projects that only showcase certain stories, or determine what is considered a valid experience and what is worth watching.

Why does Dunham represent the “women” of our generation–an impossible and irresponsible task? Someone much more powerful than Dunham is making that decision–be it consumers, producers, executives, mainstream media or the culture at large. While I can relate to some of her brand, her TV show and her writing–Dunham doesn’t speak for me, and she shouldn’t. I speak for me.

Now, someone give me a TV show, dammit.

Update: See the whole twitter conversation.

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/garconniere/ julia

    this analysis kind of irks me and i’m trying to put my finger on why. it does, in a sense, remind me of how quickly people were coming to louis c.k.’s defense post-daniel tosh tweet a few weeks back, which i was personally highly critical of. there were some pretty interesting conversations over at bitch magazine’s blog about it: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/louis-ck-talks-tosh-the-daily-show-feminist-magazine-rape-jokes-comedy-women-television

    you’re right: the vast majority of people, including people in the mainstream media and blogosphere, are way harder on women than they are on men. way harder on younger women than they are on men. sexism sucks. if we’re reading here at feministing, i don’t think we really have to go over that.

    but what kind of strikes me here is a semblance of a “what’s worse? sexism or racism?” argument. i’ve read it twice now and i’m still not sure what to take away: lena dunham said something not-really-but-kinda-racist, she kinda apologized for it, and people are talking about it. but we shouldn’t be so hard on her, because men don’t get criticized as much as women? the end?

    i’m also much more interested in looking at systemic racism and institutionalized whiteness in hollywood/the television world which leads to people like lena dunham getting greenlighted projects, when a successful web series like “the adventures of awkward black girl” can’t get a dime. but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out against the little moments, like this passing (now-deleted) tweet. it doesn’t have to be a matter of speaking out against one kind of racism, and not another.

    the other aspect in this equation is THE INTERNET. this wasn’t a comment she made to her roommate, or at a bar with friends. this was something she chose to photograph and chose to share publicly, because she thought it was funny. in this internet era of constantly sharing images and thoughts immediately, there are bound to be more than a few missteps. today people are sharing these little moments they found funny or worth repeating to tens of thousands of people online. in lena’s case, over 270,000 people.

    does lena dunham’s casual racism matter? yes, yeah it does. “casual” racism matters because it reinforces attitudes and stereotypes, and yeah, eventually things like public policy, legislation, and hate crimes. it’s how we choose to respond to it that really counts, in my opinion. it’s good she at least acknowledged this situation, and conversed (as much as you really can converse in 140 character tweets…) with people who were like “hey woah that’s not cool.” but i hardly think that absolves her of any guilt or sins. it’s kind of depressing we feel the need to pat someone on the back for doing the most basic respectful of things: acknowledging you did or said something hurtful, and semi-kinda-sorta apologizing publicly for it.

    maybe i’m demanding, but i expect more.

  • http://feministing.com/members/outlawno451/ Snikki Gr

    To be fair, I hardly think that people are “scrutinizing her personal behavior” when Dunham freely and thoughtlessly posts problematic pictures and captions herself. She’s the one putting herself out there as a public figure. She wants people to pay attention to her Twitter page; she has our attention. She thought she was cute, but she really, really wasn’t. It’s her own fault if she did not get the laughs that she anticipated. When a perfectly competent person says “Look at me! Look at me!” then intentionally does something ridiculous, then it is just that: ridiculous, open to ridicule.

    And with regards to male writers, no, they are not excused. Saying “Lay off Lena because men don’t get this flack” does not excuse sexist male writers or Lena. It could just be the company I keep and the blogs that I read, but I see plenty of criticism of TV shows for men by men (and even the ones for women by women). Maybe I just talk to very critical people. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In my opinion and from what I’ve read, the criticism of Dunham is brought on by disappointment more than anything else. WoC who are critical of her because her show Girls provided a setting that is PERFECT for showing the lives of PoC; and yet it doesn’t because Dunham just doesn’t know any. Her reality just happens to be very white, even at 26.

    Still, with the amount of criticism she gets for being insensitive to WoC, one would think that she’d read a book about PoC or something. It certainly wouldn’t kill her (or her career).

  • http://feministing.com/members/fatgyaru/ Lekha


    Way to base a whole post on the most popular “Derailing for Dummies” offense: Don’t You Have More Important Issues To Think About!?

    I mean, it’s just “casual racism” so who cares!? It’s not like that serious bad racism that evil racists do. And why are you being mean to this poor privileged white girl when you could be being mean to the people I have decided it’s valid to be mean to? It’s not like she claimed to represent all women of a certain generation or anything, right? And then seriously effed it up by being “casually racist”?

    Basically this is at the level of “Leave Britney Alone!” for me. I don’t see why you get to tell people who were offended by Dunham’s actions what valid expressions of their feelings are or how they should direct their criticisms. I don’t see why you get to say what other people should consider “serious” enough to warrant criticism or not. If it didn’t bother you, fine. But it’s not inherently sexist to criticize her and frankly I think that part of why people are hard on her is that she has personally claimed and has been foisted on us as the voice of our generation of women while treating a large proportion of that population like crap when she’s not totally pretending we don’t exist. If you think she’s some kind of innocent party here you are just wrong.

    So you go ahead and do your high-minded criticism of “the media” or “society” or whatever, and I will continue to call out this woman and any other person who shows their ass as a “casual” racist.

  • http://feministing.com/members/zeenacheda/ Dan C

    1) Her tweet was mildly racist.

    2) You say that Lena gets an undue amount of criticism. Maybe, but I’m having trouble thinking of anyone (maybe besides Louis CK) who has recently garnered so much media adoration and success in such a short amount of time. When you say there is a lot of hand-wringing from “male writers,” are you referring to journalists, or other comics? Nearly every major journalist – male or female – who reviewed Girls raved about it. And other comics – Chris Rock, Louis CK, Andy Samberg – have been vocal in their love of the show.

    3) You say you’re fascinated by how people focus on her political representations. Are you referring to people freaking out over this tweet she made? Because, before your post, I hadn’t heard a thing about it. There’s virtually no mention of it if you do a Google News search for her. Even if you specifically search Google for ‘Lena’ ‘Dunham’ ‘racist’ ‘tweet,’ you get a smattering of minor blogs and and a few gossip sites. According to Google, this Feministing post is the most relevant source on the topic. It’s not news.

    4) The strangest part of your post was that, in order to show how much people prey on Lena’s politics, you cite Gawker and New Yorker articles that discuss how Girls has whitewashed Brooklyn. The show definitely does to that. Is Lena being targeted for it because she’s female? Probably not. In fact, both of the articles you linked to spend a lot of ink comparing Girls to all of the other shows and movies that have whitewashed NYC. Both articles mention Seinfeld, Friends, Sex and the City, and How I Met Your Mother as the worst offenders. If you look back in time, Seinfeld and Larry David got a lot of heat for this in the 90s (as they should have). It’s maybe the most common criticism that Woody Allen has gotten.

    5) Are we now calling guys out for being “creepy?”

  • http://feministing.com/members/mav3185/ J

    This article is hilarious. Her racism may not matter to you as its unlikely to ever affect you but to Muslim women who do wear the hijab or the veil this will just mean more racist taunts on an everyday basis. I did not realise that being part of an oppressed class meant you could be as offensive as you want. Just because she’s a white woman who occasionally experiences sexism does not give her a free pass to be as racist as she wants. Its unlikely that she will ever experience sexism and racism like WoC face on an everyday basis but who cares about them?

    She has been rightly criticised for deeming her show as representative of a generation of women and then excluding on purpose a whole chunk of women. She has made numerous racist jokes on her show and on twitter and is best pals with lesley arfin who made fun of the President’s skin tone and called people the N word. Its funny how you omitted that information in your article but then that would have detracted from your ‘lena is the real victim here!’ slant.

    Don’t worry though, next time a white feminist calls me a Paki or a raghead i’ll be sure to sympathise/apologise to them with them as you have shown me that only white racist privileged girls are demonised in our society.

  • http://feministing.com/members/christelle/ Christelle

    What does the lack of diverse representation of women in popular culture have to do with Lena Dunham’s misguided, uninformed, poor-taste tweet? Television and media should supplement cultural education, not replace it. How about meeting different people in person and, you know, interacting with them?

    You can criticize Dunham’s lack of awareness without criticizing her for being a woman. Her undereducation is not a sexist issue.

  • http://feministing.com/members/doug/ Douglas

    “we should absolutely call out people’s ignorance”

    You went there.

    The nightmarish purity of this postmodern invective gets worse when it goes pop. The “Intersection” of everything from tweets to TV shows. Gross. People are fighting oppression in this world: rape, beatings, emotional abuse, and worse. That is everyday for people. They deserve precedence here. They are holy. I laugh at this cryptic, snotty, privileged, cheap, postmodern, claptrap article. Whine about some -tweet-? What? Leave the whining to Huckabee and get real about the grit. Remember Africa’s World War, 1998-2003+, the most vicious conflict since WWII? Not one post here. Not one post on the sexual assault on the Lesbian activists in South Africa. But the intersectional relationship between comedy, and the political representations of an individual clearly acting in poor taste should distract us from the many U.S. military interventions in the Muslim regions backed by the U.S. Democratic Party? HA!

    Is this blog even feminist?, Is feministing just some PR for the U.S. Democratic Party?

    • http://feministing.com/members/gibby/ Nina

      This is one of the best comments I have seen on this site.

      Feministing tows the corporate line of “progressivism” as much as Romney tows it in the actual corporate world, and it’s pretty disgusting. This site isn’t helping anyone except reinforcing the status quo.

    • http://feministing.com/members/krimarzke/ Kristine Totzke

      Douglas, my immediate reaction after reading your post was complete agreement. Does this tweet really mean anything in the grand scheme of things? Absolutely not. Could one even argue that this matters right now? Probably not well. Then I started thinking that I don’t really care for any arguments on the validity of what is “news” and what is not. Maybe Dunham’s tweet didn’t deserve the long write up it got here, but people did react to her tweet and isn’t that really what is worth mentioning? Feministing didn’t make this something people cared about; it was already something people were being critical of (i.e. Dunham’s own twitter followers). Also, your criticisms of feministing are absurd. All the things that you listed as more relevant and important to be discussed (i.e. rape, beatings, emotional abuse, and worse.) are all topics that fill Feministing’s blog archives. And to come to a blogging site dedicated to talking about such topics along with some “junk food” pop culture posts like above makes you seem like you’re just voluntarily lost.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ktzal/ Katy Zalazar

    As an aside, using the word “casual” or “mildly” infront of the word “racist” just doesn’t work.

    There is no such thing as “subtle” racism. It may seem subtle to the individual, group, or organization perpetuating the racist act, but for those who have felt the constant sting of systemic and institutionalized racism throughout their lives, it is certainly not subtle.

    Just something to think about.

    Back to your regularly scheduled debate.

    • http://feministing.com/members/zeenacheda/ Dan C

      “unintentional racism,” maybe?

      sorry, but I think it’s okay to add modifiers in front of these sorts of terms. No one knows what Lena’s exact intent was, but it seems like, in writing her tweet, she was looking for a term that’s easily associated with the wearing of burqas/veils. (We can blame the lack of distinction on Lena’s ignorance, or the fact that she was working with a sweater.) She settled on “fundamentalist,” as in, “hey, islamic fundamentalists wear these.” As culturally ignorant and insensitive as that statement is, I think it’s different than someone saying, “all Muslims are evil and bad.”

      Neither type of statement is defendable. They’re both wrong, and they’re both racist. However, I think one is slightly more understandable, and forgivable. Lena was right to apologize and, hopefully, she learned something from this.