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.

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