Lena Dunham’s Triggering Art Doesn’t Make Her an Abuser, No Matter What Some Transphobic Bigot Insists

This past weekend, The National Review‘s Kevin Williamson, notable for his transphobic piece “Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman” and an infamous “women who get abortions should be hanged” tweet, moved on to attacking Lena Dunham for writing about her own rape in her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. 

Why did she have the right “to accuse a man of rape without having to take responsibility for the accusation,” he asked, cherry-picking through her memoir, when she herself clearly mistreated (dog whistle!) her sister? To make that claim, he found an incident in her memoir that indeed shows Dunham exhibiting lack of boundaries at the age of seven (which, in the aggregated piece that exploded was “accidentally” initially published as 17) when she poked inside her baby sister’s vagina for an impromptu anatomy lesson and found a pile of pebbles stashed within.

Dunham struck back in a series of tweets, but what happened next was, unfortunately, exactly what Dunham’s right-wing attackers wanted. Some feminists, many who already dislike Dunham’s privilege and persona, joined the hue and cry. Some even labeled all supporters of Dunham as enablers of rape and abuse. To build this case, they cited behavior on Dunham’s part that legitimately sucks — like outing her sister to her parents — along with her self-aware jokes about boundary issues and “behaving like a predator” to get her little sister to give her attention and kisses, as well as her admitted habit of masturbating in bed as a teenager with her sister fast asleep beside her (this kind of self-pleasuring with sleeping sib beside one is also the opening incident of Caitlin Moran’s recent novel, How to Build a Girl). All of these stories have been relayed by Dunham as part of a constructed, crafted series of interviews and essays, likely leaving out many other details that we simply can’t know without being a member of the Dunham clan.

It’s perfectly understandable to dislike Dunham’s art, and her persona, to note that her pattern of behavior doesn’t make her seem like a particularly considerate person (artists are narcissists? WHO KNEW?), to wish she wasn’t quite such a darling of today’s feminist movement, to wonder if she has some issues to work out (surely she’d agree), to point out that her aesthetic benefits from cultural double-standards and privilege that is often denied to women of color, and to be extremely upset by individual instances of her candor as a writer, artist, and public figure.

But feminists have our own word for this, and that word is “triggering.” Dunham makes triggering art. So why, instead, are we using the right-wing handbook and demanding the burning and renouncing of all things Dunham? This is a case where the word “trigger” is quite appropriate: some people find her work OK, others are disturbed. Some want to steer clear of the artist forever, some want to read more of her words immediately. Some say they have been abused and they definitely recognize abuse in Dunham’s story, and some say they have been abused and this is not abuse. There’s no clear consensus as to the “right” reaction to her written words.

So why would we adopt a scorch-and-burn (yes, there’s a #DropDunham hashtag) approach when we could instead say, hey, this person’s art — which, as such, is not in any way the whole truth of her life in context — is really triggering? Labeling something triggering differs from labeling someone a toxic, never-touch-again abuser and joining (whether gleefully or with sorrowfully clasped hands) a misogynist, rape culture-denying smear campaign started by a transphobic bigot.

Certainly, there are many legitimate questions to raise about Dunham’s behavior and what we ourselves would accept, as parents. Personally, I’m intrigued by the discussion that has ensued about how one balances encouraging kids’ healthy sexual exploration with the establishment of boundaries. Big ethical questions have also, yet again, been raised about telling other people’s stories in your memoir (I studied writing with a group of memoirists who disagreed about where the uncrossable line lies for two years straight) and what the public accepts from white artists that we wouldn’t accept from people of color. And there are further issues about female-created narrative and how we tend to unfairly conflate characters and stories written by women, in particular, with the writer’s actual life.

We should talk about all of the aforementioned issues, and we should certainly talk about abuse. But when it comes to the hard accusations, we should also note this: It’s obvious that authority figures in Dunham’s life knew what was up, and took steps they deemed appropriate for a seven-year-old child. In fact, Dunham started therapy soon after this incident, and her parents were aware of what happened. Meanwhile, her sister is managing her book tour and has this to say:

Of course, Grace Dunham’s owning of her story doesn’t mean people who have suffered abuse can’t be triggered by that story. When Twitter fights of this nature blow up, it’s evident that there’s a great deal of personal and societal pain floating around, and we should respect that pain, and those wounds.

But memoir and art doesn’t necessarily exist to bandage wounds. It’s often there to open them, to depict things without endorsement. That’s why it’s OK to say something is potentially triggering or distastetful as a warning to the wounded, but unnecessary to say that everyone else who consumes that material is therefore a bad person, an apologist, an enabler.

Memoir is art, art is controversial, and we are welcome to make judgments about each other for our tastes. Feel free to look at me and say, “She’s a bourgeois idiot for enjoying Girls.” But calling an artist an a-hole is very different from definitively saying, “She’s 100% an abuser,” and demanding her immediate public shaming.

I wish we feminists could stick with the nuanced terms and conversations that we ourselves began, and leave the reactionary takedown tactics to the right wing.