In my mind, Lena Dunhan is the famous version of “that one feminist on campus” familiar to anyone who has ever stepped foot in a gender studies department: reliable for attending meaningful events and supporting social justice causes, sometimes organizing their own, but with a nasty habit of taking up too much space to state the obvious, and rarely stopping to consider what could be missing from their analysis. And yes, they usually look like Dunham, too. You don’t doubt that their heart is in the right place, you feel their passion, and you see the logic in their tirades. But still, under a good 85% of circumstances, them shutting the fuck up feels like the best option.
This familiar feeling spread over me as I read the short essay that Lena Dunham penned in response to Kanye West’s controversial new music video for his single “Famous.” And in the same complicated way that you feel both annoyance and pity at the feminist that only gets some of it, I hate that Lena Dunham needs to be checked, again.
For the record, I was creeped out by the visuals for “Famous,” too. For this project, Kanye West used wax figures of nude celebrities: George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Anna Wintour, Chris Brown, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Ray J, Amber Rose, Caitlyn Jenner, and Bill Cosby, sleeping in a huge bed with the real life him and wife Kim Kardashian. The grainy footage panned over these naked bodies in a voyeuristic fashion that was eerily reminiscent of a particularly disturbing episode of Criminal Minds.
For West, as he told Vanity Fair recently, the provocative display was simply a comment on fame. We’ve heard celebs speak out about the unnerving lack of privacy and autonomy they’re allowed as famous entities. Given the ceaseless scrutiny of the paparazzi and the panoptic gaze of TMZ, which makes news out the nudity that marked West’s video, his rendering seems accurate. Inspired by Vincent Desiderio’s painting Sleep, “Famous” perhaps alludes to the overindulgence of audiences and fans on the lives and bodies of celebrities. Depicting such high profile figures in such such a scandalized state represents the peak of our compulsive consumption. In accomplishing this, West also tapped into the collective terror that we would all feel at being watched at our most vulnerable, naked and unconscious, in a way that was certainly disturbing.
Lena Dunham, the ever vigilant feminist with her watchful feminist eye — bless her heart — zeroed in on another very real fear in her response to the video. She was disturbed by the portrayal of naked women’s bodies on display in a pervasive rape culture. While she claims to love Kanye and his family, and be regularly entertained by him, this video “felt different” to Dunham. To use her own words the video filled her with a “sickening sense of dis-ease” and made her feel not only sad, but also unsafe. I have feelings about this response that are just as complicated as her own about the video in question. I would never go so far as to completely invalidate Dunham’s feelings about the video, or how the images could have triggered a conversation about the objectification of women and how it contributes to rape culture. I get where she’s headed, I really do, but its painfully obvious how her own positioning blinds her, per usual, to the way her own problematic privilege is at work in this critique.
Dunham calls the “Famous” music video “one of the more disturbing ‘artistic’ efforts in recent memory.” And then, in a smug move to prove that she was well equipped to be able to spot problematic nudity from actual art, Dunham mentioned her parents who were visual artists with an affinity for nudity, and rattled off a list of provocative creations that she actually appreciates. While she was rushing in to defend Taylor Swift and Rihanna, who she claims are “reduced to a pair of waxy breasts made by some special effects guy in the Valley,” she completely misses how presumptuous and condescending it is to suggest that she knows art better than Kanye. I feel better equipped to capture the experiences of millennial women in New York than Dunham did with Girls, but I don’t doubt the merits of the show as a creative project.
And I can’t be the only one that finds it particularly tone deaf that a woman who had to publicly defend her decision to openly (and artistically, if you consider writing to be a form of art) talk about fondling her child sister’s vagina, to deny the artistic merits of someone else’s art because it makes them uncomfortable. But nuance is not strong suit of feminists like Dunham, who reveal continually that they lack an intersectional lens. She’s trained her eye to look for at least one thread of historically sexist oppression. But did Dunham put forth the same work to ask herself how feeling unsafe by a black man’s art also comes to fruition in her life with a history of its own? Even in our disgusting rape culture, every depiction of naked women that Dunham doesn’t like is not “informed and inspired by the aspects of our culture that make women feel unsafe even in their own beds, in their own bodies.” And if we’re being honest, most of the women represented in “Famous” are more likely to be struggling with the violation of their bodies in the form of privacy invasion (which, again, was the focus of Kanye’s project).
Viewers, including Dunham, are entitled to walk away from this or any media with their own reading of Kanye’s production. But you should also be held accountable for the implications of that reading. And you certainly don’t get to prioritize that reading over all of the other possibilities that exist. We live in a time where we are bombarded with too many social ills. But luckily there is room to see and talk about more than one of them at a time.