Lena Dunham (AP/Evan Agostini)

The right's Lena Dunham delusion: Anger, misogyny and the dangers of business as usual

National Review's screed on Dunham is abhorrent, but its misogyny is not unique. Here's where we go next


Katie McDonough
October 17, 2014 9:36PM (UTC)

There is an intractable kind of misogyny that resists all argument. It's easy to point to National Review Online writer Kevin D. Williamson's response to Lena Dunham's "Not That Kind of Girl" as a prime example of it, but he's just the easiest target. There is no reason to expect anything else from someone who willfully denies a woman's very humanity. Though he offers little else, we can still look at Williamson to understand something about the insidious way that this kind of vitriol, in lower and sometimes undetectable doses, characterizes much of how we tend to talk about women, sex, consent, rape and blame.

In a chapter of her book called “Girls & Jerks,” Dunham recounts, in her trademark style of dark absurdism delivered with a smile, "an ill-fated evening of lovemaking" with a "mustachioed campus Republican" named Barry. It involves a condom flung into a tree, a clueless partner and, to wrap it all up, a righteous moment of feminist power when Dunham throws the man's shoes and clothes out the door and tells him to hit the road. Because of the title's chapter, we are meant to understand this guy as a jerk Dunham has known and fucked. We read, cringe a little, move on.

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But in another chapter, this one called "Barry," Dunham returns to the encounter with the mustachioed condom-flinger, writing, "“[I]n another essay in this book I describe a sexual encounter with a mustachioed campus Republican as the upsetting but educational choice of a girl who was new to sex when, in fact, it didn’t feel like a choice at all.” She then recounts the story again, sharing other details. How intoxicated she was, how aggressive Barry was, the medical attention she required after it all ended, the shame and confusion she felt as she remembered and contended with the experience. "I never gave permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us," she writes. "I never gave him permission. In my deepest self I know this, and the knowledge of it has kept me from sinking."

It's a painful chapter to read, to watch Dunham navigate her own competing narratives -- of righteous anger, of laughing self-preservation, of self-blame -- about an experience that felt dangerous and scary but also, somehow, like it was her fault. I know very few women who don't have a story like this, women who, like Dunham, feel that what happened to them was violating and wrong while also believing that "there are fifty ways it’s my fault." Dunham is also, like so many other women, not always exactly sure what to call what happened. She also, like so many other women, wants the reader to understand why that's OK.

After expressing some outrage about Dunham's wealth and privilege (who would have guessed that Williamson was such a socialist?), he targets her for writing about Barry, questions whether she is telling the truth, seems to suggest that Dunham should share her medical records as evidence of the incident and then calls the chapter a public lynching. It's gross, and it's predictable in its grossness. There is no empathy for Dunham to be found because, to Williamson, the story is all about Barry.

Because all of these stories are always about Barry.

In our current public conversations about affirmative consent and sexual assault, most of which are focused on California's new legal standard for college campuses rather than the far more essential work of shifting our culture's (and, more specifically, men's) attitudes about sex from one of transaction and commodity to consent and mutual pleasure, we are centering the Barrys. We are pretending that most rape is an accident and fretting about the men who could be harmed by women sharing their stories, by women having more room to say, like Dunham, "[A]t no moment did I consent to being handled that way.”

Women, it seems, if they are to speak at all about rape (or the experiences of violation that we do not give that name to), must follow a very narrow set of parameters. Their accounts must be marketable, consumable. Never disruptive. A "good" sexual assault story involves: a stranger, a woman held at knifepoint, immediate action to alert law enforcement, a seamless police response, an emotional but ultimately cathartic courtroom scene, a prison sentence. A "bad" sexual assault story involves: everything else.

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Earlier this week, Roxane Gay opened a piece in the Guardian with an exchange she had with a young woman who asked her how to make feminism more accessible to men. "I told her that I don’t care about making feminism more accessible to men," she wrote. "In truth, I don’t care about making feminism more accessible to anyone." Gay's lack of interest in rebranding feminism to make it more palatable is, I think, applicable here. So is a recent piece from Black Girl Dangerous creator Mia McKenzie, who wrote critically of the United Nations' HeForShe campaign for, among its other problems, centering men while ignoring "just how much men do benefit from gender inequality."

This benefit is why so many men (and women, frankly) want to talk about false accusations in order to derail a more sweeping conversation about affirmative consent. It's why public conversations about sexual violence are rarely about power, privilege and structures. It is also why so many men want to silence women who are sharing their stories outside the narrow parameters of what's currently acceptable. Because talking about non-consent and violence against women as something that isn't just about monsters who creep in the night -- but as something that pervades the culture, operates interpersonally and institutionally -- means being implicated in it, owning that responsibility and figuring out where to go from there.

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And where we go from there is somewhere that Barry isn't the center of the story. That we encounter a woman's story of a violence she has struggled to name and hear her without judgment or accusation. That we stop pretending that rape is an accident. That we talk about feminism not as a marketing campaign but as a practice of unlearning and rectifying -- through individual work and institutional and systemic shifts. Somewhere that affirmative consent does not exist as just a legal framework in a terribly broken system but something that is inextricably tied to critiques of power and privilege and modeled by parents and peers, reflected in our media, taught early and often at home and in schools. And somewhere, perhaps, that Williamson is a genuine outlier rather than a particularly cartoonish expression of what business as usual really looks like.


Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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