Dear Lena… | Image: Gabriël Metsu, CC0 (Public Domain)
[Author’s note: I wrote this right after the brouhaha in question. Internet culture being what it is, it’s already Old News to most people, but I thought it was still worth saying.]
Dear Lena Dunham,
I really hate being That Person Who Jumps on the Bandwagon After Everyone Else Has Already Jumped Off (seriously, internet culture can be dizzying) but I wanted to say a few words, not just because I was initially super disappointed in you (I was) but because in various incarnations I have been you (in terms of having bad self-confidence and sometimes getting called out for problematic behavior, not in terms of being a remarkably successful actor/director/writer person). The internet has already gotten enraged about your remarks that imagined what Odell Beckham Jr. thought about you when you were seated at his table at the Met Ball, and the way that they both projected super misogynist thoughts emerging from the brain of a person who you don’t even know and also replicated harmful racial stereotypes about over-sexualized black men (and also about the other part in your remarks where you objectified another black man, Michael B Jordan, and then how you later removed the online record where you admit to leaving the met Ball early, but not the part where you imply Odell Beckham Jr. is a sexist. You were kinda having a banner day.) The internet has also already pointed out the irony of internet outrage, when in the same week that feminists destroyed a writer for assuming that men are entitled to attention from females who clearly don’t want to talk to them, a feminist posts about how upset she was when a man clearly didn’t want to talk to her (which, I know you had no control of the timing of the first story, but girl, take the cultural temperature of the internet before you publish things, okay? You do not have to hit “post” when it is clear it will only end in pain. Post one of those backup pieces that I know you have handy. I know it’s not your best work, but it also won’t lead you to be the most hated person on the internet for a news cycle.)
In the time since I have become aware of this story (roughly 24 hours, damn the internet is fast) you have both posted an apology that was mostly a non-apology that said that your story was “clearly (to [you])” about your “insecurities as an average-bodied woman,” (if you have to use parentheses when you say that something is clear then it was obviously not clear) and claimed that it was “not an assumption about who he is or an expectation of sexual attention” (honey. Please. It so was.) and said it was just “your sense of humor” (just because something is meant to be a joke doesn’t mean that people aren’t allowed to be upset with you over it) and then tweeted “Glad the outrage machine roars on though, right @amyschumer?” (because the problem is obviously “outrage culture” pointing out when you’re an asshole, not the things you said or did.) Then you posted an actual, legit apology that managed to discuss your insecurities without using them as an excuse for your behavior, included a direct apology to Odell Beckham Jr., acknowledged the fact that your actions were somewhat narcissistic, apologized for your (hopefully) inadvertent contribution to a racist history of sexualizing black men and problematizing the relationship between black men and white women.
So roughly fifteen minutes after I read your first apology I read your second apology, and had this really disconcerting vertigo when I went from super-annoyed and eye-rolly to being really proud of you. Like, if I ever teach a class on “how to respond when someone calls you out for being a bad ally and acting problematically” I will probably use this second apology, because it was that good.
Which is what brings us to why I’m writing today. Because what I’ve seen in the last twenty-four hours is not just the “outrage cycle.” It is an example of what happens when someone who has both privilege and reasons to have a chip on one’s shoulder, someone who is trying to be a good person, fucks up anyway. It is what happens every day, constantly, as people try to navigate between feeling privileged and feeling oppressed, between speaking out for themselves and accidentally speaking over others, between feeling vindicated for yourself and feeling vindicated at the expense of someone else. It is what happens when you engage in a global, electronic, intersectional arena, and it is admittedly really fucking hard.
I have been where you are. Literally. I have, as an “average-bodied woman” (something I am able to call myself if I’m having a really good day) sat next to a male of our species, been surrounded by women I consider prettier than me, and had hateful, petty thoughts about basically everyone and anyone because it was the only thing that made me feel better about feeling utterly unwanted. “Maybe he just isn’t used to girls who don’t try so fucking hard,” I thought at this anonymous person who had no reason to think anything about me at all. “It’s just because I’m not your average brainless Barbie doll. I’m not a size six and I speak my mind, oooh, scary.” I stared covetously at the women sitting near me, wishing that I could fit into a dress like them, that I could dress like them, that I could put on makeup like them, that I could be like them, and tried to think of a million reasons that I could be considered better than them, if only guys weren’t such sexist pigs who only gave the time of day to conventionally pretty girls. I wavered between self-aggrandizing and self-loathing, and absolutely none of it was okay. Not the terrible things I was thinking about myself, not the terrible motives I was ascribing to the man near me, and definitely not the terrible things I was thinking about the women around me. What I felt then, and what you felt at the Met Ball, were valid feelings. We have a messed up cultural norm of beauty, it’s painful when people don’t acknowledge you or seem to be sexually interested in you, and it is hard to keep your chin up when you feel like the ugliest person in the room. But what I shouldn’t have done, and what you shouldn’t have done, is let that translate into anger, projection, or entitlement. Precisely no one is entitled to sexual attention from anyone else. Dudes are not entitled to sexual attention from girls wearing headphones, you were not entitled to sexual attention from Odell Beckham Jr., and I was not entitled to sexual attention from the dude that I was really, really wishing would pay attention to me. We want it, but we’re not entitled to it. And we shouldn’t air our self-confidence issues in a way that makes it seem like we are.
It can be really, really hard to be a good person when you don’t feel good about yourself. I’ll admit that I sang along joyfully to “All About that Bass” for a few repetitions, thinking vicious things about skinny people, before I started to feel bad for body shaming (and started to see the truly retrograde notions that are the basis of almost every Meghan Trainor song). But feeling better about yourself should never come at the expense of someone else. And when you are someone who tries to do good, it can then feel almost twice as bad when someone calls you out for messing up. As far as I can figure it, the 5 Stages of Getting Called Out are a lot like the 5 Stages of Grief.
- Denial: “But I’m a feminist/social activist/vegan/whatever! I would never say/do something that is racist/sexist/able-ist/transphobic/homophobic/whatever! I’m an ally, I don’t do things like that!”
- Anger: “How dare they say that about me? This is just PC culture run amok. Don’t they understand how much work I do for their causes? Can’t they see I’m trying? Well fuck them, no one is ever satisfied.”
- Bargaining: “Isn’t it enough that I do (X) activism? Doesn’t that mean I deserve a break for messing up sometimes for (Y)? Can’t we just ignore (Y) for a minute and focus on more important stuff?”
- Depression: “God, I can’t believe I said/did that. I feel terrible about myself. This is so difficult, sometimes I just want to give up… I’m going to be kicking myself for this one for days.”
- Acceptance: “Welp…. That sucked. I better do some more research before I say something stupid like that again. I guess I can use this as a learning opportunity, and apologize to the people I hurt.”
It’s a painful process. It sucks really badly sometimes. None of us see ourselves as bad people, and thus none of us see ourselves as being capable of bad things. And when you feel like you’re already having to overcome things (the bullshit that automatically comes with being a woman, sizeism, sexism, feelings of poor self-worth) it can be especially hard to acknowledge that you are becoming something similar to the things that you hate. But it is vital that we do so. If we’re not willing to apologize when we realize (or are forced to realize) that we are being assholes, we lose ground when we call other people out for being assholes. Being a feminist does not mean you get to be a racist, or to call someone a sexist for imagined thoughts. Social activism is not a carbon credit system, where our good deeds in one arena are meant to offset our bad behavior elsewhere. Trying to be good means trying to be good in all areas, and sometimes we will mess up, and it won’t matter if we just saved a kitten or donated to a woman’s shelter or called out sexism in the media. We will deserve to get called out, and we will have to reflect, apologize, and adjust our behavior. You’ve done the first two. Please don’t let me down for the last one.
Your compatriot in the 5 stages,
Elle the occasionally-average-bodied
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying really hard to navigate the minefield that is Other People Being Real People, she studies gender in popular culture.
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