From Beyoncé’s Lemonade to The Force Awakens to the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, the entertainment industry seems to be embracing the power of women like never before. But with more feminist content comes more feminist criticism—and it feels as if there’s always something to complain about. Dianna E. Anderson’s incisive Problematic takes on the stereotype of the perpetually dissatisfied feminist. Too often feminist criticism has come to mean seeing only the bad elements of women-centric pop culture and never the good. Anderson suggests that our insistence on feminist ideological purity leads to shallow criticism and ultimately hurts the movement. Instead, she proposes new, more nuanced forms of feminist thought for today’s culture, illustrated by examples from across the spectrum of popular music, movies, and TV, including Lena Dunham, Nicki Minaj, and even One Direction. While grounding her inquiry in pop culture media and topics, Anderson draws on concepts of feminist theory to show how we can push for continued cultural change while still acknowledging the important feminist work being done in the pop culture sphere today.
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About the Author
Dianna E. Anderson is a freelance journalist, author, and activist in women’s issues. She is a regular contributor to Cosmopolitan, Rolling Stone, the Establishment, Vice, and Bitch Magazine. Anderson is the author of Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity.
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Lena Dunham Is Not a Pedophile False Narratives and Scarlet Letters
I have this tweet from 2014 that goes around every so often. It's the most popular tweet I've ever made. It's not a joke, an incisive remark, or even a banal observation that caught people's eye. It's a photograph of a page in a book, with a brief description of what's on the page. Every few months, someone picks up the discussion all over again and I watch quietly as my notifications pane fills up over and over with retweets, quotes, and replies about how disgusting the content of this tweet is.
The book page comes from Lena Dunham's memoir, Not that Kind of Girl, wherein Dunham makes a joke about "wooing" her younger sister by doing "anything a sexual predator might do." I'd taken the photo because it was what the internet was discussing at the time — casting Dunham as a child predator, as a monster who preys on children. I figured — as with most things online — there needed to be some context, so I went to my local Barnes and Noble and sat in a well-lit window seat to read the chapter. I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture of the page, tweeting it almost automatically. I followed up that tweet with commentary about how I didn't think the joke indicated she was acting with the mindset of a child abuser or that her behavior indicated criminal conduct on the part of the adult Dunham. It was a poorly phrased joke, in extremely poor taste, and one her editors should have cautioned her against including. In full, Dunham was wondering about the concept of uteruses and imagines her younger sister's tiny uterus containing all the eggs she will ever have. Curious, she attempted to look into her sister's vagina and found ... pebbles. Later on, she describes developing an obsession with gaining the affection of her younger sister, writing that "anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl, I was trying." But she ends that same paragraph by saying, "What I really wanted, beyond affection, was to feel that she needed me, that she was helpless without her big sister leading her through the world."
Whenever that tweet with the photo of her book goes around, my contextualization of the bad joke gets stripped from the work. And I feel a twinge of guilt because this tweet contributes, in a small way, to the "Lena Dunham, Child Molester" narrative.
This narrative is a strong one, thanks in part to Dunham's own actions complicating her feminist presence long before her book ever came out. Lena Dunham is a young writer, actor, television producer, and director and has garnered an immense amount of fame, and an intense amount of scrutiny, about and because of her work. During her time at Oberlin College, she turned a liberal arts degree into film studies, producing works about sexuality and enlightenment. In one particularly memorable instance, she wore a bikini and filmed herself standing in a large fountain on campus, brushing her teeth. She placed the piece on YouTube, where the comments section soon filled with trollish remarks about her body and her breasts, resulting in her removing the video not long after.
A couple of years later, Dunham's dream of becoming a filmmaker came true when she broke onto the national scene with Tiny Furniture, a mumblecore piece about a recent graduate trying to figure out her path in life. The movie was roundly praised by film critics as an accurate, funny, and beautiful portrayal of the malaise of trying to figure out life in your mid-twenties. Lena Dunham was the new It Girl, and that meant a lot to a lot of people because she didn't fit traditional Hollywood beauty standards. Where most starlets were tall, blonde, and thin, Dunham was short, brunette, and chubby — a body described by one commenter as "looking like suet pudding." Her rise to fame as a serious writer, director, and actor gave hope to a lot of people who want diverse body images on screen, not just as the funny sidekick but as an object of sexual desire and a fully realized human being.
Shortly after the success of Tiny Furniture, she signed with hbo for the TV show Girls, which premiered to great critical acclaim — and great criticism. It won award after award for its first season and was praised by numerous critics as what television needed at the time. Everyone was watching it. Everyone was talking about it. And not everything people were saying was good.
Dunham's media rise and then backlash is a perfect case study for how critique and dismissal work side by side in current feminist discourse. Part of what led to Dunham's downfall was, in fact, Dunham's own claims. She wrote about being a feminist; she proclaimed the label proudly. She campaigned for progressive causes outside of her art world. She wore Planned Parenthood T-shirts on her show and urged people to register to vote. She was a rising media mogul by the age of twenty-four, having produced her own movie and developed a Golden Globe–winning HBO show that brought together feminist ideas with her dark sense of comedy and millennial disillusionment. She claimed feminism, and so set up expectations of what feminist action would look like, and people were, naturally, upset when the image of the perfect feminist and the reality of her actions didn't seem to align.
Girls is, itself, a critique of the very thing it's portraying — mocking millennial problems while also putting faces on them. When Hannah Horvath's parents cut her off financially in the very first episode, Hannah (played by Dunham) responds by telling her parents they're lucky she's not a drug-addicted college dropout. She exhibits immense amounts of ignorance about how the world works while pretending to know a great deal beyond her actual position in the world. She's a college graduate with a humanities degree, convinced she holds some unique dream and unique place in the world and if people would just see her talent, she would have it made.
Hannah Horvath is an asshole. She is White Feminism embodied — which means she considers herself feminist but fails to take a lot of feminist critiques into account, particularly when it comes to issues of race and class. Lena Dunham seems to have purposefully written this character to capture all the good and all the bad: she is self-aware insofar as she understands something of her place in the world, but she is also so self-involved and narcissistic that she thinks she deserves a better place than what she has. In performing this nuanced conception of the narcissistic millennial struggling both with her own lot in life and the social pressure to be a certain kind of person by a certain age, Dunham created a character who critics hailed as the voice of the millennial generation. We were told, over and over in the lead up to and throughout the first season of the show, that this is the show for millennials; this show is for me, and you, and everyone my age. Critic Wesley Morris wrote a reflection in the New York Times on Girls' fourth season: "When it started, Girls was received as an anthem for entitled white women. Detractors had a field day with Ms. Dunham, who created this show and has written and directed much of it, for privileging privilege, as if she couldn't be aspiring to the withering heights of Luis Buñuel or Carrie Fisher."
But as with anything that's marketed and praised as specifically for an entire, diverse generation, the show was not actually representative — because the show is deeply and intensely white. And this was realized with a clapback that reverberated throughout Hollywood and Twitter like thunder echoing off a mountain.
The criticism was encapsulated by an essay from Jenna Wortham at the feminist website The Hairpin, titled "Where (My) Girls At?": "While the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that. And that is a huge fucking disappointment." Much of the criticism came from a deeply valid place: here is something good, something made by a person who actually seems to know what she's doing, and here, she's failed. Again. Wortham continues: "I see myself and I don't. And I know that the quality of this show means more shows about white people will be made, more shows that don't represent me will hit it big." And that creates a really large tide of programming that is impossible to ignore. "We know better," Wortham says. "We can see that more of the world is like us."
The background of the discussion on representation is as deep as it is tense. Feminism in the United States has racism as a constant background radiation. Because of issues with access, discrimination, and historical failures of inclusion, people of color often must fight to see themselves represented on television. Black women, for ages, have been instructed by white feminists to view the struggles of white women as metaphors for their own lives, even though the struggles are inherently different. Throughout the feminist revolutions in the United States, black women have been placed on the outside. The suffragettes in the 1890s actively fought against the vote for black women. Abolitionism was considered a separate movement from fighting for the right to vote, and many of the leaders of the suffrage movement were not concerned with also fighting for the welfare of freed black slaves. Many suffragettes framed it as an affront that black, property-owning men got the vote before they did, and they fought hard to get the vote without fighting for the same right for black women.
In the mid-twentieth century, while white women were having a feminist awakening about "women's work" in the home, thanks to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, black women were serving as cooks and maids and nannies in many of those same homes. Black women had been "working outside the home" for as long as they'd been in America, and thus the frame of freeing women to have their own careers and lives outside the home didn't speak to the struggle of black women. Indeed, this ongoing tension resulted in a split between a feminism that was concerned with the domestic revolution for white women and a black feminism that was concerned with the issues of property, racism, and freedom of movement that were facing black folk. This latter became known as womanism, as white women had tainted the taste of the word feminism.
This divide continues to form the background for today's discussions about toxicity, about the feminist discourse, and about representation. It is understandable and legitimate that people of color, especially black women, deeply and harshly criticize shows that claim to represent feminist thought. The historical divide in feminist thought demands a careful, nuanced approach to any discussions of representation and of what feminism means for women.
So what happens when a self-proclaimed feminist white woman develops a show, calls it Girls, and proceeds to cast all white people in principal roles and people of color in servile positions? It gets noticed and it gets noticed quickly. Dunham's nepotism in hiring for the show (almost all the principal actors are her friends or the daughters of people her parents are friends with) and her missteps in defending the show as reflecting a self-segregated New York City that is still New York only added fuel to the fire. The criticisms were largely right — the representation of people of color on the show in the first season was abysmal, and the show itself was navel-gazing, hipster-y ridiculousness — aka white nonsense. Many of the antics on the show were the result of naïve whiteness and white privilege — do you think a black woman could accidentally take crack and go running naked through the city without some kind of run-in with law enforcement, as Shoshannah does in the very first season?
There are two separate and competing narratives about feminist criticism which, while not originating in the Girls controversy, are particularly salient in this case. The first is the idea that any criticism of feminist work must be done in specific — meaning nice, kind, and subservient — ways to be heard. The second is the idea that a person who claims the label of feminist must therefore be subject to a standard of ideological purity that allows dismissal from the club with any infraction on a version of feminism, to be determined by the critic. Both narratives — the tone policing from those who are being critiqued and the tendency toward ideological purity on the part of the critics — swirl together to create a monster of narrative that makes discourse impossible, that makes people fearful of speaking up, and makes it very hard to create or produce any kind of popular culture with feminist elements.
The ways in which Dunham's media team and writers responded didn't help to engage critically. Instead, Lesley Arfin, one of the writers on the show, tweeted a joke: "That thing that bothered me about Precious was that it wasn't about me." Arfin's joke, meant to highlight the idea that not all stories are for all people, instead mocked the critics and seemed to characterize their valid concerns as whining. The derision present in Arfin's tweet invited derision in response — and from there the discussion became an angry backlash, which segued into an ongoing, contentious battle about the supposed "toxicity" of Black Twitter and Famous White Feminists. The battles did not start with Girls, but Girls brought them to the mainstream.
In the social media landscape, Twitter reigns supreme as a feminist outlet. Feminist scholars and activists organize, discuss, and promote various ideas and their impact on the overall discourse. It is, largely, where discourse is happening. But like any social arena, feminist Twitter has found itself divided into multiple factions. There's "hammer and sickle" Twitter (socialist activists), Anon Twitter (anarchists, mostly), Black Twitter (composed mostly of black people having their own discussions), Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism Twitter, and White Feminist Twitter. This is only a sample, but frequently Black Twitter and White Feminist Twitter find themselves at odds, with Black Twitter using the means at their disposal to critique and demand change from White Feminist Twitter.
The narrative that Black Twitter is a toxic space of criticism developed staying power — handwringing essays about the toxicity of the internet, using mostly examples from black women writing on Twitter in very specific contexts, began to proliferate. Like clockwork, every few months some white person publishes an essay about the toxicity of online spaces and the increasing impossibility of reasonable discussion. Inevitably, the examples are pulled from uncharitable readings of tweets from black women — often the same few black women who are the uncredited sources behind a lot of op-eds and aggregated stories. Their tweets are pulled by BuzzFeed, Mic, TIME.com, and other high-profile news organizations without consent or even notification, only to open them up to further harassment by sharing their words with a much wider audience. Then, after months and possibly years of harassment because of this unwanted higher profile, these same black women get the joy of being used as examples of toxicity in the discussion — often because they weren't "kind" (read: servile) enough toward someone who was berating them over a tweet that got quoted in BuzzFeed. White people are assumed to have the best of intentions at all times, even when demanding a free education about an issue from people of color. People of color are cast as ungrateful, toxic, and, yes, problematic when they dare refuse such demands upon their time and their energy.
Criticism is a hard thing to get right, even among people who are sociopolitical equals. Telling my white friend who attends the same prestigious graduate school that I do that he's fucking up in his commentary about race and speech is an incredibly delicate maneuver — not just because it's hard to find the right things to say in the moment, but because we're human and cannot erase that humanity to become performers of flawless feminism. It's hard to tell someone they fucked up, and it's harder still to realize that you fucked up. Add in the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender, and various forms of privilege and you have a recipe for disaster. Miscommunications, poor responses, and hundreds of years of oppressive relationships come to bear on the discussion, making it virtually impossible for the discussion to remain productive. More often than not, the result of a critique from a black woman toward a white one results in whining, tears, and ardent defenses about how "not racist" the white person is. And the critics are cast as mean girls purposefully destroying the life and reputation of a well-intentioned white woman. The dispute plays itself out over and over: white women are well-meaning. Black critics are malicious.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Problematic"
Copyright © 2018 Dianna E. Anderson.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Lena Dunham Is Not a Pedophile: False Narratives and Scarlet Letters 2. Harry Styles Is (Probably) Not a Creep: What Makes You Beautiful and the Male Gaze 3. On My Money and Bitches Who Better Have It: How Modern Anticapitalists Fail to Account for Racial Politics of Black Artists 4. Why Does This White Australian Sound like She’s from Atlanta?: On Cultural Appropriation, White Supremacy, and Black Sexuality 5. Mother Monster and Q.U.E.E.N.: Context Challenging and Changing the Problematic 6. Friendly Fire: Why Our Perfectionist Lens Makes Us Harsher on Feminist Media 7. Actually, It’s about Ethics in Feminist Criticism: Where White Feminism and #GamerGate Converge 8. Do You Even Lift, Bro? Toxic Masculinity, Sports Culture, and Feminist Ignorance of the Problems 9. Dinos, Disasters, and Dives: A Feminist Defense of That High-Heeled Chase Scene in Jurassic World 10. Selfie Game Strong: Kim Kardashian and de Beauvoir’s Thoughts on Beauty 11. Pinterest Perfect: How Our Home Lives Reflect an Unhealthy Obsession 12. “I Am Big Enough to Admit I Am Often Inspired by Myself”: Leslie Knope as the Paragon of Feminist Joy 13. Teen Girls Are the Future and That Is a Good Thing: Our Perfectionism Actively Harms Women 14. Never Say Never: Setting Your Own Borders and Understanding Your Boundaries Last Notes Notes Bibliography
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although I consider myself a feminist, I have never felt comfortable claiming the identity. This book explains why. Weaving together meta-analysis of popular culture with feminist theory, the author explores the impact of "perfectionism" on the practice of feminism in the world today. Claiming feminist identity in the current social media-driven world is a dangerous act because it makes one a target for other feminists who seem to collect points for pointing out what someone else is doing wrong ("problematic") and blacklisting them in place of engaging in honest conversations about the impact of various actions. This book offers not only warnings about the ways call-out culture damages the fight for equality but suggestions for how to counter it. If this is the feminism of the future, you can sign me up.