ICYMI: Lena Dunham is still behaving badly.
Or at least that's how I felt this week, when the news broke that she lied to discredit Aurora Perrineau's disclosure. In case you missed that, or that wasn't bad enough, Dunham also managed to turn out an apology/not-apology which served to take an already bad issue and make it worse.
Perhaps this "Tis the Season Be Pissed at Dunham," but I found myself around the same last time having similar and generally irritated feelings towards her and her behavior in terms of discrediting Perrineau's disclosure.
This piece has been adapted from a "Social and Political Philosophy" course paper completed during Fall 2017. However, it sadly feels relevant a year later.
As a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman, I generally experience oppression in a relatively straightforward manner; I am not contending with a racial pay gap that is further compounded by an educational gap that is so ingrained in a way that takes an effort to identify. Georgy Yancy carefully points out Stephanie M. Wildman, “… Because part of racism is systemic, I benefit from privilege I am struggling to see.” Miranda Fricker and recent celebrity news have made me more aware of this privilege.
In “Epistemic Injustice,” Fricker identifies the imbalance of identity power through testimonial injustice. “The basic idea is that a speaker suffers a testimonial injustice just if prejudice on the hearer’s part causes him to give the speaker less credibility than he would otherwise have given”(Fricker 4). Fricker acknowledges that prejudice can take on different forms and that testimonial injustice is not limited to one phenomenon(Fricker 4). However, it is my position that Fricker oversimplifies testimonial injustice and neglects amplified disbelief through excluding those who experience overlapping identity-prejudicial credibility deficits(Fricker 28).
When we unpack “Epistemic Injustice,” the examples are one dimensional. We see Tom discredited because he is black (Fricker 23) and Marge Sherwood because she is a woman. (Fricker 9) While she does briefly discuss systemic testimonial injustice that is interconnected by a common prejudice (Fricker 27), this still fails to address, “What if they don’t believe you because you are black AND a woman?”
Mainstream feminism tends to focus on oppression that stems from gender. This view fails to recognize the complexity accounted for in intersectional feminism. For many black feminist and womanist writers, “black” and “woman” are not identities that can be separated and yet each carries their own unique opportunities to be discredited.
The long and well-known history of Weinstein’s behavior exemplifies a culture that is reluctant to recognize the rampant manner in which sexual assault occurs and survivors are discredited for disclosure. RAINN estimates that only 20% of female students and 32% of female non-students report their assault. To me, this indicates that women are aware that they will experience a credibility deficit.
Survivors of color appear to be even more aware of the ramifications of being both “woman” and “other.” Before being co-opted and given credibility by a white celebrity, Tarana Burke’s “Me Too” provided support to those who were typically excluded from conversations about sexual violence, and provided a means to counter-act credibility deficits through providing a support system.
With Lena Dunham’s latest feminist faux-pas, we see yet another example of WOC being excluded from these conversations and further discredited. While Lena has been quick to point out that women lie about their lunch but not about being raped, this only applies if you are not a WOC accusing her friend. I feel that Lena exacerbated Aurora’s already existing credibility deficit with a statement that was not a result of an innocent error. While Lena may have had a false belief as to the credibility of Aurora’s statement, in order for it to be ‘innocent error,’ cannot result from “immoral hatefulness or from epistemic carelessness’ (Fricke 21).
Former Lenny Letter contributor, Zinzi Clemmons, exposed Lena’slong-standing “Hipster Racism” and paints her as wealthy, entitled and running in a group who freely used racial slurs under the pretext of jokes and sarcasm(Twitter.) Lena’s attack on Odell Beckham Jr. at the 2016 Met Gala further supports her underlying racism though attempting to use her own insecurities to explain away the accusation that Beckham Jr. ignored her because she wasn’t attractive enough to bed.
Lena’s implication plays into hyper-sexuality as a common theme in African-American stereotyping. Black men have historically been depicted as “wildly lustful” with such little control that they can’t refrain from rampantly assaulting and raping white women. This storyline has been a long-standing justification for racial violence, both in courtrooms and on street corners across the country. Similarly, George Yancy points out in “Dear White America” that ‘the way in which they [black women] are objectified is linked to how they are racially depicted, some as ‘exotic’ and others as ‘hypersexual.’” WOC are simultaneously fetishized, shamed and yet expected to be grateful for the attention.
Through publically discrediting Aurora, Lena plays into these stereotypes of black sexuality and invalidates Aurora’s disclosure. She is not only disbelieved for being a woman, in part to the belief that women false report after waking up with remorse, but that her black, hypersexuality put her in the position to have something to be remorseful for.
This public discrediting has more significant consequences than lost Twitter followers. This broadcasted testimonial injustice sends a message to other survivors of color that their reluctance to disclose and report is warranted. It validates their worst fears that they will be disbelieved and worst of all, shamed. Secondly, it reinforces the idea that women are likely to false report and is more common than it actually is. Lastly, it enforces the belief that abusers can revictimize survivors and avoid responsibility through playing up credibility deficits.
In order to continue to raise awareness to bring about systemic change, it is paramount that we come together in support of those who make a choice to disclose. This requires a recognition that different identities will experience unique and at times, overlapping prejudicial credibility deficits. To be better advocates for one another and systemic change, we must ensure that we are supporting all stories and being cognizant that some stories are in exceptional need of support, as they are more likely to be frequently and vehemently dismantled through stereotypes on a societal level. If we are going to believe all voices, then it must be ALL voices.
Clemmons, Zinzi. “My Statement on Why I Will no longer Write for @Lennyletter, and the Behavior I Witnessed Firsthand from@Lenadunham's Friends. It Is Time... ” Twitter,Twitter, 19 Nov. 2017.