Sisterhood to Lena Dunham, Tina Fey & Co.: Shut up!

Our reigning feminist celebrities laureate can’t stop telling us what they think. But this isn’t feminism. It’s a single-issue lobby.

(Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/Getty Images)

Lena Dunham (Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/Getty Images)

There’s a scene in the first episode of Girls in which Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham, pertinaciously declares herself to be the voice of a generation. She’s high on a sip of opium tea, higher on writerly millennial self-righteousness—and the joke is at her expense. This is the voice of a generation? A 20-something white woman with disposable income and a half-written memoir on her MacBook?

Self-aggrandizement is central to Dunham’s fictional character on Girls. But in real life, Dunham ennobles herself just as defiantly when it comes to political causes that align with her needs and beliefs. Dunham designed a special edition pink t-shirt to support Planned Parenthood’s Women Are Watching campaign in 2014, for example, and often tweets in support of Planned Parenthood and female reproductive rights.

Recently, she joined an A-list cadre of Hollywood stars who signed their names to a petition urging Amnesty International to rethink a proposal that would decriminalize sex work. (The proposal will be voted on at Amnesty International’s council meeting in Dublin this week.) The letter refers to “…the catastrophic effects of decriminalization of the sex trade.”

But Dunham et al—her fellow signatories include Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet—are not experts on the sex trade. Their intention may be to “rescue” sex workers from what they perceive as harm, but fame does not know best.

A sex worker going by the name of Jane told The Daily Beast that, “If Kate Winslet and Lena Dunham are trading sex in a criminalized environment, then they should speak out, [but] the role of an advocate and an ally is to step back and let these people speak.” It’s noble, in theory, for a famous person to use her platform to amplify an issue in need of attention. But too often, the pedestal of celebrity overshadows those at the heart of a concern.

(Brent N. Clarke/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

Amy Schumer. (Brent N. Clarke/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

Much like Hannah Horvath, rambling away on opium tea, self-prophesizing her own genius because she’s got four personal essays saved on the desktop of her computer, these celebrities lack the expertise needed to grasp and comment on the realities of sex work and the policies that may or may not govern it.

In fact, this is perhaps just disdain disguised as sisterly concern. The approach feels comparable to the selective feminism of Tina Fey, whose bestselling 2011 book Bossypants contains many jokes about sex workers. “How can I describe it?” Fey writes of an unpleasant smell. “If you boiled ten thousand eggs in a prostitute’s bathwater.”

Now, I think Tina Fey is symbolically good for women. But she is good for some women. She is good for women who aren’t sex workers, and for the kind of women who frown upon sex work. By using her platform to be anti-sex work, even comedically, she’s putting the women she cares about and the women she doesn’t into two separate categories, rewarding the women she likes with a sense of camaraderie and excluding all the rest.

That’s just fine, if also disappointing, for a comedian. To be a feminist, though, should mean being engaged in the safety and advancement of women. When you begin picking and choosing who should succeed under feminism, and who should be left behind or punished, it’s not feminism anymore. It’s lobbying.

Our celebrity feminists laureate are not actually feminists, then, but lobbyists for specific causes that fall under the umbrella of feminism. Tina Fey is a powerful woman in show business who encourages women to be confident: that’s good. Lena Dunham, also powerful, has used her rostrum to speak up for female reproductive rights: that’s good, too. But for every woman who feels protected or inspired by Dunham and Fey, another is alienated in her place. (Of a trip to India several years ago, Dunham said the following to Rolling Stone: “We do a really good job in [America] of basically sealing off sick people and sealing off toilets and sealing off everything that lets us know we’re animals. And in India not only do they not do that, there’s no interest in doing that.” This may not seem immediately germane to a critique of Dunham’s feminism, but an Indian feminist might have a different opinion.)

There’s renewed discussion these days about identity politics within feminism. The hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, used to flag examples of feminism that excludes women of colour, has become a Twitter meeting point for exasperation felt by those not represented by white feminism. (“Taylor should have just hit the RT button on Nicki’s tweets but instead water ski’d in on some white tears”, reads one tweet with the hashtag, referring to Taylor Swift’s recent interruption of Nicki Minaj’s  tweets about the unacknowledged and unrewarded contributions black women make to pop culture.)

As the website Blavity put it, “White feminists seem to be more interested in freeing their nipples than a black woman’s right to inquire why she is being arrested. As a collective unit, mainstream feminists don’t vocally advocate for the right for black girls to live. Instead, they seem to be in a frenzy over the release of Amy Schumer’s new movie.”

And of course Schumer, who is glorious in her material on body positivity, and whose commentary on sexual assault is much needed in the world of comedy, where men freely make rape jokes, benefits from laughing over racism. That’s not real feminism—it’s a clique.

( Evan Agostini/Invision/CP)

Taylor Swift (Evan Agostini/Invision/CP)

When queen of the cool girls Taylor Swift interrupted Nicki Minaj, what she revealed was a lack of understanding of how other women live. Like Fey, Dunham, Schumer et al, Swift is great for white women who resemble her, but leaves the rest behind. Earlier this year, Swift told Maxim that “…feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it’s just basically another word for equality.” Equality is the right message to amplify, but as with her contemporaries, Swift’s celebrity is more important to her than being a feminist. So why hail her as a great feminist voice?

Dunham’s Hannah Horvath may be a fumbling fictional character naively lobbying to represent an entire generation. But the shame is that in many ways she does. A reframing is in order. Instead of lauding celebrity women as feminists, let’s turn to the diverse and devoted women out there whose peripheries stretch longer than the length of their own looking glass.

Listen to The Thrill, Maclean’s culture podcast, discuss celebrity feminism (and more) with journalist Hana Shafi, at the 18:52 mark. Subscribe for free now on iTunes or on Stitcher.


Sisterhood to Lena Dunham, Tina Fey & Co.: Shut up!

  1. The sex trade in the modern world is like the slave trade two hundred years ago. The predominant aspect of the sex trade is the trafficking and the enslavement of women and children Legalizing modern slavery, i.e. the sex trade, would legitimizes the trafficking and the enslavement of women and children.

    Prostitutes, like slaves, are victims, and they are committing no crime. But the pimps and the traffickers and the johns, those who benefit from this new slave trade, should be prosecuted.

    • Prostitutes have a choice. They aren’t in chains.

      • Some actually are – at least in a sense. Brought to foreign countries; held against their will in locales where the customers are brought to them; no papers and no way to escape and get to authorities.

        Most (though not all) sex workers in North America are in the trade by choice. That’s not necessarily true globally.

      • One (the courts) should be protecting the 99% of prostitutes that have no choice, and not the 1% who make the delusional choice to become a prostitute, to become a slave.

        • So much for letting marginalized people speak for themselves. I think all of you missed the point.

        • ” the 99% of prostitutes that have no choice”

          Citation, please.

    • We could argue forever about who is in chains and who is not, but one indisputable fact rises above all the rhetoric: PROHIBITION DOESN’T WORK. Eons of human history have taught us that people who want to buy sex and those who want to sell it will find a way to get together, somehow, no matter how difficult that may be.

      If we really want to help people who work in the sex trade, we can end futile attempts to wipe prostitution out and instead focus on taking control of it away from organized crime, traffickers and pimps and give instead to the women and men who actually do the work.

      It horrifies me to see so many highly respected women so cavalierly handing their endorsement to regressive proposals, such as the so-called ‘Nordic model’, that will only increase the degradation of women and men in the trade, further drive them underground and increase their reliance on pimps and the gangs that go with them. For shame!

      • The Swedish model (where the johns, pimps, and female slave traffickers are targeted) have demonstrated signficant harm reduction, in there is a dramatic reduction in the trafficking of women and children for those with the Swedish model vs. those states which have moved towards liberalization of prostitution and the trafficking in women and children.

        Prostitution CANNOT be separated from the trafficking of women and children. The liberalizers want us to move along and to disregard the trafficking of women and children and vulnerable people.

  2. Ah yes, the no-true-scotsman fallacy. You aren’t a true feminist because of blank. You don’t have an opinion because you’re white/well known/lacking in some credentials/rude. Comedians make fun of everything because they can. And that’s the point.

    Laughing at cruelty is better than riding the wave of offence.

    • Merely pointing out that an argument is fallacious does not mean that the entire position it defends is false. That reasoning is fallacious itself: the fallacy fallacy…
      Now, you could point back and say the same about this post, at which I could repose, and you, et cetera, ad infinitum. But that would be pointless, wouldn’t it…

  3. The author is contradicting herself. She accuses Schumer, Fey, Dunham and Swift of propagating a white-centric, cliquey, narrow sighted and self-serving brand of un-feminism, while simultaneously stating that celebrities aren’t sufficiently versed in policies surrounding serious issues affecting women’s rights to be highlighting them, plus their status overshadows the causes in question. She needs to make up her mind, you can’t critique both participation, and the lack thereof. Reminds me of an interviewer grilling Mindy Kaling about not doing enough to further the causes of Indian women, and seeing the frustrated actress blast back that she is doing enough just by being who she is in this culture. I applaud her, it’s all about context. Yes, perhaps as North American women, having waged the battle against the most glaring inequalities, we have moved onto the more self-indulgent facets of feminism. It doesn’t render them invalid or any less insidious. I would rather have Schumer raunchily satirize the double standards of gender sexuality, than not. It’s not something we should shun or negate just because it’s not ‘serious’ or ‘third world’ enough. If anything this article is yet another example of women criticizing other women – which to me is one of the biggest un-feminist, and culturally encouraged practices. What the author should have done is applauded these women’s contributions, as #solidarityforwhitewomen as they might be…and suggest that they use their celebrity status to highlight the work of (as she puts it) “the diverse and devoted women out there whose peripheries stretch longer than the length of their own looking glass.”

  4. Ah yes identity politics at work. There are far too many feminists that don’t understand that feminism committed collective suicide by deploying identity politics in an unconventional way to support Patriarchy theory. While it gave the feminists power by framing men as oppressors and women as victims it also created a victim hierarchy within the movement. This article is a great example. The you don’t speak for me because you can’t understand my “lived” experiences argument.

    Elevated credence is given to the victim in the most oppressed classes (e.g. woman of colour, disabled, transgendered etc.) and creates a hierarchy that divides. Intersectionality is a concept meant to acknowledge the different kinds of oppression but cannot circumvent the nature of hierarchy. Essentially the deployment of identity politics to conflate a Patriarchal “system” to “men as oppressors” has fractured any chance of collective action by creating more oppressed classes.

    Further to this, the theme the “personal is political” has created an individualism in feminism that allows individual followers to claim oppression exists if they “feel” it does. Regardless of intention or facts the simple fact that one feels oppressed removes all need for empirical evidence of actual oppression.

    Both the above were once considered to be ideas of radical feminists but have become mainstream over time. Unfortunately our society is dealing with the fallout of cultural marxist social engineering unleashed by a small group of pseudo-intellectuals that gained recognition through academia. Now we are all paying the price.

  5. The women in this article would be so much more effective if they started complaining about the worldwide rights of women, mothers, children and the LGBT communities around the world. As a woman living and raising children in North America, we have it fucking great! All the opportunites and help are there for us, if we’re asking, moving forward, making it work. Let’s move on! Focus the powerful energies of strong women on empowering women somewhere else than here. Booties, periods, nipples, ugh. There are bigger fish.

  6. Oh, god, another tired argument about who’s more oppressed women or black people. What a waste of energy.

    “Swift’s celebrity is more important to her than being a feminist.” How do you know that? Is it just because she’s so good at it you think nothing else matters to her? You fail to mention that Swift criticized her own attitude – thinking too much about herself – and made up with Nicki Minaj. Hey, celebrity is just a job – the women in this article do it well, and try to be upstanding feminists and all around good people at the same time – sometimes succeeding and sometimes not.

    But then again, Carly, aren’t you in the same boat? Pairing Blavity’s slandering of white feminists with your own stereotyping of young feminists as akin to Dunham’s parody persona – that’s pretty much the same as Dunham’s stupid and racist comments about India! You can do better than that.

  7. Wow, you’re actually citing a Washington Post article that has since been aggressively debunked??


    The Interrobang; Have you ever watched Amy’s television show… in preparation for the article?
    Stacey Patton: Nope. Not at all.
    The Interrobang: Her stand up set[s]? have you ever watched any of them?
    Stacey Patton: Nope. None of them.

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