Lena Dunham: Why's She a Feminist Icon Instead of Beyoncé?


Writer, director, and feminist Lena Dunham has undoubtedly taken the world by storm through her HBO hit series Girls, which chronicles the lives of so-called average girls making their way through their 20s in New York City. The show has seen its share of criticism for its lack of inclusivity and for its representation (or misrepresentation) of four privileged women as living the average American experience. Indeed, Dunham undergoes a lot of criticism because she assumes the title of feminist. She has been heralded by many as an icon in her own rite and, as such, assumes the territory.

Girls can only be described as edgy with a hint of awkward for the way that Dunham chooses to address issues including sex, relationships, abortion, etc. She also repeatedly shows her naked body which is notable and commendable considering she does not conform to societal beauty standards. Whenever Dunham "pushes the envelope" in an interview, episode, or tweet, she is applauded louder and has even be deemed the face of the modern feminist movement. As such, she sneaks away from a lot of troubling situations including the aforementioned issues with race and privilege. A couple of weeks ago, comedian Lisa Lampanelli tweeted out a picture of herself and Dunham referring to Dunham as the n-word:


She was defended heavily for her involvement in that tweet and did not respond to calls for condemnation of the use of the slur for nearly a week. Her eventual response was also bleak. The outrage following the tweet came as a result of Dunham’s already lackluster relationship with race in her show.

Feminists have fought hard the charge that women are defined by our ability to reproduce. As such, the way that Lena Dunham has been accepted with open arms as a leader of feminism is peculiar when considering the plurality of Dunham’s discussion surrounds sex. But Dunham really commits feminist sin when she personifies privilege through and through on her show and uses her platform to tell the masses that "feminism" is about white girls and complaining.

I can tell you this: feminism does not need further perpetuation of that. Feminism is already a white girls club that women of color have fought to change for years. It is already telling that someone who practices such exclusivity could even be considered feminist, let alone an icon. Still, every so often, a new white woman rises up as a new "feminist star" and pushes the same painful stereotypes under the guise of feminism. This cuts feminism, actual feminism, really deep. On Girls, even basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar chimed in on Dunham’s troubling problem with race in an op-ed titled, "Girls Just Want to Have (White) Fun."

Even putting all of that aside, Dunham recorded a video for the Obama campaign entitled "Your First Time" in which she describes how her first time voting was for (with) President Obama. Yes, yes, double entendre, funny, moving on. I personally have no problem with this video but want to talk about hyper-sexualization, feminists? Imagine if, say, Beyoncé made such a suggestive tape for the President? Woo. I try not to think about it. Firestorm. That brings me here.

Grammy award-winning singing superstar Beyoncé Knowles-Carter has stepped into a very feminist role within the sexist and racist music industry; however she has not been received in the way that Dunham has. Beyoncé has been met with resistance from feminism since her inception. Her work is readily tailored towards inspiring women and girls through her lyrics, music, and dance. The singer has recent hits as "Run the World? (Girls)" in which she sings such lyrics as, "I'm reppin' for the girls who taking over the world, Help me raise a glass for the college grads." (SCARY STUFF!)

She also has classics such as "Independent Woman" with her former all-girl band, Destiny’s Child, in which they celebrate their independence from men, and "Survivor," in which she sings about getting back up after a tough relationship. Indeed, Beyoncé has used much of her fame as a relatively healthy influence for women and girls, getting involved in charity work too. Despite building this image, Beyoncé is constantly at the center of attacks from "feminist" writers for doing things that they deem to be anti-feminist. 

Interestingly, these attacks come from across the spectrum of color, though they are seemingly loudest among white feminists. Regardless of race, undeniably, Beyoncé’s actions are under microscopic scrutiny from her feminist sisters and certainly under more than Dunham. Bey and husband Jay-Z both changed their last names’ to Knowles-Carter when they got married to reflect each other’s names. After her jaw-dropping Super Bowl halftime performance, Bey announced that she named her upcoming world tour "Mrs. Carter World Tour." Her announcement of her choice to allude to her husband in her tour name resulted in frenzy with everyone giving their two cents condemning the singer daring to want to make that choice. In fact, that seems to be the trend with Bey. Every choice she makes is scanned under feminist radar and beeps uncontrollably. I think that it may be time we updated our radar systems.

A self-described "celebrity gossip, academic style" writer says of Bey, "As she puts on a superb Super Bowl show, but does it in outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishes the otherwise powerful female body ... I can’t help but feel ambivalent." 

So, Bey does not choose to dress conservatively. Pick your battles, feminists. If Bey is spreading a message of empowerment, as opposed to other musicians who sing about female degradation, why are you concerned about what she is wearing? Where do we draw the line, anyway? Bringing back the "not above the knee" rule? What gives? 

Samhita from Feministing said this on Beyoncé’s "Run the World? (Girls)" video: "Even at her most seemingly feminist moments, Beyonce falls back upon traditional ideas of femininity, of love and of romance. Beyonce as an artist is great and she is pushing us in new directions creatively, but she is not quite a feminist role model." With the current definition of "feminist role model" expanding to inherently include Lena Dunham but not Beyoncé, I’m not sure that she would want to be considered for the job. Feminism is in danger of becoming a warped version of that which we have fought so hard against: a movement that believes it is so enlightened that it knows what is best for women.

Likely the worst criticism of all came from Hadley Freeman of the Guardian: "I never fail to be amazed at the high profile, often A-list women who celebrate their professional success by posing near naked on the covers of allegedly classy men's magazines, such as Esquire and GQ, and these covers are, to my eyes, becoming increasingly close to porn." This is the same person who called Lena Dunham "precociously" talented and gave a loving, flowery review of Dunham’s work, repeated nakedness, lack of inclusion, and all! Freeman smears Beyoncé for committing the crime of being sexy while famous, an impeachable offense in Freeman’s eyes, while simultaneously advocating in favor of works that she should be in the streets protesting by her own logic.

Why the invocation of heightened emotion with regard to Bey over Dunham? Why is Lena okay and Beyoncé not?

As a black woman, Bey is seen as inherently sexier and more sexual. This is not a compliment or a knock on Beyoncé or on black women. This is a comment on societal judgment of bodies. The custom lies in history. The hyper-sexualization of black women’s bodies is nothing new. It is an ugly practice that dates back to the animalization, "other"-ization of black people in the 1500s, tracing back to even before the Middle Passage and African slavery.

As a people, we have internalized this concept and innovated it to take different, contemporary forms. Still, black women are seen to be more sexual based on historical racism. This judgment is apparent even in the comparison of these two major millennial figures. Beyoncé is a legend and Dunham a "voice of a generation," yet Beyoncé’s sexuality is deemed as unacceptable or overbearing. Dunham’s sexuality, on the other hand, is accepted and praised. Why the distinction? Dunham has been seen naked often and even in sexual positions in much of her work. Beyoncé wears clothes that show off her legs and bust, along with half of the populace, but still she has never been seen fully naked. I'm still waiting for an explanation on how this makes her the Anti-Feminist.

Why does the feminist movement take such offense to Beyoncé’s body? No, that is not my feminism. My feminism is about equality. My feminism is about choices and equal acceptance of those choices. Feminism does not play favorites and treat one person or group different than another. That is not feminism. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a great feminist and her choices are her own. Feminists respect that.