Lena Dunham and toxic activism controversy

By Elyse Guziewicz

Lena Dunham, a longtime beacon of the feminist movement, is at the center of another controversy.

Her book Not That Kind of Girl, published this year, has come under fire for passages that describe her performing sexually inappropriate acts with and on her younger sister Grace.

Her response has been less than apologetic, firmly denying the severity of the accusations and claiming them to be a normal if not universal experience for children. While it’s true that many children have a sense of innocence that keeps them from understanding some actions perceived as sexual, what Ms. Dunham describes goes beyond this into the realm of disturbing.

Dunham tweeted that “I told a story about being a weird 7 year old. I bet you have some too,” despite describing her actions as “anything a sexual predator might do to a suburban girl” in her memoir.

The majority of white feminists have been standing behind her, claiming critics are policing her sexuality.

The attitude these people have taken highlights an ongoing issue among many social movements. This can be described as toxic activism – when social justice activists create a negative or harmful space by supporting problematic behaviors in other members of their group.

Toxic activism is not just a problem in the feminist movement, although it does provide a place to start the discussion. Anyone involved in the movement has heard the call to be aware of the media we’re consuming and to keep an eye out for problematic elements in film, television, and print.

Problematic elements include things like misogyny, racism, homophobia, rape culture, or other harmful stereotyping.

Too often, however, activists accept a celebrity as a feminist (or other interest group) and immediately begin defending their every action. This is especially prevalent among privileged members of the interest group – in feminism: white, middle class women.

In turn, defense of problematic behaviors leads to two negative outcomes.

First, it helps perpetuate the issues activists are seeking to solve. In Dunham’s case, defending her despite her admission to sexually inappropriate behaviors sends the message that assault is okay as long as it’s between women.

These ideas are what most feminists try to debunk, as assault should never be considered alright no matter the gender of the participants.

Second, it adds fuel to the fires of those that oppose the movement. Hyper-conservatives and Men’s Rights Activists have taken this controversy and run with it, claiming all feminists to be hypocrites and abusers.

Clearly, this is overdoing it, but Dunham’s lack of repentance and the feminist movement’s defense of her actions hasn’t helped the negativity and vitriol constantly being spewed by groups antagonistic to women’s rights.

The idea that any person is immune to scrutiny and criticism creates a toxic environment for any marginalized person trying to involve themselves and opens the entire movement up to controversy.

It’s better to point out flaws among ourselves than to have them brought to light by our enemies.