As of 2016, the Webster’s online dictionary defines feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” but what about everyone and everything in between? As is the case with many words, Webster’s definition only serves to underline The Big Picture. In dictionaries, the details, when thinking about what Webster’s true function is, are of little importance in the grand scheme of things; however, when engaging in social justice work, these details often become excruciatingly important.
July 20th marked the day that none of us had ever really been looking forward to: the announcement that Girls star Lena Dunham would deliver a speech at the Democratic National Convention in support of presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. This, I’m assuming, is supposed to be a big deal considering Dunham’s “dedication” to the feminist cause, and Clinton’s campaign's low-key but evident undertones: that if we vote for Hillary and elect her as president, she will be the first female president, and wouldn’t that be a feat?
Now, Dunham has been highly active in her crusade for Clinton advocacy, citing multiple reasons including but not limited to Clinton’s support for tighter gun laws, effective reproductive health access for women and girls, and dismantling systemic racism within the United States. She acknowledges that Sanders, too, can do all of these things, but what really gets her started is Hillary Clinton’s dedication to feminist work. In a TIME article, Dunham wrote “in a million ways, for women and girls in every walk of life, Hillary does the damn thing.” Hillary is The Feminist of the century, and according Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, and the entire population of White Feminists, Dunham is too.
There are several problems with this line of thinking, and all have to do with the ideology described as White Feminism. White Feminism doesn’t describe feminists who are white, but rather, feminists who prescribe to the text-book definition of Feminism: that it is simply about men and women (and white, middle-to-upper class, cisgender, straight women at that).
This feminism can commonly be seen sported by the likes of Taylor Swift and Gloria Steinmen, the latter of whom made the inflammatory statements dictating that the only reason a woman would support Bernie over Hillary was “for the boys.”
This is the feminism that “support other girls at all costs” is made of, and the feminism that allows us to tout Lena Dunham, a notoriously problematic individual, as the Feminist Voice of This Generation. For my intents and purposes, she most definitely is not.
For feminism to be effective, it must be intersectional. We must include transwomen, women of color, working-class women, and the ways in which patriarchy affects men, too. Intersectional feminism acknowledges the fact that not all women have the same privilege.
When Lena Dunham wrote her award-winning tv show Girls, it could have been the perfect opportunity to bolster these things, but her actions proved that she had, and still does, a very flawed understanding of the meaning of feminism. Girls is an all-white cast of cisgender, straight, white girls, and when the characters aren’t white, they play the help. Not only is this incredibly problematic (considering the U.S's history of enslaving people of color to do their work -- that people of color should be seen and not heard), but it is incredibly telling of Dunham’s fundamental misconceptions about the movement.
When Lena Dunham took a trip to China and wrote an uncomfortably orientalist essay both making a mockery of foreign cultures, and almost fetishizing people of Chinese descent, her feminism was trash. It did not stand for anyone but herself. It stood for people who look like her, and only people who look like her.
Is her endorsement of Hillary supposed to mean something? Am I supposed to suddenly ignore Hillary’s history of harmful legislation against low-income people and people of color? Is the endorsement of someone who thinks the only feminist issues worth talking about are sexual violence and the fact that women make 78 cents to a man’s dollar (never mind the fact that transwomen of color are being killed at the highest rates in the United States and Black, Native American, and Latina, women make 64, 59, and 54 respectively) supposed to be reassuring?
We live in a generation that idolizes the likes of Lena Dunham while ignoring the feminist accomplishments of bell hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Laverne Cox, Angela Davis, Gloria Anzaldua, along with countless others, and what does that say about us?
What does it mean when we talk over people to proclaim “if you’re for equal rights, you’re a feminist!” without considering the implications of what calling oneself a feminist as a black woman who prescribes to womanism might be, or how someone who identifies as a Chicana (because historically, feminism has excluded women of color) might feel when a movement marginalizes them while simultaneously criticizing them for not believing in something that’s never fought for them?
We cannot allow Lena Dunham to be the voice of our generation. We cannot allow her brand of gender equality to dictate this presidential election, and we cannot allow White Feminism to be the only mainstream feminism that exists in practice.