Last week, based on some anecdotes in her memoir Not That Kind of Girl, the National Review accused Lena Dunham of molesting her younger sister when both of them were children. The controversial writer's many critics have taken the bait, and what might have been yet another chapter in the Review's storied history of not being read by anyone has become a full-blown news story.
There are plenty of valid reasons not to be a fan of Dunham's -- for those of us who resent her whitewashing of Brooklyn or her immense privilege, the idea of coming to her defense is less than exciting. But no matter how you feel about the Girls creator, the entertaining idea that she sexually abused a close family member isn't just bad for Lena Dunham.
This isn't a serious accusation: It's a thinly veiled attempt to besmirch an artist for being young, for being a woman, and for having opinions that differ from those of most people who voted for Dick Nixon three times.
Williamson picks out quotes from Not That Kind of Girl that describe a young Lena Dunham bribing her sister for kisses and curiously inspecting her vagina. Williamson reports these incidents with all the grave sensationalism of a To Catch a Predator episode. He even catches Dunham comparing her own behavior to "anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl." For all of this, Williamson insists, "there is no non-horrifying interpretation."
Except for the fact that Dunham was a child when all of this occurred. Young children, for reasons that feel too silly to explain to an audience of adults, don't usually have a firm grasp of the nuances of sexuality and privacy. Far from being one of the most heinous crimes on the planet, these incidents are the consequences of childhood innocence, the kind of innocence you lose after your first sexual experience or, alternatively, writing your first article for the National Review.
But despite the fact that most of Williamson's ideas could be disproven by anyone who's spent more than two hours around actual children, they're starting to catch on. Buzzfeed's report on the controversy features mostly negative tweets about Dunham's book, one of which flatly declares to Lena that "you brought this upon yourself."
Grace Dunham has responded to these accusations by affirming a basic tenet of queer theory: that people should have control over their sexual experiences.
heteronormativity deems certain behaviours harmful, and others "normal"; the state and media are always invested in maintaining that
— Grace Dunham (@simongdunham) November 3, 2014
As a queer person: i'm committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful
— Grace Dunham (@simongdunham) November 3, 2014
For those who are less familiar with Grace's terminology, this basically means that the power to determine what constitutes sexual abuse rests entirely with the accuser, not with the National Review or the Twittersphere. It's a doctrine that's meant to give agency to individual victims and not every dude on 4Chan with a keyboard and an opinion.
And it's exactly that agency that Williamson is trying to take away with his malicious excuse for a book review. For those readers who would take any of Williamson's reporting seriously, here's another gem from that piece:
Barry is not a character in a book; he is a real person, one whose life is no doubt being turned upside down by a New York Times No. 1 best-seller containing half-articulated accusations that he raped a woman in college, accusations that are easily connected to him.
Williamson is referring to a chapter in Dunham's book in which she recounts being raped by a fellow student at Oberlin. He calls her decision not to use his real name "gutless and passive-aggressive," arguing that she'd never "face him in a court of law, but she'll lynch him in print." He mocks Dunham's "lifelong fear of being raped" as if that weren't something that women everywhere, regardless of their class privilege, feel every day. He even implies that the use of alcohol and prescription drugs invalidates her whole story.
For someone who's so concerned with victims of sex abuse, Williamson seems to hold the feelings and opinions of those victims with very little regard.
But of course, Williamson isn't really concerned with anything so serious. His accusations are tucked into an article that's really about the entitlement of young people, the emptiness of progressive politics, and his own casual sexism (he quips that Dunham's main hobby is really shopping).
It's not surprising that any of this would find its way into the National Review. What's surprising is how easily that publication has snaked its way into the concerns of people who seriously care about the rights that victims of abuse are entitled to.
For better or for worse, Lena Dunham is a public figure. As self-effacing as she is about her privilege, it's hard not to see her success as inextricably tied to the extremely fortunate position she was born into.
But Dunham is also a victim -- a victim of sexual abuse from men like Barry, a victim of intellectual abuse from men like Williamson. Whether or not they're aware of it, people who are using an argument dredged up by the National Review to fight sex abuse are playing right into the hands of the people who tacitly endorse it every day.
If you don't respect Grace Dunham's opinion on her sister's "abuse," then you can't claim to have respect for the "victim." And if you're looking for a reason to hate Lena Dunham, there are about 10 billion of them that are less harmful than this one.