What Lena Dunham's Abortion Comments Tell Us About Feminism In 2016
The Debrief: It should not be about asking ‘how can I help people who are like me’ but ‘what can I do for people who are not like me’.
You know that acquaintance of yours who is always waiting for you to end your story so they can begin theirs? Who nods along with barely concealed impatience? Who flushes with relief when they can finally interject and say ‘Me too!’?
This week, Lena Dunham became that acquaintance on a global scale. Speaking on her podcast Women Of The Hour, Dunham recalled visiting a Planned Parenthood in Texas. She was asked to join a project which gave an outlet to women sharing their abortion stories. Dunham had never had an abortion, and was eager to clarify as much, but later realised this urge was antithetical to her beliefs.
‘Now I can say that I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had’, she went on, to the sound of infinite coffees being spat out, eyes being rolled and snarky tweets being crafted (including mine).
I’m not here to mock Dunham any more than she already has been for this statement- she’s an easy target for people of all political persuasions at this point, and I don’t see a lot of value in reiterating why. But I do believe that what she said points to an interesting nadir for a particular kind of determinedly individualistic feminism, a kind of feminism which seems to be the most popular and widespread. It’s this that needs our attention.
There has been widespread criticism of Dunham’s remark for making light of abortion, of likening it to going for a milkshake or calling in for a lunchtime manicure. These criticisms are the ones being quoted on Fox News, for instance, as the proof that Lena Dunham has gone too far even for the left, who she, ostensibly, speaks for. I don’t buy this argument. The right are attacking what she has said, as they always have Dunham herself, for almost entirely the wrong reasons.
My objection is not that she trivialised the reality and procedure of abortion. If anything, it would be useful to have more public acknowledgement of abortion as a usually minor and minimally traumatic occurrence. I’m from Ireland, where abortion is still illegal, and we watched a film called The Silent Scream in school which depicted it as a chaotic and gory horror show. Of course, there are women who have complicated and painful abortions, but they are not the norm. The idea that abortion is inherently harrowing is one used by Anti Choice organisations for their own gains.
An ungenerous reading of Dunham’s words would say that she was simply being narcissistic and wishing to put herself at the centre of the discussion about reproductive rights; a generous one would contend instead that she wishes she could use a personal experience to further it. The truth must surely lie somewhere between these two, that it was a narcissistic expression of a basically benign wish to be of use. But, here’s what I’m interested in- that someone as powerful, as famous, as rich as Lena Dunham still believes that having personal first-hand experience of an issue as vast and crucial as a woman’s right to access abortion is necessary to speak on it.
To feel this way, let alone to feel comfortable verbalising it, is indicative of a certain rarefied strand of feminism which is alienating and unsustainable. This kind of self-centering is dangerous because it appears to provide evidence for so many of the accusations levelled against people who are, in fact, far more aware and sensitively engaged than Dunham. It looks on first glance to be vindication for the many people, both on the right and the left, who turn their nose up at what they call ‘identity politics’.
'Identity politics' is a phrase used with such multiplicity and varying intent that it is all but meaningless, but it’s the phrase most often used to dismiss political arguments which prioritise listening to those whose experience is not that of the straight, white, affluent man.
Those who have that experience and identity, or can elevate themselves to comfortably exist alongside it, object that identity politics is divisive; how can we unite as a political party (or a country, or class, or race, or gender) they might ask, if we are obliged to address each specific demographic? This discounts, of course, the fact that a straight white rich man is an identity too, it just happens to be the one that’s winning.
There are valid criticisms, though, when personal anecdotes are used so specifically that they stop others who are ideologically onside from being a useful part of the conversation. This does happen, but it happens much less than the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos and Piers Morgan, who are always screaming about safe spaces and trigger warnings, would have you believe.
That is why I find Lena Dunham’s remark worth commenting upon, because it represents the logical end point of what those sorts of people wrongly believe we are doing when we insist that our lived experiences are important. It’s what would happen if we agreed that we only have the right to comment on vital political issues if we have been directly and personally implicated in them. We needn’t feel this and should feel confident enough in what we believe is right not to.
First person accounts and disclosures are best employed when we are using the events of our lives in service of our beliefs, as a tool to explain, elaborate, or reach out. By their nature, anecdotes cannot be used to prove, and when we try to do that we appear to be descending to the individualist and self-concerned level that our critics believe us to exist on.
Joan Didion wrote, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’, but our existence isn’t validated or fuelled by the stories we can tell, it’s also about hearing and learning from the stories of people other than ourselves. It is not asking ‘how can I help people who are like me’ but ‘what can I do for people who are not like me’.
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