We've all been there. You find a celebrity who seems so relatable, who you just know you'd be friends with in real life. You tell your circles about how awesome their work is, what a cool person they are — and then they do something totally indefensible. The latest celebrities to fall victim to this scenario? Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer. Once hailed as beacons of feminist comedy, Dunham and Schumer have become synonymous with "white feminism" at best — and inadvertent racism, at worst. But how, exactly, did we get here? In recent months, we've seen the internet turn on Taylor Swift after her "shady" actions toward Kanye West. And Tina Fey landed in a lot of hot water for a controversial episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, in which Titus, who is Black, puts on a one-man show about a Japanese geisha. Titus contends that his actions aren't racist, because he truly believes he was the geisha, Murasaki, in a past life. But that's not even the offensive part of the episode. The storyline handled the aftermath by, essentially, deciding that Asians have no right to be offended. An activist group for "respectful Asian portrayals In entertainment" sets out to criticise Titus — but they end up being moved by his show. The moral of the episode seems to be that internet "outrage" is unjustified, and people are quick to overreact over nothing. In an interview with Net-A-Porter last December, Fey addressed the backlash from the episode by saying, "My new goal is not to explain jokes." "There's a real culture of demanding apologies, and I'm opting out of that," Fey told Net-A-Porter. (The statement also got her into trouble when backlash arose over Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film Fey starred in that was also accused of being racist.) Unfortunately, Fey — a well-off white woman — doesn't get to decide how other people should feel. The episode erased legitimate concerns about race, and it's impossible to view the rest of the show without addressing it. Now, however, Fey's troubling statements have been replaced with Dunham's and Schumer's even worse remarks. The duo are, rightfully, being lambasted for a series of troubling comments about race (in addition to Schumer's concerning statements about Kurt Metzger).
Before her recent Lenny conversation with Schumer, and before her indefensible tweets from 2010 and 2011 were unearthed, Dunham seemed impossible to criticise, at least in the eyes of many millennials. Admittedly, I was one of them. When Girls premiered, I was still in college. I'd always planned to move to New York after graduating, so it was easy to find resonance with the show. But until I got my first job in media, I didn't know anyone else who watched it. I tried my best to get friends to give it a try, citing Donald Glover's and Jorma Taccone's guest roles as evidence of the series' worth. Of course, the issues were always there. Glover's appearance — in the show's second season —only came after Girls faced widespread criticism for not featuring any actors of colour. In an interview with Vulture in 2013, Dunham suggested that Glover's casting was, at least in part, a reaction to the backlash. "I think that when we shot that scene, there was both a feeling that it was the appropriate place for the character to be and a sense that it would, for people who had been paying attention to the backlash, at least evoke some sense that we were in a dialogue with our audience," Dunham told Vulture. "It was a pretty clear statement that we are comfortable, that there isn't a political agenda against having Black characters in the show."
Plus, Dunham's character, Hannah, was never intended to be praiseworthy. And when she dated Glover's character, a Black conservative, the joke was very clearly on her. For some viewers, that seemed like enough to justify Dunham's decisions for the show. For a while.
We should have been more critical of her then. But Schumer and Dunham are white, and they got free passes for all the controversies surrounding them.
When Dunham's book was published in 2014, I went to Barnes & Noble to hear her read an excerpt. The store was so crowded that I, along with dozens of other people my age, ended up watching her on a screen from another one of the store's floors. Clearly, Dunham had struck a chord with fans.
Even when criticism of the book arose, she emerged largely unscathed. Numerous publications accused Dunham of sexually abusing her sister, citing a passage from Not That Kind Of Girl in which she claims to have "opened" her younger sister's vagina. "My curiosity got the best of me," Dunham wrote. It's an uncomfortable passage, to say the least. I remember having similar conversations with multiple people about the controversy — all of them were along the lines of, Well, I've never done anything like that, but maybe it's something other kids did. Dunham was still a millennial hero, a "voice of a generation."
At that point, I was still gunning for Dunham in my own circles. She'd done some problematic things, sure, but it still seemed like an objectively good thing that a woman, even a problematic white woman, was gaining so much respect in the entertainment industry. I kept watching Girls, kept following Dunham on Twitter, and encouraged my all-male (other than me) group text to watch the video she starred in for Refinery29's RIOT YouTube channel. In my mind, a victory for Dunham still seemed like a victory for women. As for Amy Schumer, I was late to the game. I'd heard about Schumer, but I didn't really know who she was until she appeared on Girls. Eventually, I binge-watched her show online — and man, was I hooked. I couldn't believe how well Schumer's various sketches summed up the way I felt about awkward experiences, like getting a massage from a male masseuse. My mom and sister, who'd given me the gift card to their massage place, were totally cool with massages, which made me feel like even more of an outsider. But Inside Amy Schumer's sketch about massages perfectly captured how uncomfortable I'd felt during the experience. When I saw that segment, I was happy someone was making a joke about such a specific topic, and that they felt the same way I did. I showed that clip, as well as the outstanding sketch about rescue dogs, to anyone who would listen.
As with the controversy over Dunham's book, there was backlash when Schumer was accused of stealing jokes from other comedians. But it didn't damage her reputation for good. (For me — and, I'm sure, for many of my peers — it was all too easy to buy into the "parallel-thinking" argument. Maybe there is no such thing as an original thought anymore, and Schumer really did just have the same thoughts as the other comedians.) There was also the off-putting THR round table in which Dunham and Schumer interrupted Gina Rodriguez mid-story — and Tracee Ellis Ross came to her rescue — but I, and undoubtedly many others, brushed it off. Schumer was also accused of sharing racially insensitive remarks in several of her jokes. "I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual," she said in one bit. Schumer later apologised, saying that she "played a dumb white girl character on stage." It was hardly an apology, and we should have been more critical of her then. But she and Dunham are white, and they got free passes for all the controversies surrounding them. Neither of them had their shows canceled or suffered real consequences. They were still held up as feminist women in comedy. That's finally changed, though — Schumer and Dunham have, finally, reached the last straw in what they can get away with.
When Kurt Metzger, an Inside Amy Schumer writer, took to victim-blaming on Facebook, Schumer ostensibly criticised him, but it wasn't enough. The comedian tweeted, "Kurt does not work for me. He is not a writer on my show. Please stop asking me about it. His words are not mine." But Metzger has writing credits for 39 episodes of Inside Amy Schumer. Technically, he's not a writer for Schumer's show, because it's not currently on the air — a loophole, at best. Though, the subtext of Schumer's message — "please stop asking me about it" — is clear. Schumer's show is, by and large, Metzger's claim to fame. And not only did she not criticise him harshly enough, but her words make the situation about her, rather than about his abhorrent comments. (Schumer later said that the "real problem" is rape, not Metzger.) Unbelievably, things only got worse from there. In last Friday's edition of Dunham's newsletter, Lenny Letter, Schumer discussed the Metzger controversy with Dunham. The issue also contained tone-deaf comments about Dunham's interaction with Odell Beckham Jr. at the Met Gala, for which she later apologised. "It was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards. He was like, 'That's a marshmallow. That's a child. That's a dog.' It wasn't mean — he just seemed confused," Dunham said in the newsletter, describing her interaction with Beckham. "The vibe was very much like, 'Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a...yep, it's wearing a tuxedo. I'm going to go back to my cell phone.'" In her apology post on Instagram, Dunham said that she was projecting her own insecurities onto Beckham and that it was "unfair" to attribute those insecurities to him. As for his part, Beckham told Complex, "I don't have enough information to really speak on it." There haven't been any apologies, though, for the discussion of Metzger's actions in the same newsletter. "Why are these women treating him like he raped someone? He's not Bill Cosby; Kurt has never raped," Schumer said to Dunham in the newsletter. "What he was saying was horrific, and he was being a troll. He can be an internet troll."
Schumer only wants to be a part of feminist or body-positive narratives when they suit her.
Schumer went on to complain about the fact that she "had to answer for it." She is, at least in part, responsible for his rise in the comedy world — and she also admitted to knowing about his "troll" tendencies before this happened — but she still doesn't want to be involved. As with Glamour's "Chic At Any Size" edition, Schumer only wants to be a part of feminist or body-positive narratives when they suit her. The comedian called out the magazine's special edition for allegedly labelling her as plus-size, noting in an Instagram post that she's "between a size 6 and an 8." Glamour's editor-in-chief later tweeted that the edition "never called her plus-size." But Schumer has risen to fame with her comedic material that includes jokes about her size — and her work sometimes includes uncomfortable rape jokes, too. Schumer is a feminist comedian, but only on her own terms. And that's a problem. Like Fey, Schumer doesn't want to be told how to feel — but she doesn't seem to have a problem deciding how others should react to her "jokes," either. It's an unfair luxury, and it's beyond time we started calling them out on it. Last weekend — after the Metzger scandal, but before the alleged racist tweet emerged — my mom asked me what I thought of Amy Schumer. "I think she's a bad person, but some of her sketches are really clever," I told her. She agreed that Schumer was "probably a bad person," but she thought the name of her book, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, was hilarious. Sadly — and also like Fey — Dunham and Schumer don't seem to be using the recent controversies to start meaningful conversations about race and gender. On Friday, Dunham tweeted at Schumer about the "outrage machine" of the internet.
But Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, and Tina Fey don't get to decide how other people will react to their work — especially work that's inherently and consistently offensive. Lena Dunham isn't the voice of my generation, and Amy Schumer isn't either. We deserve better than that.