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, two groundbreaking women, hailed as beacons of feminist comedy. But in recent months, both have sparked the ire of their fans with tone deaf comments concerning race and rape that have startled and alienated longtime fans. I count myself among them. Recently, Dunham sat down with Schumer for a wide-ranging conversation that was then published in her newsletter, Lenny Letter. Both made startlingly tone-deaf comments that have sparked outrage among their fans. Schumer addressed the recent controversy surrounding Inside Amy Schumer writer (and well known Internet troll) Kurt Metzger, who had posted troubling comments about victims of sexual assault on Facebook. Schumer herself offered a mealy-mouthed disavowal of Metzger, rather than a full-throated rejection of his incendiary comments. Schumer told Dunham: "First I was like, fuck Kurt. It's been years that he’s been doing this. He's one of those guys, like a lot of the guys that I'm friends with, who are degenerates. Kurt was saying this awful stuff, and in previous years, I would be like, 'You've got to shut up.' He'd be like, 'All right.' Then it would kind of go away. This time, it was just so bad."
These comments suggest to me that not only was Schumer aware of Metzger’s loathsome online trolling, but tolerated it only until the backlash became so severe that she had no choice but to address it. For her part, Dunham found herself in hot water for remarking that she felt snubbed by New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., her seatmate at the Met Gala. "I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr., and it was so amazing because 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 told Schumer. "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.'" The outrage was swift and unrelenting, and Dunham quickly apologized.
By way of background, I've been a Dunham fan for years. 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 color. 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. 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 preaching the Gospel of Lena 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 felt 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 apologized, saying that she "played a dumb white girl character on stage." It was a meager apology, mildly offensive to boot. Both Dunham and Schumer were still revered as important feminist voices in pop culture. But that seems to be changing, finally. Schumer and Dunham have reached the last straw in what they can get away with.
In her apology to Beckham, posted on Instagram, Dunham said that she was projecting her own insecurities onto the athlete and that it was "unfair" to attribute those insecurities to him. As for his part, Beckham gracefully brushed off the brouhaha, telling 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. She went further, telling Dunham, "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," this though she very clearly knew of Metzger's habit of baiting women in particular on social media. Here, as with Glamour's "Chic At Any Size" edition, Schumer only wants to be a part of feminist conversations when they suit her. (Recall that last summer she called out the magazine for allegedly labeling her as plus-size, noting in an Instagram post that she's "between a size 6 and an 8.") Schumer's built her career on off-color jokes, including those that reference her size and even rape. Schumer is a feminist comedian, but only on her own terms. And that's my problem with her. While she bristles at being told what to do or feel, her audience isn't afforded the same consideration. When we react — or rail — about her material, she recoils and tells us all the ways we've overreacted or misunderstood. It's an unfair double standard, and I call bullshit.
Last weekend — after the Metzger scandal, but before she directed (and quickly deleted) an arguably racist tweet to a Hispanic professor— 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 recently published book, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, was hilarious. Sadly, Dunham and Schumer don't seem to be using the recent controversies to start meaningful conversations about race and gender—persistent blind spots for both. On Friday, Dunham tweeted at Schumer about the "outrage machine" of the internet, proving once again that neither really understands how they've wronged their fans.
Dunham and Schumer aren't the only female comedians who've fallen under scrutiny about race in recent months, either. Tina Fey faced criticism for an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that folded valid criticism about race under the spectrum of internet outrage. The issue has (somewhat) boiled over, but it's still a tarnish on an otherwise great show. Like Dunham and Schumer, Fey is a genuinely funny person — but all three of them have a lot of learning to do. So count me out. Lena Dunham isn't the voice of my generation, and Amy Schumer isn't either. We deserve better than that.
Editor's note: This is an edited version of the original story. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.