Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and the Outrage Machine


Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer discuss advocacy and a culture of outrage in a feminist conversation rife with contradictions.

Lena Dunham recently sat down with Amy Schumer to talk about her new book, and the conversation has as many highs and lows as you’d expect. As Jezebel notes, the conversation starts off on a note of personal empowerment. Two well-known women discuss their roles as professionals and tackle the issue of body-shaming.

However, when it comes down to other issues, we enter an awkward territory. There’s a clear vibe given off by both women: My experiences define the limit of my empathy.

While Schumer shows compassion through her discussions of victims of gun violence, Dunham’s feminism comes off as tone-deaf. The concept of trigger warnings is always a hot-button topic. Dunham claims that issues of sexual assault stem only from “actions in the world” rather than our language. Thus, we shouldn’t try to protect women from language by loudly condemning jokes about sexual violence. But words and actions aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s why hate speech and incitement have been the subject of debate both in the U.S. and internationally. Language and behaviour are intertwined.

The irony is that Amy Schumer later alludes to avoiding upsetting topics in the same way that people avoid psychological triggers. She explains that there are some shootings she chooses to “skip” because the emotional weight is too much.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MARCH 31: Comedian Amy Schumer speaks onstage during the Comedy Central Live 2016 upfront at Town Hall on March 31, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Comedy Central)

The Outrage Machine:

Still, It’s not difficult to believe that Dunham would draw issue with adjusting her language. The actress refers to criticism of her comments as the work of “the outrage machine.”

This tweet is one of several responding to complaints about her comments on the Met Ball. In the Lenny interview, Dunham talks about “attempting to grind” on Michael B. Jordan and in the next breath projects the role of objectification onto Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver for the NY Giants. In later tweets, she declares Beckham Jr. “super awesome” and acknowledges that her comments refer more to personal insecurity than the athlete’s perceived slight. All of this, however, is undermined by the above tweet.

It’s a common tactic in a losing battle: Attacking the people rather than their arguments. If someone draws issue with you, it’s their over-sensitivity rather than your thoughtlessness. It’s not an apology, but it gives same level of comfort as the statement, “I’m sorry you’re upset.”

It seems odd that Dunham is able to reconcile both making unsolicited advances as “a red-blooded straight woman” while also claiming outrage for victims of assault. That very logic acts as a defence for many perpetrators who cite their natural urges as too powerful to overcome.

However, it’s worth noting that Lena Dunham did recently address both Jordan and Beckham Jr. on Instagram, in spite of her apparent belief that the reaction to her comments was overkill. And one post did include an apology:

So perhaps it’s not all about outrage. There’s a self-awareness in the latter post that her interview lacked. Acknowledging personal context is the first step, but I’m hoping that we see that introspection extend to the rest of her activism as well.

The Personal and the Political:

PHILADELPHIA, PA – JULY 26: Actresses America Fererra (R) and Lena Dunham (L) deliver remarks on the second day of the Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Later, as both women discuss their personal involvement in politics as of late (Schumer on gun control and Dunham on participating in the DNC) Dunham acknowledges that you don’t have to make yourself palatable to the masses in order to have a career. While that’s true, public response to Lena Dunham is not always about being palatable. It’s about being willing to listen to the experiences of people other than yourself.

Schumer shows the same limited view when she responds to the issue of one of her writers, Kurt Metzger, making callous comments about sexual assault. “Have I earned any good will with you guys? Do you believe that I feel that rape victims should be shamed on the internet?” Granted, it’s not her responsibility to police her staff. But Schumer does not seem to recognize that her association with Metzger is what created the lack of trust in the first place.

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Hopefully, the recent change in tune by Dunham is reflective of a greater change in attitude. You don’t have to be politically correct, you just have to be willing to recognize the impact of your actions and words.