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Not That Kind of Parent: The Problem With Lena Dunham

Trigger warning: Possible trigger for sexual abuse, consent, and childhood trauma. 





It’s not news that Lena Dunham’s new memoir Not That Kind of Girl includes a rather bizarre story about seven year old Dunham examining her one year old sister’s genitals. The retelling of that story went viral and two camps seemed to emerge in the social media melee — conservatives arguing the incident was practically akin to pedophilia and feminist Dunham defenders insisting the incidents were innocent sexual exploration.

There seemed to be no room for any other perspective — just plenty of distractions. Those Twitter #tcot types are obsessed with lurid details, and in the Dunham clan there are plenty of lurid details to go around:

Tweet about Dunham's dad's "smut" art

I don’t care about her father’s artwork. That’s not what bothers me about the incident. Parents have a right to adult artistic expression, even if it’s obscene. You can be an outrageous artist and a good parent, although this incident doesn’t exactly scream good parenting.

To be clear, I wouldn’t call Dunham an abuser. She was seven. I do find the incident disturbing — something that should have prompted the parents to take action — but I’m even more disturbed by the many feminists who seem afraid to exercise their judgment when it comes to a girl’s bad behavior. Sometimes girls behave badly, and the memoir doesn’t always end with a series on HBO.

I’ve been the mother of a seven year old and one year old simultaneously. First of all, perhaps I’m being too literal but the intention Dunham ascribes to her sister seems totally implausible to me. One year olds don’t plan out elaborate pranks involving their vaginas. Hoarding pebbles or anything else in there would require a dexterity and sustained level of attention that seems damn unlikely.


Truthiness in retelling aside, the issue is that we are talking about a seven year old and a toddler. Had she described a similar incident with a kid roughly the same age, the story would never have garnered this much attention. The conservative freakout seems to be all about sex (as is often the case when conservatives freak out), but the problem is really the abuse of power. I don’t mean to charge too much — how much power can a seven year old have, really? Well, if we’re talking power over a toddler, the answer is a fair amount. And she should have known — or did know — better.

This shouldn’t be dismissed as innocent curiosity. She acted with intention and without any respect for the fact that her sister had a right to her own bodily autonomy. That is troubling, and feminists shouldn’t be afraid to say so. I believe strongly in the value of empowering girls but we need to be clear about our priorities. Girls can’t do whatever they want, not at the expense of bodily autonomy. To be blunt, if your seven year old thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to touch a toddler’s genitals on a whim just to satisfy her curiosity, then you have some work to do as a parent.

I know if my seven year old son had done the same, I would have taken immediate action. As the mother of a boy, I feel like I don’t have the luxury of ignoring that kind of bad behavior. Mothers of boys figure out pretty quickly that our kids will be held to a different standard. Boys are “wild.” Boys are looked at like this uncontrollable energy that needs to be contained. I started out telling my son “no hitting,” but at a very young age that quickly became “never hit a girl.” Did I want to make that distinction so early on? No. But the reality is that a boy who hits girls is violent and a danger, whereas a boy who hits other boys is never looked upon with anywhere near the same level of concern. I feel like I’m constantly talking to my son about how to respect personal space, particularly if that space belongs to a girl, because it is critical that we instill a sense of respect and boundaries in our boys. Here’s the constant underlying fear — Slack on that duty and your son might turn out to be Elliot Rodger.

To see folks giggling about Lena Dunham — knowing full well no one would find those antics remotely humorous or adorable if she were a boy — makes me want to scream. Please do not act like a child (and an adult in her unapologetic retelling) with no apparent respect for bodily autonomy is emblematic of feminism. My feminism isn’t represented by someone who doesn’t care about anyone but herself. I’m not that kind of feminist, and I’m not that kind of parent.

Featured image by flickr user David Shankbone. 

Jenny Splitter

Jenny Splitter is a writer, storyteller and over-scheduled mom of two living in Washington, DC. She spends her glamorous days trying to write whatever she can, counting 1-2-3 in a slow yet threatening manner to her children, playing with gluten and working to eradicate dog hair from the planet (or at least her home). Find her on Twitter , Google+ and Facebook

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  1. Um…from a non-parent, I would say that it seems reasonable to me that if parents are teaching children “you have a right to your bodily autonomy” the corollary instructions should include “and, of course, other people have a right to theirs, too”.

    1. You would think that would be part of the conversation but then again kids all have different blind spots. Some kids have plenty of self confidence and are great at advocating for themselves, but have difficulty being sympathetic about the fact that there are other kids who aren’t as confident as them.

  2. Apart from the fact that I found the story very implausible, too, my biggest issue, or my main issue is not the behaviour of 7 yo Lena Dunham. While 7 yo can indeed inflict abouse on other children, they cannot be abusers in the moral sense, because they lack the moral capability much the same way a Hippo might kill a person but is not a murderer.
    What I find completely fucked up is the way adult Lena Dunham tells that story, behaves and how other adults, mainly white feminists treat that story.
    First of all, as a little sister I would not be happy to have the Incident with the Pebbles in a national besteller and there#s little indication that her sister got asked beforehand.
    Secondly, treating it like something hilarious and not something that should raise concern and lead to a discussion about how we teach kids consent. You want a hilarious “things stuck up holes” story? I have one: When I was about 5 my mother overheard me asking my sister if she could reach up my nostril with her finger because mine wasn’t long enough to get to the cherry stone I’d put there. See, that was fun. “I examined my 6 years younger sister’s genitals and nobody thought anything about it but here I’m telling it for the whole world to know” is not.
    There seem to be more problematic incidences of LD and her sister as children. And again, the real problem isn’t the shit kids do, but the fact that adults still act like it wasn’t actually shit they’d done.
    I started by saying that I would never label a child an abuser because they lack the moral capacity. However, what people who say “but she was 7” often forget is that for the victim of abuse the age of the perpetrator is pretty irrelevant. There are things in my childhood, done by my same age cousin, pretty much sactioned by our parents that still make me deeply uncomfortable 30 years later, that fill me with shame and disgust. That’s not funny, at least not for me.

      1. Honestly, I’m not getting the impression that her sister has that much agency in this. There’s a huge power difference here and it probably has been like this since LD was 7 years old, only getting worse with LD’s fame. And it still doesn’t adress the issue that this is not a funny story but an incident that could at best be used as a teachable moment.
        What she did as a child (if she did it, mind you, I still don’t buy the story of a 1 yo being able to shove half a dozen pebbles up her vagina without any help or anybody noticing) is not OK. That’s what we all need to see and say. To tell it as if it was just a hilarious kids story 20 years later is really, really, REALLY problematic because it shows a deep lack of understaning when it comes to consent and bodily autonomy.

    1. Yes, the biggest issue for me is the blinders that many white feminists seem to have on this issue. As others have pointed out, the reaction would not have been the same if she were a boy or a person of color. It’s like many of these episodes are viewed like examples of her proto-feminism or something.

      1. Yep, that too
        Although, while it is very important to notice and call out the racist dimensions, ultimately that leaves the fundamental question of what this actually means unanswered.
        Is it something that should not get called out and criticised (therefore white mainstream feminists being right in backing LD or keeping their feet still) but is because the person who does it is a PoC, like basically whatever Beyoncé does, or is it something that should be called out and criticised but is only ever done when committed by a PoC in order to reinforce racist stereotypes, like the instances of domestic violence and abuse of children in the NFA?

        That’s one mighty sentence, isn’t it?

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