Lena Dunham's an easy target but not the problem

Clinton to Lena Dunham: I'm 'absolutely' a feminist
Clinton to Lena Dunham: I'm 'absolutely' a feminist

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Clinton to Lena Dunham: I'm 'absolutely' a feminist 01:53

Story highlights

  • Jill Filipovic: Lena Dunham's abortion comments were a mistake, but extreme reaction to them misses the point
  • Targeting Dunham for being an imperfect feminist risks overlooking bigger threats and roadblocks to women, she says

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi and the author of the forthcoming book, "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness." Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Last week, Lena Dunham told listeners of her podcast "Women of the Hour" that she wishes she had had an abortion. In context, she was talking about abortion stigma, and that when she was asked to share her abortion story, she had nothing to say, having never terminated a pregnancy. She felt some internalized stigma around the issue, worked through it, and "Now I can say that I still haven't had an abortion, but I wish I had."

Cue Internet freak-out from the left and the right.
Jill Filipovic
Why abortion opponents latched on to Dunham's comments is obvious: Abortion, in their view, is an evil thing, usually done out of ignorant female desperation or wicked female selfishness.
    Less obvious is why the feminist left responded with such contempt. Sure, what Dunham said was clueless -- most women who have had abortions, it's safe to say, would have preferred to avoid the situation altogether, either by not getting pregnant in the first place or by not having a pregnancy go tragically wrong. But Dunham's comments weren't mean-spirited, bigoted or harmful in any real way. They were more akin to the insensitivity of saying "I wish I could get the stomach flu so I'd fit into this dress" -- obnoxious, especially if uttered to someone who actually has the stomach flu, but not the kind of thing that merits a week of public berating.
    The problem doesn't seem to be with Dunham's comments -- the problem is with Dunham herself. And sure enough, Dunham is a wildly imperfect woman, artist and feminist. Her show "Girls" started out extra-white, despite being set in the diverse melting pot of Brooklyn. Earlier this year, she published a series of bizarre comments about football player Odell Beckham Jr., attributing to him an entire internal monologue about her sexual appeal (or lack thereof).
    There are real, public mistakes Dunham has made, and no shortage of valid critiques. Dunham is a prominent young woman, a public figure who speaks on behalf of an ideology about which many of us care deeply; of course she should be held accountable for bad acts or for displaying internalized racism, no matter how unintentional.
    But that's not the same as raking her over the coals every time she says something clueless or makes a decision that's imperfectly feminist. Note the time spent on the Dunham abortion comments controversy versus that spent focusing on Casey Affleck, an Oscar nominee accused of sexually harassing his colleagues. Note all the bright artistic young men given space to experiment and create without every one of their comments parsed, and certainly without the expectation that they represent all men, perfectly, at all times. Note that there are so very few women directing films in Hollywood and many bright, talented (and recognizably bankable) men of all ages have never worked or rarely work for female directors.
    It's almost as if we're more comfortable demanding absolute perfection from women while giving men a broad pass.
    None of which means we should look the other way when prominent women behave badly. But "behaving badly" should be the line -- things like harassment or bigotry, not uttering something on a freewheeling podcast that merits little reaction beyond an eye roll. This is especially true in a political climate where hostility to reproductive rights -- and hostility toward women generally -- is climbing, and where liberals and feminists need all hands on deck to defend against the coming encroachments on our rights and liberties. Spending our time parsing a stupid but largely harmless comment is, in the aggregate, damaging -- there are only so many hours in any given day, and spending even a few of them channeling our anger toward Dunham seems, in this instance, counterproductive (to say the least). It also sends a toxic message to other girls and women: To speak publicly, you must be perfect, and if you screw up, even in the most minor of ways, you will be publicly harangued far more brutally than your male peers.
    It's satisfying to position oneself as the "best" feminist -- the one who would never say something so silly, who would never make an insensitive remark, who proves just how virtuous she is by slamming the women around her who are less good. That is more satisfying still when the object of your feminist derision is someone richer and more powerful than you, who can be easily melted down into a warped plastic caricature of an actual human woman.
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    It is harder to be brave and to put oneself out there fully, with the messy and ugly bits under the florescent light of public scrutiny. And it is harder still to ignore the distractions and the noise that pull us away from the real feminist goal: Rights and liberties for women, even under an incoming administration that seeks to curtail them, and will surely have the power to succeed.
    Facing such an uphill battle, it's tempting to pick off the easy targets like Dunham -- the imperfect feminists who despite (or because of) all of their human faults do actually care, and who will inevitably apologize for their missteps (and will inevitably misstep again). It feels good to win those battles. But it distracts from -- and sets us up to lose -- the bigger war.