Are we ever going to stop calling Lena Dunham a 'slut'?
BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Fact: Lena Dunham is not a slut.
Correction: Lena Dunham can call herself whatever she wants.
Amendment: Don’t call her a slut regardless.
For what feels like the thousandth time, Dunham came under fire again this week because of the racy content of her show, Girls. The latest criticisms come from Quin Hillyer, a contributing editor for the famous right-wing publication, National Review, where he wrote an op-ed asserting, “If girls act like Lena Dunham’s character on Girls, they are sluts.” Technically, this argument throws more blame at the character Dunham plays on her show, Hannah Horvath, than at Dunham herself. But if this wasn’t explicitly a personal jab, Hillyer takes things up a notch from there by claiming, “Anybody with such a fetish for vile exhibitionism, and for public sex, is a slut.”
The whole piece is actually an outgrowth of frustration on the right at claims that the "Bring Back Our Girls" hashtag is misusing the word “girl.” Nevertheless, Hillyer decided to take the opportunity to not only attack Dunham but also to dig up the conservative outrage towards Sandra Fluke and chastise the Ban Bossy movement (before going on to defend words like “niggardly” and “redskin").
Hillyer’s article is so purposefully outrageous, so obviously trolling, that it’s hard to even take seriously. He’s definitely not the first person whose argument essentially amounts to: “Because I have freedom of speech, I’m going to say what I want, when I want, no matter how offensive it may be.” The disturbing part is that all the people exercising their free speech in these cases seem to be straight white men like Hillyer.
This all comes on the heels of another opinion piece from the National Review, which gained traction when it was published in the Chicago Sun-Times, called "Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman." The outrage the article has sparked illustrates the sensitive nature of how we use certain language in this country. But while the attack on Cox begins at a biological level, the debate around the word “slut” is a societal one. And the National Review’s take on both is incredibly troubling.
Let’s get one thing straight: You don’t have to like Lena Dunham. That still doesn’t make it okay to call her a slut.
To begin talking about this, it’s only appropriate to return to the subject of language. After calling all the female characters on Girls sluts, Hillyer goes out of his way to call the show’s male characters “scum.” The problem is that these word’s don’t carry the same weight. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a layer of something unpleasant or unwanted that forms on top of a liquid” or, more to the point, “a dishonest, unkind, or unpleasant person,” scum could just as easily be directed at a woman as it could a man. That’s why there’s a "Scumbag Steve" and a "Scumbag Stacy."
Slut, however, is firmly rooted in its application to women. In exploring the origin of the word, HuffPost Canada’s Donald D’Haene found that “slut” has almost always referred to “a sexually promiscuous woman,” as well as occasionally a name for a “kitchen maid” and a “dirty or untidy woman.” So even when the word wasn’t tied to sex, it was used to describe women whom society had little regard for.
Most surprising in D’Haene’s findings was the discovery that occasionally the term was given to “a woman with the morals of a man.” And on top of that, Geoffrey Chaucer and others of his time used the word “sluttish” to describe an “untidy man.”
But D’Haene acknowledges that today, calling a man a slut is far from the norm. He admits, “I've used it to affectionately describe a friend or three—always male though.” And how could calling a man a slut not be “affectionate,” it’s funny, right? Men can’t be sluts, so it has to be okay to call them that. Calling a woman a slut, on the other hand, is serious business.
So serious, in fact, that when Rush Limbaugh called the aforementioned Sandra Fluke a "slut" on his radio show a few years ago, he ignited a firestorm. What made that firestorm different, however, was that in addition to coming out of Limbaugh’s use of the word, it came out of what was behind his use of the word. In a Chicago Tribune article by Heidi Stevens surrounding the incident, DePaul professor Carolyn Bronstein was quoted about the repressive nature of calling someone a slut, saying:
During the Victorian period the idea of female passionlessness came to identify ideal womanhood… An ideal woman had no sexual feeling, no biological urges, didn't have orgasms. She was above sex… A truly pure and fine woman only engaged in sex in the most sparing ways when conception was desired… There was no passion and no enjoyment… The only contrast that existed was a fallen woman — a slut… You were bawdy and loved sex and you had no credibility. You were the lowest sort of citizen.
Because nothing could be worse than a woman who is “sexually promiscuous,” the very idea of female pleasure and sexuality has become synonymous with the lesser in our society. One needs only open a Philip Roth novel to see that the opposite is true for men. Somehow, even when a slut is considered “a woman with the morals of a man,” she’s still inherently lower.
To get back to Girls, this idea was part of the issue surrounding the controversy that arose earlier this year when a male journalist from The Wrap asked Dunham, as so many have before, why she frequently chooses to be be naked on her show. The problem with his question was that it had little to do with nudity itself and was more about Dunham’s decision to be nude specifically. While he could understand the male-driven titillation on Game of Thrones, he couldn’t grasp why Dunham would choose to portray sexuality in a way that differs from what we usually see on TV, thereby invalidating her opinion on sexuality altogether.
Even beyond sexuality, the anger that’s been directed at Dunham for her portrayal of young aimlessness feels noticeably unbalanced. Al-Jazeera’s Raina Lipsitz pointed this out in February, in a piece comparing Dunham’s Hannah Horvath to the titular protagonist of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Both characters are oversexed, self-obsessed artists, but Lipsitz found that the same kind of male critics who hated Girls were ready to praise the Coen Brothers’ latest as a triumph.
On a character level, you could argue that the difference between Llewyn and Hannah is that Llewyn actively displays his art throughout the movie, singing one beautiful song after the other, while we really haven’t been exposed to much of Hannah’s writing on Girls. But considering how much Hannah has accomplished in terms of her work in just a few short years, it seems fair to say that at least in the world of the show, she’s supposed to be very talented.
Ultimately, these critics’ respect for each character as an artist probably has more to do with the longtime “likability” of the Coen Brothers, as opposed to the perceived “unlikability” of Lena Dunham, who intentionally shares certain traits with the purposefully unlikable character she’s playing. Of course, Llewyn is really just as unlikable as Hannah, but due to latent sexism, we still tend to prefer unlikable male characters to unlikable female ones.
Returning to the word slut, it is important to note that there is a movement to redefine the word, in attempt to begin redefining perceptions around it too. A lot of this started in 2011, when a Toronto police officer told students of York University that the best way to avoid sexual assault was by not dressing like sluts. This, in turn, prompted the rise of SlutWalks, in an effort by women to take back the word and reappropriate it positively.
But not everybody supports this cause. D’Haene’s piece on the history of the word cites a statement from Socialist Worker Online: "Far from empowering women, attempting to reclaim the word has the opposite effect, simply serving as evidence that women are accepting this label given to them by misogynistic men...Women should not protest for the right to be called slut." And HuffPost Black Voices published an open letter in the wake of these demonstrations from Black Women's Blueprint, urging the organizers of SlutWalk to consider the harmful history of the word, and, in turn, of all similar words.
The most important takeaway here is that the use of the word slut must be left up to women, who are the ones who have had to live with it overtime, and not men like Quin Hillyer, who just don’t like being told not use it anymore. In the wake of the UCSB shootings, the one thing that has become clear is that if left unfettered, white male privilege kills.
In the meantime, feel free to go on hating Lena Dunham. You’re well within your rights to find Girls shallow, self-indulgent, morally reprehensible, and overrated. Basketball legend and avid TV watcher Kareem Abdul-Jabbar even found it racist.
But that still doesn’t make it okay to call Lena Dunham a slut.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.