Why Lena Dunham's 'N-Word' Response Isn't Good Enough

Actress and filmmakerr Lena Dunham arrives at the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday Jan.
Actress and filmmakerr Lena Dunham arrives at the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday Jan. 13, 2013, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

When comedienne Lisa Lampanelli sent a picture via her Twitter a few days ago of herself posing with Girls star and creator Lena Dunham, she was no doubt well aware of the firestorm that its caption would spark. The photo, of Lampanelli smiling broadly, with Dunham standing over her holding up bunny ears, was accompanied by the controversy-baiting tweet: "Me with my n***a [Lena Dunham]... I love this beyotch!!"

It was a tweet obviously designed to stir the pot through its offensiveness, offensiveness that was later added to by Lampanelli's wearyingly banal response in the wake of criticism, the usual crud spouted out by racists and charlatan comics looking to exude a little edge. For Lampanelli, it was about "taking the hate out of the word." It wasn't derogatory, she argued, because there was no "-er" on the end, and more importantly because she was referring to someone she admired, a friend.


While Lampanelli's comments are just plain tedious, I was interested to see how her supposed "friend," Lena Dunham, would handle the situation. I was disappointed but unsurprised when after four days, Dunham still hadn't commented publicly on the incident despite her connection to it. And then, thankfully, writer Shayla Pierce, who had already been vocal about her issues with Lampanelli's comments in several articles, decided to call out the actress/writer on Twitter.

"[Dunham] has showed her true colors on this whole n-word debacle," Pierce wrote, "her silence speaks volumes."

It's hard to say how I expected Dunham to respond, or indeed what it was I wanted her to say, but I was left oddly perplexed and a little annoyed by her reply. It started out, more or less, reasonably enough: "That's not a word I would EVER use. Its implications are beyond my comprehension. I was made supremely uncomfortable by it," Dunham said, "Perhaps I should have addressed it, but the fact is I've learned that Twitter debates breed more Twitter debates."

For me, the entire exchange between Dunham and Pierce, which went on for several more messages and ended with Pierce thanking the television writer for addressing the issue, offering her "*huggies*" of reconciliation, seemed a little half-assed. However satisfying Dunham's response may have been for the parties involved or those looking on in Twitter Land, the exchange struck me as Dunham getting let off the hook a little too easily, absolving her without really forcing her to face the issue at hand.

It's silly, of course, to suppose that Dunham should have to apologize for Lampanelli's comments -- it's not as if (I hope) the two sat brainstorming together after snapping the picture, trying to conjure up the most asinine and offensive caption to the photo they could think of. But there was some validity to the criticism that Dunham should have said something after the photo was posted, even if it was, as Pierce suggested, a simple "Not cool, Lisa." But Dunham's reasoning for her silence, that "Twitter debates breed Twitter debates," and that her "criteria for engaging in Twitter debate" is to "wait until something just sits so wrong in my belly & bones that I must finally speak," seemed like a cop-out.

Dunham doesn't have the best track record, after all, when it comes to racial discourse. Last year she tweeted a photo of herself in a pseudo-hijab with the caption, "Had a real goth/fundamentalist attitude when I woke up from my nap." (Her subsequent retraction of the tweet only apologized for its timing so close to the Wisconsin shooting at a Sikh temple, and not for the ignorance of the comment itself). There's also the Orientalist disaster of an article she wrote for This Recording about a trip to Japan, in which she used the phrase "yellowish fever" and likened a Japanese woman's hands to paper cranes. And of course, she's already taken heat for her Emmy-winning television show, a program which some detractors blast for its dearth of racial diversity despite its New York City setting (the one black character she did incorporate into Season 2, played by Donald Glover, only highlighted the quality of hipster racism that the show has been criticized for in the past without tackling the issue in a real way).

And yet, despite her past transgressions, Lena Dunham is not a racist. Ignorant and misguided in her bubble of privilege, yes. Racist, no. Still, her comments demonstrate my real problem with her: a seeming unwillingness to enter into any racial discussion, dismissing the hullabaloo around Lampanelli's comments as what could be construed as the basest form of discourse, the "Twitter debate."

Yes, the Internet is a place that is rife for the sort of blithering, caps lock ridden back and forths that rarely come to anything productive. I understand that. But at the same time, "debate" can be enlightening, thought-provoking, and absolutely necessary. So when Dunham said Lampanelli's comments made her "uncomfortable," was she actually referring to the fact that frank discussion about race makes her uncomfortable? In this situation, it would have been refreshing to see Dunham show more concern for denouncing racism rather than simply trying to distance herself from it.

There's nothing to debate. I assume that Dunham knows, feels, in her "belly & bones" that white people using the n-word, in any context, is wrong. And her choosing not to say anything, no matter her apparent convictions, makes her complicit in Lampanelli's actions. Her initial silence felt less like wanting to stay out of it based on principle, and more like a tactic, waiting for the controversy to go away as quickly and as quietly as possible (which it has). While Dunham's subsequent tweets suggest that she doesn't condone Lampanelli's use of the word, they also suggest that it wasn't "wrong" enough for her to care to comment on it. In the end, it isn't her silence, but her reasoning behind that silence, that actually speaks volumes.