Has Lena Dunham’s Lack of Boundaries Finally Gone Too Far?

I highly doubt Lena Dunham is a child molester.

However  the passages in her memoir, “Not That Kind of Girl” discussing her exploration of  her infant sister’s vagina as a seven-year-old, go a bit farther than being a self-described “weird kid.” I would argue it speaks to a more troubling and larger narrative around Dunham, a lack of respect for boundaries, and a self-delusional lack of culpability for her actions.

I never thought I’d feel the need to write about Lena Dunham. To say the least, while I’m a textbook example of her demographic (white, educated, middle-class millennial woman) I am not her kind of girl. I grew up in the antithesis of her world, far from her lofty progressive SoHo lifestyle where anything goes under the guise of art. In my neck of the woods there was a line at school job fairs for security clearances, and my Southern family espoused not airing your dirty laundry because too often someone else’s would be caught up in it. Unsurprisingly, Lena’s tell-all approach to her life and art is not for me, and if “Girls” is the voice of my generation, than clearly I don’t fit in well, because that never has nor will be my life. I tell stories and share perspectives, but there are some stories that should never be told and never be shared because they’re not mine to tell.

Lena Dunham never grasped that lesson. With a nod toward art and comedy and an irreverent “I’m every girl” charm because her body isn’t runway perfection and she wears her awkwardness like a cuddly sweater, Lena simultaneously ignores and breaks all boundaries. She successfully sold her show “Girls” to HBO when she was 24 and most millennials (admittedly even herself) were struggling to find jobs and living in their parents’ house post-grad. She’s taken her support for feminism and Planned Parenthood to the mainstream and given them a seemingly relatable face to unify their platform. With that meteoric rise she’s become a Jesus-like figure of “fourth wave” feminism that is seemingly beyond reproach to her rabid supporters.

The passages from her book, while written in a comedic tone, show a distinct lack of perspective and troubling amount of delusional self-involvement. Children are curious about everything—their bodies, others’ bodies, and have no concept of what is and isn’t theirs without guidance. They play at being adults fake kissing and sometimes even “going to bed like mommy and daddy,” they cuddle up like puppies, bathe and probe each other. It’s all done with an innocent lack of understanding about consent and privacy that it is up to the adults in their lives to teach. Apparently this wasn’t shared with Lena. According to the book: “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things that I did.” Why wasn’t there a parent teaching her boundaries? And more troubling, what else did she do within that spectrum? Later on she describes more innocent coercion like bribing her sister for kisses or cuddling with her, but uses distinctly disturbing language to do so:

“Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying … What I really wanted, beyond affection, was to feel that she needed me, that she was helpless without her big sister leading her through the world. I took a perverse pleasure in delivering bad news to her – the death of our grandfather, a fire across the street – hoping that her fear would drive her into my arms, would make her trust me.”

It’s a troubling way to describe what might in fact be fairly normal child behavior, and borrows adult language to do so. Lena’s self-professed rage spiral over accusations of her sexually assaulting her sister seem surprising considering how she herself describes her actions. Here she has chosen to use highly damning adult descriptions of allegedly innocent if “weird” childhood actions that show a troubling predisposition toward abusing trust, disrespecting boundaries, and completely ignoring consent.

This passage should give readers pause, it should make us itch and feel uncomfortable that a much older sister is probing her sister’s vagina or as she later describes as a teen, masturbating next to her in bed. Why? Because we understand consent. We understand that while the act itself was of an unguided child; adult, feminist, rape survivor Lena, should be uncomfortable with describing herself as using the moves of a sexual predator on her sister. Many are angered by her flippant reference to abuse and victims, others think she’s a monster for doing it, and even more feminists are taking to Twitter to #DropDunham from Planned Parenthood because she’s a proponent of a very dangerous feminist narrative. One where boundaries and consent aren’t required and trust and authority are things it’s OK to abuse.

What angers me personally as a big sister, one who has the same age difference between my sister as Lena does hers, is her selfish proclamation of “what’s mine is mine, and what yours is mine too.” I find her actions  inappropriate at best, but can make allowances that I did not grow up that way and can’t make judgements on that. But what I do take ardent objection to is something not even cited in this controversy, but is entirely telling to who Lena is as a person. In a September article with the New York Times with both the Dunham sisters, Grace remarks:

“Without getting into specifics,” she said, “most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property.”

Later on Grace goes on to discuss coming out to Lena and her sister’s inability to keep it to herself, and within days or weeks (the two bicker over the timeline), Lena took it upon herself to out Grace to their parents. She defends herself saying:

“Basically, it’s like I can’t keep any of my own secrets,” Dunham said. “And I consider Grace to be an extension of me, and therefore I couldn’t handle the fact that she’s a very private person with her own value system and her own aesthetic and that we do different things.”

And there’s the rub. That’s the uncomfortable lip curl readers experience from passages from her book. It’s her going out in the name of no-shame, all honesty, comedy and art and airing someone else’s dirty laundry alongside hers. She takes the choice away from others in having their stories told, or not told and it stems from a narcissistic lack of respect for someone else’s autonomy, whether it’s their own vagina or telling their parents their sexuality. This lashing out at Lena is not at her sister’s behest, it’s not our place to victimize Grace or fight for her rights against her wishes if she doesn’t feel abused. It’s not society’s job to determine a sister’s relationship, but it is our job to look at the people we’ve held up as role models, and Lena is one who has readily raised her hand for the job, and question whether they’re who we want to emulate.

Lena’s blatant disavowal of her own words and the shockingly poor decisions involved in sharing these stories begets a narrative of someone who is blinded by anything outside her own self. In her search for frankness she has appropriated the life stories and experiences of everyone around her and exposed them to the world without realizing that: one–there are some boundaries that aren’t yours to cross and two–opening your life to the world around you means being aware of how your words and actions affect and resound to a larger audience.

And this time Lena, you’ve crossed one too many boundaries.


Disagree? Check out the counterpoint argument: “What We’re Really Saying When We Call Lena Dunham A Child Molester” 

View Comments (6)
  • “Unsurprisingly, Lena’s tell-all approach to her life and art is not for me, and if “Girls” is the voice of my generation, than clearly I don’t fit in well, because that never has nor will be my life. I tell stories and share perspectives, but there are some stories that should never be told and never be shared because they’re not mine to tell.”

    I feel like this sums me up entirely. As a little sister I also feel that my big sister held all the power. She was my idol. I did what she asked, I believed what she told me, and I had an inherent trust in her as well as that she could keep my secrets. You can call your best friend your sister if you want but there is no relationship like the one with a sister you were forced to share a room with grew up standing with in opposition to your parents. My biggest problem with Dunham is she claims to speak for my generation and I just wish she would stop.

  • PREACH, KATIE. Ima share this piece with all my heart because it sums up what I couldn’t organize enough to say myself.

  • This makes me extremely uncomfortable. As a mother of a little girl, the though of someone, let alone one of my own children, VIOLATING their sibling and not doing anything to stop it, makes me want to throw up. I use to like Lena Dunham.. But after all the revelations into her character, I definitely don’t want her speaking for me and my values as a millennial.

  • Children at that young age are innocent and don’t know any better. But I agree that once she told her mom what she had done, that would have been the time for the adult, who should know better, to explain boundaries and privacy. I don’t believe a seven-year-old child curious about what other people’s privates look like should be called a child molester, though.

    Her descriptions of her manipulative behavior as an adult and lack of respect for her sister as a separate human being are another story. Lena does seem like a self-absorbed narcissist and I have no desire to find out more about her (never saw her show or read her book).

  • I take issue with one thing you said Katie, something Dunham’s defenders have been using in an attempt to say everything she did was innocent: “It’s all done with an innocent lack of understanding about consent and privacy that it is up to the adults in their lives to teach.”
    I dont think thats accurate at all, and anyone claiming such doesnt remember their own childhood very well. I was sexually adventurous from an early age. By the time I was 10 I had already had some fairly heavy make out and under the clothes petting sessions with my neighborhood girlfriend. But I also was fully cognisant of consent as well. I knew as a young boy that if a girl said no, it meant no, and you didnt force yourself upon another person.
    As a parent now, I can watch as my children use their youth in attempts to get away with things by claiming they didnt know any better. But when called to account for their actions you can clearly see they did know what they were doing was wrong, they just hoped they could get away with it.

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