Lena Dunham cannot be trusted to write a film about Syrian refugees

Lena Dunham cannot be trusted to write a film about Syrian refugees
Comment: It's imperative that we, as Arab women, now take the lead in shaping how our stories are told, writes Ruby Hamad.
7 min read
17 Dec, 2018
Brittany Perrineau (L) and Lena Dunham at The Hollywood Reporter's 100 Women In Entertainment [Getty]
This is not going to be a long list of all the missteps that Lena Dunham has apologised for. 

That the writer, filmmaker, and actor has issued so many she's inspired a Twitter account that generates faux apologies on her behalf, only makes it easier for those who wish to file this current incident along with the rest - treating it as just another example of Lena being Lena; always goofing around and putting her foot in it.

But we can't let this one go.

Earlier this month, Dunham, in her position as guest editor of the Women's Issue of The Hollywood Reporter (THR), used the platform to issue an 
open letter of apology to actor Aurora Perrineau, who Dunham and her then-creative partner Jenni Konner, had very publicly discredited a year ago, after Perrineau came forward to accuse Murray Miller, a writer on Dunham's now-defunct show, 'Girls' of rape.

Some background: At the height of the #MeToo moment, about which Dunham had previously said that "women don't lie about being raped," Dunham and Konner issued a public statement in support of Miller, claiming they had "insider information" that made them "confident" that Perrineau was in the "three percent of misreported rape cases".

Perrineau was just 17 at the time the alleged rape occurred and Miller, against whom no charges were filed, was in his mid 30s.

How many white women's gazes do Arab women have to be filtered through, and what will be left to see of us after that?

In other words, Dunham and Konner, two extremely powerful players in Hollywood came together to defend a middle-aged white man against allegations of rape made by a black woman barely out of her teens.

And now, one year later, Dunham has inexplicably decided to resurrect the issue by admitting in print that she had categorically lied in order to call Perrineau a liar, writing, "I did not have the insider information."

Dunham puts herself at the centre of the bizarre screed, lamenting she had been "colonised" (an inappropriate term coming from a white person in and of itself), by the "dominant male agenda" and asking if everyone can just find a way to "move forward."

By making her apology so public - including recruiting Perrineau's white mother to join her on stage at an event celebrating women in entertainment without Aurora present - Dunham casts Perrineau as a real life "magical black sidekick," claiming that the incident had made her a "better feminist." As if the trauma of women of colour exists only to provide life lessons for white women.

Perrineau has not commented publicly on the open letter, and whether she chooses to forgive Dunham is her decision to make, though the power imbalance between the two women compounded with the very public nature of Dunham's stunt, casts significant doubt as to how free and safe Perrineau would feel to tell Dunham to get lost, even if she wanted to.

Nonetheless, when it comes to the public discourse what we need to consider is the wider implications of Dunham's behaviour and how it is condoned and encouraged.

Despite the justified anger and grief from black women and other women of colour, it clear white people in the film and media industries are determined to stick by her with THR flatly ignoring the backlash and calls to retract her "apology".

The continued support Dunham receives from the industries she straddles is perplexing.

The white male editor of THR took to Twitter to thank Dunham for her "searing" and "heartfelt" letter, which only reveals his own insensitivity to the self-centredness and manipulation that it contained within.

Dunham's stunning self-absolution is a tired repeat of what too many white women have done for centuries: victimise, humiliate, 
and silence women of colour in order to protect their own status in a white-dominated society.

It seems that although white people love to talk about Arabs, they don't seem so keen to talk listen to us

Dunham was not serving the male agenda as she claims; she was serving the white agenda and her actions cannot be divorced from the long brutal history of white women being held up as paragons of virtue, while black and indigenous women were dismissed as wildly promiscuous and therefore "impossible" to rape.

And this disturbing denial of history is why I am writing this, coming as it does just weeks after it was announced Dunham was hired by producers Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams to adapting the story of Syrian refugee Doaa al-Zamal for the big screen.

Read more: 
Feminism means equal rights for all women, not just white women

At the time, there were questions and doubts about her suitability and, more generally, about the need for authentic representation and the ongoing refusal to allow Arabs to tell their own stories. 

But, because it seems that although white people love to talk about Arabs, they don't seem so keen to talk listen to us, the "controversy" died down rather quickly.

We need to resurrect it. How can a white woman who lied to discredit a black woman's rape allegations in order to protect a white man be trusted to tell the story of an Arab woman who is herself fleeing male violence?

The answer is simple; she can't.

How much longer must we be content to watch while white people dictate our narrative both in the real world and onscreen?

There is no logical reason for why Lena Dunham being entrusted with this story when there are plenty of worthy Arab filmmakers that could be asked to take this on, both in Hollywood - where Lexi Alexander comes to mind, and in the Middle East with Nadine Labaki for starters.

While I vehemently do not believe that only Arabs can make films about Arabs and so on, the trouble is, Arabs are so badly represented, and 
our voices so rarely heard when they conflict with dominant western narratives, it is imperative we now take the lead in shaping how our stories are told.

This is why I implore any Arab creatives who may be tempted to work with Dunham on this film to reconsider.

No, I am not suggesting people "boycott" her permanently; this isn't about no-platforming and there are countless other projects she can take on. What I am asking is, if possible, to consider not being a party to the charade and mockery of Arab lives this film will be.

This isn't about punishing or sabotaging the project. I know work of this kind is hard to come by, but at some point we must reject our collective punishment and rewrite this tired old narrative that depicts Arabs as either downtrodden victims or violent aggressors.

How much longer must we be content to watch while white people dictate our narrative both in the real world and onscreen?

With Dunham's screenplay to be based on the bestselling book, 'A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea', itself penned by a white woman, Melissa Fleming, we also have to ask just how many white women's gazes Arab women have to be filtered through and what will be left to see of us after that.

Arabs must be able to control our stories. We are the ones who must live them and, 
until our lopsided public image is healed, we must be the ones to tell them.

This is also an opportunity to stand alongside black women who are particularly affected by Dunham's actions, as it is black women who, for centuries have been regarded by some as little more than sexual chattel.

Dunham continues this historical violence, first by discrediting Perrineau and then by using her power, privilege and platform to spin the story in her favour, transforming her breathtaking transgression into a public relations opportunity.

People of colour do not all have the same experiences. White supremacy and white-skin preference has infected the globe and Arabs are not innocent of anti-blackness nor other forms of racism.

Here then, is an opportunity for us to demonstrate that our liberation and progress lies not in begging whiteness to see our humanity, but in standing with other people of colour to declare it loud and clear.

Lena Dunham cannot be trusted to write this film. And Arab creatives, I implore you, do not help her do so. It's time for us to take the wheel, to drive our own narratives, to write our own future. 

Ruby Hamad is a writer and Phd candidate in media and postcolonial studies at the University of New South Wales. Born in Lebanon and raised in Australia, she splits her time between Sydney and New York. 

Follow her on Twitter: @rubyhamad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.