The White Privilege of Lena Dunham's Comments on Odell Beckham Jr.

When Lena Dunham called out Odell Beckham Jr. for reasons that aren't exactly clear, it was a blatant example of privilege.

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Complex Original

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In a Q&A with Amy Schumer for Friday’s issue of Lenny Letter, Lena Dunham took aim at Odell Beckham Jr. by claiming that he slighted her for her appearance (she wore a tuxedo) at this year’s Met Gala. “I was sitting next to Odell Beckham Jr., and it was so amazing because it was like he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards,” she told Schumer. “The vibe was very much like, ‘Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a … yep, it's wearing a tuxedo. I'm going to go back to my cell phone.’ It was like we were forced to be together, and he literally was scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie. I was like, ‘This should be called the Metropolitan Museum of Getting Rejected by Athletes.’”

To be clear, the Met Gala is a tightly controlled event. Take a look at this year’s film The First Monday in May, which documents how Vogue and the Metropolitan Museum of Art put it all together. Conde Nast Artistic Director Anna Wintour personally vets and re-vets the guest list, and organizes and re-organizes the seating arrangements. You’re a sponsor and you get a certain allotment of table seats? Wintour and Vogue still have to approve who you’d like to invite, and usually the publication makes the first step and suggests who you should invite. So when Lena Dunham says, “It was like we were forced to be together,” it’s worth noting that’s true—they were quite literally forced to sit together, not only at the same table but in whatever arrangement at that table that they were in.

That said, being seated next to Lena Dunham does not mean one has a requirement to address Lena Dunham. Odell Beckham Jr. owed the actress/director nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. As far as we can tell, he didn’t even know her prior to this event. So why on God’s green earth, in the year of our lord 2016, would Beckham’s lack of acknowledgement be construed as some sort of anti-feminist ploy built on ideas surrounding objectification? Might it be Dunham's own privilege?

We all come to certain conclusions about unspoken actions (or the lack thereof) during social interactions. A wink is a good thing, ignoring is bad, engaging and then ignoring is worse. A human being with human emotions can’t be blamed for interpreting social situations in their own way, and projecting personal perspectives and hang-ups onto them in the process. But to take these thoughts and broadcast them to not only one’s friends but to the newsletter you run that was purchased by a major publishing house and is syndicated by sites like Harper’s Bazaar, from a position of power, is irresponsible—reprehensible maybe.

In this instance, Lena Dunham has taken an interaction and dictated the narrative. There is no telling (until Odell speaks) why Odell didn’t speak to her; maybe he had someone in his DMs he wanted to get back to, maybe he was texting his mom, or maybe he’s not a very social person. You know, maybe he’s just a grown adult and decided that he didn’t want to speak. All of those are his right, and for Dunham to assert a narrative over and above that is, simply, an opportunity afforded to her by white privilege. 

Just last month, a video went viral of a white woman yelling rape when a black man approached her, even though he was simply asking her a question. While that only ended in embarrassment for her, in the 1950s, Emmett Till was lynched for reportedly flirting with a white woman. At 14, Till was accused of an improper interaction: whistling at a white woman. Here, instead of being outraged because of a sexual interest, Dunham was flabbergasted and seemingly insulted at the lack thereof. Obviously, this situation isn’t even close to approaching the gravity of Till in the ‘50s, but the echoes are enough to give pause. There is a long, dark history of white women villainizing young black men on a whim, and Dunham’s privilege allowed her to ignore the painful context in which her comments were made.

The truth is, some men do objectify women. Some men do decide whether or not a woman is worth speaking to based on what she might be wearing. That is a problem. But Dunham does not have the evidence to make that claim against Beckham. The length to which she leapt to connect disparate dots, unbothered by the impact of her words, is cause for concern. 

Late Friday, Dunham took to Twitter to address what became a pretty resounding social media outcry, not in her favor. After heaping praise on Beckham, she chalked up the situation to humor.

.@OBJ_3 is talented, stylish, seems super awesome and wasn't into chatting with me at a fancy party.
My story about him was clearly (to me) about my own insecurities as an average-bodied woman at a table of supermodels & athletes.
It's not an assumption about who he is or an expectation of sexual attention. It's my sense of humor, which has kept me alive for 30 years.
Glad the outrage machine roars on though, right @amyschumer?

That’s not how this works. You can’t put something in quotation marks as if those were actual words someone else said and then say it was “clearly” about your own insecurities. You can’t fix your inner projections into an indictment of a person who very clearly did not ask to be part of this narrative just because you have a massive platform. And when people (rightfully) react to you with legitimate criticism, you can't belittle them and their concern as meaningless, just part of the "outrage machine." This isn't a joke, because the damage done and the history behind accusations like these are all too serious. 

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