Lena Dunham’s Use of Black Culture as Comedy Isn’t Going to Help Hillary Clinton Win This Election
It make sense that a black voter would be reluctant to vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s the defense against the very obviously under-qualified, every bad -ist Donald Trump, and a clearly competent would-be president—the best we can hope for in this election. But she’s still a Clinton. Although she’s attempted to distance herself from the bill that sent a generation of African-Americans to prison, Hillary still represents an establishment that’s alienated decades of black citizens.
Hillary, at least, has gained the support of many mainstream white feminists. One of those surrogates has been Girls creator Lena Dunham, who today starred in a new, pro-Hillary hip-hop video co-produced by Funny or Die. As MC Pantsuit, she grabbed appearances from Charlamagne Tha God and The Color Purple’s Cynthia Ervio as she Caucasianly strung together a bunch of #ImWithHer-core rhymes. None of them are worth quoting, but Dunham at least made an attempt to be self-aware. In the prelude skit, a black women says that she knows Dunham because “she contacted my agent and said she was looking for friends,” a reference to the concept of wearing black friends for good publicity. (Or casting Donald Glover in your show because people complained it was too white.) At one point, Charlamagne remarks, “I’m not sure how appropriating Iggy Azalea’s culture is gonna help Hillary win.”
The video is the latest offering in the comedy canon known as white people who don’t rap rapping. Jimmy Fallon is one of the genre’s biggest ambassadors. As the host of a late night variety show on network television, he depoliticizes black culture, making a nebbish joke out of it to appeal to his predominantly white audience. But you have to wonder who MC Pantsuit’s audience is. If we’re really trying to be pro-Hillary, perhaps the most pro-Hillary thing to do here would’ve been to go silent for the next week. Dunham’s attempts at using black culture as comedic backdrop renders it as an exotic plaything. Like Clinton’s pro-establishment image, it’s alienating. This is one of the least pro-Hillary things you can do in an election where black voter turnout, one of this election’s deciding factors, has decreased. (For reasons that go beyond alienation—the GOP’s dogged insistence on undercutting African-American voting rights is a huge factor—but the lack of enthusiasm remains.)
Dunham’s attempts at transgression offend in how they position her as the central figure, even when she insists she’s disenfranchised. At this year’s New York Fashion Week, Odell Beckham Jr. accidentally breathed air at the wrong spot—next to Dunham. As a result, he got pulled into a conversation between Dunham and Amy Schumer in which he was accused of having a vibe that said “Do I want to fuck it?” It’s an imagined offense that would’ve gotten a black man lynched a short time ago. She projected her ideas on an unwitting subject without any regard of its inherent fallacies, but lambasted a mildly subversive idea like Kanye West’s “Famous,” which was more of a commentary on celebrity culture than a sexualization of its subjects. Her chief concern, naturally, was Taylor Swift’s bare body.
(Of course, Schumer suffers from some of Dunham’s same trappings. After she caught heat for her notable-in-its-terribleness “homage” to “Formation” she defended herself by saying “It was NEVER a parody. It was just us women celebrating each other.” Because that’s sort of the point of Beyoncé’s video in the first place, you wonder who’s the “us” here.)
White feminism has had a long history of excluding the black American experience: The suffragettes who’ve been constantly referenced before and during this election campaign also thought that African-Americans—former slaves—having voting rights before them was absurd. It’s a stretch to pin Schumer and Dunham as this blatantly racist, but their misfires are another reminder of how dominant white cultural influencers—the so-called good ones—can still minimize and misunderstand black culture. Democrats are understandably stressing on galvanizing African-Americans to vote, and if Trump does in fact win, black people will very likely be marked as scapegoats. Either way, their culture will remain a joke to the people in charge.