A couple of days ago, Amanda Hess at Slate published a piece on artists who collaborate with “creeps.” The immediate targets of her analysis were Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, both of whom have recently added creep collaborations to their respective bodies of work. Gaga did that duet with R.Kelly — which really takes the cake in terms of creep collaborations, to be fair to everyone else I’m about to mention — and one of the parade of Beyoncé videos from last week was directed by a Mr. Terry Richardson. In passing, Hess happened to mention that Lena Dunham, the unwilling patron saint of Internet fighting, had recently gone on a tear about how Gaga should not have collaborated with R. Kelly:
“There’s still a sense that being down with the predatory behavior of guys makes you chill, a girl with a sense of humor, a girl who can hang,” Lena Dunham wrote this week of the public endorsement of Kelly, after his long history of sexual assault accusations resurfaced. That’s easy for Dunham to say—it’s unlikely that any collaboration was ever in the cards for those two. (For the record, I have also made the difficult decision to decline to work with Kelly.) Dunham has, however, been photographed by Richardson; he is a hipster staple and also her friend.
Dunham took exception to this and took to Twitter to complain. Tweeting at Hess and another woman who’d linked to Hess, she said the following, which I’ve collated and punctuated but which starts here:
I respectfully want to note that trying to point out cracks in my feminist politics isn’t super constructive. As a young woman in this business, you are placed in immeasurable numbers of situations that test you. Feminism is never a matter of convenience, not for me and I hope not for anyone I admire.
That being said, aspects of this article really spoke to me and I’m so glad the conversation is happening.
I will cop that this confused me from the outset. One thing I am never going to understand about all these new feminism-adjacent pop cultural people and properties is why it’s wrong to analyze their politics in the context of the flag they are, themselves, flying. It would be one thing if Hess’ piece excommunicated Dunham from feminism, because that would be hyperbolic and silly. I am, as I have said, mostly tired of discussions about whether this or that person is a “feminist” per se.
But pointing out that Dunham is criticizing collaborations with creeps from a less than 100% pure political place isn’t out of line in the least, particularly in a piece that, like Hess’, goes on to argue that creeps will find work as long as they’re bankable:
… [I]f you’re a star who refuses to work with a creep, you risk bringing criticism onto yourself from industry executives, other artists, and their fans, while potentially missing out on a lot of money and maybe even compromising your career.
I understand this line of argument, and certainly sympathize with people who show up to work and find that their handlers have deeply, deeply misjudged their personal principles. But when you are at the Beyoncé level of your career, it’s possible that the people these industry executives want you to work with are more desperate to work with you than you with them. And “possible” is being diplomatic about it. Terry Richardson doing a video with Beyoncé is a boon for him, not her. Other cases are murkier, maybe. I’m not sure who got the boost out of the Gaga/R. Kelly performance; if anything, I think it was R. Kelly because it was, as Jim DeRogatis put it the other day, a legitimizing step. Put in that context, it seems pretty damned obvious that Gaga’s handlers could have turned this stuff down. But they didn’t. And that has to be recognized as a kind of choice.
When we get to Dunham being shot by Terry Richardson, a whole other layer of weirdness starts to come in. It does feel like a bit of a definitive knock on Dunham, so much so that apparently Michelle Malkin decided to fling irony to the wind and start tweeting asshole things at Dunham about it, because as we know, there is no greater standard-bearer for feminism today than Michelle Malkin. (Not linking. Malkin tried to follow me on Twitter about this and I blocked her because that’s quite enough space in my personal consciousness for her today.)
Well, as Facebook might say, It’s Complicated. Hess doesn’t talk about this so much in her piece, but there is an aspect in clubby cultural industries (like the one I’m in, for the record) where it’s not so much that you’re friends with everyone as that it becomes sometimes personally awkward to extricate yourself from situations you’d happily shut down on social media. Though, I think you can overstate what all might have gone on here. Hess says that Dunham and Richardson are friends, and she links for support to an Observer profile of Audrey Gelman. What the profile says is that Gelman, who appears in Girls periodically as Charlie’s other ex-girlfriend, Audrey, is close friends with Dunham. And that until recently, Gelman was dating Terry Richardson.
Well, I don’t know about you, but my close friends have often dated, sometimes for years, people I personally hated. So unless someone comes up with some statement Dunham has actually made where she has avowed that Richardson is her “friend,” or some kind of physical evidence like friendship bracelets they were seen weaving for each other on a bench in Central Park, there’s no real proof they are bosom buddies. That said, I guess Dunham had been getting blowback about the Richardson thing and she decided she needed to add some things on Twitter. To wit:
Someone implied my statement about R Kelly was invalid because I’ve had my photograph taken by Terry Richardson. I responded asking that my feminism not be picked apart because of one PR experience. You don’t learn to say no overnight. Any man who takes advantage of any woman sickens me. That’s all and that’s always. No debate. I am not immune to pressures.
Learning every day. Have a beautiful holiday. I know I need it.
“One PR experience” strikes me as a strange and overly diplomatic description. The shoot in question happened with V Magazine earlier this year, around the time Season 2 of Girls premiered. This means that it happened when Dunham was a pretty good get for a magazine like that. Magazine photo shoots are, of course, negotiated with a lot of interests in mind. But one of them, in the timing and context of Lena Dunham’s specific career, had to have been whether Dunham wanted to do the shoot. And since the shoot happened, we know that she did. Identifying her particular reasons — which does amount to mind-reading from my perspective — doesn’t matter as much as knowing that it wasn’t as simple as “one PR experience.”
I want, of course, to give the benefit of the doubt to people who make compromises in their careers. We have all had deeply creepy encounters with people who hold some kind of economic power over our lives, I think. We all know that the choices can be bad ones. But that doesn’t mean there is no choice. In fact, I think it means we have to recognize that the choices are all bad where creep collaboration is concerned, to get everyone to a place of ostracizing the creeps whenever possible. You’re gonna piss someone off and compromise no matter what direction you go. But there is a way in which you’re choosing who you want to make angry. What you do with that observation is, of course, up to you.