“Wait, why does the black woman have to become the alcoholic prostitute?” I asked myself during my first time watching the 1951 film adaptation of the musical Show Boat.
I found myself staring at the screen in front of me, watching while Julie looks on as Magnolia sails off into the sunset with her philanderer-turned-family-man husband and her extremely successful show boat, a peaceful yet resigned look on her face. The far more enlightening story, Julie caught passing as a white woman and subsequently being removed as the star of the show boat, encompasses, at most, four minutes of the entire film.
Despite silently praising George Sidney, the film’s director and producer, for making a light-skinned African American woman’s troubles part of the story for even those few minutes during a time notorious for its ignorance of racial issues, I cannot help but wonder how often white women must find ways to recognize their own privileged suffering at the expense of others (namely, others of color) and how often this recognition is exacerbated by the public personae recent technological advances afford these white women.
Admittedly, I feel a sense of discomfort with this issue, as I am a white, feminist woman with my own fair amount of privilege. What could I possibly have to say in defense of those whose experiences I do not share? Despite this, I remain deeply concerned about the future of feminism and its implications on the betterment of race relations, as many in the spotlight who call themselves feminists are using the Internet and social media to do more harm than good for feminism and race relations alike. Show Boat outlines the struggles of love for the privileged white woman, ignoring that of the passing black woman. At Julie’s expense, Show Boat allows Magnolia’s love life to take center stage as the primary, important struggle. Lauren Berlant expands on this in The Female Complaint, arguing “the moment Julie is revealed as a black woman who passes, she is virtually expelled from the plot, and the narrative energy of romance, which Julie has been shown both to play on the river and to live in her romance with Steve, is transferred to Magnolia” (83). Magnolia’s privilege as a white woman, though she takes no action in advancing Julie’s suffering, affords her all the opportunities Julie is forced to sacrifice due to her race, all the while making no effort to better her situation; rather, she eases Magnolia’s struggle through sacrifice of her job and her sobriety.
Julie exists solely to serve Magnolia, with no regard for her own suffering, presenting a tainted image of the issues women of color face, both then and now, to women of all races and all amounts of privilege: that people of color should acquiesce to the idea their struggle is necessary to ease the struggling of others. While Julie’s forced surrender of any privilege she may have held in the film in favor of white privilege is appalling, Magnolia does not exacerbate it, as Magnolia never discovers she is the cause of Julie’s distress. However, in light of advances to technology, media, and socialization, it is even more appalling to find the same white privilege more prevalent and blatant today. Show Boat uses the love trope to assert the privilege and importance of white female suffering in the same manner white feminists today broadcast racially offensive, generally comedic slurs to gain social credibility for their own privileged suffering. In recent years, Lisa Lampanelli’s casual use of the word “nigger,” Amy Schumer’s Tweets stereotyping black men as the culprits for catcalling and harassment, and Lena Dunham’s intentional focus on the struggles of white, affluent women in her HBO show, Girls, all reflect attitudes of privilege that cannot be ignored, all at the expense of someone of color.
These love stories and comedic slurs are always at the expense of the person of color, whose backs these privileged white women stand on to receive their accolades. Some sixty years after the release of the film remake of Show Boat, comedienne and media-established spokeswomen for the feminist movement, Lena Dunham, under the guise of the contemporary feminist, is consistently allowed to voice, broadcast, and elicit sympathy for her struggles as an average-bodied, privileged, white woman to the world through various social media outlets. Berlant posits this type of culture survives due to the need for reciprocity, claiming a woman will “rework the details of her history to become a vague or simpler version of herself, usually in the vicinity of a love plot” (7). While Dunham makes herself no less vague, though maybe simpler, she uses a variation of the love plot to do so. Berlant continues her explanation to say that if a woman “cannot achieve this condition of generality through the standard marital and reproductive modes … she does it through gestures, episodes, and other forms of fantasy improvisation … so long as she can feel in a general sense that she … carries the memory of having been affectively recognized and emotionally important” (7).
Dunham uses this need for reciprocity in forms of fantastical encounters and scenarios to suggest the struggles feminist women who do not fit a particular societal standard encounter, all while negating the struggles of anyone who does not fall neatly within the identity with which she associates. In an online interview with fellow comedienne feminist, Amy Schumer, Dunham presents a specious narrative about Odell Beckham Jr. ignoring her at the 2016 Met Gala, in attempt to prove he body-shamed her. Dunham interrupts the interview to tell Schumer, “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. He was like ‘that’s a marshmallow. That’s a child. That’s a dog.’” (Schumer). Dunham plays mind-reader with her highly stereotypical, perceived assumptions of Beckham’s failure to directly acknowledge her, publicly presuming he could not have been thinking of anything other than whether or not he wanted to sleep with her. Because Dunham feels slighted, she belittles Beckham’s character to that of the stereotypical hyper-sexualized black man in order to draw media attention to her privileged struggle with inferiority.
Privileged struggle of this nature can be seen as far back as the early 1960s with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the start of second wave feminism. Author bell hooks speaks of Friedan’s limitations within the feminist movement in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, writing that Friedan “ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women …She made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women” (2). Friedan takes the privileged struggles of a small, select group of women and asserts them as the entire American female population’s struggles. Hooks continues her argument, asserting Friedan “deflected attention away from her classism, her racism, her sexist attitudes towards the masses of American women. In the context of her book, Friedan makes clear that the women she saw as victimized by sexism were college-education, white women” (2).
Dunham’s privilege mimics Freidan’s views on a smaller scale: Dunham uses her feminist platform as a stage to replace her own feelings as substitute for the feelings of all feminists in order to shame and stereotype others when she feels ignored or slighted. Dunham’s privilege fails to stop there. She continues to publicly hyper-sexualize Beckham, telling 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 scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie” (Schumer). Dunham adds offense, implying Beckham’s disinterest is due solely to her attire, namely her bow tie. This falls firmly into what Lauren Berlant calls “women’s culture,” which tends to “foreground a view of power that blames flawed men and bad ideologies for women’s intimate suffering, all the while maintaining some fidelity to the world of distinction and desire that produced such disappointment in the first place” (2).
The power Dunham asserts through fabricated statements yields from her privilege as not only a white woman, but a feminist white woman. She feels as though she does not fit the mold of the traditionally beautiful woman and believes Beckham takes notice of this, therefore Dunham assumes herself free to make potentially slanderous, damaging, and very public comments about the man. Similar to Show Boat’s Julie, Beckham is put in the position by Dunham herself, unbeknownst to him, of ensuring her comfort and happiness. When Beckham fails to meet her expectations, Dunham plays off her own feminist railings about body shaming and standards of beauty.
Dunham admonishes those who do not recognize her assumed privilege as a white woman to be seen, be heard, be acknowledged, yet in this public admonition she perpetuates racial stereotypes and calls it feminism. The platform Dunham is afforded is based not on her struggle as a woman, or her struggle as a woman of average body size and shape, but on her struggle as a privileged white woman with technological means for broadcast to an overwhelmingly large and overtly willing audience. Exploiting a fictional narrative about Odell Beckham Jr. in order to receive sympathy for her struggle as an average-bodied, white, moderately-famous woman sitting at the Met Gala is a clear indication of white privilege and white feminism. No thought is given to how Beckham, being a black professional athlete, would be affected by her fictitious tale, nor is the issue even brought to light from his perspective, similar to Julie in Show Boat. Beckham provides the back Dunham must stand on in order to receive societal acknowledgement that she suffers in the same way Julie must be the back Magnolia stands on in order to relieve her suffering. Despite backlash for these stereotypically racist comments, Dunham comes out largely unscathed. She clarifies her statements and apologizes to Beckham Jr. by making herself the center of the issue.
Dunham says “I owe Odell Beckham Jr. an apology … I struggle at industry events (and in life) with the sense that I don’t rep a certain standard of beauty and so when I show up to the Met Ball surrounded by models and swan-like actresses it’s hard not to feel like a sack of flaming garbage” (Dunham). By insinuating issues with self-esteem and body-image, Dunham does not have to take responsibility for her actions; the sympathy now lies with her, as those who read her apology can now all relate on some level. She continues by saying “This felt especially intense with a handsome athlete as my dinner companion and a bunch of women I was sure he’d rather be seated with” (Dunham). Dunham smooths the surface of the offense by complimenting Beckham, and then relays a less offensive but still stereotypical assumption he would have preferred being seated with other, assumedly more attractive women.
Dunham is now in the clear, forgiven, removed from public scrutiny for a moment, and able to continue objectifying others in the name of feminism. Truly, how far has the feminist movement come since the 1951 adaptation of Show Boat, or even since Betty Friedan’s establishment of second wave feminism through The Feminine Mystique? Are we still content to sing of our white, privileged suffering, content to gain acknowledgement at the expense of someone else? Unfortunately, for many, the answer is yes, and the world’s perpetually strengthened reliance on social media and the Internet to establish recognition and acknowledgement is only set to increase our content. Though the show [boat] must go on, if participation in modern-day feminism means making others into alcoholic prostitutes and hyper sexualized predators to gain recognition for white, privileged suffering, I’m not singing that song.
Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint. Duke University Press, 2008.
Dunham, Lena. (@lenadunham). “I owe Odell Beckham Jr an apology…” Instagram, 3 September 2016, https://www.instagram.com/p/BJ50WGnAZDk/?hl=en.
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press, 1984.
Schumer, Amy. Interviewed by Lena Dunham. The Lenny Interview: Amy Schumer, 2 September 2016, http://www.lennyletter.com/culture/interviews/a527/the-lenny-interview-amyschumer/.