Lena Dunham with the cast of Girls.
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Laurie Penny on Lena Dunham's Girls: it can't represent every woman, but shouldn't have to

In mainstream culture, white, straight, middle-class women don’t get to speak about their experience without having it universalised and made meaningless in the process - but black women, poor women and queer women usually don’t get to speak about their experiences at all

Hey girls, we're all the same, aren't we? At least, that's what they’d like us to think. We are living through an unprecedented time of narrative richness, when people from an enormous range of backgrounds, including women and people of colour, are finally beginning to share stories about their lives across boundaries of class and distance in numbers too big to ignore. But you wouldn't know it from the mainstream press, which still reserves a very few places for female creators, who are expected to represent all womenkind, then excoriated when they inevitably fail to do so.

Take, for instance, the three-year storm of publicity around the HBO show Girls, which follows the lives of four young white girls living in Brooklyn. I am often asked if I relate to Girls. Well. I’m a white, middle class media professional in my mid-twenties living and dating in a major western metropolis. Of course I relate to Girls, and I think it’s smart and funny and fun, although there are still bits that don’t speak to me at all. What's more important is whether or not any piece of art to which some women relate – particularly women from a certain privileged demographic – can be considered definitive. 

The vivisection of Girls, and of its creator, Lena Dunam, has become a cultural project involving hundreds of writers, critics, blogs and TV pundits worldwide. Alongside serious issues of race and representation, there have been articles obsessing over whether Dunham’s jawline was tightened in her photoshoot for Vogue. There have been interminable debates over the nudity in the show, and whether it’s necessary. There has been barely disguised rage that a woman who isn’t a standard Hollywood beauty is allowed to display her body in public, to place her less-than-perfect flesh at the centre of her show, to play a character who sleeps with good-looking men. 

The popular blog Jezebel offered $10,000 for un-airbrushed images of the Vogue photoshoot, as if  having one's hips narrowed in post-production were hard evidence of betraying the sisterhood, of not being that perfect poster girl for global feminism who has, to the best of my knowledge, never existed, and who would need to be destroyed if she did. As Dunham told the Huffington Post in 2012: “The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd.” But the reactionary trend of taking any rich young white girl's story and making it a totem for young womanhood everywhere is bigger than Dunham, and it's a brutal beast to battle.

Nobody is saying that Lena Dunham doesn’t deserve critique. Debate and discussion is part of the life of a piece of art, particularly when it comes to episodic television, which has replaced film as the dominant medium of collective storytelling. What is curious is that no male showrunner has ever been subject to quite this sort of intense personal scrutiny, this who-are-you-and-how-dare-you. No male showrunner has ever been asked to speak to a universal male experience in the same way, because “man” is still a synonym for “human being” in a way that “woman” is not.

Men do not experience the personal being made universal. When men direct honest, funny television shows about young men living their lives, it’s not “television that defines the young male experience”, it’s just television. When men write  “confessional literature”, it’s just called “literature”. Male artists and writers produce deeply personal content all the time, but as Sarah Menkedick once wrote at Velamag, for them “it’s called ‘criticism’ or ‘putting yourself in the story’ or ‘voice-driven’ or ‘narrative’ or ‘travelogue’ or ‘history’ or ‘new journalism’ or simply a ‘literary journey’”.

Forbidding any woman simply to be an artist, forbidding us from speaking about our experience without having it universalised and trivialised, is the sort of broad-brush benevolent sexism that undermines the real threat that a multitude of female voices might otherwise pose. It comes from a culture that puts up endless barriers to prevent women and girls expressing ourselves honestly in public and then treats us like fascinating freaks when we do. Is still so rare, so unbelievably, fist-clenchingly rare, to see young women depicted in the mainstream media with anything like accuracy, as human beings rather than pretty punctuations in somebody else’s story, that as soon as it happens we want it to be more than it is. So Girls is asked to speak for every young woman everywhere, and then torn apart when it inevitably fails to do so, because nobody can, because nobody ever could. And that’s the problem.

In 2012 Kendra James, a black writer with a similar social and educational background to Dunham, wrote a heartfelt piece entitled simply “Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist,” in whish she asked “why are the only lives that can be mined for “universal experiences” the lives of white women? Why, indeed? In mainstream culture, white, straight, middle-class women don’t get to speak about their experience without having it universalised and made meaningless in the process - but black women, poor women and queer women usually don’t get to speak about their experience at all. (In 2013, only one black female director released a major film.). Essentialism is as racist and classist as it is sexist. It is always reactionary. The idea of girlhood as a universal story is a great way to stop individual women's stories being heard. And it’s treacherous territory to negotiate.

Last week, I filed a blog about the politics of short hair. It was response to a viral piece by Tuthmosis of the anti-feminist site Return Of Kings, and was intended as something lighthearted, about how, in my experience cutting your hair short can change the way men treat you.  I wasn’t expecting it to go viral, and I was absolutely overwhelmed by the response - the piece got a lot of positive comments, but was also called out for largely overlooking the experiences of black women with regards to hair and beauty. 

I didn’t set out to write the definitive article about what short hair means. But just because I didn’t mean to make my experience universal doesn’t mean that it didn’t read as such. It’s easy to forget that, as a white girl working for the mainstream press.

The mainstream media  still tells a single story about what women are and what they do. The internet, by contrast, allows us to tell many stories. My own work and writing comes out of the blogosphere, out of livejournal and blogspot and status updates, and my first jobs in journalism were for small, independent publications. Sometimes I forget that writing for publications like the New Statesman and the Guardian comes with very different overtones -  the attitudes of the mainstream press are changing, especially online, but for a lot of people they still represent a culture whose idea of femininity is horribly monolithic. 

The telling of many stories, the sharing of different experiences, is part of what’s creating a sea-change in our cultural understanding of gender and power. I see that happening everywhere. But sometimes just seeing isn’t enough.

The politics of cultural representation are riven by rage for good reason. This is still a sexist, racist society, one that reserves a very limited number of places for female writers and artists – fewer still for women who are not white, straight and middle class – and then demands that they speak as women first and as human beings second. Those who by chance or privilege manage to attain those few, totemic positions become lightning rods for the understandable anger of those who were not chosen, who do not see big-budget dramas made about their lives, who are only called on, if at all, to describe what it is like to live as “other”. 

Only white, straight, cis girls get to be Everygirl. That's just one more reason that the idea of Everygirl is bullshit. It hurts every real person trying to live her own story within the limits of imagination permitted to us.

Feminism will have achieved something huge when one artist isn’t expected to stand in for every young woman everywhere. We will be on the cusp of something magical when women are actually permitted to be artists, to create fiction, to make mistakes, to grow up, to be flawed and human in public. If there’s one thing about the phenomenon of Girls that does speak to a universal female experience, it’s the spectacle of being crushed by impossibly high expectations.

The really scary truth about the universal girl experience is that there isn’t one. The truth about young women that nobody wants to acknowledge is that we are all unique, and the number of stories that haven’t been told about our lives is vast, particularly if we are poor, or queer, or if we are not white. It is the telling of many diverse stories, rather than the search for the perfect archetype, that will really challenge the narrative of patriarchy, and want to see more women's stories told, not just online, but in mainstream, high-stakes media. I resolve in future to be a more useful part of that great retelling.

To paraphrase Bakunin, there is no such thing as a perfect poster girl for feminism - and if there was, we'd probably have to destroy her. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage