Anne T. Donahue on Tessa Thompson, Lena Dunham and Telling the Truth

“To be feminist isn’t to exist under the umbrella of sisterhood based solely on gender”

Photos of Tessa Thompson and Lena Dunham-inline

(Photography: Getty)

This week, Lena Dunham came under fire for appearing in an Instagram photo in support of the Time’s Up movement. The photo, posted (and since deleted) by Tessa Thompson, was called out by commenters who noted Dunham’s defense of Girls writer Murray Miller when he was accused of sexual assault last month, and were displeased by the irony of her inclusion in the post altogether.

And Tessa Thompson replied. Explaining that Dunham “was not anywhere present in our group during the countless hours of work for the last two months,” she went on to say that Dunham’s presence was “a surprise to us all” and acknowledged that her followers’ concerns were noted and heard.

But because this is the internet, that wasn’t enough. Thompson’s comments then became news in their own right and, arguably pressed to respond to avoid a full-blown feud, she deleted the original post and replaced it with an explanation: she didn’t mean to diminish Dunham or to spark unnecessary conflict. She also regretted this moment distracting from Time’s Up own message, which belongs to everyone.

Which is a very generous thing for Thompson to do because she actually owes us nothing. She is an actor, and artist, and an activist, and it isn’t her job to educate us or to remind us that the story shouldn’t be about her comments on Dunham. She also shouldn’t have to backtrack on what she said originally, nor should she be condemned for calling out Dunham’s alleged lack of participation. To be feminist isn’t to exist under the umbrella of sisterhood based solely on gender. It is, at its core, to uphold equality. And if someone isn’t actively doing the work but nevertheless aligns themselves with the movement, that isn’t equality—it’s riding the coattails of women who have put in their time over the course of two months. It is earning credit when you don’t deserve it. And, considering Dunham recently defended her own male writer over the woman who’d accused him of sexual assault (while previously subscribing to the mantra, “believe women”), she has a lot of work to do. She doesn’t get a free pass. And that isn’t Thompson’s problem to fix.

So for Thompson to have to clarify her comments is an egregious ask on our part. It’s also embarrassing for us to equate legit criticism with starting a feud. Thompson wasn’t fighting with Dunham, stoking the fire, or pulling a publicity stunt. She was telling the truth. She was acknowledging the concerns of her fans. And if the truth paints Dunham in an unflattering light, then the onus is on Dunham to right that wrong. The onus is on Dunham to do better.

Movements like Time’s Up and Me Too wouldn’t exist without the hard work of activists. Instead, there would merely be pins and hashtags, packaged neatly and tidily enough for us to think we’ve done something valuable when we haven’t. So to call out a woman for not pulling her weight when she seeks to align herself with a major activist movement isn’t about tearing another woman down, it is about maintaining boundaries. It is about fairness. It is about proving that Time’s Up isn’t a glorified #SquadGoals, but a viable, important and structured system that requires effort to stay afloat.

And one’s effort may vary. Some thrive in group work, and others do their best alone at their desks. But ultimately, those behind the scenes tend to have an idea of who’s contributing and who is not; which allies they’ve been able to count on and ones who show up for photo ops. So to call out someone for their lack of participation isn’t about throwing a woman or an ally under the bus, it is simply about relaying the facts. And without relaying those facts, nobody will get better. They will coast, they will not learn. And everyone—from the movement to its founders to the person trying to prove themselves an ally—will suffer.

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