By Noor Anwar
The always outspoken and unapologetic Lena Dunham creates Lenny: a media platform for women who want to discuss Hilary Clinton’s view on race relations and Occupy Wall Street, but also be provided with an informative guide on choosing the right Loafers for every occasion – in the same conversation. It’s free of hateful cyber-bullying and online harassment, encouraging women to create community through reading about topics that unite them.
Identifying as a feminist has always been controversial, and in most cases also dangerous. One would imagine that we have come a long way since the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960’s, and that it would not still be considered ridiculous for women to be simply demanding to have equal rights as their male counterparts.
Sadly, this is not the reality. Women who speak and write about feminism face perpetual harassment and violent death threats online, as if facing routine aggravation in our daily lives was not enough.
Someone who can wholly relate to this is Lena Dunham, the creative mind behind and star of Girls – the popular HBO show that is inspired from her own life experiences during her early 20’s, touching upon topics such as body image, abortion, relationships in the social media age and street harassment. In 2013, Dunham became the first woman to win a Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series. She publishes frequent essays for The New Yorker and has a best-selling memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, for the book tour of which she partnered with Planned Parenthood.
This book tour is what inspired Dunham for her next project. The women she met, the conversations they engaged in, and the questions they asked her, made her realize the lack of presence of an accompanying media platform to address these concerns:
‘How do you keep those pink streaks in your hair?, but also ‘Who are you going to vote for?’.
Dunham realized the need for a space for women who care just as much about politics as coloring their hair pink. A safe space on the internet that is ‘funny and not snarky’. And so, we are introduced to our new best friend Lenny, which promises “feminism, style, health, politics, friendship and everything else”.
The Lenny Pitch
Dunham explains that the newsletter’s target audience is, “an army of like-minded intellectually curious women and the people who love them, who want to bring change but also want to know, like, where to buy the best tube top for summer that isn’t going to cost your entire paycheck.”
The online newsletter was instantaneously able to grab public attention, as the first piece published was by none other than clumsy, relatable and witty fan favorite: J Law. Jennifer Lawrence published, “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?”, addressing Hollywood’s wage gap by sharing her own perspective and feelings, “When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself.”
Sadly, even Hollywood can’t provide us with an imaginary alternative to reality. The top-earning female actors take home around 40% of the salaries of their male co-stars. Robert Downey Jr, the highest paid actor last year according to Forbes, made $10m more than the combined earnings of all the top five female actresses. Liam Neeson, who took the No. 10 actor spot, made the same as highest paid actress Angelina Jolie. Please, try to refrain your jaws from dropping too far to the floor.
Lenny will have contributors from Dunham’s vast network of celebrity friends, but also from its own impressive staff – which includes former writers for Jezebel, a feminist blog, and Slate, an online magazine that incorporates humor to analyze current events and political news. The project will be self-funded at first, but plans to slowly incorporate carefully selected advertisers, as co-founder Jenni Konner puts it, “e-commerce that collaborates with independent female artists and designers in ethical, affordable, and witty apparel and design items”.
The Safe Space
“We need to find a space on the internet. I don’t want to do this in 140 characters anymore. We had a frustration with the feminist internet as it stands…a lack of sort-of-snark-free, intelligent spaces for women who didn’t want to participate in feminist infighting.”
Dunham expresses her utmost love for the internet, citing it as a major source of inspiration behind the work she creates. However, it is also just as much a horrible, soul-depleting battleground of cyberbullies. In September this year Dunham announced that she had relinquished direct control of her Twitter account, because the toxic comments she was being made to read about herself were getting to be too much.
“There’s no shortage of stories of how Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, these incredible tools for self-expression, have also led to girls being ostracized, alone, slut-shamed. We just want to restore some semblance of safety,” says Dunham about creating Lenny. She explains how she was reading such hateful comments about herself on sites that she herself considered to be feminist gospels.
So what makes Lenny different from other female-targeted platforms?
The online abuse Dunham has faced at the hands of internet users is what drove her towards the idea of a newsletter. Newsletters are reminiscent of a pre-digital time when media was transmitted in one direction: from producers to consumer, with limited means for interactivity and providing feedback. The popularity of newsletters and podcasts is based upon creating online communities that are not brought together through commenting on what is written, but rather the actual content which is being read.
As Buzzfeed points out, this is what Lenny is trying to recreate – something that is being termed the ‘slow internet’, which aims to offer an escape from, rather than fuel for, the overwhelming sensation of stepping into the digital world. That means there will be no traditional comments section: no place for trolls to write irrelevant body-shaming content on a writer’s work, giving no chance for misogyny and hateful comments to release their frustration at the wrong place. The focus is on the content, and the reader’s experience will not be compromised by irrelevant background noise.
Dunham has received criticism for her decision to make Lenny a one-way media highway. But she makes a valid point in saying,
“It never ends well. I mean, have you ever read, ‘Girls, let’s all go meet for drinks! You guys are such nice people!”
Even Twitter admits, “We suck at dealing with abuse”. Former CEO Dick Costolo addressed how Twitter’s persistent abuse problem is a sore point for the company. Dunham has found that Twitter seems to be the platform cyberbullies choose most to post negative and hateful comments, even if it is about a picture posted on Instagram. Speaking at Vanity Fair’s News Establishment Summit, while sitting on stage next to Instagram’s founder and CEO Kevin Systrom, Dunham said about Instagram, “The presence of images and no character limits creates a much less toxic environment”. She went on to add, “It’s one of the few things on the internet that has actually improved my life”.
I will leave you here with a short video of Lena Dunham interviewing, on behalf of Lenny, US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. This is just one clip of a longer interview, which I encourage all of you to go watch.