Lena Dunham, Slenderman, and the Terror of ‘Girls’

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This is a guest post by Scarlett Harris

An episode of Law & Order: SVU from earlier this month fictionalized yet another “ripped from the headlines” story–this time the Slenderman murders in which two pre-teen girls stabbed their friend in an attempt to summon the mythic Slenderman.

For those not familiar with Slenderman, he is a tall, thin character in a black suit with a featureless face spawned from a “creepypasta” (online, easily shareable fiction) meme from 2009, making him one of the first urban legends of the modern age. In the May 2014 attempted murder, the perpetrators gave the reason for their attack as wanting to become “proxies” or “acolytes” for Slenderman.

Many a think piece (this one by Rebecca Traister is perhaps the most tempered) and news story were spawned in the wake of the crime, puzzled by young women being so obsessively violent toward one another. You’ll notice that similar arguments are rarely made when boys behave badly toward other boys.

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Also in the news of late are the allegations that Lena Dunham molested her younger sister Grace after writing in her recently released memoir Not That Kind of Girl that she would bribe her sister for her affections—“anything a sexual predator might do to woo a suburban girl”—masturbate in the bed she shared with her, and inspected her infant vagina (it later turned out Grace had stuffed pebbles up there) because that was “within the spectrum of things I did.”

I don’t really have a strong opinion about these allegations; I think it’s clear that Lena didn’t molest her sister, who doesn’t identify as a victim. I also think, as Roxane Gay, amongst others, wrote, that Dunham has boundary issues and isn’t always the best at acknowledging her white privilege and where she may have fucked up.

But I think what scared people the most about Dunham’s unabashed confessions is that it prescribes a curiosity and sexuality to children that adults would like to forget. Radhika Sanghani, writing in Daily Life, interviewed child psychologist Dr. Rachel Andrews, about the wider reaction to possible sexual experimentation by young girls. Andrews says, “It’s ‘just one of those things that boys do.’ But you might see a lot of girls who might have their hands down their pants and that be more questioned as to whether it’s normal. In fact it’s quite common. You might notice girls in a high chair rhythmically rubbing against the front of it.”

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I remember as a 5-year-old I would mash the smooth plastic between my Barbies and Kens’ legs together and incessantly sing the song “Let’s Talk About Sex” (OK, the chorus; I wasn’t as adept as remembering rap lyrics as I am now!) with my male bestie during quiet time at school. And as many a female writer, tweeter and Tumblr(er?) has pointed out in the wake of all this, exploring our own and others’ bodies is a natural part of childhood. Doctors and nurses or mommies and daddies, anyone?

As we grow older, we start to understand social codes that tell us we should nip this curiosity in the bud and instead be ashamed of our bodies and hide them away. Even in the presence of a monogamous significant other (because sharing it with more than one person is also frowned upon), our bodies should be shrouded by bras, strategically placed sheets and minimal lighting, as Hollywood teaches us. Even in the scarily progressive (for the time) Sex & the City, which showed women frankly talking to each other about sex, Carrie and Charlotte shielded their bodies much of the time with underwear and bedding. In Dunham’s Girls, some of the characters show frightening sides of their sexualities whilst the actresses who chose to remain clothed mirror this by showing equally frightening sides of their personalities. Whilst, like Not That Kind of Girl, the show has some privilege problems to work through, Girls has been revolutionary because it’s not afraid to portray young women as many of them are: people that can sometimes be scary in their cluelessness, narcissism and humanity.

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By contrast, we all know there’s nothing more terrifying than women who’ve got their shit together, especially those who don’t fit the conventional mold like the Dunhams. For example, Dunham’s mother’s reaction to Lena finding pebbles in Grace’s vagina was a rational one. She didn’t freak out or get angry or shame her daughters, which no doubt contributed to Dunham’s unabashed comfort in sharing her body and her thoughts with the world. As Dr. Andrews continues, “To have a big reaction about [children exploring their bodies], certainly a child could then go on to think there’s something wrong with them and what they’re doing… It can have an adverse effect.”

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In order to keep producing these girls that terrify the status quo, more adults need to take that position and not freak out when they catch their children—and particularly their girls—doing things they apparently shouldn’t. It’s only once we start adding adult meaning to children’s actions that they couldn’t possibly fathom that they start to take a sinister shape. It’s more likely that Dunham’s childhood actions were ones of curiosity than predation. And in today’s internet age, satisfying that curiosity has never been easier, as seen with the Slenderman attempted murder. In addition to understanding that children will start to search for things online that’d make your grandma blush, we also need to discuss them rationally, without shame and guide them to make informed decisions. Otherwise we keep producing literally terrifying girls to match our literally terrifying boys.


Scarlett Harris is a Melbourne, Australia-based freelance writer and blogger at The Scarlett Woman, where she muses about feminism, social issues, and pop culture. You can follow her on Twitter.


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