The Virtuous White Woman Trope

by Zoe Samudzi

In her book Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham discusses her sexual assault at Oberlin College. She has subsequently both written and spoken about rape culture, stigma of sexual assault survivors, and the gendered burden women carry because of the ways patriarchy commodifies our bodies and identities and treats us women as disposable.

But there is a piece consistently missing from her analyses of rape culture: race.

Dunham, in a recent conversation with Amy Schumer for her Lenny Letter newsletter, revealed she did not enjoy the 2016 Met Gala because she was almost completely ignored by New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. She says to 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." It wasn’t mean — he just seemed confused. 

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 back to my cell phone.” It was like we were forced to be together, and he was literally scrolling Instagram rather than have to look at a woman in a bow tie. I was like, “This should be called the Metropolitan Museum of Getting Rejected by Athletes."

Of course, this came after, Dunham mentioned attempting to “grind [her] ass on Michael B. Jordan for an additional 20 minutes."

Our discussions of rape culture cannot be complete unless we engage the raced and gendered dynamics of white women who weaponize sex to leverage power over men of color.

The trope of the Virtuous White Woman is one that perfectly complements the colonial mission of bringing humanity to the “barbarous savages” of “uncivilized lands.” Where whiteness is supreme within a global racial hegemony, white womanhood is the gold standard around which all expressions of womanhood and femininity revolve. It is constructed by white patriarchy as a supremely fragile identity requiring attention and care. It is out of the construction of this delicacy the criminalization of men of color is born.

The prison-industrial complex is a reaction to the risk that men of color, notably Black men, pose as hypersexual and hyper-aggressive monsters. American carceral structures reinforce white supremacist tropes of sexualized, anti-Black racism. Part of the impetus for passing marijuana prohibition is the fear of the drug’s effect on “degenerate races”: that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” and that “marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.” 

Within narratives of the antebellum South, plantation wives are commonly characterized as passive victims of their slave-owning husbands. Yet there is evidence indicating planter-class women wielded sexual control over enslaved men and asserted their own relative power in proximity to white manhood.

If we are going to have an earnest conversation about rape culture, it must necessarily include discussions about white women’s collusions with white patriarchy. Any definition of rape culture must, without disrespecting or disbelieving allegations made by survivors, include the historical fact that there were few things deadlier for Black men than white women alleging sexual assault or harassment of some kind.

The racialized hyper-sexualization of men of color, particularly Black men, renders them inviolable and unrapeable: they cannot be engaged non-consensually because they are never undesiring of sexual advances. They particularly cannot and will not reject the advances of white women, per these colonial mythologies.

This seems to be the myth around which Dunham’s purportedly self-reflective dialogue about her “insecurities as an average-bodied woman at a table of athletes and supermodels” revolves. The subsequent Slate piece by L.V. Anderson reinforces questions about Beckham’s heterosexuality by suggesting “perhaps (as the eternal rumors have it) he’s gay.” Why, though, is a Black man’s sexuality is immediately called into question for simply being disinterested in a conversation with a white woman as though white women are perpetually entitled to Black men?

In many ways, many white women do not reject patriarchy as much as they claim. White feminism quite squarely revolves around dominant tropes of white women being supremely desired and desirable, delicate, and unable to victimize (while characterizing women of color as toxic and perpetual aggressors).

In failing to account for these dominant constructions of womanhood revolving around white cisgender heterosexuality, it also fails to acknowledge how the contemporary weaponization of virtuous [cisgender] white womanhood comes at the expense of transgender women. The bigoted and cisnormative argument for denying transgender women’s access to women’s restrooms – and access to womanhood more widely – rests in the presentation of trans women as threats to “women’s” safety and privacy.

It is critical to engage the real life phenomenon of women who are rejected for failing to meet society’s hegemonic beauty standards, including size. It is important that our gender politics take into consideration the spaces where fatphobia and femmephobia intersect: that these rejections impact femme folks of all genders, and not simply cisgender women.

It is critical to cultivate a body politic that not only recognizes disparate treatment of women of different sizes, but also the ways in which sizeist politics interact with misogynoir and racialized femmephobia: where a fat Black femme body is not only a punchline, but potentially the worst thing to have. But what feels like an iteration of an entitled white woman’s sexualized racist projections onto Black men’s bodies is not this critical conversation.

A politic of body positivity and acceptance is central to reclaiming our bodily autonomy and extricating our senses of self from the value that capitalism ascribes us because of our size. This does not feel like the commentary Lena “I’m thin, for like, Detroit” Dunham was putting forth in her newsletter.

Zoe Samudzi is a queer Black woman whose work is dedicated to reclaiming and reframing narratives both within the academy and outside of it. Wielding Black feminist & womanist epistemologies, she interrogates structural whiteness and theorizes on decolonizing ways of knowing and truth-telling.