On Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter published a story from guest editor Lena Dunham for their 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue. In this letter, Dunham apologizes to actress Aurora Perrineau, whom she accused of lying when Perrineau accused Girls writer Murray Miller of rape. (Miller denied the allegation.) “I wanted to feel my workplace and my world were safe, untouched by the outside world (a privilege in and of itself, the privilege of ignoring what hasn’t hurt you),” she wrote. “I claimed that safety at cost to someone else, someone very special.” One of the most disturbing parts of Dunham’s admission was that she lied about “insider knowledge” in order to protect a friend, a move that runs directly in contrast with her stated politics of believing women when it comes to sexual assault.
Throughout Dunham’s nearly decade-long career in the public eye, she has committed several “mistakes,” whether it’s joking that she wished that she had an abortion, comparing the Bill Cosby scandal to the Holocaust, or likening Gawker and Jezebel to an abusive husband, apologizing after each instance. Dunham has built a career off of the confessional and in many ways, her candor has resonated with many people through her honesty on singlehood, endometriosis and her hysterectomy. But her constant carelessness towards other people with regards to racial and sexual politics, along with her wash-rinse-repeat cycle of penitence, reflects a larger part of internet apology culture: online, a demonstration of growth or moral improvement is just that — a performance.
Internet apology culture is a mixed bag. The backlash towards any kind of public faux pas is swift and ferocious. The pressure to make amends can come from different angles: Instagram posts, gossip blogs, Twitter retweets, response videos. More times than not, a celebrity will yield to public pressure so that their image and career opportunities — i.e., their income — will not be jeopardized.
But will the public’s goodwill have limits, especially when one’s hubris overrides their humility? Dunham provided another hackneyed, self-important apology to add to her long list of apologies. Her career still thrives in spite of — or perhaps because of — her need for redemption, and she knows this. In a span of a single week, she has garnered a profile on The Cut and a guest editor gig at The Hollywood Reporter. Redeeming herself is lucrative business.
Yet this chance to redeem one’s self was initially dismissed in the confusing case of Kevin Hart.
The quickness with which Hart lost an opportunity to host the Academy Awards was both unprecedented and embarrassing. Around 2009, he wrote a series of homophobic tweets that other Twitter users pulled up as soon as the announcement was made about his Oscar gig. Jamie Lee Curtis and transgender actress Indya Moore tried to correct Hart, and yet he dug in. “Guys, I’m nearly 40 years old,” he said in an Instagram video. “If you don’t believe that people change, grow, evolve as they get older, I don’t know what to tell you. If you want to hold people in a position where they always have to justify the past, do you.” Then a few hours later, on December 6th, Hart stepped down from hosting the Academy Awards, saying that he didn’t want his presence to take away from the night, and apologized to the LGBTQ community for his insensitivity.
Witnessing two high profile celebrities get caught in apology culture in the same week is not so much a coincidence, but a testament to how this cycle has reached fever-pitch. We want public figures who recognize the humanity in others, and who ask forgiveness the moment they fail. If they do, we continue to pour money into their pockets — watching their TV shows, reading their books, enjoying their comedy specials. Their public self-flogging lets us off the hook for financially supporting them. And as long as they know that, they’ll keep up these performative apologies — and we’ll keep buying them.