Is Lena Dunham right about Kanye West's 'Famous'?

New music video adds to Kanye's controversial legacy
Kanye West in bed with celebrity likenesses

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New music video adds to Kanye's controversial legacy 02:25

Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: Lena Dunham called Kanye West's "Famous" video "sickening." She's right
  • Drexler says it's not art, it's bullying -- and a dangerous reinforcement of rape culture and non-consent

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On Friday night in Los Angeles, Kanye West released the video to his latest single, "Famous." In it, the waxy likenesses of such celebrities as Anna Wintour and Donald Trump, Rihanna and her ex, Chris Brown, Caitlyn Jenner and Bill Cosby lay in apparent post-coital states in the folds of a giant bed.

West is positioned squarely in the middle of the group, with wife Kim Kardashian and her naked derriere on one side and a likeness of Taylor Swift, breasts and pubic area exposed, on the other.
    Kanye West in 102 seconds
    Kanye West in 102 seconds

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    West says each member of the cast of characters was chosen for having had some impact or influence on his own path to fame. The video's credits gave "special thanks" to every celebrity involved "for being famous."
    In an interview with Vanity Fair, the singer said the song, and the video, is simply "a comment on fame in America." Vanity Fair dubbed it "thought-provoking"--elsewhere it was called "voyeuristic" and "a feat of magic."
    In the words of actress and writer Lena Dunham, however, it's "sickening."
    In a Facebook post Monday night, the "Girls" creator-star called the "Famous" video "one of the more disturbing 'artistic' efforts in recent memory," a dangerous reinforcement of rape culture and non-consent. "The prone, unconscious, waxy bodies of famous women, twisted like they've been drugged and chucked aside at a rager...," she writes. "It gives me such a sickening sense of dis-ease."
    The video, she writes, is "informed and inspired by the aspects of our culture that make women feel unsafe even in their own beds, in their own bodies," made her feel "sad and unsafe and worried."
    Dunham, the daughter of artists, is no stranger to using shocking images, or hypersexual visuals for the sake of art, or to make a point (and, while she's at it, to generate press, and ratings). And indeed she acknowledges that "art's job is to make us think in ways that aren't always tidy or comfortable."
    But is this art? And if so, what's the takeaway—what are we meant to think?
    Even West himself has said the video is "not pro- or anti-" anyone who appears in it. It's not even for or against fame itself. It's just a comment, he insists.
    And so without the thoughtfulness or direction that most artists put behind such provocative works or statements, it's plainly irresponsible. Is depicting controversial figures like Chris Brown, who had a violent relationship with ex Rihanna, beside her in West's bed, and Bill Cosby, the subject of multiple sexual-assault allegations over many years, an endorsement of their actions? Or something else?
    We don't know. But we are repelled.
    Perhaps West is taking aim at the falsehood and overexposure of celebrity, but the way he's doing it—by bullying, essentially, by barreling through—negates any point he may be trying to make. Meanwhile, it's of course notable and ironic that West and his wife, perhaps among the few who gave their consent to be part of this work and the most overexposed in real life, are among the least exposed in the video.
    Dunham also makes the point that what most audiences will see, especially the younger and more impressionable ones—the ones who are assaulted and raped and in daunting numbers — is less nuanced than whatever message West may be trying to send. All they'll see, she writes, is the "the stuff of snuff films." And she's right.
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    Provocative art always sparks a discussion. But it's hard to believe that West stripped bare some of pop culture's most notable and respected people—an ex-president among them—for the "Famous" video because he wanted to make an honest statement. He did it because he can, or because he thinks he can.
    And it's that entitlement that has led to the culture we have today: where rape is under-punished, police officers whose actions lead to death are acquitted, politicians whose campaigns carry racist undertones can succeed not in spite of, but because of, them. He did this for the attention he's now getting.
    Notably, few of the celebrities depicted in the video have issued a response. Perhaps they know that the less we talk about it, the less impact it has—that the less attention we give to the bully, the smaller his power. It's knowledge worth remembering.