Lena Dunham clearly thinks she’s being funny. Or clever. Or both. But I didn’t laugh at her new article for The New Yorker, “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend: A Quiz.”
The title alone was disgraceful. Did no editor at The New Yorker wonder if it smashed the boundaries of good taste? It would be gauche at any time, but it’s even more tasteless now: “[Simon] Wiesenthal Center studies indicate [anti-Semitism] is at its highest levels since the end of World War II”?
As for Dunham’s quiz, it is better described as a list. She offers 35 ambiguous numbered points for the reader’s consideration, and we are supposed to guess whether she’s describing her dog or her Jewish boyfriend. Spoiler alert: She offers no clarifying answer at the end. So, while some of the points easily apply to an adult human, others are written sufficiently vaguely that they could also apply to a dog, especially the coddled dog of a wealthy, childless adult.
Either way, the frame itself insulting and recalls an anti-Semitic incident in Belgium last year, wherein a cafe posted a sign welcoming dogs, but not Jews (or Zionists). Dunham should also be aware that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “has called [Israel] the ‘sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region.’”
Stop Being Vile, Lena Dunham
Dunham may believe she deserves a pass as a (non-believing) Jew. However, some insinuations are simply vile, regardless of the writer.
Dunham’s 35 points, for example, exude no love for Jews or Jewish culture. She complains her boyfriend is cheap: “13. He doesn’t tip. 14. And he never brings his wallet anywhere.” Dunham also notes “he has hair all over his body, like most males who share his background,” recalling a widely repeated trope in the Arab and Muslim worlds that Jews are the descendants of apes (and pigs).
On the one hand, the quiz portrays a Woody Allen-like weakling, with his asthma, motion sickness, and endless health issues: “24. Every week it’s some new health issue: urine crystals, sprained foot, beef allergy.” On the other hand, he’s not a stereotypical Jewish man, because “15. He came with me to therapy once and was restless and unexpressive.”
There is also a more specific three-point criticism of Dunham’s boyfriend and his Jewish heritage, which Dunham apparently considers anti-woman:
- I feel that he is judgmental about the food I serve him. When I make something from scratch, he doesn’t want to eat it, but he also rejects most store-bought dinners.
- This is because he comes from a culture in which mothers focus every ounce of their attention on their offspring and don’t acknowledge their own need for independence as women. They are sucked dry by their children, who ultimately leave them as soon as they find suitable mates.
- As a result of this dynamic, he expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life, and anything less than that makes him whiny and distant.
A finicky dog is funny, a hard-to-please man less so. First, does Dunham, she of “many accomplishments” really cook for others? Second, this notion that Jewish women “don’t acknowledge their own need for independence as women” is absurd. As a self-proclaimed feminist, Dunham presumably knows that Betty Friedan was Jewish. Is this simply Dunham’s way of saying motherhood sounds like a personal prison?
Further, what mothers does she know who complain about being “sucked dry by their children”? That sounds rather resentful. I have trouble believing she found a young, Jewish man in contemporary New York who “expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life.” I also can’t believe she’d date such a man.
Lena Dunham’s Unfunny Humor
Dunham’s article was presumably intended as some sort of urbane joke for The New Yorker’s readers. Yet, it wasn’t funny. By writing a list of qualities that compare her boyfriend, whom she specifically identifies only as Jewish, and her dog, she flirts with anti-Semitic canards. Dunham would never have written a similar piece about her black or Muslim boyfriend.
By destigmatizing anti-Semitism in this way, Dunham recklessly empowers real anti-Semites. After all, if Jews joke about vicious, dehumanizing comments, such degradation must be no big deal. What’s dangerous is that the jump from dehumanizing to harming others is short.
At the Simon Weisenthal Center’s National Tribute Dinner on Tuesday, honoree and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein told the crowd, “We just can’t take these things. There’s gotta be a way to fight back.’” Perhaps Weinstein can begin by encouraging people like Dunham to wake up. Anti-Semitism isn’t a joke. The threat is real.