Lena Dunham: Satire or Bigotry?

Although I, a Caucasian upper middle class woman in her 20s, fit the profile of the target market for the HBO “sitcom” Girls, I have frankly never seen the appeal of either the show or its creator, Lena Dunham.

I realize that this thought is not novel. Many have criticized Dunham and her character Hannah Horvath for their complete disregard for others around her, as well as Hannah’s need to use the world as her therapist so she can lay bare every little feeling that pops into her head. And I will give Dunham credit where credit is due. She put a character on network television who is not a stick-thin supermodel and who is not afraid to show vulnerability and insecurity. The show is a moderately well written and insightful look into the lives of a small cohort of people living a certain place of a particular socioeconomic status. Yet I fail to understand the character or show’s appeal beyond that. I was too disgusted with the narcissistic navel-gazing tendencies of Hannah to continue past the sixth episode of the first season. I always assumed Horvath was merely a hyperbolized version of Dunham, much like the curmudgeonly, socially tone-deaf caricature of Larry David that we see on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

However, this recent article Dunham published in the New Yorker, “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” shows that life can indeed imitate art as she bulldozes over any boundaries of acceptable or appropriate behavior.

First of all, it is never acceptable or appropriate to compare a group of people to an animal. When she describes her boyfriend as having hair all over his body “like most men of his culture,” she creates a visual connection between Jewish men and dogs, and allows the reader to strip not only Dunham’s boyfriend but also all Jews of their humanity. Making these kinds of generalizations is hurtful to a group of people who have constantly had to defend themselves against kings and tyrants who considered them less than human for centuries. From the Roman Empire at the Siege of Masada in 73 CE to the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century, to Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust in the 20th century, Jewish people have had a long history of defending their right to coexist in society.

Indeed, anti-Semitism is the reason my grandmother’s family fled from Russia to New York City in the late 19th/early 20th century, and the reason my grandmother, growing up in the United States, was banned from certain public parks as a little girl. She still remembers seeing signs “No Jews or Dogs Allowed” that told her that she was a second class member of the society to whom she pledged allegiance every day in school. In fact, anti-Semitism only became socially unacceptable in American society as a reaction to Hitler and a desire to go against everything the Nazis promoted.

At this point, people reading this article may think that I am overreacting and that there is far worse discrimination in modern American society. Obviously, there are differences in the way Jews in America are treated now versus the early 1940s. I never personally experienced any anti-Semitism and was never given grief growing up. Indeed, I am aware that I come from a position of privilege and that other groups in this country routinely face violent and dangerous discrimination, are stopped and sometimes killed by police officers for the color of their skin or religious identification, as we have seen in the media. I have never been barred from any sort of housing or educational opportunities for being Jewish. I have never been followed around a department store. Nobody has ever taken land that has belonged to me and forced me into exile. In fact, I am privileged because I can feel shocked by Dunham’s article and view it as an isolated incident rather than a reality of my daily life.

However, this is just my narrative. I happen to have been lucky enough to grow up in liberal and predominately Jewish communities in which the Jewish adults I knew went to college and graduate school, owned their own homes, and pursued every sort of profession imaginable (not just medicine, law, or finance!). I went to school with people who were proud of their religion and heritage. “Kike” was an antiquated term I only read in Chaim Potok novels.

Going on Birthright this summer, though, made me realize that others in my generation had narratives similar to that of my grandmother. I was shocked to hear that some of my trip mates were raised to feel ashamed of their heritage. One girl from the South described swastikas grafittied on the walls of her Jewish high school, a member of a rival team calling her “dirty Jew” during a game of soccer, and her father coaching her and her sisters not to reveal their religious affiliation to strangers. I was especially shocked that this was coming from someone of my generation, the one that was taught “evil happens when good people do nothing.”

After reading Dunham’s article, I can conclude that Dunham was not intending to be anti-Semitic and was not thinking about Hitler, Social Darwinism, or racism in American society. I don’t think she was thinking. Period. She was just doing what she always does: over sharing her relationship frustrations to the world because of her belief that everything she has to say is Earth-shattering.

In fact, some of the items on that list such as “he’s crazy about cream cheese” are relatively benign and hardly invoke images of swastikas. Other items, such as the image of her boyfriend “panting” over her attractive friend, do invoke humorous images of dogs, and that particular anecdote doesn’t even refer to his being Jewish. Other items such as “Our anniversary is in two days, and I don’t think he remembers” have nothing to do with Jews or dogs, but just stereotypes about men being forgetful.

But one truly bothersome item on the list is, “[H]e 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.” Clearly Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, and even Dunham’s own mother, artist Laurie Simmons, did not get that memo. It is not even an accurate Jewish stereotype! In fact, the stereotypical Jewish mother (key word being “stereotypical”) may dote on her family, but does not sacrifice her own identity for them. Instead, she rules them. She keeps her husband and children in check while also being a doctor/lawyer/investment banker herself. If anything, this statement is just Dunham’s attempt to grandstand about feminism and to appear as if she is doing more than just whining about her boyfriend. If she is going to denigrate of a group of people using stereotypes, she had better at least use correct stereotypes.

While she may be ignorant rather than evil, ignorance can also be dangerous, and this ignorance makes her no different from Darren Wilson, the officer in Ferguson who killed Michael Brown. While the case was sensationalized, and it is hazy what exactly happened in that interaction, Wilson’s testimony comparing Brown to “a gorilla” and “the Incredible Hulk” show how his preconceived notions of African Americans affected his judgment in the situation. Brown was not a fellow human being in his mind, but rather a monster, and this is how he justified his actions.

Comparing this tragedy (regardless of what happened, Brown’s death is still a tragedy) to Dunham’s article in The New Yorker may seem overly dramatic. After all, Dunham did not kill anybody and her boyfriend is unlikely to be randomly stopped and frisked. This article is just the words of a 20-something woman. However, words are what form our perceptions of the world around us, and allow us to conceptualize our biases and prejudices, to put a name to a face. Painting a picture of anybody as less than human, whether it be a whiny dog or the Incredible Hulk, only allows us to rationalize discrimination against others, bringing us farther away from our ideal vision of American society, a place where people can bring their poor, tired, and huddled masses and feel like accepted, first-class citizens.

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