A voice of a generation speaks up
Lena Dunham was the first woman in the restaurant to say “vagina” and the only one to boast that her underwear said “feminist” or that she had been called a dirty name on Fox News. Without a doubt, this made her the best Hillary Clinton messenger in New Hampshire on Friday.
Dunham had traveled north to stand under technicolor portraits of rotund nudes and a drink menu printed on a cutout mustache. It was her first day campaigning for the only Democratic woman running for president. And as Clinton’s saleswoman and ambassador, the 29-year-old actress, author and Girls creator gave herself free rein to say things that the 68-year old candidate never would.
“Nothing gets me angrier than when somebody implies that I’m voting for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman,” Dunham told a packed crowd with only a few men. “It’s not like we have some feminist version of beer goggles called ‘estrogen lens’ that just causes us to go walking up to the nearest vagina and vote for them.”
For a campaign that is focused in large part around motivating millennials—particularly millennial woman—the outspoken Dunham is the rabbit’s foot Clinton desperately needs as she faces the final weeks before the New Hampshire primary. A Fox News poll Friday found that her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, had 50% of the likely primary vote, compared to her 37% share, and some of her supporters say privately that she could lose the state. One of Clinton campaign’s big challenges is convincing fickle post-Cold War babies, for whom Dunham has become both a symbol and voice, to vote for a woman two generations older.
It will be a challenge, as Clinton exists in a world distant from the Dunham’s Girls audience. She does not drive a car, rarely speaks off script and almost never overshares her most personal thoughts on social media. Far from the red carpet, she has occupied the privileged corridors of Washington for decades. Clinton’s popularity among millennials nationwide is underwater, with 44% saying they view Clinton favorably and 48% unfavorably. In New Hampshire, polls show a majority of millennials support the no-baloney Sanders. A CNN/WMUR poll from early December showed that 74% of state voters aged 18-to-34 support Sanders.
That means Dunham appeared in New Hampshire to represent what Clinton lacks. While candidate is cautious, controlled and private, her young stand-in is goofy, self-deprecating, spontaneous and open about her insecurities. Dunham wields a brashly outspoken brand of feminism, and is self-aware of her own pull, with a pitch tailor-made for the same audience that watches her show.
“While Hillary Clinton’s anatomy is not the reason I’m voting for her,” Dunham told the Street restaurant audience on Friday, “there’s nothing that would send a stronger message to this country, and to the world at large than sending a competent, strong, essential woman to the highest office.”
Dunham wore a white knit hat, a sweater that read “HILLARY” in giant block letters and a bright red coat, hovering around her fans to take pictures in the bar afterward. The women in the crowd said they saw in Dunham something like the id to Clinton’s superego, the Yin to Clinton’s Yang. As Clinton facing criticism from leading Republican candidate Donald Trump and others over her handling of her husband Bill’s past infidelities, Dunham offered a defiant defense. “She has survived horrific and totally gendered attacks on every aspect of her character with unimaginable dignity and aplomb,” Dunham said.
“Lena can say things that Hillary wants to say but can’t,” said Alex Smyrnos, a 23-year-old New Hampshire resident who has committed to Clinton. “They’ve really coached Hillary to be politically correct. She can’t say things that can be considered extreme feminist.”
Clinton has brought gender to the forefront of her campaign in a way that she did not eight years ago running against then-Sen. Barack Obama. She speaks at almost every event about the unmitigated joys of grandmotherhood. She touts her support for paid family leave and frequently defends Planned Parenthood, the women’s health organization that has come under increased fire from Republicans in the last year. “At the end of the day, this really comes down to whether I can encourage and mobilize and turn out women to vote for the first woman president,” Clinton told TIME correspondent Jay Newton-Small for her new book, Broad Influence. “I’m going to do my best to make that case.”
If Clinton is sometimes constrained from speaking frankly about her feminism on the campaign trail, Dunham, in her brief remarks on Friday, reveled in it. “It’s no secret that women’s rights are very important to me. That’s why my Twitter feed is littered with heinous violence,” Dunham said to laughs. She also called foul on misogyny in politics and entertainment, and charged Clinton’s opponents of sexism with a forcefulness that Clinton herself could not. “The way she’s been treated is just more evidence of the fact that our country has so much hatred toward successful women,” Dunham said.
This is not the first time Dunham, the author of a bestselling memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has voiced support for Clinton. She hosted a favorable interview with Clinton on her weekly newsletter, Lenny Letter in September that was widely circulated. Sanders, the rough-edged opponent, has his own strategically chosen surrogates. Killer Mike, the rapper from Atlanta, is an enthusiastic Sanders supporter, and the campaign has deployed him to win over African-American voters outside of New Hampshire and Iowa.
For all that, it is unclear that Clinton can win over Dunham’s cohort, even with her help. Ashley O’Leary, a 24-year-old who attended Dunham’s second event of the day, in Manchester, is a self-avowed feminist and “huge” Lena Dunham fan. And although she attended to the event with Dunham and was even pressured by the Clinton campaign staff into signing a commit-to-vote card for Clinton, O’Leary said she really has Bernie’s back.
“When you take all the celebrity away, I find Bernie honest and genuine and I think he’s with the people more than she is,” O’Leary said. She said she wants to see a woman in the White House, but not just any woman. “It would be a huge milestone. But it needs to be the right woman to take that spot.”
“I don’t know if this is our time,” O’Leary said.