Lena Dunham's portrayals of Jews, in her show and in her New Yorker piece, trade in the stalest of stereotypes
Lena Dunham suddenly finds herself an enemy of her people. This week, the creator and star of HBO’s Girls, who is Jewish, wrote a humor piece in The New Yorker called “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz.” It begins: “Do the following statements refer to (a) my dog or (b) my Jewish boyfriend?” and offers, to test one’s dog-or-Jew acumen, statements like, “doesn’t tip,” “has hair all over his body, like most males who share his background,” and “comes from a culture in which mothers focus every ounce of their attention on their offspring.”
Cheap? Hairy? Over-mothered? Is it a dog, or is it a Jew?
The Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish anti-bigotry watchdog group, said in a statement Friday that the “piece is particularly troubling because it evokes memories of the ‘No Jews or Dogs Allowed’ signs from our own early history in this country, and also because, in a much more sinister way, many in the Muslim world today hatefully refer to Jews as ‘dogs.’”
Now, I am not as sensitive as the Anti-Defamation League, to put it mildly. Not only do I not usually complain about Jews making Jews look bad, I’m often the one being so accused. Just last year, I wrote a magazine piece about Jews who travel all the way from Jerusalem to the Jersey shore just to knock on doors begging for money. A few months earlier, I’d narrated a This American Life story about a rabbi accused of kidnapping husbands who refuse to give their wives divorces. If you have dirty Jewish laundry, I’ll air it.
So I am inclined to stand in solidarity with any fellow MOT (member of the tribe) who comes under fire for being bad for the Jews. But I confess that, in this case, I find myself aligned with the censors, the stuffed shirts, the killjoys. I think that Dunham’s piece fails, for a number of reasons.
To begin, it’s just not very funny. Of course, no harm in that. What makes the unfunniness of “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz” seem extra tasteless is how dated its humor is. It relies on stereotypes — the cheap Jew, the smothering Jewish mother — that were current almost half a century ago, back when Jews faced much more anti-Semitism. Dunham may be a hip auteur in her 20s, but in this humor piece she’s working with material from the era when some country clubs were still restricted.
It was also, of course, the material of the great Jewish writer Philip Roth, who gave us the castrating Jewish mother, and eager-to-please son, in 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint, for which many feminists still haven’t forgiven him. But Roth is a genius, and genius buys you a lot of leeway with stereotypes. And Dunham’s less inspired humor recycles not only Roth’s caricature of women, but also his equally damning portrayal of Jewish men. Other items on Dunham’s quiz include “he has asthma,” he “expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life,” and he “has a sensitive stomach and has to take two Dramamine before entering any moving vehicle.” In other words, he’s weak and effete, with a poor constitution. That’s part Portnoy, and part his constipated father, who was forever sitting on the toilet trying to squeeze something out.
What’s interesting, and a bit sad, is that Dunham seems not to know that these aren’t really live stereotypes anymore. I suppose there are still some people who think of Jews as cheap, but pampered and neurotic? How many in the Girls demographic, Jew or Gentile, really live with those cultural tropes? Jews have largely dropped those particular items of baggage: Who’s shocked to see a Jew shooting hoops on the playgrounds of Brooklyn? The one element of that old Jewish portraiture that still seems relevant is the smothering parenting, but now it’s all parents who do that.
Dunham seems to expect some latitude with this humor piece because she is, after all, a Jewish writer. David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor, said as much in a statement defending Dunham: “The Jewish-comic tradition is rich with the mockery of, and playing with, stereotypes,” he wrote. “Has Mr. Foxman” — head of the Anti-Defamation League — “never heard Lenny Bruce or Larry David or Sarah Silverman or read Portnoy’s Complaint? Lena Dunham is a comic voice working in that vein.”
Except that Dunham is not working in that vein. Those are all comics who identified as obvious Jews and had built much of their humor around their Judaism. Dunham’s mother is Jewish, which makes her as Jewish as Moses, according to Jewish law. But she has never worked well with Judaism in her humor. The character she plays on Girls is a WASP from the Midwest. In fact, the only regular Jewish character on the show Dunham created is Shoshanna, a shallow, coddled materialist who fits snugly into a Jewish American Princess stereotype that I thought had been blessedly retired. The great actor Zosia Mamet imbues Shoshanna with as much humanity as she can, but it’s hard not to wonder why the only reasonably ethnic character on Girls — in contemporary Brooklyn, no less — is the Jewish girl from a 1970s-era JAP joke.
As it happens, the Girls season finale, last Sunday, featured two other Jewish men: an Orthodox man with a newborn baby, who walks through one of the last shots of the episode — a distant, Orientalized other — and Laird, father to the baby about to be born to Hannah’s ex’s sister. As Laird’s laboring girlfriend, committed to a home birth, looks as if she might need to go to the hospital, Laird panics and melts down. Hannah’s friend Jessa, improvising the role of doula, tells Laird sternly, “I need you, and she needs you, to be a man right now.” Laird starts to cry and wails, “But I’m not a man! I’m a Jewish recovering junkie and I weigh 135 pounds!”
That’s Jewish humor in Lena Dunham’s world.
Contrast that with Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who in their shows presented a wide range of Jewish types — religious and not, lovable or loathsome. Or with Sarah Silverman, who like Dunham also jokes about hirsuteness, in interviews and in one concert movie, but turns the joke on her own Jewish body, not on an outdated stock character of a boyfriend who also happens to be cheap and asthmatic.
Is Dunham an anti-Semite? Of course not. She is just a young artist, with shaky judgment, and no real feel for the tradition of Jewish humor in which her editor, presiding over America’s most storied magazine, suggests she is working. And this whole episode has the salutary effect, I like to think, of folding Dunham more closely into the tradition of Jewish writers: sooner or later, if we’re doing our job, we all get called bad for the Jews.
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