Earlier this week, Lena Dunham contributed a humor piece to the “Shouts and Murmurs” column of the New Yorker, called "Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz" which lists scenarios and rhetorically asks readers to guess which applies to her dog and which applies to her boyfriend (examples: “He doesn’t tip. And he never brings his wallet anywhere" ; "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"). And, as with anything relating to Lena Dunham, the piece was quick to ignite controversy, with a number of individuals and organizations decrying the piece as anti-Semitic.
Here's Jordana Horn, in Kveller magazine:
"Apparently Jews are a group you can make fun of and it is deemed kinda intellectual and funny to do so. Basically, the boyfriend of whom she paints a picture is a weak, cheap, complaining, ungrateful, whiny jerk. To say that these qualities are obviously Jewish – and doglike? – offends me deeply.”
The Anti-Defamation League also released a statement, calling out the piece for offensive stereotypes:
Humor is a matter of taste, and people can disagree if it is funny or not. Some will certainly find Lena Dunham’s stereotypes about cheap Jews offensive. Others will take issue with the very idea of comparing a dog and a Jewish boyfriend. 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.”
We doubt that Ms. Dunham had any intention of evoking such comparisons. While we understand that humor is its own special brand of expression and always try to give leeway to comedians, we wish that she had chosen another, less insensitive way to publicly reflect on her boyfriend’s virtues and vices. We are surprised that the New Yorker chose to print it.
And here’s some of the Twitter outcry:
As a Jewish person, I personally didn’t find the piece offensive. Dunham is Jewish herself (her mother Laurie Simmons is Jewish, and Dunham has said she self-identifies as "very culturally Jewish"), and making fun of one’s own people is a time-honored part of the Jewish comic tradition. Jewish comics often turn within their own culture for material -- just look at Jon Stewart, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld, and the many, many other comedians whose humor involves riffs on their own Jewishness (one has only to think about the classic Seinfeld episode, about the dentist who Jerry accuses of converting to Judaism "for the jokes").
Indeed, much of humor in general relies on self-deprecation. The best comedy comes from a place of introspection, joking about oneself rather than joking about others. Jewish comics -- Dunham included -- are allowed to make jokes about being Jewish that non-Jews could never make, because they come from an intimate and specific understanding of their own culture. Of course, there's a fine line to walk between self-deprecation and self-loathing, but in my view, this piece comes from a place of affection and wry self-knowledge (as she put it on Instagram, the piece is “love letter” to her boyfriend Jack Antonoff and her dog Lamby) instead of a place of ignorance and hatred.
Ultimately, it's tough not to think that Dunham is coming under extra fire because she’s such a polarizing figure to begin with. As we saw with the recent sexual abuse flap, Dunham is a lightning rod for both the left and right; she seemingly can’t do anything without igniting a hailstorm of controversy, even if it's unwarranted. Maybe it's time to give her a break?
Update: This afternoon, New Yorker editor David Remnick issued a statement via Twitter. Here's what he had to say: