A controversy has erupted over a humor piece contributed to The New Yorker by Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s “Girls” and author of “Not That Kind of Girl,” a memoir published last September for which she received a $3.7 million advance.
The piece, titled, “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” presents statements that could apply either to the 28-year-old writer and actress’s partner (in real life, Jewish musician Jack Antonoff, lead guitarist for the indie rock band Fun.) or her furry pet.
Here is a sampling of the statements Dunham, whose mother is Jewish, provides for readers to consider whether they better describe a canine or a Jewish male human:
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.
He doesn’t tip. And he never brings his wallet anywhere.
In fact, he has hair all over his body, like most males who share his background.
In addition, he is openly hostile toward the Hasidic community, focusing most of his rage on their bulky (but chic) fur hats.
Dunham immediately came under fire from Jewish parenting blog Kveller contributor Jordana Horn, who found the piece dehumanizing and anti-Semitic.
“When I read the piece’s title, I thought, ‘You have got to be kidding me,’ because there is no way that The New Yorker would run a ‘humor’ piece called ‘Dog or Black/Asian/Muslim/any other ethnic or religious group Boyfriend,’” Horn told The Times of Israel in explaining why she felt compelled to publicly attack Dunham’s piece.
“When someone compares people of my ethnicity, religion, or ‘culture’ to dogs they are being an asshole. And a bigot. And a huge, huge jerk. And that’s even if they are ‘cool’ and ‘usually pretty funny’ and they ‘totally love Russ and Daughters and whitefish and Nora Ephron and Woody Allen.’ Sorry–none of those things give you a ‘Get Out Of Being An Asshole Free’ card,” Horn wrote on Kveller about Dunham, whom she had generally admired before reading this latest piece in the New Yorker.
On the heels of Horn’s blog post, many people took to social media to criticize or defend Dunham, or to ask The New Yorker why it would publish such writing. Noticing the brouhaha on Twitter, many online and print publications picked up the story, as well, prompting responses not only from individuals, but also from organizations.
“Humor is a matter of taste, and people can disagree if it is funny or not. Some will certainly find offensive 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,’” said Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman in an official statement.
The New Yorker editor David Remnick issued a response defending his magazine’s publishing the piece, highlighting that Jewish comics have traditionally played with stereotypes.
“The Jewish-comic tradition is rich with the mockery of, and playing with, stereotypes. Anyone who has ever heard Lenny Bruce or Larry David or Sarah Silverman or who has read ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ knows that. Lena Dunham, who is Jewish and hugely talented, is a comic voice working in that vein. Richard Pryor and Chris Rock do the same about black stereotypes; Amy Schumer does it with women and gender. I don’t mind if one reader or another didn’t find the piece funny. People can differ on that. But considering all the real hatred and tragedy in the world, the people getting exercised about the so-called anti-Semitism of this comic piece, like those who railed at Philip Roth a generation or two ago, are, with respect, howling in the wrong direction,” he said.
While she completely understands and respects those who find Dunham’s quiz offensive, author and Tablet contributor Marjorie Ingall told The Times of Israel that she is not personally bothered by it. Although she found some of the humor “hacky” and the piece to be not particularly funny, she did perceived a sense of affection in it.
“People are horrified that ‘Dunham is comparing Jews to dogs!’ but she’s not. She is comparing one Jew, her boyfriend (and indeed, not necessarily her boyfriend, but the boyfriend of the character in whose voice she is writing) to her own dog, a creature of such crystalline perfection in all the ways a human can never be perfect,” she said.
The dog referred to by Dunham did not conjure for Ingall “the classic Nazi imagery of a wild unpredictable snarling animal.”
She suggested that those who see hatred or anti-Semitism in Dunham’s piece could possibly be missing Dunham’s intended point.
“For me, the main emotion in the piece is anxiety, not hatred: It’s a piece about relationship anxiety and not being able to be inside another human being’s head. It’s about young women’s desperate need to please and understand men. What the narrator wants is for the guy to be as comprehensible and uncritically loving as the dog,” she said.