Dumb or Anti-Semitic? Critics Weigh In on Lena Dunham

Thoughts from NYT's religion columnist, The National Review's Jonah Goldberg and a Norwegian cartoonist.

The general consensus from the thoughtful side of the Lena Dunham reaction pile is that her “Shouts & Murmurs” piece in the March 30 issue of The New Yorker is not anti-Semitic.

New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer, writing this morning for Time, disputes editor David Remnick’s statement that Dunham was working in the Lenny Bruce, Larry David and Sarah Silverman vein. He suggests that the Jewish characters in Girls are not lovable, a la Curb, nor does Dunham make her Jewish self the butt of “Member of the Tribe” jokes, a la Silverman:

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.

Jonah Golderg, in The National Review, thinks the piece is a sad reflection of today’s challenged magazine industry times. And… not anti-Semitic:

I don’t think she was going for anti-Semitism, though she’ll happily pocket the edginess that accusation brings. Rather, like so much of what Dunham does, it reeks of self-indulgence. She clearly think it’s very clever. But as a piece of writing it’s remarkably un-clever. It’s not terrible. It’s more like a solid B in a college-writing seminar.

Finally, Bendik Kaltenborn, the Norwegian illustrator who drew the cartoon that goes along with Dunham’s words, tells Slate he thought it was funny when he first read it. And that the magazine asked for art changes:

“I’d done an illustration of Lena Dunham for a Norwegian magazine so had done some research on her and her life. I got sent the [article] text, and I Googled her dog and her boyfriend. Then I just drew the dog and boyfriend.

Meaning at first you actually drew Jack Antonoff?

Yes. It’s quite a personal text so I thought that made sense. But then someone at the New Yorker told me they wanted just a regular person, not her boyfriend. So I changed it.

They wanted him to look like a generic-looking guy?

Yes, that was the idea. The first version really looked like Jack Antonoff.

Had The New Yorker stuck with that first illustration, it might actually have helped diminish the outrage in some circles over the humor essay.
[Photo of Dunham with Judd Apatow at November 11, 2014 PEN Center USA 24th Annual Literary Awards in Los Angeles: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com]