Monday, March 30, 2015

Lena Dunham is No Philip Roth or Richard Pryor

Gilbert Flores/BroadImage
"He doesn't tip. And he never brings his wallet anywhere," Lena Dunham quips about her partner, musician Jack Antonoff, in a New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs piece titled Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz. "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." 

The article drew heat from social media, opinion writers, and the Anti-Defamation League. But David Remnick, New Yorker editor, stood by Dunham, insisting that "Richard Pryor and Chris Rock do the same about black stereotypes," comparing HBO's Girls star to Lenny Bruce and Larry David.

What Remnick failed to acknowledge, however, was that all the aforementioned artists had situated their satire within clearly fictional contexts while Dunham was permitted to use the nation's premier magazine to publicly humiliate her current, real-life boyfriend.

In his defense of Dunham, Remnick went as far as to bring up the rancor caused by Philip Roth's vulgarly hilarious novel Portnoy's Complaint, but did not mention New Yorker's own publication of Roth's short story, The Defender of the Faith, about the clash of Jewish traditions with the strict regiment of the U.S. military. Published in 1959, the story prompted subscription cancellations by a number of Jewish readers, slighted by what they felt was insolence aimed at Jewish GIs. However, while Roth's characters are purely imagined, The Defender of the Faith and his other early stories were written at a U.S. Army base, where Roth himself served as a young soldier, ready to risk life and limb for the very freedom that Dunham exercised to point out that Antonoff "has hair all over his body, like most males who share his background."

Even more upsetting than her anti-Semitic aspersion, which is upsetting enough per se, is Remnick's comparison of Dunham to one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century, Richard Pryor, who himself was profiled but never published in the New Yorker. It is true that Pryor, along with a generation of black comics he influenced, exploited the racial stereotypes of his own blackness. This notion of authorial license was echoed by Hilary Saunders, who wrote in the Forward that "Lena Dunham can totally make fun of us because she is one of us." But during his famous 1982 "Live at Sunset Strip" show, Pryor himself had this to say:
When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, "Richard, what do you see?" I said, I see all types of people." The voice said, "But do you see any niggers?" I said, "No." It said, "Do you know why? 'Cause there aren't any.
Later that night, on stage, Pryor swore off using that word ever again. He died in 2005, but the raw affect and lyrical amplitude of his performances still inspire emotions far beyond common laughter. By contrast, most of Lena Dunham's performances, both on television and in print, consist of privileged rants, compensatory foibles and generally self-obsessed blabber, and inspire little more than a dry belch.

Ordinarily, when women bemoan the shortcomings of their male partners I find it useful to quote another notably controversial satirist, Bill Maher, who once said that "women cannot complain about men anymore until they start getting better taste in them." But in this instance, Dunham lampoons and abases what she perceives as her boyfriend's Jewishness by comparing him to her dog. Her ignorance of the quip's anti-Semitic overtones, of its painful allusions to America's past, is reason enough for Antonoff to accept his girlfriend's own conclusion: "he should never have set his sights on me in the first place."

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