thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

On Lena Dunham and Modern Jewish American Identity

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2015 at 5:28 am

Sarah Todd

People have a right to feel offended by Lena Dunham’s recent New Yorker column, “Quiz: A Dog or My Jewish Boyfriend.” But to focus solely on the question of whether or not it’s offensive is to ignore knottier and more nuanced issues.

The Anti-Defamation League has condemned the article for relying on anti-Semitic stereotypes. (Dunham’s theoretically humorous quiz includes such descriptions as, “He doesn’t tip. And he never brings his wallet anywhere.”) New Yorker editor David Remnick rose to Dunham’s defense, arguing that as a Jewish woman she is operating within a longstanding tradition of insider humor and self-deprecation as typified by artists like Sarah Silverman, Lenny Bruce and Philip Roth. Bloggers and Twitterati are taking sides.

Although I found Dunham’s humor piece neither upsetting nor funny, I’m sympathetic to both sides of the debate. (I’m also a white, Jewish, middle-class woman, for what it’s worth.) It’s true that some of her jokes reference harmful stereotypes about Jewish people–and men in particular–as miserly, coddled and physically weak. And I understand why the ADL is troubled by the historical implications of equating a Jewish person with a dog.

Like Remnick, however, I think Dunham’s status as a member of the tribe informs the piece. Even if her jokes fail to land, it seems likely that she intended it as an affectionate send-up of her own culture. (Part of the problem may be, as Phoebe points out, that Dunham fails to extend this brand of insider humor to herself–the quiz mocks the “Jewish boyfriend” but avoids self-scrutiny.)

But far more interesting to me than the issue of whether the column is inappropriate is the critical conversation it has spurred about American Judaism and cultural specificity.  

Secret Histories: Wonder Woman, Feminism, and Uncomfortable Truths

In books, feminism on March 16, 2015 at 6:02 am

Sarah S. lepore_wonder_woman_coverThe secret history of Wonder Woman is in many ways the secret history of feminism in America. Or at least this is how it is portrayed in historian Jill Lepore’s book of the same title. Feminism in the U.S.—indeed, the history of women in the U.S.—seems to be constantly forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again. And so too Wonder Woman, who’s popularity and overt feminism have both ebbed and swelled and waned again.

The secret history of Wonder Woman is also the secret history of the character’s creator—William Moulton Marston—and the inspirations for his super-powered Amazonian—his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and his/their second wife, Olive Byrne. Psychologist Marston invented the polygraph but failed to bring it into reputable use, earned extra income during college by writing movie scripts, and advocated for women’s rights while at Harvard. He met suffragette Holloway, a woman whose brain, ambition, and political fervor exceeded even his own. But Marston was also a proponent of free love. He carried on one affair that Holloway at least tolerated, possibly participated in, setting the stage for their relationship with one of his college students—Byrne.

The secret history of Wonder Woman includes a bevy of such tricky or uncomfortable realities. One of these is Olive Byrne’s mother, Ethel Byrne, a birth control and free love activist almost forgotten by history, overshadowed by her better connected and more PR savvy sister, Margaret Sanger. And so it includes her daughter, Olive, who grew up learning about birth control and free love from her mother and aunt, and then lived in a secret polyamourous relationship with Marston and Holloway from the time she graduated college to Marston’s death. (Byrne and Holloway continued to live together for the rest of their lives as well.) And it includes Marston, who let his ego mask his general inadequacies and lack of financial success (Holloway was the primary breadwinner for the household and the only consistent one) and yet this same ego also emboldened him to woo and “marry” two such brilliant women.

House of Cards, The Bachelor, and the Villainesses of TV

In reality TV, The Bachelor on March 9, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Melissa Sexton

On the surface, the two shows I have been watching this month don’t have much in common with each other. The Bachelor and House of Cards seem pitched to very different audiences and to engage in very different kinds of story-telling. House of Cards is a surprise innovation, the product of the new age of media that goes straight to viewers through Netflix’s online streaming platform. The Bachelor represents all the excesses of big studio television plus the excesses of reality television: expensive mansions, helicopter rides to exotic locations, and petty in-fighting highlighted by studio editing. House of Cards seems pitched to savvy viewers, male and female alike, with a longing for complex motivations and a streak of skepticism towards “the establishment.” The Bachelor, on the other hand, is a show unabashedly aimed at a certain imagined type of women. It simultaneously mocks and exults in drunk, emotional engagement, hosting live viewing parties and even crashing some viewing parties in LA.

Given all these differences, I would never have thought to draw any connections between these shows if not for the overlap in their airing: Season 19 of The Bachelor just wrapped up last week, while Season 3 of House of Cards was released [for real, this time] during the last week of February. And yet, watching these shows back to back, I noticed a striking similarity in how these narratives depict women. In both shows, women’s power is ultimately equated with emotional manipulation. But even when such manipulation gets the women what they want, the audience is encouraged to condemn these characters as villains. Such a morality tale is unsurprising in the world of The Bachelor. But in the shadowy, cruel world of House of Cards, Claire Underwood’s oscillation between a will to power and self-doubt is a striking contrast to the unrepentant manipulation of her husband Frank. Why, I asked myself, in such a dark world, is our central female character still under a kind of narrative pressure to be genuine – or, more particularly, why is she still pressured to be truly “nice” to the women who stand in the way of her goals?

***

This double-bind of female friendship and female competition is pretty much a staple of reality television programming. Think of all the cold, aspiring models, season after season, who announced their entrance into America’s Next Top Model by insisting, “I’m not here to make friends.” Long-time fans of the show can guess with some certainty that the editorial inclusion of such footage signals a young woman’s villainization; such ambition, even within a competition, inevitably suggests a woman who will become a “drama queen” or a “bitch” and find herself cut from the running.

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