Open Zion

10.29.12

Lena Dunham's First Time

A recent Obama campaign ad that’s taking heat for its sexual overtones may actually be the most feminist campaign video Obama has released.

In the monologue, TV show Girls’ creator, writer and actor Lena Dunham, who is Jewish, talks about what kind of guy a girl should share her “first time” with, a double-entendre for going to the voting both. According to his political, um, positions, the implication is that Barack Obama is the right choice for president.

Video screenshot

Conservative outlets have predictably been incensed by the video. Writing in Commentary, Alana Goodman says that the ad “could easily be seen as sexist, patronizing, and offensive,” leading her to wonder whether Obama’s campaign isn’t trying to stoke the fire of the culture wars.

Maybe, but these wars contain important battles that haven’t yet been won.

Within Jewish literature and media, Jewish women have long suffered from the stigma of being cast as sexual object, or worse, written out of the sexual story altogether. The rape of Dinah is given a mere few verses in the Bible. Alexander Portnoy, the Jewish hero of Philip Roth’s 1969 novel, pursues only non-Jewish women—when he’s not engaging with cheap cuts of organ meat—for his sexual gratification. His encounter with a female Israeli soldier who seems at first rife for a sexual experience, ultimately proves an asexual one. Contemporary comedian Sarah Silverman’s sexual riffing still sways uncomfortably between portraying women as empowered agents, and making rape seem ha-ha funny. Heeb magazine, which at first seemed to hold out great promise for challenging all sorts of expectations—including sexual ones—seems to have fallen into the familiar trap.

In its golly-gosh sincerity, the Dunham ad, by contrast, helps to remind young women that they are empowered sexual beings. It may seem banal and unremarkable to consider a woman as deserving of sexual decision-making until we recall recent episodes like Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who fought for access to contraception and had to endure being called a “slut” by the host of America’s highest-rated radio talk show.

Young women of this generation have had an especially challenging path to walk. Society has expected them to be high achieving and studious, independent and adventurous, and sexy. Take a look around the throngs of Halloween revelers this week. When I was a teen, my friends and I dressed up as baggy-painter-suit-clad Ghostbusters. Now, many of the Halloween costumes billed for young women—and even younger girls—wouldn’t be out of place in the storerooms of an Atlantic City brothel.

This is all the more reason to support an ad campaign that seeks to place women—and the implied young Jewish woman—in a position of subject rather than object. Women should not have to apologize for seeking gender equality and for possessing sexual desire. But that desire shouldn’t be mainly represented through the outfits they are expected to wear to gain approval, or via the ugly slurs activist women are still, sadly, subject to. It should be protected and nurtured within a thick wall of choice and empowerment. By providing muscular support to women’s issues in America, perhaps Obama will be the one to enshrine the right of American women—in whatever state of undress—to be masters of their own fate.