Lena Dunham was finally able to get back at Howard Stern over those asinine comments he made about her last year, and she took the tried and true female-Jew insult approach. While roasting him at his 60th birthday party, Dunham said:
“He asked me if I was intimidated because my boyfriend could be getting a much hotter piece of ass. At the time, I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask if you were intimidated because [your wife] Beth could definitely be with someone who doesn’t look like a cartoon of a Jewish female horse.”
I really wish she hadn’t said “Jewish.” Or “female.” I really wish her potshot about his appearance didn’t hinge on the idea of Jewish, female, or horses for that matter, being ugly.
It’s clear, however, that I have a double standard here. I make jokes about Judaism frequently–it’s one of the ways that I claim my Judaism despite my complicated relationship with the religion/cultural affiliation. I love jokes about being Jewish and rarely find them in poor taste–I’ve even been known to laugh at a very well-crafted Holocaust joke every so often. So why is this rubbing me the wrong way so much?
I think part of the issue here is my own acute sensitivity to “Jewish” being used to mean “ugly.” I’ve heard jokes about Jewish women being less attractive and less desirable for most of my life, and like most Jewish girls, grown up fully aware of the perception that Jewish women are somewhat bottom of the barrel. Although I fully disagree with that concept on the basis of all the hot Jews that I know, it’s still a hugely pervasive notion that I was aware of from the moment I was aware that I was Jewish. And so when Dunham uses Jewish as an insult, or for that matter, female, my knee jerk reaction is to tell her to shut the fuck up.
If you want to be all “Howard Stern is Jewish–calling him so is just accurate,” I would counter by saying that there’s a lot of ways to call someone a Jew. This isn’t the “ah yes, here is my friend Howard–we’re going to his Seder this year for Passover” way. This is the insulting way. This is the way that means “ugly.”
I think there’s a significant difference between actors like Sarah Silverman and Dunham–Silverman loudly identifies as Jewish. I didn’t know Dunham was half-Jewish until I looked it up online. This seems a bit like having her cake and eating it, too–if Dunham isn’t going to publicly claim her Judaism (which she has no obligation to do, whatsoever), then she should probably stay away form making jokes where Jewish people are the butt of the joke. It just emboldens other people to do it. It’s simply not the same thing as a regular, run of the mill half-reform Jew making a joke. It normalizes the premise of the joke and implies that it’s acceptable to make them in the first place, regardless of whether or not it’s self deprecating or just pointed at a marginalized group you don’t belong to. The trade off of fame is that you don’t really get to make jokes that normal people can get away with without having broader implications.
I’m not the comedy police and I’m not trying to cast arbitrary boundaries about who can or cannot make certain jokes. I’m a firm believer that any subject, ever, can be funny, no matter how depraved. In fact, I think depraved jokes are necessary, because they help us process and deal with concepts that are too grotesque to understand any other way. But there’s three requirements here, at least in my book. First: the joke has to come from the right person. I don’t mean that every successful joke about marginalized people comes from a member of that group every single time ever, but it helps. The second criterion is that it should aim to skewer the stereotypes and people who believe them, and not to actually perpetuate negative an untrue tropes about marginalized people. Finally, the joke has to be funny. “Jewish female horse?” Dunham can do better.
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