Lena Dunham’s Sex Joke: A Missed Opportunity

I’m not much of a political junkie.  In fact, I just installed this beautiful little Chrome extension that turns political Facebook posts into pictures of cats.  I feel pretty ambivalent about this election: I think both candidates get some important things right, and some important things wrong.   I don’t believe either is the monster their political opposition makes them out to be.  Frankly, I’m far more concerned about the hostility I see underscoring the political rhetoric than I am about the policies of the presidential candidates.

But this video has been making the rounds on social media, and I think it’s worth dissecting a little.

You see, for all the “binders full of women” hubbub following the second presidential debate, I’m not sure this ad from the Obama camp shows much more sensitivity.  In fact, I find it tacky and decidedly un-feminist.


It buys into the false narrative that a woman’s power is in her sexuality.  Here’s what could have been a young woman speaking with strength about serious issues at a serious time, resorting instead to the role that society has cast for her: that of coy, blushing virgin.

A few years ago, I worked as the executive director of an Interactive Theatre Program aimed at helping improve campus climate for female faculty members at Utah State University.  The program was funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation.  At one point, as part of my position, I attended a gender equality training at the University of Michigan.

There, we participated in an interesting exercise.  First we role-played common situations that might arise in an academic setting.  Then we switched the players around.  If it was offensive or unsettling when we substituted a male actor for a female actor, we came to understand that the situation itself was probably problematic.

Try doing that with this ad.  Imagine that we had a female presidential candidate, say Hillary Clinton.  Imagine that there were an endorsement video made by a young, fresh-faced 20-something male celebrity — I don’t know, say Zac Efron — who endorsed her candidacy by comparing the experience to losing his virginity.  It’s icky, right?

Dunham’s points about women’s issues are worthy of serious discussion and consideration.  But she undermines her credibility in the way she presents them.  This sort of thing is subtle, and unfortunately, we still have a long way to go in our culture until women can be perceived as powerful without the cover of sexuality to make it “palatable.”

Overall, I think this video is a missed opportunity to help improve the discourse and change the culture.  And that’s a shame.