Joanna Weiss

Lena Dunham’s joke ad is a campaign flashpoint

Director Lena Dunham equates first-time voting to virginity loss in a video.

Oh, what are we going to do for entertainment when this presidential race is over? When the campaigns stop sending out videos we can react to with joy and horror?

The latest: the pro-Obama video from writer/director/actress/Voice-of-Millennials Lena Dunham, which has whipped conservatives into a horrified frenzy.

Yes, it has to do with sex. The minute-long ad is aimed at young women, eligible to vote for the first time. Dunham, 26, the creator and star of HBO’s “Girls,” looks coquettishly at the camera and, in her best sorority-girl impression, talks about how “your first time” should be with someone who wants you to have health insurance and equal pay. When she voted for Barack Obama four years ago, she says, “It was this line in the sand: Before, I was a girl. Now, I was a woman.”


Ronald Reagan, it turns out, once made a similar joke. So did Vladimir Putin. Still, certain conservatives — including Rush Limbaugh — have declared that they now fear for America’s daughters. And one Fox News commentator named Monica Crowley has offered a more cutting critique. “1 of the many sick things about this degrading Lena Dunham ‘lose your virginity to Barack’ ad?” she tweeted last week. “The Left thinks it’s ‘empowering’ to women.”

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Well, that one kind of stings. After all, the Obama campaign does not have a perfect track record when it comes to female spokeswomen. Last June, around the time some awful unemployment numbers came out, the campaign released a video featuring Vogue diva-in-chief Anna Wintour, who dubbed Sarah Jessica Parker one of the world’s “most incredible women,” and admonished the little people for being late to her exclusive fundraiser.

In her own, girlfriend-y way, Dunham is also a problematic figure, her status summed up by the mixed and powerful reactions to “Girls.” Dunham is talented, funny, accomplished, and rich: She just got a reported $3.7 million advance on her memoir (which is said to be, in part, about losing her actual virginity).

On the other hand, Dunham’s HBO show is about parentally subsidized post-adolescent angst. Her main characters are self-absorbed women — all played, incidentally, by daughters of celebrities — who live in a Brooklyn playground and think they have actual problems. The stakes are so stupendously low that the effort feels largely wasted. And the jokes center on smart girls who do dumb things, humiliating themselves, often sexually, because they’re incapable of making good decisions.

This is a flaw of Dunham’s Obama video, too: not that it’s “degrading,” but that it telegraphs small-bore over big-think, and continues the joke about the dumb smart girl. The Romney campaign has gained some traction, in these last few weeks, by suggesting that the Obama campaign is insulting voters’ intelligence, churning out puns and Big Bird references in lieu of more serious arguments.


When it comes to women’s issues, that line of reasoning has its limits. For a long time now, the Romney campaign has argued for its own kind of dumbness: that women won’t care about GOP attacks on women’s health (or the fact that Romney once endorsed an effort to grant legal standing to fertilized eggs) because what matters most to them is the economy.

This assumes that, somehow, women don’t realize that health care costs factor into economic concerns. It assumes that they take, at face value, Romney’s wink-nod claims that he wouldn’t do anything to erode women’s health or abortion rights. (The real issue isn’t what Romney believes — a truth that seems unknowable, anyway — but what he’d do if some Republicans in Congress have their way.)

Yet as the Obama camp keeps hurling appeals at the female base, it runs the risk of hurting itself. Yes, Dunham’s schtick is satirical, and she has the comic timing down. But there is something weirdly disempowering about a powerful, intelligent woman acting dumb for her fans, or suggesting that young women need a nudge from their bestie, a few jokes about sex and the right guy, to actually get to the polls.

In fact, most college-age women I know are perfectly capable of taking politics at face value. In real life, as opposed to HBO, the stakes are actually quite high.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follower her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.