Body-to-Body: On Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham’s Differing Comedic Treatments of Gendered Bodies, (Sexual) Identity and Relationships
by Menachem Feuer
Immediately after Lena Dunham wrote her now infamous “Jewish Boyfriend or Dog” piece for The New Yorker, she received a lot of criticism. Social media was abuzz with claims and counterclaims ranging from the defense of her piece as fitting within the Jewish-American comic tradition of self-mockery to the notion – asserted by the ADL and Kveller – that Dunham’s piece was anti-Semitic. In an attempt to reconcile these views, Time Magazine suggested that it was a “failed joke”; Dunham was simply being absent minded (“clueless”).
But the response that really caught my attention, did so by going beyond words. It was an image by Sarah Silverman posted on Twitter.
— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) March 19, 2015
Elle called Silverman’s image of her wearing a shirt with several naked Lena Dunhams a “beautiful tribute.” Dunham, the article tells us, “seemed to be touched by the gesture, which seemed like a well-timed show of support for Dunham.” As evidence they hyper-linked Dunham’s Instagramed support.
Dunham’s caption to the image and Elle’s description of Dunham’s “seeming” approval is worthy of consideration. Dunham writes:
tits on tits! my ❤️ @sarahkatesilverman miss you mami (ps so many feelings about your perfect armpit)
After reading this effusion, I wondered: “How do Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham differ on their view of the body and identity? How do they portray the body, sexuality, and identity?” This, it “seemed,” was a great opportunity to explore these questions.
To begin with, Dunham’s comment about Silverman’s “perfect armpit” is telling. Is Dunham secretly jealous of Silverman’s body? Does her ostensibly facetious comment reflect Dunham’s negative body/self image?
To be sure, Dunham is not at all afraid to show her body. We literally see this – or should I say ‘those’ – in nearly every episode of Girls.
Not only does Dunham show herself naked or half-naked in many scenes, she also has many sex scenes or preludes to sexual scenes.
To be sure, Dunham, like Seth Rogen, likes to put her body at the forefront of her screen presence. And both Rogen and Dunham sport bodies that the average viewer would consider lacking the appeal of Sarah Silverman’s “perfect armpit.” Rogen is said to have a “dadbod” while Dunham’s corpus was deemed by Joan Rivers (not long before she tragically died) to be “fat”, and by Esquire to be “funny.”
Howard Stern also called her “fat” but later apologized. And Jezebel was even called out for publishing untouched-up-images of Dunham’s pre-photo shoot with Vogue. (The photo was taken by the world famous photographer Annie Leibovitz.) Dunham ended up in a socially-networked volley with Jezebel. Nonetheless, she did so in a way as not to denounce them but to create an ambiguity between different body images in a public manner.
Her body is a matter of public concern. If these articles and vitriolic exchanges don’t convince you, simply look at the comments section of any YouTube video or article containing content on Dunham to see how ambivalent people towards her body. And, with respect to Sarah Silverman, close attention must be paid to how people reacted to Silverman’s tweet of her Lena Dunham shirt. Many people, it seems, are fed up with seeing Dunham’s body while many others affirm its continued naked presence on Girls.
Dunham loves talking about her body and sexuality on TV. Here she is with Conan O’Brien.
And another clip with George Stephanopolous.
Although these discussions show us that Dunham foregrounds her sexuality and her body in everything that she does and that she is highly educated and informed about what is at stake in the discussion of the body and sexuality, it is her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” that gives us a much more subtle understanding of her comical and vulnerable view of sexuality, the body, identity, and relationships.
Not That Kind of Girl
The first words of her book, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned, make it clear that her view of herself, her body, and her relationships are plagued with self-doubt and confused emotion:
I AM TWENTY years old and I hate myself. My hair, my face, the curve of my stomach. The way my voice comes out wavering and my poems come out maudlin. The way my parents talk to me in a slightly higher register than they talk to my sister, as if I’m a governmental worker that’s snapped and, if pushed hard enough, might blow up the hostage I’ve got tied up in my basement. (xi)
But, she “covers up this hatred,” by a “kind of aggressive self-acceptance.” This, in her view, informs the way she dresses. Her bodily self-consciousness is acute and fundamental to her identity:
I dye my hair a fluorescent shade of yellow, cutting it into a mullet more inspired by photos of 1980s teen mothers than by any current beauty trend. I dress in neon spandex that hugs in all the wrong places. (xi)
Dunham tells us that, for this reason, she is the “odd one out.” She identifies with a decade past, but, at the same time, speaks a modern message:
You wouldn’t know it to see me at a party. In a crowd I am recklessly cheerful, dressed to the nines in thrift-shop gowns and press-on fingernails, fighting the sleepiness that comes from the 350 milligrams of medication I take every night. I dance the hardest, laugh the hardest at my own jokes, and make casual reference to my own vagina, like it’s a car or a chest of drawers. (xii)
Dunham makes constant reference to her body and is ashamed of it. She turns to self-help books from the 80s (xiv) by Helen Gurley Brown and feminist thinkers like Gloria Steinem and Nora Ephron for advice and hope. She thinks about the possibility of being or becoming, citing Hurley, a “Mouseburger.” She wonders if it is possible, for herself, to “triumph” by telling stories or if it is possible to make herself into a “sexy woman.”
All I knew was that she painted a picture of a life made much richer by having once been, as she calls it, a Mouseburger: unpretty, unspecial, unformed. She believed that, ultimately, Mouseburgers are the women who will triumph, having lived to tell the tale of being overlooked and underloved. Hers is a self-serving perspective, but one I needed more than anything. Maybe, as Helen preached, a powerful, confident, and yes, even a sexy woman could be made, not born. Maybe. (xvi)
Dunham then goes on to tell us that she must tell her stories – about her body, sexuality, and relationships, which are all odd, and show herself as “overlooked and underloved” – in order to “stay sane.” But the sentence she uses to describe her awakening to her body and sexuality doesn’t have anything triumphant about it. Her stories are about “waking up to my adult female body and being disgusted and terrified”(xvii).
The first chapter of the book tells us that, when she was nine, she took a “vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it”(1). Dunham, in other words, portrays herself, in youth, as being frustrated with having to deal with her sexuality. She would rather not.
She recalls that she lost her virginity at Oberlin College which she describes as a “free love fantasia.” She notes her heterosexual interests and her experimentation with homosexuality throughout the book. Since there were so many lesbians and gay men at Oberlin, she had “slimpickings”(5). She describes the guy she had sex with, Jonah, and the first experience of sex she had in the most awkward terms:
I didn’t tell Jonah I was a virgin, just that I hadn’t done it “that much.” I was sure I had already broken my hymen in high school crawling over a fence in Brooklyn in pursuit of a cat that didn’t want to be rescued. Still, it hurt more than I’d expected and in a different way, too – duller, less like a stab wound and more like a headache. He was nervous, and, in a nod to gender equality, neither of us came. (7)
Dunham notes how it was “only later” that “sex and identity become one” for her. But the road to this “oneness” was rough, as she details throughout her book. It is her struggle with her body that she recalls in her youth and her envy of male freedom with the body. Being a woman she has to deal with her “people-pleasing instincts” and her difficult body. But, despite her anger and jealousy, she embraces being a woman:
I have been envious of male characteristics, if not men themselves. I’m jealous of the ease with which they seem to pursue their professional pursuits: the lack of apologizing, bending over backward to make sure the people around them are comfortable with what they’re trying to do. The fact that they are so often free of people-pleasing instincts I have considered to be a curse of my female existence….I consider being a female such a unique gift, such a sacred joy, in ways that run so deep I can’t articulate them. It’s a special kind of privilege to be born in the body you wanted. (130-131)
But these words are hard to believe. Anyone reading the book can see the irony and ambivalence of such affirmations. Her body, sexuality, and identity are not “one.”
We can see this fragmentation in the last chapter where she comically discusses her relationships and her alienation:
None of your neighbors know you, so none of them would care. They are all over eighty-five, and they don’t have HBO. You could hurl yourself down the garbage chute and be found six days later, bleeding out into a pile of adult diapers. (259)
The section where she writes this takes the topic of “running away” as its theme. She wants to run away from her life and her body. She feels alone and wants to run away from sexuality and relationships. But she imagines that “he” – her lover – will say things that will make everything ok (262). However, that’s not enough. The real problem is Lena Dunham. She is the one who should not put herself in situations “you’d like to run away from”(262).
However, as a schlemiel of sorts, she always ends up in these situations. And if she finds them, she can still run away. But it will always be “back to herself.” She doesn’t need a man to run to. It seems as if here, at the very end of the book, she is returning to her childhood “vow to celibacy” which she literally “ate up.”
But when you run, run back to yourself, like that bunny in Runaway Bunny runs to its mother, but you are the mother, and you’ll see that later and be very, very proud. (262)
In other words, her ambivalence remains despite her turn to herself, or rather escape to herself, out of sexual and bodily situations that are difficult and awkward. Her final words are serious, not comical. They are also sad since it suggests that retreat, and not relation, are better options.
Sara Silverman, on the other hand, doesn’t take her body and relationships in the same manner. Her relationship to her body and others is less weighted.
Sarah Silverman: Sexuality, Body, and Identity
While Lena Dunham’s memoir begins with words that are full of self-loathing and self-deprecation, the first words of Sarah Silverman’s autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee are full of…themselves.
When I first selected myself to write the foreword for my book, I was flattered, and deeply moved. It is not every day that someone is asked to write the foreword of such a highly anticipated book by a major publisher…Personally, I’m finally in a place where I can really look up to myself, and professionally, because I’m now able to see what a coup getting me to write my foreword really is. (xi)
Silverman is not the “Mouseburger” that Dunham writes on in the foreword to her book. Nonetheless, like Dunham, she talks endlessly about her body. Writing mockingly of her body as if she were someone else – or rather, her double – she writes:
I have known Sarah (me) for thirty-nine years. I have watched her grown from a flat-chested, gawky little blastocyst into a full-grown woman, big naturals and a major career. (xiii)
But, unlike Dunham (who is also Jewish), she drops many Jewish references to the body. She says that she would like to be the first
Jewish President…or stop some movement that’s especially annoying. Like those people who denounce circumcision and insist on ruining penises around the globe. I guess the effort to stop a movement could be called “Removement.” That’s a horrible joke. (xiii-xiv)
Silverman also notes that “her asshole is clean as a whistle” and tells her readers about how writing “this very book” is like “pooping”: “don’t push”(xv). She is not, in any way, ambivalent or conflicted about her view of the body and waste. Reading her foreword, one would think that there is nothing traumatic or dramatic about Silverman’s view of her body.
And when she turns to her youth and growing up, in the following chapters, she doesn’t seem to be destroyed by her traumas. They are laughable.
The first chapter, entitled “Cursed from the Start,” recounts how her life started “by exploding out of my father’s balls.” She notes how she learned to curse and laugh from her father. She describes his body (4) and ethnic Bostonian accent (5) in terms that are crude yet endearing. And her description of her mother relates her Jewishness and the Jewish body.
My mother, Beth Ann, is fair-skinned with green-blue eyes, soft brown hair, and a God-given nose most Jews would pay thousands for. She speaks beautifully and with great passion for proper grammar and pronunciation…She’s a real life Diane Chambers. She didn’t care if we said “fuck” or “shit” as long as it was with crisp diction and perfect pronunciation. (8)
But there is a major trauma in her life that she recalls, and it is not her experience of sex so much as her experience of bedwetting (19). Silverman recalls how she went to therapy, to a male therapist, Dr. Grimm. She thinks of his male body while he is suggesting she imagine a “forest” or “landscape.”
It was less therapy than experimental theater, with two actors performing a play for no one. I was trying to imagine this path and his forest and whatever….but instead my mind raced, and focused on anything else – the room I was in, the fake calmness in his voice, his beard, the fact that he had a penis and balls. Does doody get on his balls when he poops? Do boys wipe from the front or back like girls do? (22)
Silverman suggests that she may have been or may be caught up in the anal or pee phase of her life. But…this is really a joke of sorts. It’s hard for the reader to take her childhood traumas seriously as one would do with Dunham.
Even Silverman’s resentment of a woman camp counselor in her “Jewy summer camp” doesn’t give one a sense that she has any deep issues with sexuality, her body, or her Jewish identity.
My counselor was the daughter of the people who owned the camp. Her name was Rachel and she was beautiful and blond (one of those charmed vanilla Jews) and, uncharacteristically for a girl with those characteristics, angry. Superfucking angry. She clearly hated us, hated life, and did not want to be bothered…As I’ve said, I’m not a cynical person, and I don’t believe human persons are naturally evil. Cuntiness comes from somewhere. In Rachel’s case it was most likely because her sister died of cancer. (27)
To be sure, Silverman, unlike Dunham, may talk about porn but she rarely talks about sexuality. She does, however, talk about nakedness. She recalls a moment with one of her “best friends,” the comedian Louie C.K. “then and now a brilliant and prolific comic”(88). She recalls a visit to his apartment.
About 2:00 a.m one night we started daring each other to throw our clothes over the balcony down into the atrium. I don’t remember who tossed the first article, but from there we took turns removing a single piece of clothing, dropping it into the void, and watching it float down to the lobby…Each round became more and more daring since we were less and less covered, until we were both naked. Totally naked. (89)
This encounter becomes the basis of an analogy for work “during that period” of her career. And this leads her to talk about one of her favorite topics: porn.
When all of your friends are comedians and you spend your life in a club hearing and telling jokes, it becomes ever more challenging to make each other laugh. I imagine it’s like working in porn – after a while, missionary just doesn’t cut it anymore. You need a midget and a monkey and a bottle of Head & Shoulders to get any kind of boner. (90)
Silverman even brings her discussion of Porn into her discussion of God. To be sure, Silverman’s “Forward” is given over to God who, while saddened by humanity, we learn, notices how everyone is watching YouPorn (including himself). This observation, in contrast to Dunhams, makes sexuality something arbitrary.
More important to Silverman is her self-image as a Jewish woman caught in a kind of childhood made of potty jokes and bedwetting traumas. This comes out when she discusses the book covers and titles she first came up with for HarperCollins.
So guess what happened: I came up with the title of my book and it was approved by Harper Collins. This may not seem exciting to you, but you don’t understand what a fucking hassle the whole thing has been. They scoffed at “My Life in 18 Poops.” And to say they were underwhelmed by “Tales of a Horse-Faced Jew-Monkey” would be like saying Hitler was underwhelmed by the Jews. It was reviled at every rung of the corporate ladder. (128)
Silverman’s self-mockery of her body as a “Horse-Faced Jew-Monkey” just like her poop or porn jokes are endearing. Silverman, like a child who doesn’t have to deal with the trauma of sexuality, is at ease. Moreover, Silverman doesn’t feel, like Dunham, that she has to put her body at the forefront of everything she does and doesn’t feel she needs to heal her body wounds.
Lena Dunham’s Instagramed response to Sarah Silverman’s tweet shows us, that even though they are friends, Dunham has a thing for Silverman’s “perfect armpit.” A subtle resentment abides. And this has a lot to do with the kinds of relationships they have with sexuality, the body, and identity. While Dunham’s relationship is more dramatic than comic, Silverman’s is more comic than dramatic. Both of them are single women; but while Dunham’s final words are of a woman who feels she may have to escape to the solace of her Self and creativity, Silverman gives God the last word and that word is not simply about pornography: it is about his attitude toward humanity.
In this last difference, we see something fundamental; namely, a possible generation gap. Noah Baumbach, in his film While We’re Young (2014), takes this as a theme. For Baumbach, the gap between the two couples in this film (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts on the, older hand, and Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, the younger couple, on the other) and shows us how, for many millennials, the Self and the desire for success overshadow the desire to change the world, in a social sense, or the desire to float free of self-involvement.
In Baumbach’s film, Jamie (Adam Driver), who is a millennial, tricks Josh (Ben Stiller), who is a moral schlemiel, into thinking that he likes Josh’s work and wants to learn from him. In the end, however, Jamie only uses him to get close to Stiller’s father-in-law in the film. Adam Driver plays the character Adam Sackler in Girls. And there are a few awkward sex scenes of Driver and Lena Dunham in the show. The spirit of Baumbach’s film and Girls is similar, as is the use of Driver. The self-absorption and the pathetic attempts at sexuality or relationship tend to fail miserably. There is a kind of upper-middle class banality running through most, if not all of these encounters.
Sarah Silverman doesn’t have the same problems or concerns as Lena Dunham. However, Dunham comes from a generation that is much more acutely aware of damaged sexuality, alienation, and self-obsession than Silverman’s. And while Silverman can play around with her popularity in her foreword, Dunham cannot. This may have to do with the more dramatized sense of the body and self that is evident in Dunham’s work. The comedy Dunham employs, in contrast to Silverman, is minimal. With Dunham there is more self and there is the retreat to the self – “But when you run, run back to yourself, like that bunny in Runaway Bunny runs to its mother, but you are the mother, and you’ll see that later and be very, very proud” – with Silverman there isn’t a need for retreat so much as a less involved relationship with the body and sexuality. And this gives Silverman a freedom that Dunham doesn’t have.
Nonetheless, Silverman’s comical bed wetting body and Dunham’s burdened body and sexuality both exist side-by-side…and body-to-body.
About the Author:
Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction Studies, Shofar,MELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in Philosophy, Comparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.