In her very young career, Lena Dunham has distinguished herself as her generation’s pre-eminent observer of female social and sexual mores. From her first film, Tiny Furniture, to her oft-acclaimed and sometimes-reviled HBO series, Girls, Dunham creates works of video pointillism. Her narratives and characters don’t make a whole lot of sense in the medium view (really, there are no black people in Brooklyn?), but from afar they’re unmistakably recognizable. From up close, inside a particular scene or bit of dialogue, she can be achingly brilliant and pure.
It should come as no surprise then that her impish video imploring young women to vote for Barack Obama—because on the first time “you wanna to do it with a great guy”—works in the same mode and has elicited similarly polarizing reactions. In just twenty-four hours, her ad has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube and an almost equal numbers of likes and dislikes.
As Amanda Marcotte points out at Slate, the video has provoked an “unhinged, crazy reaction” from conservatives, who seemingly can’t tolerate “an accomplished single woman who doesn’t blush at the mention of sex.” Marcotte is right to put the controversy over the video in the context of the GOP’s freakout over women and sex (see Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin, Foster Friess, etc.), and the Dunham ad is undeniably timed by the Obama campaign to reach undecided, young female voters.
But this medium-view reading misses something else behind the furor. It’s not about the sex per se; it’s about the emotion behind it. Dunham’s ad is funny, or infuriating, not just because it absurdly suggests a taboo sex act—that in 2008 a 22-year old Lena Dunham lost her virginity to a married Senator Barack Obama—but because it likens that scenario to the presumably rational act of voting. There is something a little too raw and too compelling about Dunham’s performance—the way she expresses keening tenderness and unshakable adoration toward the president of the United States, as if he might have been a first love. Dunham cursorily mentions four issues—birth control, Iraq, pay equity and gay marriage—but the plea is almost entirely in the register of feelings, not policy. As in many of her scenes, she reveals herself as emotionally—if not physically (this time)—naked.
Obama’s capacity to elicit an extra-rational, hyper-emotional response from his supporters has long infuriated his critics—on both right and left (NB: I am not arguing that voting for Obama because he’s pro-women is irrational—it is deeply rational). The slur—“you’re just an Obamabot”—is equally likely to be tweeted by fans of Glenn Beck or Glenn Greenwald. Recall that the accusation that Obama had cultivated a “cult of personality” emerged most loudly at first not from the Tea Party and Andrew Breitbart—who have certainly ridden that horse to death since—but from liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who lamented in February of 2008 during the Democratic primary that the Obama campaign seemed “dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality” because “most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody.” It’s a great irony that, of all Democrats on the planet, it’s Hillary Clinton (of Text from Hillary Tumblr fame) who now enjoys the worship of what might be called a cult of personality.
There have been other so-called presidential cults of personality before (think Reagan). They don't always make sense on inspection (think Reagan Democrats), but in the large and small, they speak certain truths. As we approach the final week of the election, the hardiness of Obama’s emotionally excessive relationship to his base is perhaps the single X factor most unmeasurable by the polls. Of all age groups, it’s young voters—who were instrumental to Obama’s 2008 victory and to whom Dunham targeted her plea—who have swung most wildly in their support for Obama or Mitt Romney or in their level of engagement in the election at all. It’s their turnout that might most determine the outcome of this race, as well as Obama’s ability to realign the electorate towards the Democratic Party for a generation. In that sense, the success or failure of Lena Dunham’s ad might be pivotal—not because of its singular effect but because of all it symbolizes.