Lena Dunham’s Shouts & Murmurs in the latest issue of the New Yorker— titled “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend: A Quiz”—has not been received kindly by the Internet. Politico’s Ben White dubbed it “anti-Semitic garbage”; the website Kveller called it “not OK.” The piece, for the uninitiated, is pretty much what it sounds like: a list of traits—to the tune of “He doesn’t tip” and “He’s crazy for cream cheese”—that could, we are meant to understand, be plausibly attributed to either a pooch or a Jew. I might argue that “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend” is less offensive than mystifying: Dunham writes, “He once vomited on his seatmate in United business class”—do Jewish boyfriends do that? Do dogs?
But controversy aside, the clear highlight of the piece was a cartoon by the talented Norway-based illustrator Bendik Kaltenborn that attempted, valiantly, to sum up Dunham’s words in a single image. In the illustration, which Kaltenborn produced using Photoshop after reading a draft of the piece several times over, a faithful rendering of Dunham’s rescue mutt, Lamby, wears a bellhop uniform and carries a suitcase under one humanoid arm. Beside him, the Jewish Boyfriend in question wears a canine cone of shame, his pink tongue wagging. Slate spoke to Kaltenborn briefly via phone, from Oslo, to get his thoughts on the firestorm.
This seems like it could’ve been a tough piece to illustrate. How did you come up with the idea?
I work digitally in Photoshop and in general, my process is very improvised. Sometimes the New Yorker will send me a draft and a brief explaining what they want for the illustration. In this case, there was no brief. The idea was simple, to combine two aspects of the piece: the dog and the boyfriend.
Why the bellhop uniform and the dog cone? There are lot of ways you could have taken that premise.
Bellhops were mentoned in the piece, and I just wanted to make the dog look like a human and the human look like a dog.
Do you remember your first reaction to reading “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend”?
I thought it was funny.
Has the backlash surprised you?
I saw on the New Yorker’s Facebook that some people are really offended. I just thought it was obviously done with love. It’s sort of humor in the same tradition as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
So after you got the assignment, you just read the piece and started sketching?
I’d done an illustration of Lena Dunham for a Norwegian magazine so had done some research on her and her life. I got sent the text, and I googled her dog and her boyfriend. Then I just drew the dog and boyfriend.
Meaning at first you actually drew Jack Antonoff?
Yes. It’s quite a personal text so I thought that made sense. But then someone at the New Yorker told me they wanted just a regular person, not her boyfriend. So I changed it.
They wanted him to look like a generic-looking guy?
Yes, that was the idea. The first version really looked like Jack Antonoff.
Did they explain why they wanted you to do that?
They just said I should make him more anonymous. So that’s why he only has two dots for eyes. Now you can’t tell it’s a Jewish boyfriend.