Photo: Lena Dunham on The Today Show


Let’s not waste time being squeamish

Lena Dunham sent the Today Show into a tailspin by saying the word “penis”. Caroline O’Donoghue on why we need to welcome in a phase of straight-talking

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

As a person born between 1982 and 2004, I never get tired of every other generation telling me how much I suck. Just kidding! I am completely tired of it. Millennials spend too much on brunch and not enough on Ecstasy, like Generation X did. Millennials are infantile and over-anxious, not bold and hard-working, like Baby Boomers were. Every day, there’s some fresh criticism of the under-35s, and so today, let me revel in having one small victory. One thing that millennials can do better than any generation that came before us: we can say the word penis. 

Over the weekend, Lena Dunham appeared on The Today Show to promote the sixth and final series of Girls. The host, Maria Shriver, mentioned that she had seen the first few episodes of the season, to which Dunham replied: “you saw a penis, right?”

Honestly, you’d think she’d thrown her tampon across the set. Shriver was deeply uncomfortable, and seemed unsure of whether she could even finish the segment. “I’m not sure if you’re allowed to say that on television,” she said. Shriver was eventually rescued by her co-host Matt Lauer, who was taken from a different part of the studio to put his arm around Shriver, and to reassure her that it was OK, the penis lady wouldn’t terrorise her any further. Dunham looked around in sort of amused confusion, apologising as Shriver told her that she “wasn’t brought up speaking that way… That’s the difference between generations!”

She used an anatomically, biologically correct word in a non-erotic way, and The Today Show went into melt down

Again, Lena Dunham said the word penis. She didn’t prefix it with “I’m dying for a”. She didn’t even refer to it sexually, really. She used an anatomically, biologically correct word in a non-erotic way, and The Today Show went into melt down. 

Funnily enough, this wasn’t the only time this weekend that I noticed a host getting flustered by acknowledging the existence of genitals. While pottering around the house on Sunday, I tuned into on of my favourite Arts & Culture podcasts, RTE Radio 1’s The Arena. Two film critics were discussing this week’s big release, 20th Century Woman, and in particular, a scene where the characters sit around their 1979 dining table and discuss whether it’s OK to say the word "menstruation".

“There’s a brilliant scene where the characters talk about… things that shouldn’t be talked about while eating,” said Paul Whittington, a critic who moments before was ably quoting the film’s use of a homophobic slur (“art fag”) without batting an eyelash.

“Menstruation,” interjected the other critic, artist Sorcha Kenny. 

I couldn’t help but laugh: a man in 2017 was trying to avoid saying the word menstruation, while talking about a scene set in 1979 where characters talk about whether it’s alright to say menstruation. This isn’t a diss on Whittington, who is as thoughtful and interesting a critic as they come, but it’s kind of funny to see where he drew the line: he could say “art fag”, an actually offensive term, but he couldn’t say “menstruation”, a correct term for something that happens to half the population, for 12 weeks a year, for most of their lives. 

In both Paul Whittington and Maria Shriver’s case, they were acting completely on impulse, and as experienced broadcasters who both work in national, live mediums. Paul was censoring himself to what he thought was the appropriate standard for Irish radio, Maria was worrying about the appropriate standard for American television. So while neither of them are on trial here, you have to wonder: who is this all for? For the American audience, who were so undeterred by their own President’s use of the phrase “grab ‘em by the pussy” that they voted for him anyway? For the Irish audience, whose politics have been embroiled in female reproductive rights since the 1980s? The same people who can’t hear “penis” are forced to hear “pussy”. The same people who may have to vote about what happens to a woman when she misses her period aren’t allowed to hear about it on the radio. As Dunham’s character Hanna Horvath said herself: “TMI is such an outdated concept. There's no such thing as too much information, this is the information age.” 

We are, as we keep being reminded, at the beginning of a new era: the American constitution is slowly being ripped up, right-wing politics are at a global high, and Russia has legalised domestic violence. Now is a time for bravery, and integrity, and straight, clear talking. We don’t have time to dance around subjects, we don’t have the patience to flutter our hands to our faces in mock-shock when someone says something anatomically correct. Squeamishness and “can you say that?” doesn’t have a place in the future we’ve got coming, and we might as well get used to it early. 


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Photo: Lena Dunham on The Today Show
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