You can see why the staff of the Harvard Lampoon found the idea funny.
Photoshop Anne Frank’s head onto the body of a woman showing off a belly button piercing and surgically augmented breasts in a string bikini. Make sure a sufficient number of shirtless men in the background are staring appreciatively at her. And give the whole thing a headline that, depending on context, could have been lifted either from Playboy or, well, the Forward: “Gone Before Her Time: Virtual Aging Technology Shows Us What Anne Frank Would Have Looked Like If She Hadn’t Died.” (The image’s caption, “Add this to your list of reasons the Holocaust sucked,” is pure Lampoon.)
The Harvard Lampoon is garbage pic.twitter.com/q4BAUS4ibI— Cat Zhang (@CatZhang1) May 13, 2019
It’s a remarkably neat satire. It pokes fun at men: Of course they can only mourn Anne Frank if they’re given a reason to explicitly sexualize her. It pokes fun at somber traditions of Holocaust remembrance: Of course there are people who observe those traditions via vaguely fetishistic pondering as to what the Shoah’s victims might have looked like had they lived. It pokes fun at America: Nationwide, Holocaust awareness is diminishing, and it’s not hard to imagine desperate folks resorting to desperate measures to counter the decline. It pokes fun at the Lampoon: We are so brutish that we think this is funny!
But all that is a side note. What the image, and the language that surrounds it, really does is poke fun at Frank. And that’s why, despite the number of smart if taboo instincts at play, it’s really not funny at all.
The idea of Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust isn’t new. Everyone from Philip Roth to Ryan Murphy has played with the idea; most people included in that “everyone” have been men. It’s likely not a coincidence that most of their depictions of an Anne Frank who lives past the age of 15 center on Frank playing a secondary role in the life of a man, often that of a sex object or vengeful shrew. When it comes to the Lampoon, check yes for sex object.
That reduction is, at heart, mean. It negates Frank’s significance as a thinker and writer. And it shames her sexually. Frank was remarkably upfront about that aspect of herself, to the discomfort of several of her editors, including her father. Depicting her as what might in boys-club vernacular be deemed a bimbo painfully dismisses the radical clarity of thought, and radical lack of shame, that she brought to the subject of her sexuality. How funny would it be if Anne Frank lived, only to choose to be defined almost exclusively by her sexiness? How funny would it be if all that careful introspection, that surgical understanding of society’s taboos about women’s sexuality, was just a fluke? If after all that hubbub about prodigy and genius, Frank grew up to be — in the most stereotypical way possible — just, like, really hot?
The board of editors of the Harvard Lampoon is exclusively male, as is the board that oversees the Lampoon’s business operations. Part of what’s damning about their depiction of an adult Frank, in addition to its obvious offensiveness, is that it’s stale. Roth pioneered the idea of a sexualized adult Frank in “The Ghost Writer” in 1979, and it hasn’t gone out of parlance since. So the Lampoon, which prides itself on transgression, made an oddly safe choice in printing this flagrantly taboo image. It’s not new to try and reduce Frank to a coward’s vision of her sexuality. It’s not bold. And it’s not funny.
What it is, frankly, is sad. When you look at Frank as a thinking, independent person, rather than a symbol for the genocide of the Jews, what stands out about the Lampoon’s picture is how tragic it is that, nearly 75 years after Frank’s death, her ownership of her sexuality — and, dare I say, her feminist joy in it — is still seen as such an overwhelming threat. If, humorously or otherwise, you’re going to imagine Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust, for God’s sake: Let her have her own kind of fun.