Not That Kind of Girl A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” by Lena Dunham
I am generally pro-Lena Dunham, mostly because a lot of her criticism has been misogynist, or at least unfair. I enjoy Girls, though I’m not so obsessed with it: I think I’m at least a half season behind. I’m not sure that she was ready to write a book; this memoir is nowhere near as good or as funny a book as Girls is a TV show. It’s very inconsistent. There are a few very good chapters, some listicle chapters that seem mostly to fill space, and a couple very odd choices she made.
My personal favorite part of the book was the introduction. At her best, this is what Lena Dunham is about:
There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.
This really hit home for me, especially with my recent writing about finding the courage to write in the face of what I called “the inverse of mansplaining.”
I thought the most important part of her book were the two chapters where she told the story of her rape. She told it twice to show how complicated the situation and her feelings about it were, and how her thoughts and feelings about it changed as she gained time and distance from the event. Making stories like this public supports survivors who may feel just as confused as she did, and contributes to a national discourse about preventing campus rape and helping survivors.
Lots of her essays were stories about her sad and pathetic love life, in which she details all of the many ways she allowed men to mistreat her over the years. Personally I found her portrayal of bad relationships kind of frustrating to read and incomprehensible, it was so foreign to my experience. I guess I was lucky that though I haven’t had amazing self-esteem, I was generally too afraid of men to be self-destructive in this particular way. Thankfully, the point of all these stories is that she knows better now, and encourages readers to have high standards in their relationships. I liked the poetic way the final chapter “Guide to Running Away,” summarizes what she’s learned, comparing a 9-year-old’s attempt at running away from home to the many ways a woman in her mid-to-late twenties might want to run away from things that are good in her life, and finally has the courage not to.
Lots of people have overreacted to a passage in one of the essays in which 7-year-old Lena explores her toddler sister’s vagina. I think it’s ridiculous to call her a child molester, but the way she presented the story was strange, seeming to intentionally open her up to those overreactions. It reminded me of a time in writing workshop where one line I wrote crossed a line, for no real reason, and I got called on it. It seems like no one was doing that service for Dunham here, or she hasn’t yet had enough experience to know exactly how to dance around that thinnest of lines. She’s made crossing boundaries one of her trademarks, so it seems inevitable that she’ll go too far at some point.
When Dunham is at her best, she has a goal in mind when she pushes boundaries. For example, I think her work with nudity in Girls is expanding the range of body types we see on screen, and that’s important. Her work falls flat when there doesn’t seem to be a reason to step over the line. Edginess for its own sake isn’t very compelling.
Girls is better. Dunham should stick to screenwriting and essay-length writing on serious feminist topics until she has more to say.