A willingness to shock comes easily to her. So why hasn’t she dug at something deeper in her first book?
In the first season of HBO’s Girls, Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, tells her friend Marnie, “Any mean thing someone is going to think of to say about me, I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour.”
This is a familiar feeling to those of us who developed a sense of humor as a pre-empt against cruelty, and it’s a device that has made Girls a huge success and Dunham a media darling. But in a memoir meant to be an advice book to young women, the writer-director’s trademark funny self-deprecation has the unfortunate side effect of nullifying the idea that she has something important to say.
Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”, Dunham’s much-anticipated (and hotly-debated) debut book, is funny, smart and cringe-inducing in a good way. But when Dunham describes her post-college life as a time when “nothing was a tragedy, and everything was a joke”, it’s less an observation than the unintentional theme of the whole book.
Even the title, with “learned” in scare quotes, is a noncommittal wink of sorts: Don’t worry, I don’t really have anything to teach you. But given Dunham’s talent, ambition and success, I don’t buy the coy deflection.
The setup for Not That Kind of Girl is almost entirely about the importance of women’s voices; Dunham writes in the introduction about the “forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.”
But if women’s stories matter, why doesn’t Lena Dunham think that her stories matter, too?
Yes, this uber-successful 28-year-old has put pen to paper and laid bare her most embarrassing, personal and heartfelt moments in a collection of essays, email exchanges and listicles; that in itself should indicate that she believes her voice is important. Indeed, when women’s memoirs are seen as “over-sharing” but men’s are “brave”, Dunham’s willingness to say it all is refreshing. But as Dunham admits in a chapter that addresses her frequent nudity in Girls:
"It’s not brave to do something that doesn’t scare you."
Given Dunham’s longstanding messy candor – at five years old, she fibs to a woman at an art gallery, saying her father stuck a fork in her vagina – we know that a willingness to shock comes easily to her. So why not dig at something deeper?
That’s not to say Dunham’s particular humor isn’t needed: “In a nod to gender equality, neither of us came” – that was a particular gem. But it’s the rarer moments of tenderness and thoughtful prose – like when she describes the first time she made love to her boyfriend as feeling “like dropping my keys on the table after a long trip” – that made me wish Dunham didn’t hedge her earnestness quite so much.
This choice was particularly hard to bear in Dunham’s retelling of a sexual encounter for which she was only half-conscious, that damaged her vagina so badly she required medical attention.
Dunham writes that what happened was “aggressive”, and goes as far to say that she didn’t “consent” or “give permission” to be treated so roughly. But she never calls what happened to her “rape”. Now, the right to name that experience is Dunham’s alone, but when she retells the encounter to a friend – who immediately tells her she’s been raped – Dunham writes, “I burst out laughing.”
Years later, when she tells her boyfriend, Jack, she gets close to letting her guard down: “I still make joke after joke, but my tears are betraying me.”
Avoiding the complicated emotions behind her humor may be a deliberate and self-protective move, but it sells her readers – be they fans or critics – well short.
In a nod to the many critiques of Girls surrounding race and class issues, for example, Dunham describes going back to speak at Oberlin and having a student ask, “How does it feel to be a line item in so many people’s narratives of privilege and oppression?” Instead of an actual answer to the student’s question, we get a self-deprecating crack.
And while I imagine Dunham would be the first to admit that her elite background gave rise to experiences that most can’t relate to, it’s difficult to remember when a list of “What’s In My Bag” is headed with a sketch of a $2,500 Celine purse. Or when, in an essay about a youthful foray into veganism, Dunham mentions that a dinner party she threw for friends at 17 years old was featured in the New York Times style section.
The best essay in Not That Kind of Girl is one of the book’s shortest, but it gives us a glimpse at the kind of ovaries-out writer Dunham can be when she wants to. In “I Didn’t Fuck Them But They Yelled at Me”, Dunham promises that when she’s 80 years old she’ll out all of the disgusting predatory men she met during her time in Hollywood. It’s a razor-sharp takedown of powerful men whom Dunham calls “sunshine stealers”, a particular kind of male succubi that feed on young female talent and adoration. Dunham writes, “I wasn’t going to be anyone’s protégé, pet, private fan cub or eager plus one.” (The note I wrote to myself in the margins: GET IT, GIRL!)
This is Dunham at her finest – forward-thinking, career-driven and keenly aware of her power. Because let’s face it: Lena Dunham did not get to where she is by way of tit-flashing and dick jokes.
It may be that I’m falling into the trap that many do when responding to the work of the very few widely-popular female artists – wanting Dunham to be what I want her to be: someone who uses her good fortune, talent and platform to tell a story that isn’t safe, that will piss people off.
But I’m not sure if I want her to better embody a political and cultural moment in a way I would never expect a male artist to, or if I’m only asking myself that question because women can’t just criticize another woman without a truckload of caveats.
Either way, at the end Not That Kind of Girl – after reading the work of a woman known for exhibitionism, self-involvement and no-holds-barred confessions – I found myself wanting something unexpected: to see more of Lena Dunham.
This article was written by Jessica Valenti, for theguardian.com on Monday 29th September 2014 14.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010