At just 28 years old, Lena Dunham has written and directed two feature-length films and created, written, and starred in her own HBO show, the critically acclaimed Girls. She has been nominated for eight Emmy Awards, has won two Golden Globes, and was the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America award for directional achievement in comedy.
When her $3.7 million deal for an advice book was announced in Oct. 2012, there was a huge backlash; apparently, Dunham is too young, privileged, naval-gazing, and narcissistic to have anything valuable to say or to “deserve” that kind of advance. I had never heard of Lena Dunham when her book deal was announced, but after binge-watching Girls (twice) a few months ago and learning more about Dunham, I became eager to read her book. Girls isn’t a perfect show, but it’s smart, honest, and fearless, and there is a lot in it that’s relatable. It’s a show about 20-something women, written by a 20-something woman. This shouldn’t be such a mind-blowing concept, but in an industry dominated by men, it kind of is. Women rarely get to tell their stories on the screen, and I think it’s important that Dunham is able to do so.
In the introduction to Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham writes:
“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 necessary 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.”
In one elegant paragraph, she takes down the critics who tear her down and the culture that tells women that what they have to say isn’t important. (Note that Aziz Ansari’s $3.5 million dollar book deal hasn’t received the same type of criticism.) In the next paragraph, she writes:
“I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or thinking that it was your fault when the person you are dating suddenly backs away, intimidated by the clarity of your personal mission here on earth. No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a dietitian. I am not a mother of three, or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.”
With the incredible amount of self-awareness that is Dunham’s trademark, she admits she is young and doesn’t know everything — but why should that mean her stories don’t deserve to be told? As a young woman on the “frontlines” myself, I relish reading the thoughts and experiences of someone of my own generation — especially a woman who has achieved such astronomical success (and a fair amount of controversy).
The personal essays in Not That Kind of Girl are broken into five sections: Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work, and Big Picture. Dunham doesn’t hold back as she writes about losing her virginity, being “10 lbs overweight eating only health food,” her family, and the challenges of being a woman in Hollywood.
In “Sex Scenes, Nude Scenes, and Publicly Sharing Your Body,” Dunham writes about her frequent nude scenes on Girls. Addressing the multitudes who call her “brave” for revealing her body on-screen (the subtext being that she is brave to show her imperfect body), she replies, “It’s not brave to do something that doesn’t scare you. I’d be brave to skydive. To visit a leper colony… Performing in sex scenes that I direct, exposing a flash of my weird puffy nipple, those things don’t fall into my zone of terror.”
In “I Didn’t Fuck Them, But They Yelled At Me,” (which, Dunham says, is the name of the memoir she will write when she’s 80), she writes about the sexism in present-day Hollywood, where women are “treated like the paper thingies that protect glasses in hotel bathrooms — necessary but infinitely disposable.” She shares the sleazy, inappropriate things men have said to her and outlines the reactions to her refusal “to be anyone’s protegee, pet, private fan club, or eager plus-one.” It’s full of rage, but also a surprising grace.
In “Barry,” she writes about being raped, but in an unusual way; she describes it as “a sexual encounter that no one can classify properly.” She has hazy memories of the encounter, but knows that she did not consent to his rough handling of her or to his removal of the condemn during the act. She struggles with blaming herself — for stuffing herself with substances and for her hunger to be seen. But in her deepest self, the knowledge that she did not give him permission has kept her from sinking. This is an important essay at a time when rape is trivialized, women are frequently blamed for sexual acts committed against them, and the term “grey area” is hotly debated.
Other essays are much more lighthearted. In “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously,” Dunham writes about the hilariously awkward lines she has used in romantic contexts. Among them is the gem, “I’m the kind of person who should probably date older guys, but I can’t deal with their balls.” In “13 Things I’ve Learned Are Not Okay Things to Say to Friends,” she shares both the lines, “There’s a chapter about you in my book” and “There’s nothing about you in my book.” Other essays describe the things she has learned from her parents, her relationship with her sister, therapy, falling in love, and her thoughts on death and dying.
As you would expect from Lena Dunham, and from a book subtitled A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” this book is clever, cheeky, and smart without being self-deprecating. Dunham is characteristically neurotic and unapologetic, and it is oh-so-charming. Fans of Girls will enjoy spotting which elements of the show are gleaned from Dunham’s life; it’s like a fun little treasure hunt.
Although this book isn’t perfect (its detractors will call it naval-gazing), it’s an important one. I understand the concerns of those who dislike Lena Dunham and begrudge her success. Well, I understand some of them — the ones that are unhappy that a privileged white woman has received so much attention, but that a book by a person of color from a less privileged background would not be such a huge publishing event. It is truly a shame that that is the case. BUT I think Dunham’s book is a step in the right direction. First, the world needs to see that women deserve to tell their stories, that the concerns of women aren’t trivial. And I think Dunham’s book is helping that happen, and I hope it will inspire more young women — of all backgrounds — to put their stories out there. I hope it will show publishers that this type of women’s writing is profitable and that they will publish more of them.
This review has run much longer than I was anticipating, but I would like to end it with a link to a fantastic Vulture interview, Roxane Gay Talks to Lena Dunham About Her New Book, Feminism, and the Benefits of Being Criticized Online. Is there anything better than reading a conversation between two polarizing, fabulously smart women about feminism and criticism? I think not.
Do you plan to read Dunham’s book? Why, or why not?
Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.