On Girls, Lena Dunham makes horrible decisions.
Well, Hannah Horvath, the character Dunham created and portrays, makes horrible decisions. Maddening decisions. Pathetic decisions. Decisions so harmful and infuriating that, when Dunham was crowned the “voice of a generation” for the group of supposedly aimless twentysomethings wandering the streets in the image of her Hannah, those very millennials rebuked the branding. We’re not like that, they cried.
Well, apparently, neither is Dunham, who on Tuesday will release her advice book/memoir hybrid, Not That Kind of Girl. The book is the line in the sand, proof that she is not, as she is so often conflated, the Hannah Horvath she has created. But it also is a testament to how much she is, and how much we all are, too.
In her introduction, Dunham references Helen Gurley Brown’s classic memoir-tutorial, Having It All, to the point that “most of her [Brown’s] advice, it should be noted, is absolutely bananas.” To that regard, Dunham is seizing the megaphone she’s been given as a voice of sorts to a sort-of generation, and simply telling stories—“a young woman tells you what she’s ‘learned,’” as the book’s tagline goes. “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all,” she writes, “and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.”
Not That Kind of Girl reads as if there is no boundary or journey to pass between the synapses of Dunham’s mind, or even the beating of her heart, and the words that flow from her fingers, making her warts-and-all stories and battle-scarred advice more relatable than Girls detractors could have ever imagined. (Although her stream-of-consciousness delivery is far wittier than any of our own could ever dream to be.) And while it must be said that Dunham’s upbringing could not be less relatable to the average millennial, there’s something cathartic and she-gets-me reassuring about the way she chronicles her experiences with brutal honesty and lack of vanity.
Yes, this a girl who was so ashamed she’s not vegan that she told the girls at lunch that her sandwich is tofu prosciutto. Who drew trees and nudes on her bedroom wall using a Sharpie. Whose first recollection of sexual arousal was watching Jackie Earle Haley in Bad News Bears. Who is careful to note that the first time a guy went down on her was after a college party to benefit Palestine. Who went to a school where she was allowed to take her puppy to gym class, and her best friend played the didgeridoo. But she’s still, somehow, one of us.
And with that in mind, here’s a round-up of Dunham’s most shocking, endearing, raw confessions from Not That Kind of Girl—and a glimpse into the advice-by-hindsight lessons that she thinks we all can, and should, learn from them.
She didn’t lose her virginity until college
Because of the frankness and raw rationality that Dunham speaks about sex and writes her characters’ sexual adventures on Girls, it’s likely that people have operated under the semi-misogynistic and offensive impression that Dunham had probably lost her virginity at a young age—as if those two things are connected. But while it’s clear in Not That Kind of Girl that Dunham has had a peculiar and perhaps even alarming fascination and understanding of sex since a very young age, she did not lose her virginity until her sophomore year of college.
She begins with her chapter on virginity with an anecdote about her lack of willpower—at age 9, she was unable to keep down excessive amounts of liver paté (ever relatable) she binged on and vomited—as a way to refute those preconceived notions just mentioned above. Though she thought about, even obsessed over, sex her entire childhood (she once masturbated on her bathroom floor in third grade, and opened her eyes to see a bat hanging upside down, staring at her from the shower curtain rod) it wasn’t until she reached the “free-love fantasia” that is Oberlin college that she went all the way. And the story was as traumatic as you might expect from the girl who writes Girls.
Her first time was bungled a bit when a friend’s war with a roommate—her friend wrote her roommate a note asking her to have quieter sex; the friend responded by burning the note, scattering the ashes, and posting a response that said, “U R a frigid bitch. Get the sand out of your vagina”—ended with the friend bursting through Dunham’s dorm room door while first-time lover was just mounting her. “Mazel tov!” she cried. The lesson Dunham says she’s learned, years after this experience, is that it is both necessary and fruitless to fret so much about your first time. Having sex was easier than she thought it would be, and she was still the same person she was living in fear of losing inside. “How permanent virginity feels,” she says, “and then how inconsequential.”
She had an unhealthy relationship with intimacy
After losing her virginity, Dunham quickly developed a complicated relationship with sex and emotional connection. “Intercourse felt, often, like shoving a loofah into a mason jar,” she writes, for example. But it’s her entire life that she’s had a complicated relationship with the idea of sleep. She’d kick her father out of her parents’ bed each night when she was younger, and eventually would insist that her sister sleep with her. “To me, sleep equaled death,” she writes. “How was closing your eyes and losing consciousness any different from death?” When she got to college, these two deep-seeded issues collided, giving birth to a new, more nuanced condition: a habit of platonic bedsharing.
While at Oberlin, rejecting the idea—at least for a bit, and at least with certain guys—of having sex, but craving a closeness more intimate than friendship, she began sleeping next to a series of guys. No funny business. Just sleep, occasionally cuddling, and a fair amount of intense staring at each other with boys who likely had equally difficult to understand issues.
It turns out that even when you’re not having sex, though, your reputation precedes you. “By this point, word had gotten around: Lena likes to share beds.” Her mother was furious when she found out about this, calling it “worse than fucking them all.” In hindsight—the 20/20 vision of looking back on experiences is the lens through which all of Dunham’s advice is doled out—she realized that bed sharing is an intimate act. Whether sex is involved or not, you don’t deserve to be sharing it with someone who doesn’t make you happy.
She has the best way of describing a growing romance
There’s a sweetness about the way Dunham measures progress in a new, evolving relationship that, if you’ve fallen in love, is heartwarming in its everyday accuracy: We “flossed our teeth, shared a bagel, fell asleep without having sex,” she writes. “He admitted to having an upset stomach.” You know you love someone when you’re comfortable doing…
She knows that she’s been attracted to jerks
Dunham knows she’s dated assholes. She knows that girls are attracted to assholes. And she can’t explain it. But she still guides us through the revolving door of jerks that have whirled through her life with a bleak bluntness, peppering with anecdotes about how, at times, the more revolting someone’s behavior, the more attracted she became.
She met her first Republican at age 19—you have to love the un-self-conscious honesty with which Dunham recounts her privileged, liberal upbringing—and had sex with him, “a study in the way revulsion can quickly become desire when mixed with the right muscle relaxants.” Years later at a restaurant job in New York, she was turned on by Joaquin, who told her to clean the shit off the floor in the bathroom.
Perspective, and time, she writes, rescues you from the jerks. A story about an aggressive, uncomfortable, and degrading week of sex and emotional distance with Joaquin would’ve been “glamorized” if she told it at the time, but now she recognizes that it ruined as much as it awoken her. The problem with jerks is that, try as you might, you can’t resist the muddying effect they have on your life. “I thought that I was smart enough, practical enough, to separate what Joaquin said I was from what I knew I was,” she writes. She wasn’t. We aren’t.
She may have been raped
Dunham juxtaposes an incident that she thinks may have been rape when she was in college—remember that Republican?—with what she thought as a child was called “rabe,” which is what she would call anything that annoyed at her, like her toddler sister. There’s a brutal honesty in the way she recounts the sexual encounter in question, in that she recounts not remembering all the details of all of it (she was under the influence of several things) and not remembering what part of it she wanted to do, asked to do, and maybe even enjoyed.
“It’s, like, a confusing situation…” she told the writer’s room of Girls years later when she told the story again as a pitch for a plot about a murky sexual encounter in which a character will have to decipher between whether it was rape or choice. It was never written into the show.
She has been obsessed with food and her weight her entire life
If you’re an asshole you’d say, of course Lena Dunham has a complicated relationship with food. Just look at her! But, again, you’d be an asshole, and you’d also be missing the very nuanced and self-aware way she’s come to understand food and her body. You also might be surprised by it all, too, given how her frequent nudity on Girls is taken to represent a brazen, bold body image self-confidence.
When she was a young girl, she was afraid of becoming anorexic, despite her mother’s assurance that it was not something that she could just “catch.” She was a beanpole growing up, before gaining 30 pounds after getting her period in eighth grade. She became vegan, “inspired by a love of puppies and a cow that winked at me on a family vacation.” When she was 17, she hosted a vegan dinner party that was featured in The New York Times Style section. Naturally.
A doctor told her once that she weighed 159 pounds and she was so unconvinced that she was sure it was a thyroid problem. She yo-yo dieted and became the “world’s least successful occasional bulimic,” which means she would diet all the time, fall into a food coma, and forget to purge. She will never see food the same way again after seeing a nutritionist, which is something we can more or less all relate to.
She doesn’t think her nudity is “brave”
Dunham writes that her interest in nudity has always been social, more than sexual, and stems way farther back than when she had a camera lens to explore it through. (Jealous of her young male friend who was permitted to ride his bike around shirtless, she once ripped off her top, too.) And sex on TV, she says, “It’s fucking weird.”
She concedes that it is a job, as most actors say it is, but it is a ridiculous and crazy job that entails slapping your vagina against a co-worker’s flaccid penis, having makeup on his ass and it rubbing off on you, and, in one instance, discovering a prop condom stuck to your ass several hours later. She talks about how often people tell her she’s “brave” for showing her body on TV with such unflattering realism. But being brave means conquering something that scares you, she says, and getting naked in a scene that she is actually directing simply does not bring her terror.
She has a gay sister
Grace came out to Dunham was she was 17. Dunham cried when she found out, not out of embarrassment or anger or judgment, but out utter, despairing empathy—out of realizing “how little I really knew: about her pains, her secrets, the fantasies that played in her head when she lay in bed at night.” She also spoiled Grace’s coming out, blurting it out unintentionally to her parents days later.
She was once sexually harassed by a teacher
Dunham always hated school, to the point that, after her first day of kindergarten, she told her father, “It was fun. But I don’t think I’ll go back.” When she reached fifth grade, she finally found a favorite teacher, named Nathan. He called her “My Lena,” which morphed to “Malena.” He never made her do her homework. They’d eat lunch together. He helped her learn to love going to school—until one day a dollar dropped out of her bag. He put it down his shirt and asked her to retrieve it, saying she was “all talk” and “no play” when she refused. She eventually found a school that fit her, that challenged her, and which she occasionally thrived in—but it was not an easy journey.
She was treated like shit by the men of Hollywood
The ascendance of Lena Dunham in Hollywood is told in magazine features like some kind of Cinderella story: she made the indie Tiny Furniture, the whole industry was smitten, and before you could blink she was handed her own HBO show on a silver platter. That’s not quite as it happened, as detailed in the dish-heavy chapter titled, “When I’m 80,” telling all the misogynistic, degrading stories about her dealings with male executives. She’ll name names when she’s 80, she says.
So what do we have to look forward to in 55 years? Finding out who the guys were who said things to her like, “You’re prettier than you let yourself be,” and, “You know, a lot of men can’t handle a powerful men…” Finding out who the bigwigs were who expressed interest in her work, only to ignore once it became clear that she was not just going to be their protégée or party plus-one. Who the director is who told her that girls love it when they direct you giving them blow jobs. People are the worst. (And we can’t wait until she’s 80.)