Mixed Emotions

Time to Grow Up, Lena Dunham

In her new memoir, Lena Dunham deftly articulates many of the concerns facing women her age. If only she could lose the humble bragging and the entitlement.

Fred Lee/ABC

Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl earned a fair share of Internet ire nearly two years before it was even published. When the book proposal leaked in December 2012, people were aghast that the 26-year-old Dunham was lobbying for $3.7 million advance to write memoirs-meets-advice book. Gawker led the pack of apoplectic snarky sites: Who was this entitled wunderkind to snag that kind of cash for the purposes of telling us what to do?

I can’t say Dunham’s ample monetary request bothered me when I first heard about it. It only bothers me now that I know she initially wasn’t paying the parade of young artists she “hired” for her book tour (after a slew of negative exposure, she decided to compensate them). But even that doesn’t mean I wasn’t eagerly awaiting what knowledge she was going to drop on me, a fellow twenty-something woman.

It’s hard for me not to watch and read everything Lena Dunham does with a keen and admittedly critical eye when she has been held up as (or has positioned herself as) “a voice of a generation”—especially when that generation is mine.

Dunham herself seems acutely aware of her place as a generational figure: her book features a delightfully retro type font and beautiful endpapers that look as if the colorful fantasies of a 1974 adolescent girl were made into kaleidoscope wallpaper. Even the patron saint of teenage girls, Judy Blume, is featured on the back cover with a blurb for the book. And Dunham’s author photo, a play on Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All, is a nod and a wink to women of the past who have dispensed advice. It’s her way of mocking them, but also letting you know she is above them.

Dunham is clearly aware of her artistic worth, as she should be. It just gets a bit phony whenever she wavers and pretends otherwise. There were many essays I enjoyed, but because Dunham makes it clear from the get-go that she is a force to be reckoned with (and she most definitely is), I bristled at her self-deprecation. So much of the book—even the title—seemed like a giant humble-brag. Putting learned in quotes in the subtitle—“A young woman tells you what she’s ‘learned’”—translates to “Of course, it’s not real advice, but a way to insightfully and entertainingly share stories of how I’ve messed up during the past twenty-some odd years.” Dunham makes fun of herself only so that she can then hedge and embrace an authoritative role.

Within the first few pages, Dunham offers a less than subtle rebuke to the critics who were outraged that a twenty-something was pulling in a multi-million dollar advance on her life’s memoirs. “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,” she writes. That sounds clear, poignant, and convincing—until you think of doctors fighting Ebola in Liberia, peacekeepers in Haiti, protesters in Hong Kong, and any other number of men and women who do things braver than articulate and share their feelings. Not that doing so can’t be noble or useful—and Dunham does it quite well in Not That Kind of Girl, just as she has in Girls and her many other artistic endeavors—but too often she inflates her story with a sense of self-importance that colored the rest of my reading. I finished Not That Kind of Girl happy that I read it, but happier that I didn’t have to pay for it.

That said, certain essays in this book do beautifully articulate certain complex, contradictory, and ambivalent thoughts about events that are supposed to be black-and-white.

“Barry” is Dunham’s detailed account of a sexual encounter. The essay begins, “I am an unreliable narrator,” as Dunham admits the sex “didn’t feel like a choice at all.” She never calls it rape outright, but she weaves back and forth between her childhood concept of rape, her sexual experience with Barry, and how she remembered and recounted the encounter after the fact. The latter is perhaps the most poignant and important. She describes pitching the incident as a plot line for Girls in the writer’s room. The idea is shot down and she becomes an object of pity, even as she tries to tell everyone she’s a-okay. ‘“No one knows if it’s a rape. It’s, like, a confusing situation that …’ I trail off.” Dunham reveals the complicated sense of shame for suggesting you’re a victim in something that wasn’t exactly forced on you but which still stings and stirs up emotions because you know something was inherently wrong about it.

Her initial anxiety and regret at telling her boyfriend Jack (Antonoff of the band Fun) is another complicated emotional conversation that is immediately recognizable. Dunham illustrates that universal desire to share and find catharsis in loved ones while simultaneously feeling guilty for worrying them. She describes how Jack ends their conversation, saying, “I can’t wait to fuck you. I hope you know why I’m telling you that. Because nothing’s changed. I’m planning how I’m going to do it.” Because we empathize with Dunham’s fears over revealing this ambiguous sexual encounter, we understand how a line that is coarse and even aggressive out of context brings such a sense of relief.

That essay is immediately followed by “Falling in Love,” which may have been meant as a happy ending of sorts. Recounting the men (boys) she has fallen in love with, Dunham ends with Antonoff. It is slightly irksome that here she dips into maudlin prose, describing how their first months were “a lesson in opening up, letting go, being kind and brave.” However, hard though it may be to write about love in a non-cliché way, Dunham sometimes pulls it off. “The first time we made love it felt like dropping my keys on the table after a long trip” contains so much emotional vividness in a dozen or so words.

What is upsetting, especially in a book about what Dunham has “learned,” is how much weight she puts on being in a relationship. “And now I come to him, whole and ready to be known differently … Everything has changed in a way that sounds trite and borderline offensive when recounted over coffee. I can never be who I was,” she writes. The takeaway message, whether intended or not, is clear: I became a complete woman when—and only when—I found a good man.

Maybe that’s true, but it was certainly disheartening to read. I can only think it will make more female readers feel worse about their unattached status than empowered—and I honestly can’t imagine Dunham intended that. It stands in especially stark contrast to Katie Heaney’s collection of essays that came out earlier this year, Never Have I Ever. Heaney, another twenty-something writer, reflected on dating and friendships and turning 25 without ever having had a boyfriend—and being content and proud, even if she was still looking for love.

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Despite my frustrations with Not That Kind of Girl, I admit that Dunham’s story telling is downright beautiful at times, and isolated lines pack a colorful one-two punch of candor and humor: “Mike was the first person to go down on me, after a party to benefit Palestine, on my dorm room rug. I felt like I was being chewed on by a child that wasn’t mine.”

Each of her five sections—Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work, Big Picture—includes a list of one-liners, such as “18 Unlike Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously.” Some are funnier than others, though the good ones are pretty great. “I seriously don’t care if you shoplift” and “This one time, I thought I was petting my hairless cat, and it was actually my mom’s vagina. Over the covers, of course!” were two of my favorites.

Certain sentences and paragraphs capture a self-awareness that is more insightful than obnoxious or narcissistic. In her essay “Little Leather Gloves: The Joy of Wasting Time,” Dunham describes her first year out of college that she spent partying with friends and sort of working at an overpriced children’s clothing store while her professional ambition hibernated: “A night of carousing never passed without me stepping outside the experience to think, Yes, this must be what it is to be young… I had waited a long time to be a woman, a long time to venture away from my parents, and now I had sex, once with two guys in a week, and bragged about it like a divorcee getting back in the game. Up to my knees in mud from a night on the town, I rinsed off in the shower as Isabel watched and said, ‘Handle it, dirty girl!’”

The obnoxious naïveté in thinking you’re wild and young—and special for it—is cutting. It was a moment I instantly detected in my own recent past, and I shuddered with embarrassed recognition.

Unfortunately, in that same essay, Dunham is also woefully unaware of how privileged she and her friends are to be the children of successful New York artists. She writes of the pressure of living under their parents’ acclaim (and I don’t doubt that it is oppressive). But when her first web series with her friends—Delusional Downtown Divas—snags them a gig hosting the Guggenheim’s First Annual Art Awards, Dunham only notes, “Our parents were shocked that this lark had brought anyone even remotely serious knocking at our door.” It seems like a less than nonchalant attempt on Dunham’s part to make it clear that her parents’ connections didn’t give her a leg-up. There’s no point splitting hairs over whether they did or didn’t, especially since she has so clearly established herself as a fantastic success in her own right. However, her inability to admit that the fact she was born to financially successful parents whose money allowed her to make videos with friends instead of holding more traditional and grueling 9-to-5 jobs is irritating.

That kind of spoiled naïveté seems inexcusable in a clearly intelligent author who is pushing 30. You’re not a girl anymore, Dunham. There’s no need to waffle and self-deprecate when you’ve amply proven yourself, and there’s no justification for you to be so frustratingly oblivious. Time to grow up.