Inside Story

Girl, twenty-eight

Girls creator Lena Dunham has the knack of bottling the essence of the thing, writes Sophie Black

Sophie Black 22 October 2014 1806 words

A series of small offerings: Lena Dunham at a book signing for Not That Kind of Girl at Barnes & Noble in New York last month. Kristina Bumphrey/AP Photo/Starpix

Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”
By Lena Dunham | HarperCollins | $29.99

Lena Dunham doesn’t apologise for writing a memoir. Sure, she’s young (only twenty-eight); white; privileged (grew up in Soho, spent her summers in Connecticut); and owns a vagina (which matters more than it should). But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have something to say.

The creator and director of Girls acknowledges she’s an “oversharer,” but then that’s the point – of Not That Kind of Girl, the book she was paid an advance of US$3.7 million for, of her films (most notably Tiny Furniture), of her writing (a semi-regular byline in the New Yorker) and of the hit HBO series that made her name. “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 in the introduction to Not That Kind of Girl.

Guts must come in handy when you cop the kind of flak Dunham has. This book comes loaded with baggage, and plenty of critics are queuing to snipe at the suggestion that the author could possibly live up to the hype.

About to kick off an eleven-city book tour (one that promises the author in conversation with the likes of Zadie Smith, Miranda July, Vendela Vida and Carrie Brownstein), Dunham has been copping it on Gawker, under the headline “Lena Dunham Does Not Pay” and a picture of her lipsticked, laughing face. Dunham’s people put out a call to local artists to send in audition tapes for a chance to open the act in their city. They weren’t promised payment, cue Gawker. Dunham conceded the point and tweeted that she would ensure the artists were compensated. She signed off: “@lenadunham: The fact that Gawker pointed this out really proves Judd Apatow’s saying that ‘a good note can come from anywhere.’” Oh yeah, Apatow. Another mentor. It’d be sickening if Dunham weren’t so likeable.

Dunham’s been here before. Girls, while slavered over by critics and wildly popular with viewers, copped a backlash over the lack of people of colour in the first season of the show. Dunham explained that it was an accident; and then followed up by depicting Hannah having sex with a black man in the opening scene of Season 2, or as Jezebel put it, “Last Season There Were No Black People in Girls; This Season They Literally Put a Black Person in Lena Dunham.”

Then there’s the book advance, which would surely send less hardy types into writer’s paralysis. That, and the crushing weight of expectation. Without fail, every woman who’s noticed the book sticking out of my bag in the course of my reading it has asked with palpable excitement if I was enjoying it, followed quickly by a request to borrow it when I was done.

Dunham pokes gently at her poster-kid status in her introduction, and at the concept of dispensing advice by peppering around plenty of ironic quotation marks, including in the subtitle, “A young woman tells you what she’s ‘learned.’” She’s used to pouring cold water on the concept of speaking for everyone. From the moment her Girls character Hannah uttered the line, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice,” Dunham has sniffed at the neat ’n’ tidy marketing concept that she represents a slice of people who happen to be the same age as her.

Not That Kind of Girl is not a manifesto, or an instruction manual. Instead, it works as a series of small offerings. “If I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you,” she writes, “or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile.”

And in case that sounds like hubris, she qualifies it:

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 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 dietician. 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 frontline of that struggle.

Like Caitlin Moran in How to Be a Woman (though not as adeptly), Dunham sacrifices up her most awkward, embarrassing and excruciating moments as small gifts tied in pink bows, to be unpicked and unravelled by anyone who seizes on a sentence with recognition.

Read in that spirit, the book is funny, warm and ultimately endearing. It says something about Dunham’s knack for bottling the essence of the thing that despite the Miranda July/Judy Blume endorsements on the back of the book (wait, and David Sedaris? Oh, come on) she remains identifiable.

Yes, she’s precocious and prolific but she still speaks to the ugly and the awkward in us. And while there is a playful dose of Girl’s Own Adventure–meets–Helen Gurley Brown in the book, helped along by Joana Avillez’s doodles in the margins and the liberal dose of pink smacked across the cover, it’s underselling the book to say that Dunham’s work is just for girls.

Dunham shares an anecdote in which a tiny, painfully teenage boy approached her after a screening of Tiny Furniture to thank her for baring her body because it made him feel better about himself.

The first result of this was that I pictured him naked, which was stressful. The second was extreme gratitude: for his generosity in sharing, for my ability to have any impact on the body image of this obviously cool and open young gentleman (after all, he was seeing a fringe women’s-interest film on a school night).

“Thank you so much.” I beamed. “You’re really hot.”

The decision to continue to strip off in prime time, aka Girls, was Dunham’s chance to fart in the face of the Hollywood depiction of sex. “Between porn and studio romantic comedies, we get the message loud and clear that we are doing it all wrong. Our bedsheets aren’t right. Our moves aren’t right. Our bodies aren’t right.”

Dunham writes about being asked how she found the “bravery” to peel off her clothes, but she’s under no illusions about what this means: “The subtext there is definitely how am I brave enough to reveal my imperfect body, since I doubt Blake Lively” – described by Wikipedia as “actress, model and celebrity homemaker” – “would be subject to the same line of inquiry.”

It’s when Dunham writes about sex and power that she dispenses with the cutesy air quotes and starts to use a more formidable voice. In “Barry,” she writes about a college encounter with a “mustachioed campus Republican” during which she may or may not have been raped, though she laughed at the suggestion at the time. Her account of the confusion she felt – both as a college student and then in the flippant retelling years later, when she offered the anecdote up for storyline fodder only to be caught out by the shocked and sympathetic faces of her fellow writers – poignantly captures the grey zone that so many women have navigated.

In “I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me” she writes about the male execs of Hollywood, the ones she’ll name and shame when she’s old, the ones who belittled her, patronised her, or just came on to her. “I’ll talk about the way these relationships fell apart as soon as they realized I wasn’t going to be anyone’s protégée, pet, private fan club, or eager plus-one.”

As Dunham explains when it comes to the men her friend dubs the “Sunshine Stealers,” “It’s linked with sex, but it’s not the same. What they want to take from you is way worse than your thong in the back of their Lexus. It’s ideas, curiosity, an excitement about getting up in the morning and making things.”

The book isn’t chronological. Instead it mimics non-linear memory, and the structure – hiving off anecdotes into themes (Helen Gurley Brown–style) like “Love & Sex,” “Body,” “Friendship,” “Work” and “Big Picture” – keeps the book from turning into a self-important retelling of life from one to twenty-eight.

“Emails I Would Send if I Were One Ounce Crazier/Angrier/Braver” is a chapter consisting exactly of that, and feels like filler, as does the food diary she kept during a particularly committed healthy food phase. This is the self-absorption that Dunham amps up in her Girls character Hannah, and it can get, well, boring.

But the writing veers into beautiful when Dunham writes about the ones she loves, especially her mother and father. She reminisces about being a neurotic nine-year-old: “You are mad at your mother because sometimes she doesn’t pay attention and says yes to a question that needs a different kind of answer. She is distracted. When she holds your hand it’s too loose and you have to show her how to do it right, how to make a little hammock for your fingers.”

Dunham’s clearly not done yet (she says that she looks forward to the book she’ll write at eighty). Not That Kind of Girl isn’t laugh-out-loud like Tina Fey’s Bossy Boots, or carving out a place in the canon like the writing of her heroes Gloria Steinem and Nora Ephron, but it manages to bottle that tantalising and agonising mix of potential and past hurt that being twenty-something feels like. All of which makes for exceedingly entertaining oversharing. •