Politics & Policy

Lena Dunham Discovers Ambiguity

Lena Dunham in Girls (HBO)
Try as she might to apply a clear label to unfortunate experiences, feminist dichotomies fail.

In “Girls and Jerks,” the sixth chapter of her new memoir Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” Lena Dunham recounts how, as a 19-year-old student at Oberlin College, she was — well, what, exactly? “You were raped,” says her roommate, hearing a few days later about what Dunham initially calls “an ill-fated evening of lovemaking”; her Girls cowriters, too, will eventually call the encounter “rape.” But Dunham herself never says so.

Dunham tells of stumbling home with Oberlin’s “resident conservative,” Barry, and realizing “midintercourse” that he had dispensed with their prophylactic. “I told him he should probably go, chucking his hoodie and boots out the door with him.” The account, like the encounter, is brief, awkward, and unsentimental.

The subsequent chapter, “Barry,” commences with a confession:

I’m an unreliable narrator.

Because I add an invented detail to almost every story I tell about my mother. Because my sister claims every memory we “share” has been fabricated by me to impress a crowd. Because I get “sick” a lot. Because I use the same low “duhhh” voice for every guy I’ve ever known, except for the put-off adult voice I use to imitate my dad. But mostly because in another essay in this book I describe a sexual encounter with a mustachioed campus Republican as the upsetting but educational choice of a girl who was new to sex when, in fact, it didn’t feel like a choice at all.

Interestingly, that admission is followed by a much more detailed version of the same sexual encounter, the details of which do not quite align, everything gripped by a fog of “warm beer, Xanax bits, and poorly administered cocaine,” all of which Dunham had ingested just before said liaison.

But these apparently flexible facts — “there are a few versions of [the encounter] rattling around my memory,” says Dunham — somehow lead to a single narrative. It is no coincidence that in this chapter we also learn when Dunham first learned the word “rape” (which she pronounced “rabe” — “like the playwright, not the broccoli”) and that she “never forgot” the article she once read about “about a ten-year-old girl who was raped by a stranger on a dirt road.”

About the encounter with Barry, Dunham finally concludes:

I feel like there are fifty ways it’s my fault. I fantasized. I took the big pill and the small pill, stuffed myself with substances to make being out in the world with people my own age a little bit easier. To lessen the space between me and everyone else. I was hungry to be seen. But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way. I never gave him permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us. I never gave him permission. In my deepest self I know this, and the knowledge of it has kept me from sinking.

In her review of Dunham’s memoir in the Telegraph, Iona McLaren writes, “Uncomfortable; cathartic; but a small dissenting voice must ask — is it real? Dunham has, after all, been spinning art out of life since 2010 at least, when she starred alongside her mother and her sister in the film Tiny Furniture. In Girls, too, she plays a fictionalised version of herself. We’d be foolish to approach the authorial ‘I’ in this book as raw, unprocessed Dunham.”

Agreed. The question is, through what particular grinder has the account been processed?

Dunham’s memoir is a feminist bildungsroman: “I went to my first Women’s Action Coalition meeting at age three,” she brags. “I understood that feminism was a worthy concept long before I was aware of being female.” But that same feminism leads her, after Barry, to Joaquin, one of several “pit stops on the road of life”:

He guided me to the bed, where he turned me on my stomach. Alcohol, fear, and fascination cloud my memory, but I know my tights were balled up and placed in my mouth. I didn’t know where he was in the room at certain points, until I did. And he spoke to me, unleashing streams of the filthiest sh[**] I had ever heard leave another human’s mouth. . . . This, I decided to believe, is the best game I’ve ever played.

“I walked out into the street the next day bare legged and reeling,” she writes, “not sure whether I’d been ruined or awoken.”

There are more such accounts. None of them are the fulfilling sexual encounters that Gloria Steinem promised.

These ambiguous experiences suggest what Camille Paglia observed recently in her much-maligned Time essay on the supposed “campus-rape epidemic”: “The majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides.” When Dunham says, recalling Barry’s aggression, “I’m not sure whether I can’t stop it or I don’t want to,” she is expressing that confusion. Yes, Barry was a gross, classless thug. But given Dunham’s “mixed signals” and the “imprudent” cocktail of drugs and alcohol involved, was he the born-guilty villain of Alternet fantasies? Or is it not possible that the situation was complicated, and that both parties bear some of the fault?

In the feminist mind, predisposed to black-and-white explanations, to even suggest that a woman could bear some responsibility is “victim blaming.” But Dunham, for all her womanly bravado, implies the possibility. Yes, she is a storyteller, and she has gathered the unfortunate facts of a miserable sexual encounter into the story suggested by others: rape, for which she is absolved of all responsibility. She has also eschewed action through the proper authorities for floating accusations into the public forum, knowing that, this way, she will receive widespread sympathy. One hopes that, if she believes she was raped, she will pursue those accusations through the appropriate channels, to bring her assailant to justice and to keep him from victimizing other women.

But her own disinclination to label what happened according to the was-it-or-wasn’t-it dichotomy insisted upon by feminists suggests that the story is not simple — that sexual encounters are often marked by ambiguity, confusion, and regret. That an unfortunate encounter is not always rape.

In which case, Lena Dunham has something important to contribute to contemporary feminism — though perhaps not what she thinks.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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