Who is Lena Dunham? Unless you’ve been sailing the high seas for many years, or simply don’t follow popular culture, you know that Lena Dunham is the fantastically successful writer, creator, director, producer, and star of the HBO critical hit Girls. A social phenomenon right out of the gate, Girls was heralded upon arrival with a cover story in New York magazine, then analyzed, debated, and re-analyzed in every publication of note. Lena Dunham plays the main character, Hannah Horvath, a young would-be writer working as an intern, living in Brooklyn and partaking in all that the borough has to offer, mainly locally sourced goods and tenuous romantic relationships.
For better or worse, Ms. Dunham is often conflated with her character, so opinions of the show and of Lena tend to be the same. And these opinions, at least in digital and social media, exhibit the same rancor and irrational animosity usually reserved for presidential figures and Gwyneth Paltrow. An informal round-up of opinions about Lena/Hannah reveals a tendency, from both fans and critics alike, to distance oneself from the show and its creator. “Oh, I know so many girls like that,” is the general response, either said in disdain or in good, if slightly condescending, humor. So it’s fitting that Dunham’s memoirs should be titled, “Not That Kind of Girl,” as if she is well aware of this reaction. The subtitle is “A young woman tells you what she’s ‘learned.’” Learned is in quotes, as if to say 1) Hey, I know it might be off-putting to be schooled by someone under 30 but it’s just what I’ve “learned,” ya know, I’m still learning, and maybe if we met, I might learn something from you, or 2) I wish to question and problematize the entire notion of learning, education, and knowledge. Based on my reading of the book, I’d say she’s doing both.
The memoir begins in grand literary fashion with an epigraph pulled from Madame Bovary:
Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen. . . . She did not know what this chance event might be . . . But each morning when she awoke, she hoped it might arrive that day.
Flaubert once wrote, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” which suggests that he refused to disassociate himself from Emma and her bourgeois and provincial French desires and unrealized longings. But this isn’t France, this is America, where no longing shall go unrealized and certainly not unvocalized. In the introduction, Dunham states, “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.” Dunham already seems to have a lot, at least by common standards of success in Western industrialized nations, so who wouldn’t want to know how that’s done? And yet, that’s a question that never really gets answered.
Lena’s book takes us through a variety of important life topics starting with Love & Sex — because hey, we’re women, that’s what we care about the most, right? — and ending with Big Picture, which is more of a miscellaneous section. These short vignettes jump around from childhood to college to post-college years in no particular order, but in keeping with the basic theme of the section. Raised in SoHo in a loft apartment with two artist parents and a younger sister, Dunham had the kind of childhood that a dreamy, suburban teenager might invent for herself while manning the cash register at Walgreen’s. Her youth is filled with progressive schools, psychics, and therapy for her OCD. After a year at the New School, she transfers to Oberlin, dead set on losing her virginity as soon as possible and starting, or maybe continuing, her ongoing attraction to jerks.
What immediately strikes one after reading about all the ensuing sexual escapades is how unevenly matched Ms. Dunham is. Not one partner seems to have even half of her ambition, verve, wit, life force, or even — judging by the number of men who would rather share a bed with than actually sleep with her — her libido. Take Devon, for instance, whose capacity for the mutual engagement that is a relationship runs like this:
Lena: I like you a lot.
Devon: I know you do.
This same Devon cries and begs for reconciliation whenever Lena tries to break up with him, which she does several times before it finally takes. When Lena finally meets her true love, Jack, it’s not so much that, yes, here finally is the one set down for her before the foundations of the world, so much as yes, here is the first decent, kind, creative, mature, and fully human male she has yet encountered as a potential mate. Yowza. Perhaps it really is the end of men.
These various sexual encounters are not just confined to their dedicated section but spill out into the others, which I suppose is more like life, since life doesn’t fall into neat sections. But still, the “Work” section only contains two or, if stretching it, three actual stories about work, which is less than 10 percent of the book. Since Dunham places so much importance on her creative work, you’d think she’d have more to say about it.
To be fair, there is some good advice in the Love & Sex section: “When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it, you start to mean less to yourself.” As fine as this advice is, let’s face it, disappointing romances are every modern girl’s birthright. To paraphrase the poem, that powerful play goes on and we all could contribute a verse. We all have stories, but we don’t all have TV shows. It is here, in the land of art, entertainment, commerce, money, and power, where unchartered territory lies and few women have had the opportunity to steer their own course.
Working in an industry where only two of the top 100 grossing movies of 2013 were directed by women, Lena might have some valuable advice to give. Many women would profit from knowing how to conduct themselves in a male-dominated profession, how to handle the responsibilities of being the boss, deciding what kind of boss to be. There is nothing here on her creative process, relatively little about her influences. Nothing on how to take criticism and move on, or how to maintain confidence despite rejection. In an effort to be real and relatable, she ceases to be helpful.
There will always be a difference between what a writer wants to share and what a reader wants to read. However, if one read a memoir by Venus Williams, one might expect her to say a lot about tennis. Dunham is a funny, talented, and impressive writer. Hardly a page goes by that does not contain some interesting analogy and turn of phrase. So why not broaden these musings? Dunham has often been accused of oversharing, but I detect a certain “good girl” reticence. This myopic focus on her own feelings and reactions to the big and small areas of life might be a way of sacrificing herself for inspection instead of others, not presuming to know their thoughts and motivations.
The most sincerely charming feature of the book is her obvious love and respect for her family.
I had a lucky little girlhood. It wasn’t always easy to live inside my brain, but I had a family who loved me, and we didn’t have to worry about much except what gallery to go to on Sunday and whether or not my child psychologist was helping with my sleep issues.
And it’s perhaps this early, loving experience of security that eventually guides her toward the same. As her mother at one time counsels her, “Men are proud of every one of their conquests, and women wish they could forget it all.” For all her sexual explorations and dead-beat boyfriends and boho living, Lena ends up not in some polyamorous union in a commune on an island off the Pacific Coast, but in a good job in her chosen profession and a cozy piece of real estate in Brooklyn with Jack. It’s the same sort of startlingly domestic situation that a cab driver recently advised one of my friends to pursue, “Make money, save money, get married, have children.”
The best and most fully realized vignette in the book is “Little Leather Gloves,” about one of her early post-college jobs working at a high-end children’s store in Tribeca with two of her best friends. At first she embraces the low-stakes, low-effort job only to find that “ambition is a funny thing: It creeps in when you least expect it and keeps you moving, even when you think you want to stay put.” She and her friends decide to make a funny Web series, spoofing the art scene they grew up in. Though her father’s response is “Why did you have to do this?” Lena finds that “people who weren’t my father kind of loved it.” The series gains buzz and premieres at an art gallery.
And this little DIY tale may suggest why the book lacks the documentation or reflection on artistic development one would expect in a “portrait of the artist” style roman à clef. Dunham doesn’t spend years searching for her story, because her story is right in front of her. It’s herself. Her main influence, main inspiration, and perhaps main interest, is her own life. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And in Dunham’s case, it seems like the only option. The teachers and creators she comes into contact with don’t seem particularly interested in helping her find her voice.
It’s said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Not always. From the writing professor who tells Lena that her writing has “some interesting moments, but you don’t have a particular facility for any genre” to the filmmaker who questions why she would want to make her own TV show when she could “be a small part of a film that will be taught in colleges for years to come,” the book reads, despite the accusations of privilege that get thrown at her, as if no one is taking time away from themselves to mentor, develop, or make room for the burgeoning creator who finally just has to carve a space for herself and find her own way. Which is perhaps the book’s best lesson.
The memoir’s ending echoes this idea with a nice piece about an imagined escape from home as a child, with her mother watching over like the bunny mother in the children’s book, Runaway Bunny, who becomes “the tree, then becomes the lake, then becomes the moon.” Later, she imagines a version when she’s older, but this time, “When you run, run back to yourself, like that bunny . . . runs to its mother, but you are the mother, and you’ll see that later and be very, very proud.”
While not offering much by way of guidance, Not That Kind of Girl is still a sometimes fascinating, sometimes discomfiting read, mainly because so many of Dunham’s concerns and desires are utterly recognizable: to be loved, to be beautiful, to be acknowledged and encouraged, to have our brightest hopes and ambitions taken seriously. Which means we are that kind of girl. Lena Dunham, c’est moi.
— Allison Elliott is a writer living in New York City.