A few weeks ago, conservative commentator Ross Douthat wrote a New York Times opinion piece entitled “I Love Lena” — referring, of course, to the ubiquitous Lena Dunham: writer, actor, producer, begetter of a million thinkpieces, and now memoirist. His adulation was somewhat unexpected, to say the least.
Why did Douthat love Dunham? Because her show, Girls, depicted but, more importantly, critiqued a culture of “expressive individualism” in which “the key to the good life [lay] almost exclusively in self-discovery, self-actualization, the cultivation of the unique and holy You.” Lena Dunham, he said, managed to portray the
Young-liberal-urbanite life the way, well, many reactionaries see it: as a collision of narcissists educated mostly in self-love, a sexual landscape distinguished by serial humiliations — a realm at once manic and medicated, privileged and bereft of higher purpose.
More recently, National Review’s Kevin Williamson published a far less flattering portrait of Ms. Dunham than Douthat’s, describing her as emotionally disfigured and disabled, “ruined by comfort and privilege.” Williamson alleges that in her memoir, released the same week as Douthat’s article, Dunham glibly relates sexually abusing her younger sister and lobs “half-articulated” accusations of rape at a former college classmate, all in order to pad out her own self-narrative. Dunham’s show, at least as Douthat described it, might well have served as a critique of that young-liberal-urbanite self-involvement. In contrast, the memoir Not That Kind of Girl seems to be an entirely uncritical exercise: a narrative attempting to prove that any messes made or misfortunes sustained as a result of poor life choices still lead to a far greater prize, an all-necessary deeper understanding of oneself.
And having dredged up that self-knowledge, it is now Dunham’s pride and duty to share whatever has been found along the way (indeed, with questionable irony, the memoir’s full title is Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”) — no matter how awkward, inappropriate, or hurtful it might be. The stories and experiences of others serve as aids and casualties in a slow and pointless exercise in self-expression — nearsightedness turned up to eleven, widely circulated and widely celebrated.
I confess to having watched every episode of Girls; not because of its artistic merit or charm (though it can be quite witty), but more because its characters and its creator have become omnipresent, especially within my young, urban, prestige-cable-imbibing cohort. After three seasons on HBO and gallons of ink spilled, Dunham’s projects have become a kind of required watching — a litmus test for Millennial culture.
In fairness, Girls is often riveting. Not because it is particularly pleasant to watch, but because it often seems distressingly real. Despite their fantasy-Brooklyn lifestyles, many of the characters I find uncomfortably familiar. I’ve met them, talked to them, and at times cringed to recognize bits and pieces of myself in them. (If you haven’t seen it, know that all of the show’s characters represent varying degrees of entitled awfulness.)
In her knack for creating characters whose very existence can prick to the bone, perhaps Dunham does have some uncommon talent. That said, if what she writes really represents the voice of my generation, I’m rather worried.
Whether playing a fictional character on Girls or as herself in Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham has become champion and poster child for a particular style of post-adolescent messiness: a willingness to push aside self-respect, regard for others, forward movement, or any natural prudence in favor of an omnivorous collecting of experiences.
It’s a trope that many young adults have embraced with open arms — that being a mess is normal. More than normal, it’s fun! It’s romantic! If one’s twenties haven’t been full of head-shaking stories, one hasn’t been living life. If mistakes haven’t been made, no self-knowledge has been gained. And without it, what’s the point?
Unfortunately, that trope is false. Knowing everything about yourself won’t make you happy. Being a mess doesn’t necessarily make you more charming or more world-wise. It makes you, well, a mess.
That’s not to say that one can’t blunder or get into trouble. Everyone does. The wisest among us have acted foolishly at least a few times. But it makes little sense to make mistakes and court unhappiness solely for the sake of making mistakes and courting unhappiness, or even in the service of filling out a shareable personal narrative. Excitement need not map directly to foolishness. Willful naiveté is not the same as youth.
Dunham seems to have pulled through her own “messy phase,” at least as compared with her character in Girls and the college student described in her own memoir. Her book received a multimillion-dollar advance, her picture has been on the cover of Vogue, she has sustained for several years the sort of steady, monogamous, romantic relationship that many young women now find worryingly elusive. Unlike the rest of her cohort, she is not worrying about whether she’ll be able to make it work. She seems, at least, to be having it all.
But as her sometimes jarringly blithe narrative reveals, the fallout from her own personal race to self-knowledge still exists; the mess is only now covered over by accolades. For Dunham, the road to a shiny self-actualization was paved with dubiously-consented-to sexual encounters, questionable treatment of family and friends, neuroses and therapies that might have very well proved fatal to her prospects of advancement and a healthy future were she not, unlike most Millennials, moving through life with a built-in backup of millionaire parents and indulgent private schools.
Moving deliberately through life can be difficult, or at least more overwhelming than floating from experience to experience on the vague errand of “finding oneself.” To acknowledge that choices have consequences, that each decision made leads in one direction rather than another, takes more effort than cheekily flailing about. Leaving mess for order demands that one pay attention rather than reel from one disconnected “experience” to the next; adulthood involves focusing outward rather than being effortlessly myopic. But the rewards of the purposefully lived life — of deciding rather than sliding, of fostering stability and sustaining relationships through intimacy rather than exposure — seem to far outweigh that minor discomfort.
Dunham has shown us all that she has learned about messiness, whether we asked to see it or not. Perhaps in her next stage, she can show us that she’s moved past it.
— Christine Emba is the Hilton Kramer Fellow in Criticism at The New Criterion.