The coming of age of Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham is fond of lists. Here is a list of things in Lena Dunham’s life that do not strike Lena Dunham as being unusual: growing up in a $6.25 million Tribeca apartment; attending a selection of elite private schools; renting a home in Hollywood Hills well before having anything quite resembling a job and complaining that the home is insufficiently “chic”; the habitual education of the men in her family at Andover; the services of a string of foreign nannies; being referred to a homework therapist when she refused to do her homework and being referred to a relationship therapist when she fought with her mother; constant visits to homeopathic doctors, and visits to child psychologists three times a week; having a summer home on a lake in Connecticut, and complaining about it; writing a “voice of her generation” memoir in which ordinary life events among members of her generation, such as making student-loan payments or worrying about the rent or health insurance, never come up; making casual trips to Malibu; her grandparents’ having taken seven-week trips to Europe during her mother’s childhood; spending a summer at a camp at which the costs can total almost as much as the median American family’s annual rent; being histrionically miserable at said camp and demanding to be brought home early; demanding to be sent back to the same expensive camp the next year.
“I think I may be the voice of my generation.” So says Lena Dunham in the role of her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, in the first episode of Girls, the HBO series she has been writing and starring in since 2012. The scene is classic Dunham, if we can use “classic” to describe a phenomenon of such recent vintage. The basic sentiment is there in plain English, but it must be qualified, run through the irony dicer until it is practically a Cubist representation of the original, and held at a comfortable distance. Dunham very clearly does want to be considered the voice of her generation, as her recently published memoir — Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” — makes unmistakably clear; in fact, she has been hailed as precisely that by Time, Glamour, Today, and others. But she cannot say that herself — not with a straight face, not in Brooklyn. Instead, the line is assigned to her alter ego, who is at the time of the utterance high as a Georgia pine on opium tea and trying to convince her parents to keep supporting her financially. Having delivered the line, Hannah retreats into uncomfortable self-awareness, adding: “Or a voice of a generation.” As a literary stratagem — laying down a marker in the popular culture without making herself vulnerable to accusations that she might be taking herself too seriously — the maneuver is transparent. It is far more troubling that she uses the same technique in real life, for matters much more serious than the plot of Girls: Specifically, she uses it in her memoir to accuse a man of rape without having to take responsibility for the accusation.
In that sense, Lena Dunham may truly be the voice of her generation: The enormous affluence and indulgence of her upbringing did not sate her sundry hungers — for adoration, for intellectual respect that she has not earned, for the unsurpassable delight of moral preening — but instead amplified and intensified her sense of entitlement. The Brooklyn of Girls is nothing more or less than a 21st-century version of the Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse, with New York City taxis standing in for the pink Corvette. Writers naturally indulge their own autobiographical and social fantasies, from Brideshead Revisited to The Lord of the Rings, but Girls represents a phenomenon distinctly of our time: the fantasy not worth having.
Dunham is not satisfied with the manipulation of fantasy alone: She seeks to curate, narrate, and direct the real world as though it were an episode of her television show. The worrisome thing is that she is not alone in her apparent inability to tell the representation from the thing being represented. Hers is an endlessly mediated generation, for whose members life is increasingly lived as a performance on the stages of Instagram and Twitter.
Still, to dismiss Lena Dunham as an insulated and spoiled child of Manhattan’s ruling class is to misunderstand her story entirely. If there is such a thing as actually abusing a child through excessive generosity and overindulgence, then Lena Dunham’s parents are child abusers. Her father, Carroll Dunham, is a painter noted for his primitive brand of highbrow pornography, his canvases anchored by puffy neon-pink labia; her photographer mother filled the family home with nude pictures of herself, “legs spread defiantly.” Self-styled radicals from old money, they were not the sort of people inclined to enforce even the most lax of boundaries. And they were, in their daughter’s telling, enablers of some very disturbing behavior that would be considered child abuse in many jurisdictions — Lena Dunham’s sexual abuse, specifically, of her younger sister, Grace, the sort of thing that gets children taken away from non-millionaire families without Andover pedigrees and Manhattanite social connections. Dunham writes of casually masturbating while in bed next to her younger sister, of bribing her with “three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds . . . anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.” At one point, when her sister is a toddler, Lena Dunham pries open her vagina — “my curiosity got the best of me,” she offers, as though that were an explanation. “This was within the spectrum of things I did.”
Dunham describes herself as an “unreliable narrator,” which in the context of a memoir or another work of purported nonfiction means “liar,” strictly construed. Dunham writes of incorporating stories from other people’s lives and telling them as though they were her own, and of fabricating details. The episode with her sister’s vaginal pebbles seems to be especially suspicious. When Dunham inspects her sister’s business, she shrieks at what she sees: “Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. . . . Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been such a success.” Dunham’s writing often is unclear (willfully so, it seems), but the context here — Grace has overheard her older sister asking whether her baby sister has a uterus — and Grace’s satisfaction with her prank suggest that Grace was expecting her older sister to go poking around in her genitals and inserted the pebbles in expectation of it. Grace is around one year old at the time of these events. There is no non-horrific interpretation of this episode. As for stroking her mother’s vagina, having mistaken it for her hairless cat . . .
That Dunham’s parents tolerated this is completely in character with the portrait of them she offers. Experiencing some very common problems with the childhood fear of going to bed alone, young Lena invades her parents’ bedroom every morning at 1 a.m., evicting her father from the bed, “probably my way of making sure my parents didn’t ever have sex again.” Her father eventually reaches a strange and broken-down compromise with her: She goes to bed at 9 p.m., and he wakes every morning at 3 a.m. to carry her into his bedroom. These shenanigans went on for twelve years. Getting up in the middle of the night for a newborn is one thing; getting up in the middle of the night, every night, for an adolescent is a different class of thing.
If her family failed her, Dunham’s schools, which she seems to have attended largely in pajamas, did no better, crippling her through coddling and leaving her a graduate of a writing program at a very prestigious college who does not know the use of the subjunctive or the difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated,” though the crudeness of her memoir’s prose, in contrast with the deft writing of her television series, may very well be yet another affectation. The crudeness of her thought is inarguably genuine: In the midst of a rather detailed revenge fantasy, and having confessed the pain she feels when good things happen to those she despises, she writes airily that she is above being “jealous” (she means “envious”) and too fine ever to be “vengeful” — five pages after contemplating a future course of action that she herself describes as “vengeful.”
What she lacks in literary and intellectual sophistication she makes up for in overconfidence. She sneers that Oberlin is full of people engaged in “politically correct posturing without real politics” and relates a surprising number of anecdotes from Palestinian fundraisers. At the same time, she confesses to having no significant knowledge of economics or history, and both her book and her television show — to say nothing of her political advertisements — demonstrate a flat, bland incuriosity about the wider world. What her “real politics” are composed of is therefore mysterious. Early in Not That Kind of Girl, she devotes a fair amount of copy to her main hobby — shopping. That the shopping in question happens in thrift stores rather than at Bergdorf’s, and that she attempts to distill some sort of poetic meaning out of the ironic display of the detritus of the lives of others, serves only to underline the banality of her pursuits and the vanity with which she conducts them. She cannot be just another rich girl who whiles away the time shopping — her shopping must have cultural significance.
‘I’m going to write an essay about you someday — and not change your name.” So says Hannah to her handsy employer in Girls after a very odd episode in which he sexually harasses her and she ups the ante by trying to seduce him, endures his rejection, threatens to sue him, and then attempts to blackmail him.
Lena Dunham never actually writes that she was raped by a mustachioed campus Republican named Barry at Oberlin College. She leads up to it with a long story about her childhood misuse of the word “rape” — she accuses her little sister of raping her and tells people that her father sticks a fork in her vagina when she misbehaves — and dwells on her lifelong fear of being raped. She describes two different versions of the same sexual encounter, in the latter version insisting that she did not consent to what happened. And in a remarkably dishonest turn, she has other people describe the event as “rape,” thereby dodging any intellectual or moral responsibility for making the claim herself.
It takes me about two minutes to discover a Republican named Barry whose time at Oberlin coincided with Dunham’s. A few minutes later, I know a great deal about him: Where he works, where he lives, what he majored in, his high-school-prom plans, people we know in common, and other surprising intersections between our lives. When I call him at his office, I get the distinct impression that I am not the first reporter to have done so. “I don’t have anything to say about what I know you’re calling about,” he says. We speak very briefly, and he is concerned that I will use his name. It’s a strange thing to be concerned about — his name is out there, easily found. Oberlin opened an investigation into the incident after the publication of Dunham’s book and has consulted with the local police department. The statute of limitations for rape in Ohio is 20 years, and Dunham graduated in 2008.
In Dunham’s telling, she had been at a party, drinking and taking Xanax and cocaine, and went to bed willingly with Barry. But the encounter turned rough — so rough, she says, that she required medical attention — and she noticed mid-coitus that he was not using a condom. She told him to leave; he left. She relates an encounter between the same Barry and another woman that turned so violent that it left the walls spattered in blood, “like a crime scene.” But neither Dunham nor the other woman felt the need to press charges, file a complaint, or otherwise document the encounter. The latter woman, in fact, reports that Barry accompanied her to the campus clinic the next day for morning-after pills, joking about naming the baby they weren’t going to have. If any of this is true, then there are medical records at Oberlin supporting the story, but the release of Dunham’s records would require Dunham’s consent, and the second woman’s records would require the consent of the second woman, if she exists.
Dunham’s writing all this is, needless to say, a gutless and passive-aggressive act. Barry is not a character in a book; he is a real person, one whose life is no doubt being turned upside down by a New York Times No. 1 best-seller containing half-articulated accusations that he raped a woman in college, accusations that are easily connected to him. Dunham won’t call him a rapist, but she is happy to use other people as sock puppets to call him a rapist. She doesn’t use his full name, but she surely knows how easily it can be found. She wouldn’t face him in a court of law, but she’ll lynch him in print.
A great deal has been made of Lena Dunham’s weight, not least by Lena Dunham. She may be Hollywood fat, or Manhattan–below–125th Street fat, but she is in fact an utterly ordinary specimen of American womanhood, and she would not be thought of as fat in Magnolia, Ark., or Craig, Colo., or even in the less rarefied sections of Brooklyn. She does use her weight as a kind of aesthetic cudgel — the first image we get of Hannah in Girls is of her shoveling pasta into her face while her mother scolds her, telling her to slow down.
Oddly, she herself is a pitiless enforcer of physical standards when it comes to men, complaining endlessly that her suitors are not sufficiently tall, that men who are “petite” and “minuscule” are “my lot in life.” She sneers at “girls with boyfriends who looked like lesbians,” at a man guilty of “dressing vaguely like a middle-aged lesbian,” etc. “Lesbian” is Dunham’s shorthand for “awful.” On Girls, one of the characters scoffs that “dates are for lesbians,” and Dunham describes a childhood fear that she would become “the militant lesbian leader of a motorcycle gang,” but she also describes herself as “being in possession of a gay sister,” which fact she wields like a get-out-of-women’s-prison-free card against accusations of homophobia, which wielding is occasionally necessitated by the fact that her views on sex, relationships, and sexual roles are, for all of her feminist grandstanding, utterly conventional.
“I think he thinks he was being really deep by dating a chubby girl,” she writes of one of her many romantic disappointments. But the excess of self from which she suffers most genuinely is not corporal but emotional. Emotionally, she is morbidly obese, the layers of her bloated sense of self deepening like Philip Larkin’s coastal shelf since her birth, if not in fact before, considering the daft contributions of her family. It is an easy thing to mock, and it deserves mocking, but it also deserves understanding.
She did not get this way by accident; she got this way because the series of economic and intellectual cloisters in which she has lived her life have functioned as the emotional equivalent of Song-dynasty foot-binding: Intended to bring her nearer to perfection, they have instead left her disfigured and disabled. Her ambition is palpable, but fashion dictates that she forswear ambition: She describes her memoir as her answer to Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even if You’re Starting with Nothing, which of course Dunham purchased ironically from the inevitable “dusty shelf” of a hipster-haunted thrift shop, where it sat next to a copy of Miss Piggy’s autobiography. But Helen Gurley Brown of Green Forest, Ark., who lost her father at ten to an elevator accident and a sister to polio a few years later, did in fact start with something close to nothing, and laboriously rose to a position of cultural prominence (from which she inflicted a tremendous amount of damage). The self-made Helen Gurley Brown, another voice of a generation of women, was in many ways the genuine version of what Lena Dunham pretends to be — at least, the woman she pretends to be on television. Brown emerged from her chrysalis at the age of 40; Dunham is busily building an ever-thicker cocoon of fantasy, prescription drugs, and weaponized celebrity, manipulating reality to her own specifications. If she is emblematic of her generation, it is in that her life, in her own telling, is a reminder that being ruined by comfort and privilege is as easy as (perhaps easier than) being crippled by privation and abuse.