There are many things people hate about Lena Dunham, the young creator and star of the hit HBO series Girls: her privilege, her chubbiness, her unapologetic nudity, her on-screen sex with better-looking people, the fluffy pink dress she wore to the Emmys. But the release of her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl (HarperCollins; $29.99), for which she reportedly received a $3.7 million advance, has been a hate event in a league of its own. In a cover story for the conservative National Review, Kevin Williamson accused Dunham of sexual abuse, based on her reminiscences of looking into her baby sister’s vagina as a seven-year-old and later bribing her sister to kiss her on the lips. Predictably, there was a mass pile-on on Twitter. Less predictably, many feminists joined its ranks, demanding Planned Parenthood drop Dunham as a celebrity spokesperson.
This was distressing in all sorts of ways, not least in its obfuscation of the true nature of child abuse. (And another witch-hunt within feminism makes me want to weep.) Why is Dunham so reviled? In the introduction to Not That Kind of Girl, she writes:
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. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.
There are some who still take offence at this. Within a popular culture largely predicated on looking at women, Dunham insists on her right to look back. If she is going to be looked at, it will be on her own terms. Shocked critics have described Dunham’s nudity as “aggressive”, and indeed she does wield her body as a weapon, for demolishing stereotype. That same body makes multiple appearances in Not That Kind of Girl. Dunham writes effectively about what it is to have a vagina (still something of a lacuna in contemporary letters). Losing her virginity “hurt more than I’d expected and in a different way, too – duller, less like a stab wound and more like a headache”. As in Girls, she is a connoisseur of what she calls “amateur sex”: “When we had sex, he was silent, and that, along with the pitch black, created the impression that I was being penetrated by a succubus of some kind.” Here is the raw material of any number of Girls scenes: the young woman turned on her stomach, her lover “unleashing streams of the filthiest shit I had ever heard leave another human’s mouth”. The book offers the benefit of interiority – “This, I decided to believe, is the best game I’ve ever played” – and yet the awkwardness is less visceral than on Girls, and the reader feels less implicated in it. This may be testament to the immediacy of television, or it may just be that Girls came first.
Dunham insists that there is nothing brave about her on-screen nudity: “performing in sex scenes that I direct, exposing a flash of my weird puffy nipple, those things don’t fall into my zone of terror”. Perhaps it is braver to reveal your naked self-regard. Even if you support Dunham’s project in principle – reclaiming female subjectivity – she takes it to an extreme of self-absorption that can be maddening. In a chapter celebrating New York, she remembers
the time I took a cab on my birthday and it hit an old woman, and she lay in the street, teeth knocked out, while the cabdriver held her bloody head in his arms, and I shrunk down low until finally a pedestrian tasked with moving the car out of the intersection noticed me cowering, and I gasped, “It’s my birthday.”
Hannah Horvath would likely do the same, but the fact that Hannah is a character provides a set of scare quotes around her behaviour. Clearly, Dunham and Hannah are not exactly the same person. (For one thing, Dunham is an extravagantly successful writer and producer, where Hannah is a self-sabotaging drifter.) And yet over the course of this memoir they are revealed as more similar than you might have hoped.
The book’s title offers a warning of sorts: Not That Kind of Girl. It refers to female stereotypes, but also speaks of a fond conversational trope: I’m the kind of person who … Dunham, it is revealed, is the kind of person who suffers from hypochondria and anxiety, and who thinks “a fair amount about the fact that we’re all going to die”. But it is not neurosis that makes a writer interesting: it is the way in which it is parlayed into art. In a striking scene from Girls, Hannah indulges in an AIDS fantasy while lying spread-eagled on a bed, with a speculum in her vagina. As often happens in this series, her self-absorption is punctured by a grown-up (or at least somebody over the age of 30), in this case a gynaecologist: “You couldn’t pay me enough to be 24 again.” In her memoir, Dunham catalogues her ‘Top 10 Health Concerns’, but without the pay-off: “I live in fear of tinnitus. A constant ringing in my ear that will drive me mad, that will keep me awake and interrupt my conversations and even when it’s cured I’ll still hear its malevolent harmony.”
Self-absorption is surely as legitimate a subject as any other; the difficulties arise when it clouds writerly judgement. Some of Dunham’s chapters land perfectly, in ways that are both surprising and true: “I was reminded again that there are so many things we need that can also hurt us: cars, knives, grown-ups.” But not all is as keenly observed. One chapter is mostly a food journal from 2010 that has “been, up until now, the most secret and humiliating document on my computer, kept more hidden than my list of passwords or my index of those I have encountered sexually”. As prose, it is less than compelling: “I had diarrhea today! Maybe it’s from the Smooth Move tea, which I am oddly addicted to. It tastes like chocolate!” But perhaps fine writing is not the point. Perhaps it is not that kind of book. But what sort of book is it?
Dunham’s truest metier is performance art, predicated on exposure, whether it be of the naked body or the naked self. In this context, a food journal is included not because it is interesting but because it is humiliating. Other chapters unfold as collections of punchlines or dialogue offcuts from Girls: “This one time, I thought I was petting my hairless cat, and it was actually my mom’s vagina. Over the covers, of course!”
The book’s subtitle makes an ambit claim for the status of bildungsroman: A young woman tells you what she’s “learned”. It is a concept Dunham returns to in the introduction:
if I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, 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.
Dunham is rarely disingenuous, and this is one of the few false notes in the book, whose purpose is patently not instruction. (Can literary experience really spare the reader awkward sex?) As in Seinfeld, one of Dunham’s comedic principles is that very little is learned. As soon as any of her characters – of which Lena Dunham is one – can teach us anything, they lose their comic utility. Girls must remain girls.
Elsewhere in the introduction, Dunham admits that “I want to tell my stories and, more than that, I have to in order to stay sane”. More than anything, the book resembles a talking cure: self-involved, insightful, banal, wiser and sillier than its speaker, going everywhere and nowhere. Her parents, poignantly, emerge as her chief objects of address, with her father, the artist Carroll Dunham, providing a blurb for the back of the dust jacket – “I thought I knew the author rather well, and I found many (not altogether welcome) surprises” – so that, even at 28, Dunham comes across as the precocious child. Look, no hands! The challenge lies ahead, in navigating the transition from girlhood. A lot conspires against her: not only the haters but also the 1.8 million Twitter followers who cherish each of her smallest thoughts. But she is a robust talent, and plenty of us will be barracking for her. There is a lot more to like about her than there is to hate.
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