thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Not That Kind of Review: Lena Dunham’s Uneven First Book

In Uncategorized on November 14, 2014 at 6:00 am


Sarah S.

I have always been puzzled by the furor over Lena Dunham. I like her. I find her work interesting and her persona engaging. But the intelligentsia act as if she’s the Second Coming while pundits and intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum behave as if she’s the Devil incarnate.

Sexism plays a role here, as we know. No male artists come in for the same amount of vitriol from so many parties. Even James Franco is allowed to be just irritating and pretentious, no deeper meaning or criticism required (at least not from the barrage of both mainstream and dark-cornered publications).

The other condemnation of Dunham gets more sticky, and that’s the complaints about her privilege—white, straight, wealthy, coddled, and empowered. But again, other similarly or even more privileged people squeak through the gauntlet, such as Sophia Coppola, or are easily dismissed as vapid and therefore not worth critiquing, a la Paris Hilton.

It seems that Dunham’s buffet of sins create a cyclone: she’s too white, too rich, too naked, too normal looking, too honest, and too ambitious. The ambition seems to be the crux of the matter. You can have privileged white females from hell to breakfast but perish the thought they want be dynamic, in control creators.

To me, Dunham is just an artist—ambitious, talented, and young—which explains the unevenness of   her output. Case in point, her first collection of personal essays, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” 

About two-thirds of the way through Dunham’s newest opus, I had a thought: Perhaps we’ve reached peak post-modernity. Dunham’s version of herself in the book reads like a worse version of Hannah Horvath, who is supposedly a worse-than-reality alter-ego for Dunham in her television series Girls. Given that the trailer for the new season of Girls shows Hannah mining her life for her “fiction,” the layers between Dunham and her self-created iterations begin to pancake, squishing into each other like a tall stack weighted down with butter, syrup, and their own self-importance.

In short, I got tired of this book, of the constant drive for shock value and push toward discomfort engendered through extreme honestly. These moves came at the expense of fully developed essays, also likely a result of the rush to put out Dunham’s book quickly rather than let it develop and grow.

That said, there are some pieces that stand out. The book opens strong, and the first few essays including “Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It),” “Platonic Bed Sharing: A Great Idea (for People Who Hate Themselves),” and “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously” all land. They feel like we’re actually gaining insight into this woman and her development.


Things get rockier from there. The list/diary “essays” are largely half-baked and lackluster. They might have provided fodder for essays but do not work on their own.

Dunham’s exploration of a troubling college sexual encounter sticks with you. In it, she provides a complicated portrait of sexual assault and its after-effects.

Yet I enjoyed various essays scattered throughout the book. These include “Grace,” Dunham’s ode to her younger sister*. I also appreciated “Little Leather Gloves: The Joy of Wasting Time,” about her post-college job working in a high-end children’s clothing boutique, a fallow period in Dunham’s post-college life that segued into her film-making career.

I likewise got a kick out of “Therapy and Me.” Yes, the resources available to Dunham are incredibly privileged, and indicative of a certain kind of  arty, tree-huggy, New York perspective. But this essay also unveils the psychological and emotional challenges Dunham wrestles with. In it, she highlights little moments of normalcy amidst very strange circumstances.

Last, check out “Guide to Running Away,” which juxtaposes the petulant child’s desire to run away against the petty or troubling ways in which adults “run away” all the time. This essay includes one of Dunham’s best lines, “you listened to the party burn down like a cigarette, your little sister breathing beside you, a trusty machine” (256). Moments like this remind you of her genuine talent.

Ultimately, I would have liked Not That Kind of Girl to contain less childhood, less Oberlin, and less lists. And I would have liked to have heard more about Girls and Tiny Furniture and the creative process and Dunham’s rising activism. Not everything from youth needs to be mined and displayed. Not everything that makes you who you are is interesting to others. And not everything that happened to you (and yours) should be shared.

In fact, there’s so much over-sharing in the book, and so much display of “Lena Dunham: Basket Case, Privileged New Yorker, Raconteur” that I became frustratingly curious about what she was hiding. It had to be something. Is it even more shocking—scary or privileged or feminist or cruel—than anything Dunham presents in the book? Or is it perhaps entirely banal and simple, Dunham hiding from us (from herself?) the horror of her own normalcy?


*Note: I am not wading into the accusations that Dunham describes molesting her sister. Having read the book, the allegations seem absurd although Dunham could have weighed people’s likely perception against her delight in being shocking when crafting some of her phrasing.

  1. great review SSS. We are considering this book for your former book club so I’ve sent it on to the other girls! As always, you and your insights are greatly missed!

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