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Review: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Not That Kind of Girl book coverWhen Lena Dunham announced, in the role of her alter ego Hannah Horvath on the HBO series Girls, to her parents that she may be the voice of her generation – or a voice of a generation – I laughed. Hannah is basically a slacker who thinks she’s lived enough life to write a memoir at the tender age of twenty-something and arrogant enough to believe someone will want to read it.  Yet the show she’s in suggests this ridiculous scheme could work. Hannah is not Dunham, but she is.

In her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”, Dunham 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 for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.

It’s a lovely and true sentiment, but, let’s face it, if someone other than Lena Dunham wrote this book, who would care? It is a testament to Dunham’s success that she can sign a $3.5 million deal for a collection of autobiographical essays before she’s even 30.

I don’t know what kind of girl “that” is, but I’m pretty sure it’s not Lena Dunham. Because I, and most girls I know – most women I know – didn’t grow up in a multi-million dollar New York home, attend elite schools, have homework therapists, take casual trips to Europe, and spend summers in expensive camps or New England lake houses. We weren’t interviewed by Vogue by the time we were 11 or had the New York Times cover our teenage dinner parties. Dunham is privileged with a capital P. Then she goes on to make award-winning films and a hit television series.

In Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”, Dunham humorously talks about her family, her childhood and adolescence, her college experiences, dating, sex, dieting, friendship, and work. In short, the stuff we all talk about.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from Dunham’s memoir.

On losing her virginity:

I was sure that, once I let someone penetrate me, my world would change in some indescribable yet fundamental way. I would never be able to hug my parents with the same innocence, and being alone with myself would have a different tenor. How could I ever experience true solitude again when I’d had someone poking around my insides?

How permanent virginity feels, and then how inconsequential.

On who it’s not okay to share a bed with:

Anyone who doesn’t make you feel like sharing a bed is the coziest and most sensual activity they could possibly be undertaking…. Now look at the person beside you. Do they meet these criteria? If not, remove them or remove yourself. You’re better off alone.

On loving jerks:

The way I saw it, I was fully capable of being treated with indifference that bordered on disdain while maintaining a strong sense of self-respect. I obeyed his commands, sure that I could fulfill this role while still protecting the sacred place inside me that knew I deserved more. Different. Better.

But that isn’t how it works. 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. You are not made up of compartments! You are one whole person! What gets said to you gets said to all of you, ditto what gets done. Being treated like shit is not an amusing game or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve. This is so simple. But I tried so hard to make it complicated.

On girl crushes:

I’ve never wanted to be with women so much as I wanted to be them: these are the women whose career arc excites me, whose ease of expression is impressive, whose mastery of party banter has me simultaneously hostile and rapt. I’m not jealous in traditional ways – of boyfriends or babies or bank accounts – but I do covet other women’s styles of being.

On men in Hollywood:

But the scariest thought of all is the one that pushed me to keep making contact well past the point that I became uncomfortable, to try and prove myself again and again. The reason I didn’t stop answering their calls, that I rushed to drink dates that were past my bedtime and had conversations that didn’t interest me and forced myself to sit at the table long after I’d grown uncomfortable. The thought I worked so vigilantly to ensure they would never entertain: She’s silly. She’s no threat.

Lena Dunham is not silly and she is threatening. Women like her – successful, bold, unashamed – often are.

I enjoyed Not That Kind of Girl. Although it is self-indulgent, it’s funny and poignant. It didn’t change my life, and what I wanted more of – the business-woman side of things – isn’t present in this book. While I could relate to Dunham in some ways, it didn’t open my eyes to anything new nor was it cathartic. But when Dunham details her rape, when she negotiates being desired against being objectified, when she shares her food diaries and imaginary emails, she is expressing what many women can’t. As a writer, she’s observant and articulates what many young women feel and are unable to voice. That has value and it’s why so many young women adore Dunham. Perhaps she is a voice of a generation after all.

For more information about Lena Dunham and her book, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”, please visit her website.

 

Comments

comments

  • Nice review. I haven’t seen Girls, but have heard a lot about it. I like the first quote you have in your post. I like that she is poking fun at herself by having “learned” in quotes in the title.

    • Cosette Paneque

      Yes, she’s very self-deprecating and that lends to the humour. Thanks for your comments!

  • I’ve never watched Girls, just a few minutes here and there because I don’t have HBO. It is entertaining to watch in a “Wow I’m so glad I’m not like that” kind of way. I can’t really relate to the show because my life is very different. Even when I finally move to NYC (which I am in the process of), I doubt I will be able to relate. I’m not really a Lena Dunham fan though she has said some very good points about feminism in the past.

    She has been getting a lot of criticism for throwing around the word “sexual predator” for that story about her and her sister and apparently there were other weird things she admitted to in the book (from what I’ve read in reviews and comments about the books). Those revelations don’t particularly bother me. We all did weird things as kids that we may look back on and ask ourselves, “Now that was kind of inappropriate and why did I do that?” I just think there are certain stories that should remain untold and that don’t need to be shared with people. But then I’m a private person.

    • Cosette Paneque

      I didn’t like Girls when I first saw it. I’m not sure I like it now. I felt much the same way, that it didn’t reflect my life at all, but then neither did Sex and the City (though they were better dressed, I thought).

      I’m ambivalent about Dunham. On the one hand, I admire her as an intelligent person who has accomplished quite a lot and a number of firsts for a woman her age. She’s honest, funny, quirky, and bold if incredibly self-absorbed. On the other hand, I can’t divorce her success from her incredible privilege and I don’t entirely understand the fawning over her.

      As for the allegations of sexual abuse, I think they are tremendously overblown. This article from Jezebel sums it up nicely: http://jezebel.com/the-right-to-a-sexual-narrative-on-the-lena-dunham-abu-1654187731