I get it: I know nothing. But I also hope future me will be proud of present me for trying to wrap my head around the big ideas and also for trying to make you feel like we’re all in this together.
— Not That Kind Of Girl, “Is This Even Real?”
When engaging with Lena Dunham’s work, I can’t quite keep myself out of the equation. Others have written wonderful reviews on the subject; I end up talking to myself. What about me, I ask, watching her interpretation of Brooklyn unfold on Girls. Would I do this, I ask, watching her perform post-college existential malaise with her sister and mother in Tiny Furniture. Is this how I feel, I ask, paging through the chapters of her new book—a collection of essays packaged something like advice—Not That Kind Of Girl.
Dunham and I are the same age—she’s actually four months younger, to be exact (not that I’m counting). She is (among other things) a writer. I am a writer. She is a feminist. I am a feminist. But our similarities are far outweighed by our differences: She is far more successful, wealthy, and important in the world of culture and media. Reading Not That Kind Of Girl is an exercise in coming to terms with her, whoever—and whatever—she is.
Dunham’s book follows the pattern of Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All, a self-help book of sorts from 1982 that spends 462 pages delineating how a woman ought to and can succeed, with a few tricks. Dunham is dismissive of Brown’s techniques, but certainly not of the format. Dunham’s book is also full of advice, offered with a mix of self-involvement, insecurity, and passion:
And 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. I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or thinking that it was your fault when the person you are dating suddenly backs away, intimidated by the clarity of your personal mission here on earth. No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a dietitian. I am not a mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.
In all the endless conversation around Lena Dunham, there is one thing that is often, and easily, overlooked: her dedication to her work. Even in this memoir-ish set of stories, Dunham puts discussion of her work well after what we might expect from her—love, sex, childhood, friendship. And yet her work is her life’s defining obsession. Noted only as an aside in her recollections of Oberlin, for example, is how eager she was to get college done as quickly as possible, so she could graduate from college-level theater productions to the big leagues. When she was just 17 she was already popping up in The New York Times Magazine as a particularly dedicated (and eccentric) vegan; just a year out of college, she and her friends made a webseries that ended up becoming a hit in the art world that her parents were a part of.
And yet the character she plays in Girls and the Lena Dunham revealed in Not That Kind Of Girl are almost always depicted as goofing off, with the creation occurring over on the side, almost as if by accident. In Girls, Hannah Horvath stumbles into a book deal; in Not That Kind Of Girl, being offered an HBO show is the stuff of a sentence-long aside.
I suspect that some of Dunham’s reticence in discussing her work is that it might just be too important to her to confess to other people—her sexual (mis)adventures are footnotes to the real romance between Dunham and her own creative output. Whatever the reason, the result is a portrait of a woman who doesn’t seem to try very hard to be successful—when in fact, based on everything we know about the television and film industries, the opposite must be true.
This, I think, is why Lena Dunham drives so many people totally nuts. On one hand, she’s enviable; on the other hand, her achievements are treated so lackadaisically, compared to the rigorous reflection with which she examines her experiences with sex, friendship, and her own body, that she seems to be raking in accolades with maddening, preternatural ease. As Oscar Wilde observed, “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” And yet here is Dunham, doing the impossible. Indeed, much of the criticism directed at her—that she is privileged, benefiting from nepotism, overweight, too young, and more—carries the subtext that she is lazy or undeserving. So much of the world seems to be jealously asking, “Why her?”
And rightly so. Dunham has lived a life of extraordinary privilege, and she describes it in Not That Kind Of Girl—private schools, sleep-away camp, summer homes on Long Island, therapists from adolescence onward. Her privilege is so total that, like landed gentry in English novels or the super-wealthy who lounge on yachts off the coast of Connecticut, it’s not polite to discuss money, because wealth is just the given. She didn’t even feel the need to pursue an established, privilege-preserving career: She is a starving artist who never had to starve. A loft in Tribeca to call home, stints at Oberlin and NYU; these are par for the course.
It follows, then, that Dunham’s book is bent on “having it all”—the phrase that has plagued the modern feminist lexicon since well before The Atlantic rehashed it in 2012. Dunham is focused on how her identity as a woman has made her chances of succeeding far more difficult—she is at her most powerful when she’s unpacking feminine identity as it sits in relation to the rest of society. In Not That Kind Of Girl, she addresses the men who have made her feel small in Hollywood:
You know why I listened? Because I wanted it so bad. Because I wanted to learn, to grow and to stay.
Oh, look, they said to themselves, it’s a cute little director-shaped thing.
— from “I Didn’t Fuck Them, But They Yelled At Me”
It’s a rare moment where she acknowledges her ambition, her anger, and her sense of entitlement—I deserve to be here, you sons of bitches. And more power to her. But she is making a classic mistake that a lot of (mostly white) women have made in our lifetime: She has so much that having it all is seductively attainable. Meanwhile, the rest of the world struggles to have something at all. Cue the thinkpieces.
Blind spots and all, Dunham is a visionary—her blend of dedication, self-awareness, and sheltered unawareness have combined to create work that is always fascinating. (You can accuse Girls of many things, but it’s hard to call it uninteresting.) She has a strong sense of purpose with her work, which often involves performative self-excavating, recreating moments in her life that caused her anguish as a way to exorcise her own demons and express her own indelible voice. (She brings up an attempt to use her own sexual assault as a comedic subplot in Girls; her co-writers deemed it a bit too much.) Dunham’s work has the incredible ability to make basically anyone uncomfortable; it is the definition of “provocative,” rubbing up against preconceived notions of what is appropriate, acceptable, or good, even in today’s theoretically liberated culture.
In Not That Kind Of Girl, Dunham is earnest in her advice, and a more than capable writer. It’s not as striking as her filmed work, but laying out her worldview in bald black-and-white text makes it easier to process her many contradictions—sometimes in just one sentence. (“She asks me my worst quality, and I say I can be very self-involved.”)
And later, at a question-and-answer session at Oberlin:
“How does it feel to be a line item in so many people’s narratives of privilege and oppression?”
I don’t have a good answer. I look around for a sympathetic face before muttering, “There are some worse guys than me.”
— from “This Is Supposed To Be Fun?”
It is impossible to navigate Lena Dunham’s work without being forced to contend with her complicated, contradictory, difficult-to-reconcile self, and doing so forces readers to contend with themselves. Where does her ego stop and her work begin? Where does my ego stop and my critique begin? It’s hard to see Not That Kind Of Girl for just what it is, because it isn’t just anything—it’s a process of moving through my sense of self and her own, to reach an uneasy understanding.
Perhaps my ambivalence stems from feelings of (perceived or real) inadequacy. There’s no doubt that is some of it—Dunham has got to be one of the most successful women our age, both in terms of money (she earned $3.7 million for her book, on top of $150,000 per episode for Girls) and accolades (in 2013 she won a Golden Globe, a WGA award, a DGA award, and a BAFTA). But a lot of it, too, is that her life seems to bleed into mine. Sometimes when I am telling the story of Lena Dunham, it seems hard to separate it from the story of myself. But unlike her, I’m never quite sure what I have to show for myself—and I am painfully aware of my own hustle, while hers remains deliberately opaque. As much as I want to believe, as she writes in her book, that we’re all in this together, I suspect that we’re all actually competing with Lena Dunham—and she’s winning.