My best friend and I both read Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, at more or less the same time. We talked about it and about the controversy that always follows Dunham and I asked, ‘why does she get so much shit?’
My friend replied, ‘Firstly, it’s because she’s a woman. Secondly, it’s because she’s a new voice. An innovative voice and a feminist voice, and people are expecting her to be completely perfect and unproblematic and be what they all want her to be.’
‘But that’s not fair.’
‘No,’ she said, ‘but what are you gonna do?’
Part memoir, part guide, Dunham’s first novel (for which she was paid millions) is going to do literally nothing to change the reasons Dunham is so ferociously hated by so many people. It’s a memoir (read: all about her), it involves her very white and privileged upbringing (because apparently it’s her fault that all of network television is too white), and she relentlessly talks about her vagina. But what it will do is cement Dunham as an important voice worth listening to.
There are clear and undeniable rulebooks of masculinity and femininity that we all follow. The rules, put simply, are an extrapolation Jacques Lacan’s theory that ‘men act and women pose’. It’s masculine to act, to take action, to be heard, to defy convention and make noise. It is feminine to be passive, to apologise, to pose and to be posed and regulated by others (specifically, the masculine).
What makes Not That Kind of Girl so worthwhile is the way in which Dunham grapples with this dichotomy throughout the novel. She negotiates the spaces between acting and posing, between the idealised feminist superhero everyone wants her to be and the flawed human that she is. These spaces permeate the novel’s structure, with a lot of Dunham’s writing consisting of fragments of memories or disparate parts, the sum of which ultimately lead to an all-encompassing look at Dunham’s life and the various developments she has made. Yes, these chapters and essays are presented as lessons for the reader (she is telling us ‘What she’s learned’ after all), but their fractured form very much tells you that these lessons are coming from a work in progress.
This is most evident in the two chapters where she recounts how she was sexually assaulted, which is split between two different essays, divided by an unrelated piece. In the first, she tells of a mildly uncomfortable sexual experience, which she didn’t really enjoy and felt that she was to blame. The second essay sees Dunham call herself ‘an unreliable narrator’, and as she recounts the brutal experience the second time, facts change. Things that didn’t quite make sense now make a lot more sense. It’s a tough and confronting experience. At first Dunham is posed, apologising for the violation as if she deserved it. The reader then sees her act, take control of her body, feelings and experience. Dunham’s prose is direct, spare and to the point. It’s poignant, heart breaking and, somehow, darkly comic in parts.
For all of the dark content throughout the novel (complicated familial relationships, sexism in Hollywood, battles with mental illness and the above sequences), the book is still very funny. The best examples of this are Dunham’s lists throughout the novel. ‘18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously’ opens with;
1. My Nickname in highschool was Blow-Job Lena. But because I gave NO blow-jobs! Like when you call a fat guy Skinny Joe!
Her honesty works both ways; it’s heartbreaking and heart-warming. It’s comedy and tragedy. It’s what makes Dunham so charming and why this book feels so authentically hers.
The book is good, it will please fans of her show, it will gain her some new ones and it will make Dunham a few new enemies. But in the process, Not That Kind of Girl achieves more than just being a bestseller. In it, Dunham effectively counters every single one of her critics by refusing to accept the various ways in which they’ve both literally and figuratively posed her. She takes action and makes the positive statement that she’s not here to be the voice of her generation. She’s a voice of a generation. She’s problematic and she’s allowed to be, because she’s still building and growing. She’s not the perfect woman or the perfect girl. She’s Not That Kind of Girl. That girl doesn’t exist. She simply can’t.