Arts & Pop Culture

NOT WHAT KIND OF GIRL?

a young woman on what another young woman “learned.”

By KAITLYN TIFFANY

“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.”

So begins Lena Dunham’s much-anticipated memoir. Sure, this introduction by Dunham is a little self-important and not entirely self-aware — there aren’t many who would argue that Dunham lacks the “gravitas” to write a memoir. Love her or hate her, I’m certain she could have published this book just about anywhere, and received similar in-the-millions advances to do so. She is a central part of American culture as it stands. But, she is right — to write as a woman is a political act, as Roxane Gay so famously stated in 2011. In her landmark essay for HTMLGIANT, Gay proposed that the reason for Congress’ actions in 2011 which sought to limit the reproductive rights of women and their ability to make decisions regarding their own bodies, was at least in part rooted in the fact that stories of women’s experiences are still not readily available in mainstream culture. It’s not that women aren’t writing them, or that they aren’t writing them well, but that our culture still doesn’t place a high value on them. We still don’t consider them universal and important, but rather niche and occasionally intriguing.

The cover of Dunham’s memoir is styled after Nora Ephron’s trademark book cover aesthetic, and there is a dedication written to Ephron as well. Ephron, although perhaps best known for her romantic comedies starring Meg Ryan, is also a towering example of graceful radicalism. In 1972, she penned the essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” for her column in Esquire, asserting that femininity was entirely a performance, taught as early as “in grammar school, in the fifth and sixth grades, [when] we were all tyrannized by a rigid set of rules that supposedly determined whether we were boys or girls.” She talks about faking her period to seem more womanly, about knowing that the way that you looked down at your fingernails had to be one way for girls and one way for boys and about wanting more than anything in the world to grow breasts that would eradicate the androgyny she so despised in her appearance. Other columns include a lambasting of her alma mater, Wellesley, for creating “a generation of docile and unadventurous women,” a piece on vaginal douching, which has since been removed from the Esquire archives, and a evisceration of Women’s Wear Daily, which prompted threats of a lawsuit. Ephron’s feminism was deeply personal and aggressively political, and it was, like Dunham’s, at times, a little bit selfish and not especially reaching.

It’s best to isolate the book from what you know about its author and read it simply as a coming of age. Its candor is at times shocking and at others, incomplete. There is a detectable tendency to hide behind jokes or quirky synopses of uncomfortable events, which Dunham even manages to acknowledge later in the book when retelling the story of a traumatizing sexual experience that she had initially glazed over in her capacity as a self-dubbed “unreliable narrator.” Sometimes this is a defense mechanism, other times it feels like an affectation.

So many criticisms of Lena Dunham are entirely valid, and I can list them here: Numero uno, being, that it seems damn-near impossible that a person could be raised in Manhattan, schooled at a liberal arts institution and belong to that great big community of artists and yet still not cast one person of color, one person of non-Aryan-whiteness in her supposedly realer-than-Real-World television show. Despite her claim that Girls is meant to represent a bunch of struggling Millennials, what it largely portrays is a bunch of barely-employed people who somehow still get to live in totally gorgeous apartments. This fall, when she faced massive backlash for neglecting to offer compensation to the local talent acts who would perform with her on her book tour (tickets to which were 38 dollars a pop, not to mention her 3.7 million dollar book advance), she offered apologies which were polite enough but 1) offered via Twitter and 2) seemed to explain the oversight by essentially saying, “Yeah, I forgot not everyone is rich and only does work for fun.” Her book does nothing to address these criticisms (although the latter wouldn’t really have been possible, chronologically), and barely even acknowledges that her work has been received divisively at all, excepting for some stray comments about the issue of her own nudity on the show and this line: “One student warns me that there is a protest planned outside my lecture tonight, though she can’t seem to explain exactly what it’s about.” I suppose that’s her prerogative.

In any case, you should parse the bullshit to get to the sure-footed relationship talk with parents, siblings and significant others. Dunham claims that her mother invented the selfie with a photography project in the ’80s in which she photographed every part of her body and face relentlessly for months, saying, “My mother understood, implicitly, the power of it. See these hips, these teeth, these eyebrows, these stockings that bunch and sag at the ankles? They’re worth capturing, holding on to forever. I’ll never be this young again. Or this lonely. Or this hairy.” After chapter upon chapter on semi-abusive, or at least totally idiotic, boyfriends, Dunham settles into domestic bliss with a special dude and says, “I have written many sentences about how the first time we made love. It felt like dropping my keys on the table after a long trip.” She explains that the best relationship is the one in which the other person encourages you to sleep — convinces you that “your day was rich enough and now it is time to wind down.”

Dunham is more elegant when she’s raging instead of dancing — against the fact that no one but her parents believed that her male teacher was inappropriate towards her, against the boyfriend whose prose belied “an essential disdain for womankind that was neither examined nor explained,” against the men in powerful positions in her industry who talked down to her, against men who used her bed and her body and yet could still not summon the ability to treat her like a human being. Because we’re past the point of excusing anyone’s actions based on “the culture they were raised in,” Dunham expresses the appropriate anger towards individuals, assigning these actions of sexism, abuse of power and basic indecency to actors and sparing them no shame.

In 2000, Dave Eggers changed the game of memoir forever with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — the might of the work coming not least of all from its assertion that a person who had never written a major work, nor done anything of significance in the public eye, nor possessed anything like a true human interest story, might be justified in writing his own autobiography before he had written anything else. Eggers’ parents died within months of each other in the early ’90s, leaving him, a college student, to raise his younger brother. Eggers and his brother, he says, spent those years “greedily cartwheeling, toward everything we [were] owed.” Not That Kind of Girl is, of course, written by a celebrity. But it is written by a woman who has made her fame by telling stories that are not-so-subtly about herself. Regardless of any other criticism you have of Dunham — that counts for something.

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