Monday, January 26, 2015

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Hardcover, 265 pages Pub 2014 by Random House ISBN13: 9780812994995

I am late to the Dunham phenomenon, but am fully onboard now. I am gob-smacked by this book of essays by the creator of the TV serial Girls, the Third Season of which I came upon recently and absently slipped into my VCR late one night. I didn’t know there was a controversy about her work, but of course now I realize there must be. She is a red-hot societal critic. She appears highly evolved to me. She is not cruel.

She astonishes me by her willingness to put her finger right there and point at something significant that many of us will twist to avoid confronting in a thoughtful way. To say Dunham’s work is refreshing doesn’t capture it. It is bracing, like standing in a winter wind, but not caring because you are with friends and are going back in where the fireplace is blazing and someone is going to say something funny and real.

This series of essays must be taken separately from her work as writer, director and character on a television show. This is not Hannah. Both are a kind of memoir, that is, they recreate some of Dunham’s lived experience. But we hear much more in the essays that exhibit her shrewdness, her now-adult clarity and experience, her ability to withhold (“There are things I will not say, that I will think and leave in my head”). But by golly, the things she does say, about the directors and producers she met in Hollywood, about her obsessive fears, about the cringe-producing dates and sex, ring so true, so exactly true, that even if they are not our experience, we believe.

Years ago I read a piece of literature and remember thinking then that some human experience was universal. When I mentioned it one day in a university literature class, the professor snarled “not everyone has the same experience and feels the same way.” I was shocked. It is probably true what that teacher said. Certainly not all of us are white, rich enough to go to Oberlin, bright enough to realize that getting a job, any job, is not enough for any kind of real life. But I argue it doesn’t matter where you came from or how you grew up. There is something in Dunham’s conclusions and experience that resonates. When she writes of visiting her dying great-aunt and receiving her warped and misshapen knitted scarves as gifts, when she writes of her fear of death, sickness, pregnancy, when she writes of the kindness and boredom she encountered in the baby-clothes shop, of the condescension she encountered in school and Hollywood—this stuff translates. We may not have done what she did, but we know that stuff. And she is both bright enough and brave enough to point to it.

In the section when Dunham describes her summer camp experience, she admits to being more attuned to her adult caretakers, the camp counselors, than to her camp mates. This doesn’t surprise me. She wanted more the attention and experience of the adults than of the teens. She was always observant, curious, outside. Psychologists must have helped. She spent a lot of time in their company over the years. It doesn’t appear to have hurt her, thank goodness, but instead may have given her a framework for her questions.

Thank goodness, in fact, for Lena Dunham. She survived the indignities of youth, not unscathed but whole. She understood enough to guess that her confusion and desperation was, if not universal, at least interesting and helpful in allowing us to recognize and celebrate our own authentic selves. She shares her experiences so that we, hopefully, can laugh and see the absurdity of the same. Women and men don’t have to go through elaborate rituals others have created just so that we can connect in a real way, but there are always the painful bits we get just a little bit wrong.

Towards the end of these essays Dunham confides that her real loves are “gossip, food, and the internet.” Those interests aren’t broad enough for her to earn the label “voice of a generation” since that hardly constitutes a voice. But her work is political, which may be why there is conflict when considering her work. It is political because it considers commonly accepted (and sometimes even legislated) ways of interacting, which she shows to be deficient in some way. She has given us enough thoughtfulness and authenticity to make us wonder what she thinks about things other than slipping into bed with another disaffected youth. We’ll have to wait for that. She might never share her thoughts on pressing international issues with us, but her work on the internal rather than the external is just as important if it spurs us to think. Art, wherever it manifests, is a win for all of us. Reign on, Lena Dunham!

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