What I'm Reading: Not That Kind of Girl

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Like most people, I have a complicated relationship with Lena Dunham, and Not That Kind of Girl didn’t change that.  My main problem with Dunham’s work is that while she attempts to reveal universal truths and experiences through her stories, she refuses to acknowledge her own privilege, which makes much of her work feel completely out of touch and a little off-putting.  This is especially true when she tries to capture the struggles that young people, particularly women, face when growing up, graduating college, pursuing their passions, and finding professional, artistic, and personal contentment.  Dunham taps into the apathy, fear, and discouragement that many of us twenty-somethings have struggled with, but her experiences often feel foreign because of the privilege that separates rather than brings her closer to her audience. 

I don’t blame Dunham for her privilege.  It’s not her fault that she was born into a family of successful New York artists who have the sort of money and connections that most of us never will.  But her refusal to acknowledge this privilege is a problem for me.  In fact, her naïveté feels unbelievable at times, as if she doesn’t know that most 17-year-olds don’t have their vegan dinner parties featured in The New York Times.     

I was particularly irked by the chapter “Little Leather Gloves: The Joy of Wasting Time,” in which Dunham details her experience of feeling lost in a post-graduation malaise, moving back in with her parents, and taking a job at an up-scale children’s clothing store.  She describes feeling young and free, but also lost, especially in terms of her artistry, so she and her friends create an internet television show that receives much critical attention and lands them a gig hosting the First Annual Art Awards at the Guggenheim Museum.  When telling this story, Dunham seems completely unaware of how unusual this sort of almost-instant success is for a 22-year-old who creates something during a night of drunken frivolity with a couple of friends.  She doesn’t acknowledge how she benefitted from having the time, financial resources, and connections to create something that immediately found its way to an audience.  For her, becoming an artist is as easy as simply deciding to do so.  There is no struggle, no years of saving or raising money, making connections, calling in favors, facing rejection.  Dunham becomes an artist when she grows bored of her aimless twenty-something existence, and while her story might be meant to inspire, it only serves to alienate.

The rest of the book was just so-so for me.  I found Dunham’s section about her body and weight to be one of the least interesting and developed.  While her body and weight come up frequently in regard to her work, they don’t seem to cause Dunham much mental stress, so I could have done without the 10 pages from her food diary.  The stuff about sex, love, and relationships is the usual Dunham fare, with plenty of oversharing, awkward encounters, and poor decision-making. 

By the end, like much of her other work, Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl left me feeling kind of gross and sad, in part because she is so committed to a brutally honest portrayal of life with all of its messiness and complications.  But more than that, I found the book to be off-putting because it is so narcissistic.  Dunham is clearly the most interesting thing to happen to Dunham, and while she talks about many others, particularly her parents and sister, her stories about them are deeply rooted in her own experiences and always come back to her.  It’s almost as if Dunham collects people not because she desires to know them, but because she desires to make herself more interesting, more rich in experience through them.  I read one review that describes Dunham’s book as inward looking, taking others and their experiences and bringing it back to herself, and I think this is spot on.  It’s also why, an indie film, three television seasons, and a book later, Dunham’s shtick is wearing thin.  By constantly drawing from her own life, Dunham’s work keeps retreading the same territory, and it makes me question how many different artistic mediums one 28-year-old woman actually needs to tell her story.      

Two and a half out of five stars.

3 comments:

  1. I really loved your line about Dunham "collecting" people and about Dunham herself being the most interesting thing to happen to her. Dunham receives a lot of criticism, but much of it is superficial and prejudice. Your comments, on the other hand, really strike home on what makes Dunham so intriguing and problematic as figure of a generation. As always, a truly insightful review. I cannot wait to read the next one.

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    1. Thanks! I definitely agree that Dunham is both intriguing and problematic, but in ways that are often overlooked by the more mainstream criticism of her work.

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