— This review originally appeared in the Weekend Australian.
As with much of what Lena Dunham creates, her memoir Not That Kind of Girl was culturally significant almost the moment it was announced. An extract in The New Yorker flooded my newsfeeds before I had even received a review copy. When the elegantly retro-looking volume became available, Instagram was filled with friends’ and celebrities’ selfies with it — an act of which I, too, was guilty.
Like era-defining writers before her, Dunham has had the genius and the precociousness to see the everyday experiences specific to her generation as worthy of turning into art. Because of its name, her HBO series Girls suggested a universality it was never intended to have.
Though criticisms of the show were valid — that it presented a privileged, overwhelmingly white, bubble — it was a bubble many could identify with, and it was surprising the extent to which Girls was reported as exotic dispatches from a far-off land. Though responses varied between love and hate, for many 20-somethingsGirls was depicting a life instantly recognisable.
Dunham writes in her introduction, “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 with her 2010 film Tiny Furniture and zeitgeist-defining Girls, Dunham’s memoir seeks to make the experience of being young, female and unsure significant for a wider audience. It is divided up accordingly into sections on Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work and Big Picture, with her tone as much friend as self-help mentor.
The opening lines of the memoir proper are: “I am twenty years old and I hate myself. My hair, my face, the curve of my stomach.” She admits to feeling so paralysed as a writer she has begun translating poems from incomprehensible languages to prevent herself from thinking “the perverse, looping thoughts that come unbidden: I am hideous. I am going to be living in a mental hospital by the time I am twenty-nine. I will never amount to anything.”
Yet the nature of memoir is that we already know the ending: Dunham’s fears were never realised. This is meant to be reassuring, the fact she has the same doubts we do. But much of what Dunham writes here has been explored far better in her previous on-screen works.
One of the epigraphs she has chosen — alongside one from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary — is an admonition from her father: “How quickly you transform the energy life throws you into folded bows of art.” Dunham so far has given us two folded bows from her life: Tiny Furniture and Girls. We have already learned about the dysfunctional Dunham ‘‘like us’’ through the thin veil of a heightened, slightly more hapless Hannah Horvath or Aura before her.
Whether she’s ‘‘a’’ or ‘‘the’’ voice of our generation, few achieve the precocious success and fame that Dunham has, especially in their 20s. Yet the self written in Not That Kind of Girl is Dunham as Unthreatening Girl Just Like You, and the book centres too strongly on her childhood and high school years. There is little of the adult woman brave and talented and audacious enough to land a TV pilot. We know that Dunham’s life isn’t glossy, but it hasn’t been filled entirely with haplessness either. To efface the reality of her success seems to negate the reason for buying the memoir.
The strongest chapters deal with Dunham’s success, or her early strides towards it. Little Leather Gloves is a beautifully nostalgic piece on life post-college, working in a designer childrenswear boutique. She talks of the ease and fun of it all, but the ambition to create that crept in unexpectedly. “One night, as we readied ourselves for another event where we weren’t exactly welcome, it occurred to me: This is something. Why didn’t we tell this story, instead of just living it?”
I Didn’t F..k Them But They Yelled at Me is the best piece of the volume, brilliantly and angrily outlining the experience of being a young woman in Hollywood, preyed on and belittled by men who have been in the game too long, wanting a “protege, pet, private fan club, or eager plus-one”. Her friend calls them ‘‘Sunshine Stealers’’ because “What they want to take from you is way worse than your thong in the back of their Lexus. It’s ideas, curiosity, an excitement about getting up in the morning and making things.” It’s a brave, outraged and revealing insight into old guard clashing against new, where young women are “not here to make friends with you. I’m here to destroy you.”
For all the story-lines of Girls, the central tale is of a young writer attempting to live a life worthy of being written about. Hannah knows she hasn’t done that yet. The irony is that Dunham has. But aside from the glimmers of insight into her ambition and struggle in the Work section, there is little evidence of it here.
Dunham has spent her career railing against the idea of fitting in, of making yourself smaller as a woman in order to be worthy of having a place. Not That Kind of Girl feels like the memoir equivalent of that shrinking impulse. Dunham almost entirely effaces her successes in order to be more relatable, the ‘kind of girl’ more like the one taking a selfie with it. None of this can dull Dunham’s writing, which is as disarmingly honest and hilarious as any of her on-screen works, though the strength of her prose would not have landed a memoir without the fact of her fame. It is a volume that made the kind of girl I am feel comforted and nostalgic and cringe with recognition. Dunham’s story does indeed deserve to be told, but for all her notorious oversharing, this instalment is oddly lacking.