Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

27th Oct 2014

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
As the weight of a thousand think pieces sags and spills over, journalists have begun to question why Lena Dunham is subject to such (seemingly) unprecedented scrutiny. This is valid. Women should not be expected to be perfect: perfect feminists, perfect artists, perfect anything. To suggest otherwise denies them complexity, agency, humanity. In this sense it is appropriate to tackle the (rather scary) task of reviewing Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl with less red pens and more open minds...

After all, the works of Jean Genet or James Joyce are not canonised for their ‘likeability’, ‘relatability’, or ‘accessibility’, but for their creative innovation.

And 99% of great art involves horrible characters doing horrible things. With this in mind, I did not read Not that Kind of Girl looking for universality or a new BFF.

Neither did I read it with the expectation that it would relate to my own personal experiences as a woman of colour. (And for the record, it did not.)

It seems laughable that Dunham’s much quoted “a voice of a generation” line has been warped to suggest otherwise. Perhaps this in itself is a sign of the outsized expectation of the vague, mythical idea of the young, white female creative.

But to dismiss all criticism through this argument is reductive and derailing. Women of colour speaking of their discomforts, disappointments, and even disgust for her work is not a sign of mere ‘girl hate’, but of a more legitimate concern.

For this is not about Lena Dunham’s work in isolation, but about a narrow definition of girlhood that has historically excluded, alienated and dehumanised women of colour, particularly black women.

And to speak of systematic racism is not a case of high expectations or ‘political correctness’, it is a right in a culture that brutalises the bodies of black and brown women.

And, much like the criticism surrounding Girls (as well as Dunham’s writing on her travels to India and Japan) there is content in this book that may alienate and baffle some readers.

Quips on boys that dress like “middle aged lesbians”, a Mexican girl who pronounces ‘condo’ “condom” and the cis-centric riot grrrl vibes are all examples of this, and although unsurprising, should not go unnoted.

The New York Times coverage of the vegan dinner party she hosted as a teenager is likely to rank low on the relatability scale, whilst the anecdote involving a chain gang reenactment at summer camp is the kind of WTF story that would not seem out of place in a Dave Chapelle sketch.

In some of her more provocative passages (“as much as I wanted to believe the universe punishes you for fucking a miniscule bisexual, I had not contracted the virus [AIDS]”) a parallel can be drawn with the late Joan Rivers, who Dunham herself eulogised after her passing.

This is a humour that can be read as boldness by some, and cruelty by others, and it is perhaps this ambiguity that makes Dunham’s work so intriguing.

‘Zingers’ aside, it is a shame that Girls criticism in regards to race, a towering specter that clouds every discussion on her work, is reduced to a single awkward anecdote.

Eschewing the subject from such an in-depth book seems like a missed opportunity. Even if her thoughts were difficult, messy, imperfect, uncomfortable, I would have loved to read them.

As I read Dunham’s own impassioned writing on feminist discussion, gross dudes and gender equality, I thought of another writer who falls within the ‘privileged white woman’ category, Virginia Woolf, particularly in Dunham’s declaration that “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.”

For the text itself, and its criticism too, this passage on Woolf by Nellie Wong in This Bridge Called My Back feels particularly relevant:

“And you are angered by the arrogance of some articles that would tell you that Virginia Woolf is your spiritual mother, your possible role model, for the work you have to do: to write. And why are you angered except for the fact that she was white and privileged, yet so ill that she walked into the sea.”

Such references may seem excessive, but to speak of girlhood, which Dunham does so vividly, is to understand the instability and multiplicity of this subject; the countless references, the loud sharp voices and bright, difficult, characters that make up the whole.

Here Dunham lives in conversation with Miley Cyrus, Eloise (Dunham’s background image on Twitter), Veruca Salt, Mia Thermopolis, Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, Enid Coleslaw, Matilda Wormwood, the list goes on.

Hadley Freeman critiqued Dunham by stating that she “accrued a cultural significance that is much greater than the sum of the parts”, but surely that is the essence of girlhood?

The numerous critiques Not That Kind of Girl has garnered on the inauthentic, suggesting she is a Leather Face type character wearing “a mask made from her own face” miss the point. All authors do this. All artists do this.

Critics' mocking notes on self-cannibalism... smack of hypocrisy when such writers show no sign of losing interest in writing about her. If women are going to be overanalysed, surely they should be allowed to 'over share' also? And what does the term 'over share' even mean in a world when women are consistently under-valued and under-published? Critics’ mocking notes on self-cannibalism, of Dunham constantly rewriting her lived experiences, smack of hypocrisy when such writers show no sign of losing interest in writing about her.

If women are going to be overanalysed, surely they should be allowed to ‘over share’ also? And what does the term ‘over share’ even mean in a world when women are consistently under-valued and under-published?

Perhaps these critics should refer to Lena Dunham’s own remarkable writing on the nature of memory, the confusion and contradiction of telling a story, which renders questions of ‘authenticity’ irrelevant.

“My sister claims every memory we ‘share’ has been fabricated by me to impress a crowd,” she writes. Her exploration of the impossibility of memory brings to mind the writing of Tavi Gevinson, a writer who Dunham collaborated with for the second Rookie Year Book.

This subject is particularly potent in Dunham’s writing on her experiences of rape; the struggle of telling your trauma as a survivor, of questioning why it happened, and who will believe it.

This is a questioning I experienced in reviewing this book as a survivor myself. Should I include the fact that I felt uncomfortable about the passages involving her sister?

Was I being ‘oversensitive’ when so many other feminist critics had not commented on the subject? This is the uncertainity of trauma in a world that seeks to silence and gaslight its victims.

The unruliness of memory draws parallels to another recurring theme in the books, the unruliness of bodies. Here is where Dunham’s writing truly thrives. Her words are ugly and scary and funny and terrifying.

“When I was nine I took a vow of celibacy and ate it” is surely one of the best lines on intimacy ever written. Her writing is strong too on the subject of mental health, of dealing with anxiety and OCD since childhood, and the sharp things that press against our chests and make us hate ourselves.

The list-keeping element of the book, particularly the inclusion of a food diary, was a subject of derision, but work well evoking how body terror and confusing questions of control and shame crop up in different ways.

Not that Kind of Girl is as confusing, multi-layered and self referential as the criticism surrounding the author herself, evoking everything from YA romance to grotesque body horror. And it is because of this fact, and not despite of it, that the book, and indeed its creator, are so fascinating.