Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (2014)

From the opening paragraphs it is clear that Dunham is not out for laughs: even when she is being funny what it is she wants to communicate to us are the very real, very messy, very imperfectly human events that have helped shape her life so far. I feel that I must add the modifier “so far” because even though she is a young woman who has accomplished a great deal in her life, these essays were published when the author was only twenty-eight. Hanging over the entire book is the sense that had only she waited another decade to write it, it would feel more full-fledged.

The essays that make up the book center on the themes of sex; body image and womanhood; friendship; work; mental health; and family. Dunham shares stories that seem somehow quintessentially millennial: an open, honest exploration of her sexuality; her disgust with the way that looks still somewhat control a woman’s options; frank talk of her mental illness and psychotropic medication; and her commitment to self actualization. Also strikingly millennial are her discussions that seek to casually examine — but truthfully are serious discussions of — drug use, alcohol consumption, ironic clothing, tattoos, lengthy diatribes about her vagina, and slightly pretentious references to obscure cultural phenomena.

That said, she does raise some valid and thoughtful points including:

On relationships…

An overly large percentage of the book focuses on Dunham relationships: romance, love and sex and the varying degrees of success (or, in her case, lack thereof) she has had with all three.The stories cover her childhood, teenage years, and her early twenties and in each of them she tries to work out just how to find meaningful, satisfying, and loving experiences with men. Dunham writes with unflinching feminism that has gotten less popular lately — the harsh, gritty kind of unapologetic “you’re a feminist if you feel it should be illegal for your husband to beat you” view of womanhood — which has been largely thrown over for soft-core feminism that seems deeply concerned that we “can only love being women as long as we no way that diminishes how important men are and we do not stop dressing slutty.”

She does a great job capturing how betrayed she was to learn that honoring her quirky sense of self and her staunch feminism meant that it finding meaningful romantic relationships difficult. She often has to trade some of her self-worth for male attention or stick to her principles and risk rejection. Her discussion of her youthful and largely immature relationships grow a bit tedious by the 25th chapter in which she discusses them, due in large part to the fact that she writes a bit exhaustively about the very few she has managed to have in her young life.

On womanhood and body image…

Thankfully, part of the book which focuses on her relationship to her body and her womanhood begins just when the section on sex and love was wearing thin. Her issues with her weight are painfully catalogued — at one point several chapter consist solely of her excerpting her food journal — and not especially revealing. However, her discussion about her views of nudity as part of her creative work are interesting discussing it as a process she is able to have a professional distance from due in large part to the fact that she is the boss and in control. Even more thoughtful was her very poignant and honest discussion of menstruation in Chapter Thirty. Dunham manages to nicely capture what an indignity it really can be to suffer through one’s period every month — the discomfort, the fatigue, the body-hatred, the wild mood swings, and (of course) to “demoralizing knowledge” that it will happen more than four hundred times from “approximately age thirteen to fifty.”

On friendship…

The author’s writes about her friendships both with women and men from childhood through the present and does a nice job talking about the complex relationships she has with her friends. I enjoyed two particular essays: one in which she talks about those friendships that border on love or lust when woman becomes obsessed with an overly glamorous or deeply troubled friend; and a second essay about those platonic relationships that are rooted in gentle envy in which we become enamored with a woman who already has in life the things we desperately want and hope we can achieve through proximity to her. She also offers essays that tell funny stories about relationships with her parents, sister, her college classmates, and her co-workers and even her therapists.

On work…

One of the more her most stirring essays in the collection is an “Allies who Aren’t”-esque discussion of the myriad of ways that young women in Hollywood are poorly treated by older men. She refers to them as “sunshine stealers” and describes — without naming names, of course — some of the humiliating encounters she and her colleagues have had. Yes, there are the many, many men who proposition her for sex or suggest that they will offer professional favors in return for sexual ones. Equally distressing are the men who try to co-opt her ideas, shame her into taking low paying jobs under their “tutelage,” or even become enraged when she makes creative choices that are not in line with “the agenda” they tried for force upon her. These are essential stories for women to share. Women need to have armed with information about the many ways that men may attempt to manipulate them — inside the bedroom and out — and those women can only be prepared for if other women share their experiences.

On mental health…

Dunham writes at length about her struggles since childhood with anxiety and OCD and she does a wonderful job describing how terrifying these disorders can be for a child and how they can become amplified during adolescence. She recounts therapy sessions, struggles with medications, and how everyday events can become overwhelming when seen through the lens of poor mental health.

Also quite thoughtful is the author’s discussion of her obsession with dying; which she admits may have begun early in life as her parents — active in the arts scene in NYC in the 80’s and 90’s — whose social circle was dramatically impacted by the AIDS pandemic. Also she openly admits that she long thought her obsession with death was a sign her intellectual depth and her ability to see what others deny but now, with maturity and therapy, has come to realize that she has long employed the strategy of musing about dying to keep her day-to-day struggles at arm’s length.

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