In her book Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham is on a mission to share her experiences and mistakes so that other young women are forewarned and forearmed. Jacqueline Wright investigates.
Full disclosure: I went to Lena Dunham’s London book launch and had a blast. Her energy is infectious and she’s charming and funny as hell.
That aside, I’m not a Dunham superfan. I lost interest in Girls after the first series, and I’m deeply uncomfortable about the representation of people of colour in the show. That’s balanced, however, by how much I appreciate Dunham’s courage: courage to speak out about her experience of life in all its confusing ugly weirdness; to be naked on screen, and naked-while-averagely-sized; to offer up representations of women on screen that broaden the definition of what we think of as ‘normal’. All of these things are worthy of respect, applause even.
Dunham agrees with this assessment of her courage. As she says in her book’s 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.”
She’s right. It does take guts to tell our stories, and especially to talk about our weirdness and (as Dunham frequently does) our idiocy. To discuss the stuff that’s not ‘normal’ or approved-of for young women to talk and write about.
I binge-read the book, and found it sadder than I expected. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments; the list of Dunham’s ‘Top 10 Health Concerns’ made me guffaw until I snorted like a pig (a condition which could potentially be in at number 11). Yet a lot of Dunham’s writing is tragi-comic, and at points – notably during the chapter called ‘Barry’, about Dunham’s experience of being date-raped – I felt close to tears.
“I feel like there are fifty ways it’s my fault… But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way… and the knowledge of it has kept me from sinking.”
Dunham’s on a mission to share her experiences and mistakes so that other young women can avoid the same pitfalls. “I’m already predicting my future shame in thinking I had anything to offer you, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or thinking that it was your fault when the person you are dating suddenly backs away…” Just as she gets naked on screen, Dunham presents a ‘naked’ version of her life to her readers. Shockingly intimate, flawed, strange – and true.
In writing this book, Dunham is adding her testimony to our cultural records about what women look like, fuck like, worry about, eat – in short, about how we live. That this requires courage can be seen from the vicious attacks that have been made on Dunham since the book was published, initially by a far-right website which accused her of sexually abusing her younger sister. The story spread widely and was picked up by feminist commentators, many of whom broadly agreed that Dunham’s account of the incident crossed lines of appropriate behaviour, and some of whom were in agreement that her behaviour constitutes abuse.
The chapter in question, ‘Grace’, really resonated with me, and I’m truly sad that what Dunham wrote is being used as the basis of such serious accusations. The subject of the chapter is Dunham’s relationship with her sister: “She had always felt opaque to me, a beautiful unibrowed mystery just beyond our family’s grasp.” Dunham writes frankly about her own neediness, displaced by a new sibling and desperate to feel loved by her. I related to everything in the chapter – sibling sexual explorations included – and it made me realise how rarely we hear intimate stories about sister dynamics, what they look like as we move from childhood to adulthood, and how they make us feel.
Among the criticism of Dunham that I’ve read, this struck me especially:
“There’s one thing to remember childhood shenanigans but there’s another to speak about some of the weirdest things with no remorse and no regard to the impact they could have to the ones you inflicted possible harm on…”
That question of ‘harm’ is worth addressing; Dunham’s sister has commented on the story, and it seems pretty clear that she doesn’t consider herself a victim of abuse. So we’re left with the accusation of ‘speak[ing] about… weird things with no remorse.’ It strikes me that this is exactly what Dunham set out to do – to change the conversation around normality instead of mutely locking her ‘childhood shenanigans’ away in her mind to be a source of generalised shame and anxiety.
This criticism is equivalent to the fat-shaming directed at Dunham after putting her body on screen. Like all criticism, these attacks come from a desire to silence. It’s worth noting that the silencing tactic was to an extent successful; Dunham cancelled part of the book tour after the accusations were made, and has been pretty quiet in the aftermath. The agenda of the conservative critics who started the story is fairly easy to comprehend: they want to silence any powerful young feminist. I have to assume that the feminists who jumped on the ‘abuse’ bandwagon want to silence Dunham because they object to her success in the context of her privilege, her whiteness, and her many imperfections.
So let’s be clear: Lena Dunham is not perfect. In fact she’s frequently objectionable. But she is out there, making work, telling stories about women and female friendship and female sexuality that are important and rarely heard. I have to believe that this is a good thing for all of us; even if we don’t like or relate to what she’s making, it’s surely undeniable that her work – and her success – paves the way for other women to follow her. And I hope that those who follow her will be more aware, smarter, represent us better. But they won’t be perfect either…
So, in the spirit of Dunham’s “learnings”, I’d like to share one of my own. I’ve learned that it’s important for us to avoid trying to silence any woman who isn’t a ‘perfect feminist’ – because the ‘perfect feminist’ doesn’t exist, and we’ll end up all being silent.
Not That Kind of Girl is published by Random House
Jacqueline is a director and writer, mostly of comedy. She's currently working on projects about werewolves and neck-goblins. @jackal_line