First published in The Vine October 2014
It’s difficult to describe the point at which a personal essay devolves into the sort of platitude you might find on a fridge magnet, or worse, a self-help book. For every Joan Didion, whose elegant one-liners put a pin in the delusion that women’s writing can’t impart universal value (while also serving as an instant formula for Tumblr cred), there’s an aspiring author turning post-breakup diary entries into a relationship blog or passing off a Gchat transcript as high art.
Lena Dunham’s status as postergirl for millennial ambition has sparked a thousand thinkpieces, but they rarely address how her work makes a conscious effort to ignore this distinction. Girls’ Brooklyn milieu offers some of the best realism seen outside a Dickens novel, but its crash and burn scenarios sometimes feel like a warning about how not to navigate one’s twenties; while Dunham’s new personal essay collection, Not That Kind of Girl, packages disarming first-person writing in a jacket that could be mistaken for the post-divorce manual sitting on your great-aunt’s nightstand.
Like most of Dunham’s choices, this feels deliberate. Divided into chapters such as ‘Love & Sex’, ‘Work’ and ‘The Big Picture’, Not That Kind of Girl–which comes with back-cover endorsements from the likes of David Sedaris and Miranda July–exposes Dunham’s twofold agenda: a winking recognition of the misogyny that aims the self-help tradition squarely at the sisterhood, and a no-holds-barred desire to tell her stories in a world where it’s no less urgent that women to connect with other women’s experiences. Here are four things we can learn from Not That Kind of Girl.
Don’t discount the years before you get famous
Little Leather Gloves, an essay that explores Dunham’s time selling baby accessories to hip-hop moguls at at a high-end children’s store, is proof that there’s nothing as liberating as the years before the media endlessly dissects your million-dollar book deal and you land your own show on HBO. The piece is an ode to her friendship with co-workers Joana and Isabel as well as weekends spent “tripping up the West Side Highway in red dresses, sloshing beer, ready to fuck and fight and fall asleep on each other,” a restlessness that inspired Dunham to make her first webseries Delusional Downtown Divas.
Your sibling holds clues to who you’ve grown up to be
Sometimes Dunham’s self-deprecation reads like an unwillingness to own her talent. A chapter that outlines a list of unlikely things she’s said flirtatiously (“Sorry if my breath is really metallic. It’s my medication”) feels she’s confirming readers’ suspicions that she shares Hannah Horvath’s neuroses rather than an attempt to glean poetry from a verbal hangover.
When Dunham writes about her sister Grace, a “beautiful, unibrowed mystery just out of our family’s grasp,” Dunham proves that when it comes to emotional impact, tenderness always outpaces schtick. An account of growing up “compulsively free of secrets” while Grace “simply existed full of wisdom and wonder,” the way in which her sister’s coming out as gay helped her acknowledge her own limits, and jealousy that her sibling “creates for her own pleasure rather than to make herself known” evokes the envy and love that exists in most families–and shows that this same contradiction can help you grow.
Never trust a Republican
In ‘Barry’, Dunham describes being high on Xanax and stumbling into a murky hookup with a moustachioed Republican, kicking him out when she spots the discarded condom in a tree. The essay has been met with cursory outrage from conservative critics – the National Review’s Kevin Williamson called it “gutless and passive aggressive” – but Dunham’s take on her emotional fallout is a gift to anyone who’s suffered the consequences of a blurry sexual encounter and a win for the debate on affirmative consent.
Steer clear of the sunshine stealers
When Dunham describes the “sunshine stealers” – the sleazy directors who dismissed her during her first year in Hollywood, she unwittingly comes up with a foolproof defence against her haters as well as a mission statement for any woman intent on emulating her path. Dunham vows to steer clear of men who believe that “girls are there to be your props and that anyone else’s artistry is a mere distraction from the Lord’s Grand Plan to promote your agenda” and writes, “I will never be vengeful. I will never be threatened by the old or by the new. I’ll open wide like a daisy every morning. I will make my work.”