Review by Lexi Cary
Lena Dunham is often and easily dismissed by anyone with half a moment to string together a criticism—she’s the privileged child of two Manhattan artists, she’s naked on TV too much, her show does not take into account queer or POC narratives nearly enough. However, as she has said time and time again, she is not trying to portray the entirety of 2014 intersectional feminism through her oeuvre, she is simply trying to tell her story (and for the record, the fact that she is expected to do the former shows not a failing on her part, but a disturbing vacuum of content in that arena).
This book is in the same vein of self-expression, but without the veil of fiction and the manicure of television to hide her vulnerability. It comes across as deeply intellectual and yet strikingly familiar. The confessional vulnerability afforded her by the medium of personal essays enables a wholly different kind of conversation than her onscreen nudity tends to inspire. Onscreen, her body may be exposed but her thoughts are masked. In this book, we look with Lena’s eyes at the discarded condom dangling from the houseplant, at her sister’s sleeping form, at her loves lost and mistakes made. And so she sets out to tell one heartbreaking story of humanity after another, inspiring chubby belly laughs and the occasional gut-wrenching familiar humiliation.
In doing so, Dunham has accomplished the near-impossible. She, as a female writer no less, has created a book that is entirely political and yet intimate and even funny. First of all, the book’s mere existence is political. It is published, it is here, and it is an account of an artistic twenty-something woman’s innermost neuroses, food journals, and less than fruitful sexual encounters that was still highly-anticipated, critically well-received, and drew hundreds of fans to a sold-out book tour. But it wasn’t just an act of throwing one’s journal or notes from one’s cell phone into print. Make no mistake that this book is monumental not only because it exists, but because of Dunham’s remarkable finesse in relating the mundane in a way that doesn’t make the reader groan, but rather feel known.
The pages themselves are scattered with illustrated totems of girlhood—watercolor tampons dance like sugarplums over Lena’s cat’s ashes and spoiled summer memories, while the essays read as though they’re told by an exceptionally well-spoken girlfriend who knows us very well. Each admission rings with an unspoken “you get what I’m saying, right?” And we do, we get it. A particular chapter comes to mind wherein she describes “Emails [She] Would Send If [She] Were One Ounce Crazier/Angrier/Braver,” such as imagined confrontation of an ex whom Dunham describes as a “coke-nosed dickswinger” who was “never kind to [her].” In another, she tells us “18 Unlikely Things [She’s] Said Flirtatiously,” including “I seriously don’t care if you shoplift” (which is by far the most innocuous of the bunch).
She is both fallible and loveable and this thwarts much of what we have previously expected from our feminist icons. The movement, until now, has been much about eliminating the problematic and vilifying the human, to an extent that the term feminist has become aligned with a near monastic rejection of the world that is not only alienating to well-meaning men, but even to many women. As Dunham unabashedly details her secretive relationships, her crippling penchant for “platonic bed sharing,” and how inaccurate calorie counting landed her in the hospital, she removes the conflation of human vulnerability with lack of feminist self-respect from the conversation.
Thus eliminating the question of masking feminist contradictions, Dunham is free to build her world. Much like Woody Allen, to whom she is often compared, the profundity of her insight is built on a foundation of her own self-criticism. Taking into account her offbeat flaws—her former preclusion to fall for boys who remain indifferent towards her, her overwrought rehashings of the simplest of social interactions—we start to see the image of a contradiction in terms: a human artist. She isn’t knocked off her pedestal because of her fervent attachment to her therapist, instead we admire her ability to perform the literary equivalent of tailoring all of Hannah’s clothing to be ill-fitting or writing herself into compromising—and often naked—positions in the name of artistic honesty. However, as opposed to experiencing all this from the other side of a TV screen, there is a certain validation to seeing all of this in Baskerville typeface with the weight of a book in one’s hands. And as Dunham details her longing for female camaraderie amid being dogged eternally by the feeling of being the odd kid out (not just at camp but in Brooklyn cool-kid bars as well) her admission of fallibility fosters the exact camaraderie she longs for.
Lena Dunham is an American film and television actress, writer, producer and director. She is the creator and star of HBO’s Girls and is also known for her two independent films, Creative Nonfiction (2009) and Tiny Furniture (2010).