What Kind of Girl Is This Girl? Lena Dunham's Memoir, Reviewed

I excel at avoiding the ubiquitous—push notifications, Knausgaard; libertarians, pumpkin spice—and as a result I came to Not That Kind of Girl in a near-amniotic lack of context. I had never offered an opinion about Lena Dunham or listened to one consciously; except for the thing she wrote about her dog I had never read her, and except for the first ten minutes of Tiny Furniture had never seen her on screen.

Part of this is just conservation of energy. Over the course of the last couple of years spent writing for and editing a site that is not only friendly to Dunham-adjacent vibes (personal essays by young women; the earnest, inconsistent working-out of feminism, sex, violence, friendship and shame) but has made such vibes one of its trademarks, I’ve nonetheless evolved a natural blurring process upon contact with certain words, GIRLS and Dunham prominent among them. Even the responses to the responses to Dunham made my heart feel sludgy. It’s a lot to reckon with: how violently people react when a girl has the audacity to be non-submissive; how often young women feel like even their wildly unexceptional decisions are under attack; how futile it is when an audience forces group representation on an individual perspective; how broadly tone-deaf the privileged, and the discussion around privilege, can be.

This is to say I can’t think of a single other person who has been so fucked by the death-of-the-author theory, and simultaneously so in need of its application. From the first pages of her memoir’s introduction, Dunham is explicitly trying to write into the question of whether or not her famous inwardness can overthrow itself enough to face out: “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.” Even the subtitle interpellates: she’s trying to tell you what she’s quote-unquote learned.

But the text’s value lies not in origin but in destination, et cetera. Dunham’s just a writer like any other. I was happy to turn the page and just read.

Dunham’s style is consistently a pleasure: precise, colloquial, tightly paced. (On losing her virginity: “He was nervous, and in a nod to gender equality, neither of us came.”) She’s nailed the elusive directness central to the work of most great essayists; like with Zadie Smith and Leslie Jamison, every piece in this book would flare to life if read aloud. She remains, also, fully present for the central question as posed by the title. The degree to which you have patience for that question, even posed knowingly— what kind of girl is this girl, exactly—will probably be the degree to which you feel that Dunham has something to offer you, and I mean personally: after all, you have to be in danger of an expensive juice cleanse to be stopped from it.

But what kind of is a hard question to avoid completely. Granular self-individuation—personal brands extending to ethics and going miles of details deep—is, after an engorged decade of social media, a mentally engraved tendency and particularly powerful and fraught for women besides. Intersectionality, too big to fail, is still failing, and the easiest way to ask what type of girl you are is to ask what type of girl you are not. It’s the primary rhetorical template: you’re not a “cool girl” because those don’t exist; not a basic bitch
because you’re going to Starbucks ironically; not one of those feminists who does that wrong thing but a good one who does this.

The degree to which you have patience for that question, even posed knowingly— what kind of girl is this girl, exactly—will probably be the degree to which you feel that Dunham has something to offer you.

By dint of her own particular psychology, Dunham is an easy and willing avatar for this frame of mind. As a fifth-grader she’s already deep in it. (“Hating computers is a part of my identity,” she writes, narrating in present-tense for many of her childhood anecdotes). In a footnote to an email (annotated, the email is asked to be a chapter on its own) she writes, “Ironic references to rom-coms are a great way to show that you are NOT the kind of girl/woman who cares about romantic conventions.” She is complex and tongue-in-cheek with the question: she’ll acknowledge that she is actually not that type of girl (“a chill girl who writes chill emails”) or that she was temporarily fooling herself into believing the same (“I thought of myself as some kind of spy, undercover as a girl with low self-esteem”). And, in a muffled way, other types of girls provoke spite (“girls with boyfriends who looked like lesbians and watched Friday Night Lights with them while eating takeout… they could have their supportive relationships and typical little love stories”) or even pure bafflement (non-neurotics, her self-possessed sister).

Over the course of the book, that’s the journey: a zig-zag of self-definition, a pinball bouncing from the “type of girl” Dunham is, which intersects widely with the type of girl she’s afraid of being (someone who crawls on the sidewalk and licks pieces of art) to all the types of girl she carefully decides she isn’t, finally landing at the type of girl she turns into and presumably wants to be—the girl who can sleep at night, finally be present in her body when she’s having sex with someone; the girl who’s (wildly successful and) going to be okay.

What kind of girl are you? It’s a fine question to answer, particularly when delivered as a self-deconstructing joke; it’s also a fine question to doubt, when so much existential weight is given to self-delineating minutiae that the premise ceases to seem tautological, which it is. The great marvel of life is being automatically individuated, simply by the fact that you exist. Lena Dunham is the Lena Dunham type of girl: further inquiry does not turn up much new information.

But new information isn’t needed and hasn’t been. She’s just a writer, and a good one. Her work is strongest—fittingly—in this written act of human individuation, in a distinct attention to detail that is radically physical, formally materialist, totally agonizing and tremendously kind. The world of her memoir is a loving, desperate, unhinged, crappy-go-lucky palimpsest of people who only matter when she looks at them but matter, then, immensely.

The best of these moments are terrific. “I had ill-advised intercourse,” she writes, “with a petite poet-mathematician who, afterward, removed the condom, placed it under his pillow, and wiped his penis clean on his own curtains.” The worst of these moments are flatly odious: immediately after boning the little poet-man and finding out he moonlights as a bottom, Dunham sits around in a heatwave equating thigh chafing with the New York City murder rate and imagining what her personality would be like if she had AIDS. “What would it feel like to be the face of AIDS in the industrialized world?” she muses.

She adds: “By the end of the summer, I was officially ‘living with AIDS.'” Of course she wasn’t, almost to her removed narrative chagrin: “as much as I wanted to believe the universe punishes you for fucking a minuscule bisexual.”

This vein of narcissism—every bit of the world existing only to make you feel some type of way—would be unpleasant at any age and any gender. (“Later in the summer your grandfather dies, and you’re secretly glad. You have a place to put all your sorrow now, one that people will understand.”) It is absolutely self-indulgence to be so loving towards your own egocentrism; but, in the hands of good writers, egocentrism and self-indulgence are not just all right but necessary. And Dunham presents her dumb moments with a huge wink (“Oh,” she says, about a friend living in palatial Manhattan comfort, “I think he makes a ton of money at his internship for Food Not Bombs”) that remains miserably absent in circumstances when they are more needed (two examples from an easy thousand: Adam Gopnik’s “I was genuinely curious to see what she looked like baking a loaf of bread,” or this incredibly flat, pretentious, self-parodic recent New Yorker joint from Kevin Canty). “I think I could be enlightened, but I’m not in the mood yet,” says Dunham. Even these unremarkable sentences are interesting in that they espouse a position that’s become default for the American male.

I didn’t read Not This Kind of Girl seeking insight. I’m not much into relatability: I already find myself a bit outsize for comfort, and part of why I avoided Dunham’s oeuvre is that I spend too much time looking in mirrors as it is. But two parts of her memoir did that juice-cleanse thing she was wanting.

First, the chapter called “I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled At Me,” which is an unsentimental indictment of the old men in Hollywood who liked to tell her things like “You should be a little more grateful” and “I’ll bet you never say no.” Like the title says, she didn’t fuck them. What is radically terrific about the chapter is that listening to them—just hearing those smarmy, scroterial voices; believing that she was simultaneously strong enough to handle it and also weak enough that she needed to pick up the phone in order to stay—becomes a compromise significant enough to feel like a crime.

Even these unremarkable sentences are interesting in that they espouse a position that’s become default for the American male.

Second, there’s a chapter called “Barry” where Dunham details her rape
, an encounter told with both unrelenting honesty and a subterranean implication that it’s almost impossible to recount your own rape narrative without many, many versions of the self-preservatory (and often, but not always, rapist-exonerating) lie. In the chapter that directly precedes it, Dunham tells the story quickly, a swift little cringe (“an ill-fated evening of lovemaking with our campus’s resident conservative, who wore purple cowboy boots and hosted a radio show called Real Talk With Jimbo… a study in the way revulsion can quickly become desire when mixed with the right muscle relaxants”). In the Barry chapter, the psychological chronology unfolds, over and over again, shifting as it’s told to other people, named as it should be only when her friend says flatly, “You were raped,” and Dunham bursts out laughing. “I feel like there are fifty ways it’s my fault,” she writes. “I was hungry to be seen. But I also know that in no way did I consent to being handled that way.”

The last page of that essay, where she negotiates confession and desire with her current boyfriend, objectified and disempowered in all the ways that sometimes feel like a benediction it’s beautiful, narrowing to the pinpoint of individuality, rejecting the misapplied and ineffectual pressure that says Dunham’s lived experience should be either universally appealing or universally understood.

Dunham’s writing gets eloquent in the place of self-degradation. The loneliness after long nights of unfriendly sex is her emerging into the street at noon, “blink[ing] at the flat Brooklyn sunlight, cold to my bones.” She blacks out from fear, lust and alcohol, remembering only that her tights were “balled up and placed in my mouth.” She remembers lying in the tub, half her body in the torrent of a shower, the other on the bathmat stuffing its primary orifice with bread.

This physical frankness extends to her relationships in a way that feels welcome, somehow old-fashioned, and childish in a Freudian way. She remembers peering into her toddler sister’s vagina, going to the closet to sniff her dead grandmother’s pajamas after being reprimanded for huffing at her comb. In one chapter, she lays out a series of arcane rules about bed-sharing (“your mom if you’re a girl, your dad if you’re under twelve or he’s under ninety”). Her emphasis on a compulsive, unbalanced physicality matches up well with her gift for cadence, which makes good paragraphs wind down almost mathematically; in one story about how she remembers her mother’s camp stories in place of her own, she writes, “Diarrhea in a canyon during a lengthy hike isn’t right for every audience. I can’t remember any of the songs.”

Not That Kind of Girl is, instead, what she does remember: the essays edited for craft as tight as a Jacob’s Ladder, the book edited for subject what seems like not at all. The reproduced food diary, the annotated emails, the imaginary emails, the lists; they could have been cut, and to my eye should. But as Dunham notes, in a list about why she “<3s NY," the rules are just suggestions, and I don't need her to note for me that a bunch of old idiots have been making a lot of the rules. Dunham at her best is a good enough writer that none of the introduction's self-justification is necessary, and if I were to surmise about her intentions I'd guess she's in no way writing the Helen Gurley Brown help-book that this book often openly pretends to be. Like her mother taking nude pictures of herself in the '70s, she's got "the flash of fear in her eye—or is it longing?" Not That Kind of Girl is Dunham in the heat of that impulse, nothing more or less important than the “feverish need to reveal who she really is, as much to herself as anybody.”

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin