It’s impossible to review Lena Dunham’s book without reviewing Lena Dunham. Or at least, “Lena Dunham”, the strange, confected, caricatured, endlessly examined carapace inside which, presumably, the real woman resides. Dunham’s first appearance in print came in 1998, when a Vogue story on New York tweens quoted her thoughts about big-name fashion designers—“I really like Jil Sander, but it’s so expensive”—and her attempts to re-create them on a $5-a-week allowance. She was 11.
Within five years, she was already on her second appearance in the New York Times, after a reporter was despatched to a vegan dinner party she gave for her private-school friends. “A crunchy menu for a youthful crowd”, records the headline. The 16-year-old Lena found that “meat was easy to give up, cheese, almost impossible.” But: “One year into a totally vegan diet, she has become a soy connoisseur.”
Dunham’s parents are New-York-loft-dwelling artists. Her father Carroll’s work includes garish nudes of women with riot-red labia, some executed in crayon like the drawings of a particularly disturbed five-year-old. Her mother, Laurie Simmons, explores a miniature world; she poses dolls in strange, sometimes sexually suggestive ways, their heads replaced by guns or model houses. In the 1970s, Dunham says, her mother “invented the selfie,” taking hundreds of naked photographs of herself.
Her mother’s work gave Dunham the title of her feature film Tiny Furniture, shot on a budget of $50,000 and released in 2010. In it, her mother and sister star alongside her, playing exaggerated versions of themselves. In the final scene, Dunham’s character, Aura, lies in bed with her mother, explaining how she has had sex, without protection, in a pipe in the street. Her mother reacts with vexed weariness. (For your amusement, try to imagine asking your mother to star with you in a film where you confess to having sex in a pipe in the street. I just cannot make my brain comprehend such a thing. All I get is darkness, like a safety curtain descending at the theatre.)
Tiny Furniture’s success led to Dunham getting her own HBO series, Girls, in 2012. In turn, this led to a million articles using Girls, and Dunham herself, as a metaphor for whatever the writer really wanted to talk about, from race to body issues to the gentrification of Brooklyn. “Happy GIRLS think-piece season ... ” tweeted BuzzFeed’s Heben Nigatu in January, as the latest series aired. That same month, American Prospect’s Jaime Fuller chronicled the obsession of the New York press: The NYT had run over 300 articles mentioning Dunham or Girls since 2001, 99 percent of these in the four years since the release of Tiny Furniture. Fuller noted that Dunham was hardly ever the subject matter of such pieces, but: “Any story with a wisp of beard, a hint of first-person, a fragrance of futon, will surely mention Girls or the mind the show sprung from before it reaches its kicker.”
Dunham’s identification as a feminist has given her critics a further weapon with which to bludgeon her: Now she can be measured against the mythical purity of the Perfect Feminist, who makes her choices free from the constraints and compromises inevitable when living in a capitalist patriarchy. The website Jezebel embraced this line of attack with unique enthusiasm: It once offered a $10,000 bounty for unretouched photos from Dunham’s Vogue shoot. Why? To prove that fashion magazines use Photoshop: Well, yes, stop the presses. To show Dunham’s unadulterated body? She’s way ahead of you there—I’ve seen her stomach so often I could sculpt it from memory. Whatever the intention, it came off as a thinly veiled attempt to shame her for “double standards”: looking more glamorous in a fashion magazine than she does on her TV show. “Dunham is a woman who trumpets body positivity,” the Jezebel editor Jessica Coen noted, the unspoken end of the sentence being: “ ... so we will not rest until we have seen her cellulite!”
In the end, Jezebel got the photos. They’d made Dunham’s neck a bit smaller. It wasn’t worth $10,000 to find this out.
As with Mad Men before it, Girls holds an importance for columnists and writers of trend pieces which far outstrips its reach. The third-series premiere in January was watched by 1.1 million viewers in America. (To put that in perspective, the Christmas special of the BBC’s cross-dressing Irish sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys was watched by 9.4 million. And when did you ever read a think-piece about Mrs Brown’s Boys?)
There are now two pieces of received wisdom about Dunham’s work in Girls. The first is that she is terrifically brave to show her completely normal body in a state of undress so often, and to depict such unsatisfying, embarrassing, unglamorous sex. The second is that the show is offensive in restricting itself to interrogating the lives of white, middle-class graduates who can afford to leave jobs they find unfulfilling because Mom and Dad’s brownstone/SoHo loft is only a cab ride away. The first series in particular came under fire for its treatment of race: There were no significant black or Hispanic characters, although it was set in a borough where the majority of the population is non-white.
The point is not that this criticism is unfounded but that, as ever, women are held to a standard that men are not. From some of the commentary, you would think that because Dunham wrote and directed the show, she should have been able to dismantle the entire racist, sexist structure of the US media single-handedly. Sex and the City (which had a male showrunner) is whiter than a yoga class in Surrey. There’s a satirical song on YouTube offering a complete list of all the black actors in Friends (mostly waiters). Take a wild guess how many films by Judd Apatow—Dunham’s “guardian angel” and the executive producer of Girls—have a black lead character. US broadcast media have a long and storied history of relegating non-white actors to the sassy best friend, the home help or the “magical negro” whose folksy wisdom sets the white hero on the right path.
None of this is to impugn the individual writers who, correctly and fearlessly, called out Dunham. But taken collectively, the punishment beating she received was disproportionate both to the offence committed and her power in the media landscape. It also reflects the overload of expectations on any successful woman: No one expected Jerry Seinfeld or Frasier Crane to represent a universal male experience, even though they were to some extent fictionalized versions of the actors playing them. Some criticism also failed to give Dunham credit for the ironic distance between her as a writer and her character, Hannah Horvath. When we find Hannah obnoxious, entitled, brattish, or spoiled, that is not an accident—she has been written that way.
To be fair, it is often hard to distinguish between Dunham and her characters because she deliberately obscures the line between them. Much of her work prompts the question: How much is Dunham inhabiting a persona—in effect wearing a mask made from her own face?
Her memoir only compounds this confusion. The reported advance fee of $3.5m triggered another think-piece season; the book’s release will bring a sequel. The publishers treated the manuscript with a reverence last accorded the Dead Sea Scrolls: perhaps not surprising, as Jezebel posted her 66-page book proposal on its site in December 2012, so that everyone could read it in a super-sisterly way and definitely not mock it. Every page of the A4 printouts of the memoir I received was watermarked with the NS literary editor’s name to discourage a repeat of this.
When challenged by Dunham’s lawyers, Jezebel countered the copyright infringement claims by posting commentary next to each quotation. Each section ended with: “The quoted sentence ... is indicative of a nauseating and cloying posture of precociousness that permeates the entire proposal.” Well, I hope the good ladies of Jezebel have their sharpest quills out, because there are enough postures of precociousness in Not That Kind of Girl for a month’s worth of blog posts. Here are actual sentences from the book: “Fellows? If you are rude to me in a health food store? I will be intrigued by you.” A bad boyfriend has a friend known only as “Leo the puppeteer.” Last example: “He called me terrible names when I broke up with him for a Puerto Rican named Joe with a tattoo that said MOM in Comic Sans.” The memoir also contains ten pages of Dunham’s food diary from 2009, complete with calorie counts; a boring email to a boyfriend in which she wishes she could spend four months in Los Angeles “embracing this alien city of bad trees”; a complete inventory of the contents of her handbag; a list of her top health concerns, one of which is “lamp dust”; and a chapter epigram from her mother’s psychic, Terry. The constant references to therapy and medication for her anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder give her the air of a young female Woody Allen—like him, she seems to be in love with the idea of being fragile or broken.
This book is emphatically not a feminist polemic. There is one chapter where she imagines the memoir she’ll write at 80, in which she will name the names of all the creepy male directors who have propositioned her, and one letter (in a collection of “emails I would send if I were one ounce crazier/angrier/braver”) that smacks of real, rather than posturing anger, at having her feminism derided. But everywhere else, perhaps from a desire to separate art from activism, the focus is relentlessly inward. (Her sister, Grace, is arranging for representatives of Planned Parenthood to campaign at events on Lena’s book tour; the book does not mention abortion.)
So how much of this is sincere, excruciating navel-gazing, and how much of it is the performance of the same for artistic effect? It’s impossible to tell. The book is studded with references to her feeling that a situation is not “real,” for example: “Only when I got to college did it dawn on me that maybe my upbringing hadn’t been very ‘real.’” After a break-up, she lies in bed “rubbing my feet together and whispering: ‘You are real. You are real ... ’ ” In the next chapter, she confesses that she is an “unreliable narrator” who adds invented detail to stories about her mother and fabricates memories of her childhood.
She is also an inveterate self-mythologizer, always looking at herself with a director’s eye. After one break-up, she says: “I’d ride the subway in a beret imagining I saw him getting on at every stop.” One chapter deals with her sister coming out as a lesbian. She has since told an interviewer: “What I didn’t say in the book is how it messed up our relationship for, like, two years.” The one subject that is defiantly off-limits is her current relationship with the musician Jack Antonoff: “I have written all sorts of paragraphs recounting [our] months together ... but surveying those words I realized they are mine. He is mine to protect.”
So, this is a confessional book where you cannot be sure if the confessions are true: It’s either a brilliantly ironic subversion of the form, or a deeply wearying put-on by someone who has no sense of who they are when no one is watching. I honestly don’t know which it is.
Dunham speaks of suffering dissociative episodes after Girls became big: To me, her entire career seems like a dissociative episode, designed to rebut criticism by anticipating it. She invites you to judge her size 12 thighs, marooned in a sea of perfect bodies on screen; she proffers herself for our hatred as a representative of a precocious, gilded elite. In Girls, she shoots herself from angles she does not inflict on her co-stars; at award ceremonies, she eschews the cantilevering and corsetry forced on actresses who have dared to eat carbs in the past two years.
She writes in the book: “When I am playing a character, I am never allowed to explicitly state the takeaway message of the scenes I’m performing—after all, part of the dramatic conflict is that the person I’m portraying doesn’t really know it yet.” The same applies to most of the book: Her whole life is a performance art piece where she plays a noxious brat with great skill, and poses herself, either eerily like one of her mother’s dolls, or sexually, like her father’s nudes. And as the carapace of fame around her has expanded, she has shrunk within it, leaving only gnomic statements about granola and blowjobs. Reading this book, you realize that Lena Dunham has been playing “Lena Dunham” for a long time. She is not real.