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Callow, Grating, and Glib: The First-Person Fodder of Lena Dunham Inc.

Christopher Polk/NBC/NBC via Getty Images

If you took a weed whacker to Lena Dunham’s book and whished away the Buzzfeed-ish listicles (“18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously,” “15 Things I’ve Learned from My Mother,” “My Top 10 Health Concerns”), the summer camp reminiscences (ah, here we are again at Camp Minniehaha, communing with the chipmunks and roasting counselors over the campfire), journal entries about dieting travails (“1 am Smooth Move laxative tea”), and chapter-padding anecdotes and name-droppings about the pedestrian  traffic of major crushes and minor weirdos who have passed through the comic-strip panels of Dunham’s life, what would be left? A jokily earnest, cutesily illustrated (by Joana Avillez), no-big-deal variety pack by everybody’s favorite fun feminist and generational spokesmodel—a commercial proposition, to be sure, but normally not the sort of jewel of the Nile that would justify the reported $3.7 million advance usually reserved for first ladies and retired CEOs. Yet the blockbuster advance Random House shelled out for Not That Kind of Girl was no blindfolded-chimp dart toss. It was the nearest thing in publishing today to a mortal lock. For Lena Dunham is so money, to invoke Swingers, she is major bank. 

The collection itself may be a catch-all slapped together between seasons of her HBO series, “Girls,” but readers aren’t really buying a hardcover sandwich of printed matter—they’re purchasing a piece of the Lena Dunham Experience, a signature brand that has enjoyed the blessing of the cultural establishment since Dunham’s guppy head first popped out of the fishbowl. Step by step, critics and meme-merchants have been constructing a winner’s platform for her. Dunham’s debut feature, Tiny Furniture (2010), was compared to the miniaturist comedies of Eric Rohmer and inducted into the cinephile pantheon when it was selected for inclusion into the Criterion Collection, an almost unprecedented nod for a film so newish by someone so young. “Girls,” a brash comedy about a foursome of twentysomethings released into a wondrous post-collegiate land of cheesy jobs and often cheesier dudes, was welcomed with bravas and ringingly compared to Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a claim that suggests a profound unfamiliarity with the latter. Set to begin its fourth season, “Girls” has never drawn the gangbuster ratings of HBO hits such as “Game of Thrones,” “True Blood,” “True Detective,” and “Boardwalk Empire,” or even the numbers of a non-premium cable Millennial favorite such as “Pretty Little Liars,” but it has stayed abuzz, a dependable provider of online chatter, recap fodder, and water cooler conversation, even if water coolers seem to have gone the way of Superman telephone booths. Then, the autumn crescendo. Excerpted in The New Yorker, blurbed by Miranda July, David Sedaris, and, casting all shame to the wind, George Saunders (“Reading her makes you glad to be in the world, and glad that she’s in it with you”), rolled out with a rock-star promotional tour featuring guest appearances by Zadie Smith and stand-up / Comedy Central star Amy Schumer, Not That Kind of Girl shot to number two on The New York Times Best Sellers list, blocked from the summit only by Bill O’Reilly’s latest papier-mâché exercise in necrobiography, Killing Patton. 

Riikka Sormunen

Whatever it says in her official bio, birthers believe that Lena Dunham was born on a bed of golden straw in the basement of the former New York Times headquarters on West 43rd Street and doted upon ever since as the newspaper’s princess daughter. The Times has christened generational spokeswomen before—a smiling, gamine Joyce Maynard appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1972, author of “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Her Life,” and the magazine indulged a sultry infatuation with the blogger, editor, and memoirist Emily Gould, presenting her on its cover lying in bed above the come-on headline “post-blog confidential”—but never before has the old gray mare taken such an active, ongoing, nurturing, and rooting interest in its wunderkind. Since adolescence Dunham has been under their roving spotlight. In an article for The American Prospect, Jaime Fuller unscrolled the coverage Dunham has received from the paper of record. Fuller:

Since 2001, The New York Times has published over 300 articles mentioning Dunham, about 99 percent of which have been written in the past four years. And, except for the early days, right when Tiny Furniture became a thing and Girls screeners became zeitgeist incarnate, she’s hardly ever the subject matter. 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. On a Sunday bare of Brooklyn, a Styles section stringer will rush to Bushwick to profile one of Lena’s friends—even if they’ve already received the Grey Lady treatment before. It’s not just the Times, though; other Manhattan-locked publications are guilty of lazily using a single atypical person as the synecdoche for a whole generation. But the reigning New York Times columnists and writers do seem especially susceptible to crushing on their subjects…

Some sample entries from the timeline:

April 27, 2003: The New York Times sends a reporter to 16-year-old Lena Dunham’s vegan dinner party. The menu included four dips and second helpings of Justin Timberlake shaming. One attendee said, “I would like to go on record that no one else in this room actually owns the Justin Timberlake CD. At St. Ann’s we’re too cool for popular culture.”

(Author’s note: We now know, thanks to some fine investigative reporting by Zach Schonfeld in Newsweek, that this vegan party was a pseudo-event staged entirely for the benefit of the Times, always on the trendy-youth hunt and easily hooked.)  

March 19, 2010: The start of David Carr’s beautiful (and well-documented) friendship with Lena Dunham. David Carr is patient zero of New York’s Lena Dunham love-sickness.  

February 21, 2011: Adam Driver, Hannah Horvath’s sometimes boyfriend on “Girls,” gets an article in The New York Times arts section for his appearance in Angels in America. Dunham is the only person quoted who’s not involved in the revival. 

April 17, 2013: An article about non-bikers getting tattoos. Non-bikers like Lena Dunham!

May 3, 2013: In [an] article about the fiftieth anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, Lena Dunham is mentioned. 

October 11, 2012: “What I’m Wearing Now” with Audrey Gelman, best friend of Lena Dunham and press secretary for Scott Stringer. She mentions that Dunham picked out her wallpaper.

October 2, 2013: Lena Dunham’s first trip to Paris (for fashion week) is breathlessly documented.

October 4, 2013: Audrey Gelman, Lena Dunham’s best friend, is profiled in The New York Times Style section. Dunham is mentioned eight times.

The findings from Fuller’s archive excavation were published in January 2014, before the Times’ obsession with Dunham ratcheted into maximum overdrive with the impending publication of Not That Kind of Girl. The New York Times Magazine struck again, photographing Dunham for the cover of its special Culture Issue as a living replica of a neoclassical bust, her brown eyes turned toward the camera with a Cindy Sherman-esque gaze. Writer, director, actor, Lena Dunham is not merely a Renaissance woman of our time, was the message, but an artistic icon for all ages, available wherever fine museum reproductions are sold. Inside bulged a four-thousand-word profile by Meghan Daum, menacingly titled “Lena Dunham Is Not Done Confessing,” that doubled as a publicity release for la toute Lena. Appended to the online version of the profile is a classic picayune Times correction: “An article on Sept. 14 about Lena Dunham, which included a comparison of her childhood with that of the lead character in a Woody Allen film, misidentified the Coney Island roller coaster under which the character lived. It was the Thunderbolt, not the Cyclone.” One is irresistibly reminded of Renata Adler’s classic dissection of the Times’ missing-the-forest-for-the-tree-splinters corrections policy in her introduction to Canaries in the Mineshaft (2001), where a larger issue—the Times’ continuing love-on for Princess Lena—goes unexamined while a stray, niggling detail is retrieved like an errant golf ball. 

Such is the critical protection racket for the Lena Dunham legend that even Daum’s comparison of her subject to Woody Allen and J. D. Salinger was found not flattering, but mildly deflating. “Comparing Lena Dunham to Woody Allen Is Unfair—To Lena Dunham,” contended a headline at the Indiewire site, assuming a contrarian stance. “Likening the ‘Girls’ Auteur to Allen and Salinger predictably raises hackles,” the subhead read, “but what had they done at her age?” The author, critic, and hackles-tamer Sam Adams, wrote, “It’s worth pointing out that at 28, which is Dunham’s age now, Woody Allen was a successful but not widely known comedy writer and standup comic who had yet to release his first album, and J. D. Salinger was still four years away from publishing The Catcher in the Rye.” The article neglects to note that perhaps the reason Salinger didn’t match Dunham’s precocious output was because his early twenties were interrupted by something known as World War II (it was in all the papers), during which the future novelist was drafted, landed ashore at Utah Beach on D-Day, took part in the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, interrogated prisoners of war as a member of the counter-intelligence division, and bore witness to one of the newly liberated concentration camps, a sub-camp of Dachau; after the war, Salinger entered a mental hospital, suffering from what today would be designated post-traumatic stress disorder. So the guy was busy. 

Which is not to say that Dunham didn’t undergo her own crucible of fire. In the chapter “I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me,” which Dunham declares will be the title of her memoir once she’s eighty years old and “everyone I’ve met in Hollywood is dead,” she vows to spill the dirt on the patronizing mansplainers and creep artists who oozed condescension and bad intentions during her stay. “I’ll describe the pseudo-date I went on with a man whose work I admired,” an aloof stiff who remained stone-faced as she went to kiss him at four a.m., hitting the side of his mouth, mission unaccomplished. “I’ll describe another, even-older filmmaker [an ancient sequoia] and how, following him down the street after a drink, I realized that he limped a little, unexplained. And I’ll describe the email he wrote after I said I couldn’t work on his film because I was making my own show. ‘How could you dismiss this opportunity to be a small part of a film that will be taught in colleges for years to come in exchange for the utter ephemera of a ‘TV Pilot.’ In quotes! He put it IN QUOTES!” Major diss! 

Fury stokes in the furnace of her indignation at this no-goodnik “who believes that life is a zero-sum game and girls are there to be your props, that anyone else’s artistry is a mere distraction from the Lord’s grand plan to promote your agenda.” The prestige privileging of movies over TV is par for the course Out There, a residual, big-screen, size-queen snobbery that lingers despite auteurist deities such as David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Whit Stillman, and a returning David Lynch directing series for pay cable, Netflix, and Amazon Video. The e-mail, at least as it’s presented by Dunham, sounds more testily rank-pulling than sexist. Of course the film-maker would forefront his agenda at the expense of Dunham’s TV pilot, and not just because the video morgues are full of unsold, orphaned one-offs. Nearly every film-maker set to begin principal photography is in an embattled, keyed-up state of mind; the movie he or she is working on takes precedence over everything else (the costs of production so high, the physical and psychological strains so wearing); and fanatical focus is what separates the samurai and supreme technocrats, seldom known for their consideration for everyone else’s boo-boo feelings, from the also-rans. Then again maybe the film-maker was just a hack putting on airs (that would be a nifty irony), or perhaps that unexplained limp signified wounded pride. 

Enough about him. Since Dunham’s TV pilot went to series when she was twenty-six years old, under the aegis of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40), her season in Hollywood Hell was at worst a brief, frustrating interlude, like a flight layover in Toledo.

“Everything is copy, everything is material” was the credo of Dunham’s friend, mentor, and creative godmother Nora Ephron, who is one of the book’s dedicatees, and it is a motto that Dunham could suitably sport as a tattoo, if her epidermis has sufficient ink-room. But converting first-person fodder into finished copy usually entails a longer cycle of maturation and memory storage than eat-barf-repeat. No overnight sensation, Ephron worked in newspaper and magazine journalism and personal column-writing for decades, squirreling away material and converting it into copy that had a deceptive conversational and confidential ease, often with a stinger attached in the last graf. Her prose didn’t strive for novelettish texture and sub-strata echoes of deeper implications but for a pitch-perfect dinner-party tone where the needle never jumped the groove. Her voice on the page and her voice in public carried the same urbane engraving backed by a worldly sigh. 

Despite bluff talk about squirreling away acorns for her octogenarian Hollywood tell-all, Dunham operates on a much tighter time-loop and a much laxer filtration process, the inappropriate, often insensitive, nearly always self-centered blurting of unedited thoughts forming the basis of her comedy of embarrassment and incontinence. “Getting naked feels better some days than others. (Good: when you are vaguely tan. Bad: when you have diarrhea.)” A little of this goes a long way, and there’s a lot of it in Not That Kind of Girl. At other times Dunham does a standard knockoff of the nice-naughty Jewish girl routine, offering sub–Sarah Silverman-isms such as “Holocaust, eating disorder. Same difference.”(From “13 Things I’ve Learned Are Not Okay to Say to Friends.”) The shock tactics and venting tantrums deployed in “Girls” don’t play so well on the page, where there are no other characters to react to the provocation, only the solitary reader who may feel at times as if he or she is babysitting a brat. 

Petulance snorts through the chapter “Emails I Would Send If I Were One Ounce Crazier / Angrier / Braver,” wherein Dunham runs into one unnamed dude from her past whom all her work friends said “looked like a puppet of a hipster,” whereas she stands proud in her Pigpen cloud of funk: “I hadn’t showered in four days and I still have a boyfriend last I checked.” In another unsent e-mail, this one to a childhood cad, she rues how he ruined the memory of the precious gift she bestowed. “When I gave you a blow job (MY FIRST) on the day my cat died, you should have called. . .” It isn’t clear which came first, the blow job or the cat’s death, but whatever the case, his insensitivity left an indelible blight. “I never picked up my cat’s ashes,” she reveals in a postscript, “because I associated it with giving blow jobs and being abandoned.” But, as with the hipster puppet, the ungrateful blow job recipient has fallen by the wayside and Dunham enjoys the last smirk. “I found out about your fiancee on Facebook. How many inches taller than you is she? Like, ten?” 

The Nora Ephron that Dunham more closely emulates in Not That Kind of Girl is the later, older Ephron, the taking-stock Ephron of I Feel Bad About My Neck rather than the younger, more journalistic Ephron of Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble. But it’s one thing for a woman in her sixties to be conducting inventory of every minor affront presented in the mirror, another for a woman still in the romp of youth to be auditioning for a hospital bed and spouting worst-case scenarios. “I’m afraid that I am infertile,” she writes in “My Top 10 Health Concerns.” “My uterus does tilt to the right [there’s a chapter devoted to the subject in Not That Kind of Girl, “Who Moved My Uterus?”], which could mean it’s an inhospitable environment for a child who wants a straight-down-the-line kind of uterus. And so I will adopt, but I won’t have the sort of beautiful, genetics-defying love story that People magazine chronicles. The kid will have undiagnosed fetal alcohol syndrome. He will hate me, and he will nail our dog to a board.” I recognize that humor is subjective, but Jesus. 

It’s a relief from the chatty punch lines, airy anecdotage, and sour kiss-offs when Dunham shifts into a more reflective mode and wrestles with experiences resistant to simple pin-down, such as the unforgettable but unrememberable manhandling she received at college, a groggy, painful bout that hovers somewhere in the hazy junction between rape and rough sex, coercion and a one-night stand gone bad. Hazy because Dunham doesn’t recall much of what transpired that night, her narrative punctuated by extended blackouts. The scene: Oberlin College, in a loft above the video store where “a particularly raucous party” was in progress. Dunham and her friend Audrey knocked back two beers each and split a Xanax before they arrived; Audrey, complaining of dizziness, soon left, and Dunham stayed, snorting “a small amount of cocaine off a key,” then, feeling exuberant, jumps on the back of a friend of hers named Joey, only it isn’t Joey, it’s a mustache guy with a macho front named Barry, one of Oberlin’s few campus Republicans. Needing to pee, Dunham heads out to the parking lot, where’s she’s followed by Barry, who jams his fingers up her as she prepares to initiate urination. “I’m not sure whether I can’t stop it or I don’t want to.” A friend named Fred sees her leaving with Barry, who’s steering her back to her apartment (“apparently I’ve told him where I live”), and, recognizing Barry is bad news, tries to intervene. Dunham verbally shakes him off and Fred departs.

The scene shifts to Dunham’s apartment, where there’s a woozy, fumbling coupling during which Barry may or may not have worn a condom. It’s the sort of scene that, were it to be translated to the screen, would involve a lot of blurry fading in and fading out with a few lurid details bobbing in sharp relief, the sounds both near and far, consciousness sinking and rising to the surface in a nocturne of disassociation. (Dunham’s roommate, not home at the time, hears the sounds of the two of them in congress, and, not wanting to interrupt, heads upstairs to sleep with a friend.) Eventually Barry stumbles out the door as Dunham hides in the kitchenette. Soon after she tells Audrey what happened. “Audrey’s pale little face goes blank. She clutches my hand and, in a voice reserved for moms in Lifetime movies, whispers, ‘You were raped.’ I burst out laughing.”

A laugh spring-coiled by denial, a defensive mechanism activated by brittle irony, but this isn’t a prime-time soap opera and the body knows its own truths that words can’t conjure away. Dunham’s vagina hurt for a week—“I thought a hot bath the morning after would cure it, but it’s just getting worse”—and the after-jolt of being violated throbbed much longer than that. The more she retells the story to others, the closer it circles in to the ineluctable recognition that she was taken sexually violent advantage of. The sex may have been consensual, the jackhammering wasn’t. The problem for this reader is that Dunham’s candor, admirable and doggedly pursuant as it is, can only go so deep because she’s too conversational a writer to chisel to the next layer, to expand beyond the strictly personal, and her recollection of the evening is too gelatinous for a secure hold. The dissolution of boundaries by booze, Xanax, and coke in an already louche environment of sexual abandon didn’t leave her with much to steady herself against apart from her own lousy feelings. So it becomes a story about trauma, self-acceptance, and healing, a muffled horror with a happy ending. So many memoirs have a wounded heart, and the Barry chapter is Dunham’s. Something awful certainly went down that night (and it needn’t have, it wasn’t inevitable—at three different points Dunham might have been extricated from the quicksand trap she slipped into), yet the exertions of some reviewers and feminist activists to elevate it into a banner statement and social document are right out of the sexual-politics playbook. And I query the point of specifying that Barry was a Republican, unless it’s an ID signal to those classmates of Dunham’s who might be in the know. It’s a political designation that has no bearing on his behavior—misogyny and toxic male sexual prerogative cover a pretty wide spectrum, on campus and off. Anyway, I suspect we haven’t heard the last about Barry, whoever he may be.

Callow, grating, and glibly nattering as much of the rest of Not That Kind of Girl is, its impact is a series of glancing blows. The self-revelations and gnarly disclosures are stowed alongside the psycho-twaddle, affirmational platitudes, and show-offy candor of someone avid to be liked and accepted—on her own terms, of course, for who she is in all her flawed, bountiful faux pas glory. Can’t blame her for that. It’s what most talented exhibitionists crave and strive for beneath the light of the silvery moon and the mystic ministrations of Oprah, and Dunham’s ability to put it over is as impressive in its way as Madonna’s wire-muscled will-to-power and James Franco’s iron-butterfly dilettantism. Beneath the surface slop and ditzy tics, Dunham possesses an unimpeachable work ethic, a knowledgeable respect for senior artists (as evidenced by her friendship and collaboration with the Eloise illustrator Hilary Knight and her endorsement of the memoirs of Diana Athill), and a canny knack for converting her personal piques, plights, bellyflops, hamster-wheel OCD compulsions, and body-image issues into serial dramedy. That professional nasal drips such as Times columnist Ross Douthat interpret this as symptomatic of an entire generation’s narcissistic disorder says more about them than her. (Douthat probably would have disapproved of James Dean too, told him to stand up straight.) 

If I prefer Kylie Minogue to Madonna and the knockabout farce of Comedy Central’s “Broad City” to the clackety solipsism and passive-aggressive caricaturization in “Girls,” it’s a matter of taste, and my taste isn’t the one being targeted and courted by Dunham, Inc. I do think the premature canonization of “Girls” as a breakthrough classic does it no favors, and not just because of the backlash effect triggered every time the fawning media lifts Dunham’s Cleopatra litter higher. The excessive buildup could be the prelude to a steeper devaluation. It’s way too early to tell if “Girls” will endure as a coming-of-age perennial (like “My So-Called Life”), binge favorite (“Gilmore Girls”), or custom sedan (“Sex and the City”), or if it will dwindle into a period artifact à la “Ally McBeal,” which launched a thousand think pieces and op-eds in its heyday. The hipster Brooklyn of “Girls,” with its artisanal affectations, may cast a retrospective glow, or it may date as badly as most of the early mumblecore films, which after only a few years already look and sound like clogged drains.

But it probably won’t matter for Lena Dunham herself, the life-force dervish, who already seems to have outgrown the series, having wrung about as many changes as possible from the antics and predicaments of her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, and those other bobbleheads. With the money, fame (the cover of Vogue), and formal accolades Dunham has achieved (an Emmy award, a Glamour Woman of the Year citation), she’s in the enviable position of being free to do what she wants. But there are invisible strings attached. No longer the idiosyncratic underdog, Dunham has become an iconographic bearer of an entire generation’s promise; a bold-face name in the upper tier of celebrity, feminism, and cultural liberalism, that imaginary green room where Mindy Kaling, Roxane Gay, Tina Fey, and a shimmering hologram of Beyoncé mingle; an advice counselor to other young women; an entrepreneurial success story; an inexhaustible topic of conversation, no matter how exhausted of hearing about her many of us get; in short, a role model, and being a role model entails responsibilities inimical to being an independent operator. (Nobody expects Quentin Tarantino to be a poster boy for higher causes.) 

Although Dunham is despised on the right, where she was Sandra Fluked in a National Review cover story by Kevin D. Williamson, the enmity of conservative bloggers, columnists, and fading, sputtering talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh is part of the Punch-and-Judy show of the last wheeze of the culture wars, which the right ungallantly lost. They need to beat their chests about the likes of Lena Dunham to keep their tired circulation going. Each attack from the right fortifies Dunham’s loyalty from her own constituency on the creative-class liberal left, but a constituency isn’t the same as a fan base—it requires a higher degree of pampering and appeasing. Gender studies / cultural studies grads, who have set up camp on the pop-cult left, can be a prickly lot, ready to pounce on any doctrinal deviation, language-code violation, or reckless disregard of intersectionality. They like their artists and entertainers to be transgressive as long as the transgression swings in the properly prescribed direction. Otherwise: the slightest mistimed or misphrased tweet, ill-chosen remark during a red carpet interview or radio appearance, or comic ploy gone astray can incur the mighty puny wrath of social media’s mosquito squadrons, the hall monitors at Salon and Slate, and Web writers prone to crises of faith in their heroes. (The sly provocations of actor-comedian Patton Oswalt on his Twitter feed triggered a combination cri de coeur and excommunication edict from a disillusioned soul that was titled “Why I Unfollowed Patton Oswalt—and You Should Too.”) Dunham’s constituency needs her more than she needs them, yet she can’t unheed them, because her progressive pride and bona fides are at stake, and, besides, who needs the aggravation? Like it or not, Lena Dunham has graduated in record time from an indie darling into a Thought Leader, an honorific that was never hung on Nora Ephron. Lucky Nora, at least in that regard. She didn’t labor as the voice of her generation. She was nobody’s voice but her own.