This is going to be a tough one to write, especially given my general efforts to not sound judgmental or jump into the center of controversy here: I’m still learning how to toe the line between trying not to aggressively offend and being genuine to my true feelings. Regardless, those in the bookish know know that there’s been a great deal of controversy and discussion about Lena Dunham’s book of essays, Not That Kind of Girl. Before I get into this mixed bag of others’ opinions and my own opinions, a preface is necessary–or rather, a disclaimer.
The public figure, the projection that is Lena Dunham (I assume all public figures have a somewhat calculated appearance in their media presence), is not someone I have ever particularly liked. Obviously I don’t actually know Dunham, but my weeklong attempt to follow her on Twitter ultimately resulted in me hitting the “unfollow” button because her tweets irritated the living daylights out of me. When my roommate and I watched “Girls,” I struggled to understand why it was so popular and had won so many awards. I found the characters unlikeable, the situations unrelatable, and the whole thing deeply uncomfortable in a bad way. Realistic portrayals of sex, apparently, were a big part of the show’s groundbreaking-ness, as well as the mere fact that Dunham’s career is admittedly impressive. I’m excited for what she’s done for women in terms of being both young and female and creating this art that’s getting noticed. I love her shameless body positive attitude in the fact of Hollywood’s beauty standards. But that’s pretty much where I drew the line, pre-reading her book.
Those of you who know me probably know I’m about as die-hard a moderate as a moderate can, by nature, be. I don’t just sit in the middle because it’s comfortable there–I sit in the middle because I genuinely feel that there are gray areas and what ifs to just about everything that people argue so vehemently in politics (read: just about everything, but not, like, full on murder and such). Therefore, it’s not surprising that anyone who lauds their political beliefs in an aggressive way sort of grinds my gears. The question here may now be: why did you read her book, then, if she annoyed you so much? The answer, while multifaceted, is pretty straightforward.
One, I don’t like to judge people when I’m not well informed. Writing is the way I express myself best, so I figure I owe it to people who’ve written a memoir to get their perspective before I pass definitive judgement.
Two: I knew even before the book came out (I put it on hold at my library pre-release) that it was going to be big. Lena Dunham is a prominent figure right now, and her book was bound to be talked about. I like to know what’s being talked about in the book world.
Three: Dunham’s an important figure in the feminist movement, whether I like her or not, and I felt impelled to read her work and to know what her part of the conversation really looked like.
So there you have it. That is why, when I got the notice that my copy of the book was finally ready at the library, I marched there, none-too-excited, and began to read.
I was surprised by what I found. Well, initially, I wasn’t THAT surprised. I knew that I was going to be disturbed by the graphic descriptions of sex, and the attitudes towards the activity that I found therein. The internet had taught me to expect some concerning descriptions of Dunham’s behavior towards her younger sister. But when I actually got to the passage in question, I frankly almost missed it–it was not aligned, as the articles I had seen intimate, with the very ill-advised line in which Dunham describes herself as behaving like a sexual predator. That line is chapters and chapters later in the book. The first incident goes by without much of a blink–it’s this second statement that bothered me. It sticks out in the context of the narrative, and I can’t help but wonder how it got past an editorial team; it’s just a bad idea all around to compare yourself to a sex predator. That isn’t funny, and if it’s at all an accurate description, it’s concerning on many other levels. That being said, the rest of the controversy seems a bit blown out of proportion, probably largely due to statements that have been made in response by the author herself (how hard it must be to stay silent, but how advisable in these cases).
But weird (?) sex stuff aside, I found that I actually could relate to much of what Dunham described. Her anxiety reminded me enough of myself that I briefly entertained the idea that I’d somehow missed an OCD diagnoses (further reflection revealed that, in fact, social anxiety is still the most accurate descriptor for my childhood). The feeling of being a woman in our generation is indeed a feeling of complexities and contradictions, of hating your body and of having to almost violently proclaim your love for it as a defense against what society tries to teach you. That I could see myself in someone who I had expected to find fundamentally different from me just reminds me how universal some human experiences are–especially the experience of being a woman during a time where feminism comes up against “traditional” values, against occasionally patriarchal constructs and the discomfort of trying to change so much so fast.
I ripped through this book–I ate it up, seeing myself on the page in ways I had never expected: seeing myself as an artist, as a young woman trying to prove herself. I don’t need to agree with someone’s politics to find commonalities with them, something that reading this book really reinforced for me. I think that we should read it–all of us, women and men. Will it make you uncomfortable? Quite possibly. But there are important things here, important themes for women to recognize and men to perhaps see for the first time. Whether conservative, liberal, or vehemently moderate or independent, it can’t hurt to get another perspective on what it means to be young, to be an artist, and to be a woman. The reviews on Goodreads are largely negative, and I can understand that impulse. But as for me, well… I’m glad I read this one, and I’m glad it turned out to be a better experience than I expected.