Book Review: The lady doth protest too much

With ‘Not That Kind of Girl,’ ‘Girls’ creator and star Lena Dunham attempts to perpetuate her image as a pioneering avant-garde ‘It Girl.’

Lena Dunham arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala Benefit in Manhattan. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lena Dunham arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Gala Benefit in Manhattan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl, she dedicates 10 whole pages to detailing her caloric intake.
Her diet, which consists of common staples found in organic food markets, is what would you’d expect from someone who is trying to lose weight, sprinkled with the occasional “eccentric” item. Among the Mesa Sunrise cereals, dried fruit and vegetables are items like Smooth Move laxative tea and a note that her occasional use of Percocet may have led her to overestimating her calorie count.
It’s this type of self-indulgence mixed with an earnest desire to be unique or different that encapsulates much of Dunham’s memoir.
But, as the famous book for children says, everyone poops. And everybody wants to lose weight, be more beautiful, find love and success. And Dunham – try as hard as she might – is that kind of girl, although she’d be loath to admit it.
The writing itself is breezy, almost as if Dunham herself is sitting beside the reader on the couch, sipping a glass of Chardonnay and regaling them with tales about her vagina.
But as you can imagine, after being entertained by the shock value for a halfhour, a bit like that gets old – and the compulsion to kick out the over-sharer is too hard to ignore.
That word “oversharing,” incidentally, is something Dunham wishes could be struck from the lexicon, since men are often spared being associated with such a phrase. “The term ‘oversharing’ is so complicated because I do think that it’s really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it’s bravery; and when women share their experiences, it’s some sort of – people are like, ‘TMI’ [slang term for ‘too much information’].”
That may be true, and her claim that “there is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman,” is something to applaud.
And even though Dunham doesn’t proclaim to be an expert on anything, her status as the writer, director and actor of Girls, her own show – at 25! – must mean she has some wisdom to impart to her legion of 20-something fans who want to learn from her.
While few and far between, there are enjoyable moments where Dunham offers some useful (if offbeat) advice with a sense of mischievous glee.
Her confession that she used to have a penchant for falling for self-obsessed jerks is something most young girls coming into their own experience, and her sharing of those experiences without beating herself up over it is refreshing.
“When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself,” she writes.
“You are not made up of compartments! You are one whole person! What gets said to you gets said to all of you, ditto what gets done.”
That is something a lot of girls need to hear, and kudos to Dunham for articulating it. But these moments of insight are largely overshadowed by oblivious, repetitive and self-indulgent anecdotes that come off as lazy at best, and tone-deaf and contradictory at worst.
Take, for example, the chapter in which she talks about how her sister Grace confessed to her she’s a lesbian.
In general, the way the author writes about her younger sister is problematic.
Dunham describes Grace as an elusive figure she desperately wished to know better. It gets strange when she describes “bribing” her for affection as a child, particularly the line in which she says, “Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl, I was trying.”
That passage has garnered a lot of attention in the press, and while discussing childhood curiosity about the human body and boundaries when it comes to intimacy is valid, Dunham just lets her weird anecdote dangle in midair, leaving the reader confused as to the point of it all. It’s almost as if she used her sister as a punch line for an unfunny joke.
Even worse is her account of her sister confessing one of the most intimate details of her life. After Grace reveals that she’s gay, Dunham’s reaction is completely self-involved. She writes, “I began to sob. Not because I didn’t want her to be gay – in truth, it worked perfectly with my embarrassing image of myself as the quirkiest girl on the block.”
A personal and private confession from her sister became reduced to how it impacted Dunham herself. And, oh, Dunham ends up being the first to tell her parents the news – well before her sister felt ready to.
And here is where the contradictions arise. There is one topic that seems to be off-limits in her book – her current boyfriend, Fun rocker Jack Antonoff. Of him, she says, “He is mine to protect. There is so much I’ve shared, and so much that’s been crushed by the sharing. I never mourned it, because it never mattered.”
That sentiment is sweet. But she’s shared details about her sister’s sex life and her friend’s secrets. Are those irrelevant, too? To a woman whose entire show is about friendship between young women? Maybe Dunham wasn’t quite ready to write the book she envisioned. Recent reports state that the actress hired crisis management expert (and inspiration for Scandal’s Olivia Pope) Judy Smith to handle her image. Folks don’t hire Smith if they think they know how to properly communicate with the media; just ask former clients Michael Vick and Monica Lewinsky.
So perhaps Dunham is entering a more prudent phase in her life, where she understands that what she has to say is valid and people are clamoring to hear it – but maybe we don’t need to be clued into every single tidbit she learns along the way.
And maybe, just maybe, then she’ll be ready for a second, more nuanced memoir that will be less of a chore to get through.