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APW Book Club: Not That Kind of Girl

The discussion

I guess now is the time to sheepishly admit I have never actually finished an APW book club selection before. And by finish, I mean I still need to start reading How to Be a Woman(Sorry, Meg!) But when we decided to resurrect APW Book Club with Lena Dunham’s first book of essays, Not That Kind of Girl, I was excited to dive in. With the exception of #GirlBoss, by NastyGal founder Sophia Amourosa, I haven’t made it through any of the recent celebrity memoirs. (Bossypants and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me both sit sadly half-finished on my virtual bookshelf.) But it turns out having an Audible account will do wonders for a girl’s ability to get her homework done (well, that and being on the hook for writing this post, but I digress).

When I first asked the staff for questions to help ignite the discussion for today, one contributor warned that reading Not That Kind of Girl didn’t make her dislike Dunham, but it did make her realize that she finds her “lovable from a distance but exhausting when I think about my real friends who share her characteristics. Just sort of that classic artistic/creative flake.” Which I find interesting in retrospect, because the single most impressive excerpt from Not That Kind of Girl was the last thing I read in the book: Dunham’s bio. I’ll copy the highlights for you right here:

Lena Dunham is the creator of the critically acclaimed HBO series, Girls, for which she also serves as executive producer, writer, and director. She has been nominated for eight Emmy awards and has won two Golden Globes, including Best Actress, for her work on Girls. She was the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America award for directorial achievement in comedy.

With so much criticism surrounding her show, her book, and her personaI don’t think it’s an accident that in the middle of a bunch of totally disarming essays about boys, virginity, and working at a children’s retail store, Lena Dunham hits hard with what I consider the strongest essay of her book, called “I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me.” In it, Lena chronicles her early days in Hollywood trying to get noticed. She calls out Hollywood on all of the bullshit ways young women are dismissed as being silly and unthreatening, while simultaneously serving as fodder for more important work, for men’s work. As I was reading, I remember thinking I wonder if this whole book isn’t just a vehicle for this one essay? My favorite line of it being, “Oh look, they said to themselves, it’s a cute little director shaped thing.” In this essay it becomes quite obvious that Dunham is nothing if not relentless, far from any artistic flake.

But the most salient takeaway from Not That Kind of Girl, for me, comes from the first essay in the book. Lena writes:

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. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.

This excerpt feels particularly important when paired with the (until recently) most talked-about passage from Not That Kind of Girl: Lena’s rape. The first instance we hear of it, Dunham writes it as a drunken hookup gone awry. It is only later revealed that the hookup was, in fact, sexual assault. In retelling the story, Lena gets to reclaim the experience. In telling both narratives, she demonstrates to us that both are important, that both are worth sharing. As Time magazine put it:

Like many college girls, a mix of alcohol, drugs, unspoken expectations and shame may have kept her from using the “r” word to refer to the act until years later. She says that she rewrote history in her head, coming up with many versions (including the one above). The real tale—or what she remembers of it—is much more painful. It begins at a party where Dunham is alone, drunk, and high on Xanax and cocaine. It’s in that state that she runs into Barry, who she describes as “creepy,” and who sets off an alarm of “uh-oh” in her head as soon as she sees him.

…But sharing her own story is perhaps her bravest work of activism yet. We are still in a culture where women are told that they are to blame for anything that might happen if they drink and bring a man home. “I feel like there are fifty ways it’s my fault…But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way,” Dunham writes in the book. Dunham has come under fire for being too self-indulgent, revealing too much. But in this case, her candor may become a lifeline for women who’ve been through something similar and are feeling confused and alone.

But if you’ve been paying attention to coverage of Not That Kind of Girl this week, you’ll know it’s not all coming up roses in the department of Lena Dunham oversharing. A right-wing website called Truth Revolt (not linking for good reason) recently published an article claiming that an essay involving Lena’s little sister, Grace, depicted scenes of sexual abuse in which seven-year-old Lena is the abuser and one-year-old Grace as the victim.. (Note: The original article claimed that Dunham was seventeen at the time of the incident, when she was, in fact, seven. A marked difference.) While reading the book myself, I had initially chalked this scene up to an exaggerated retelling of a story that Dunham probably doesn’t even remember herself (like when I retell the time my sister Stephie cut my sister Casey’s bangs one afternoon when they were three and four. I’m not even sure I was there for that one, but I’ve told the story enough times to feel like I was).

However, after extensive behind-the-scenes staff discussion, I think I’ve netted out somewhere close to Salon’s take on the subject, which is to say:

Sure, when Dunham writes that “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina,” I as a parent think that I’d have instead used that moment for a conversation about touch and privacy. And it’s worth mentioning that Dunham’s sister Grace recently told the New York Times—in a story in which Dunham says that “I consider Grace to be an extension of me”—“Without getting into specifics, most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property.” So while I am skeptical that little Lena Dunham ever had a childhood moment that echoed a scene out of Georges Battaille, I believe what she’s trying to communicate is a moment of childhood discovery, of the rich “prank” of early exploration. Ultimately, I don’t believe it’s a well-told story, and I question Dunham’s ongoing apparent boundary issues with her sister’s privacy, but it’s not an abusive story either. And to say that it is one is a much, much bigger twisting of the truth than the one Dunham engages in.

I think asking the question “Did seven-year-old Lena Dunham abuse her one-year-old sister?” is not one most news outlets are equipped to handle. Or, possibly, one they have a right to cover extensively, when the child in question has made it clear she’s not the one making allegations of abuse. Children have all sorts of forms of self-discovery, seldom few of which are sexual in nature, and it’s parents’ jobs to teach appropriate boundaries with their kids. (And I want to note that it’s impossible to say what boundaries Lena and Grace’s mother laid down in real life—not in creative non-fiction—all those years ago.) I think this line of discussion comes back to the very question Lena posed at the beginning of her book: is hers a story that deserves to be told? Yes. But does that give her the right to exploit the stories of secondary characters in her life for the sake of her narrative? (And I don’t even mean exploit in a negative way here. I just mean… are their stories inherently hers too?) Every writer struggles with this issue, but I’m not sure Dunham always wins the battle here.

I’m still formulating my thoughts on Not That Kind of Girl, but I made it through it, so that’s saying something. (I’m one of the only people on staff that did—and in theory we were all more or less reading it for work.) For me, I think it comes down to what Lydia Kieting mentions in a different Salon article, wherein she points out the similarities between all of those memoirs I didn’t make it through and the Gospel of Nora Ephron. She says:

I saw Lena Dunham with a friend and after the event we talked about the genre of celebrity “lady books.” My friend said that behind Fey’s book, though, she felt more of the gentle prodding of an agent who said, “It’s time to write a book.” There is a pastiche quality to all of these books, but particularly to Fey, Kaling, and Poehler’s—the lists, the childhood photos, the excerpted emails and notes—that hints at a large market forces and the need to make these books all things to all people: people who want funny jokes, people who want to see how the TV sausage gets made, people who want insights into the adolescent yearnings of their pop culture heroes, people who go to Barnes & Noble to buy a latte and cruise the fun-stuff section at the front of the store. It’s a testament to the talents of these women are that they can basically succeed at reaching so many types of readers, but it’s also telling that they (and their editors) feel pressure to make these books work on so many levels.

Were these books less alike, I would never lump them together this way. But the resemblance is at some moment truly uncanny. I’m torn on two fronts: I think about fourteen-year-old-girls, and how important it is for them to read things by accomplished women, things that let them know that even the most charmed people have moments of feeling ugly and worthless and embarrassed. There is an advice component to all of these books that is surely useful for any professional woman, even when some of it seems not-in-keeping with current feminist thought (Fey’s advice about keeping your head down and working around your sexist boss has a collaborationist ring, although I do like the moment where she spoofs a Hopkins-educated doctor speaking only in sentences ending with question marks). And I’m aware that I should be celebrating the fact that women are being paid millions of dollars for books that include writing about typically female experiences of childbirth, motherhood, and body image anxiety—topics that are seen as parochial precisely because they are perceived to be women’s, rather than universal, issues.

But it still seems odd to me that some of the things that delighted and comforted fifteen-year-old me about Bridget Jones in the late 1990s (because, yes, Bridget Jones’s Diary was published almost twenty years ago)—her food diaries, her struggles not to chug cigarettes and chocolate, her constant humiliations in front of boys she liked, things that have been popping up in a slightly more polished form in Ephron’s writing over the decades—are still front and center in the oeuvre of our newest batch of accomplished women.

Which I think pretty much nails it for me. Because, yes, it’s immensely valuable that women be able to tell their stories. But that doesn’t erase the responsibility of having a story worth telling. So even though I really, really like her writing (I am an official Girls convert these days, despite initial protests), and even though I really really liked some of the essays in Not That Kind of Girl, and even though Dunham has done quite a lot with her career in such a short period of time, I’m just not sure that now was the time for Lena Dunham to write her memoir. (Or maybe, it’s that now is the wrong time for me to be reading it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most impactful essays for me were the ones about adult Lena’s life, and her challenges in the workforce.) Ultimately, if nothing else, Not That Kind of Girl confirmed what I’ve been saying all along: that Lena Dunham and Hannah Horvath are not the same person. But in this particular instance, I don’t know if that’s such a good thing or not.

Let’s discuss! What did you think of Not That Kind of Girl? (And note: this is the internet. Don’t say anything in a comment that you wouldn’t say to Lena Dunham over a drink. We treat all our authors that way here.)

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