After indie movies, three seasons of Girls and a rise into the ranks of the most acclaimed young writers of the 21st century, it can feel like Lena Dunham must have exhausted the young life experiences she can draw from. But somehow Dunham manages to use her life once again to conjure up a book of witty — if at times painfully self-involved — essays about growing up as a neurotic, a woman and a 20-something artist. It seems just fitting that two of her commenders on the back cover are David Sedaris and Judy Blume.
Here are some of the most poignant, accurate lessons she hopes to teach readers in Not That Kind Of Girl, and a taste of a book well worth reading if these snippets prove cathartic.
In one of the book's earliest passages, Dunham talks about her idea of a night in when she was a student at Oberlin. "I've bought a VHS player and a pair of kniting needles and spend most nights on the sofa, making half a scarf for a boy I like who had a manic break and dropped out." Like any night in accompanied by Netflix and knitwear, it leads to some fears that this is all there is. "I am hideous. I am going to be living in a mental hospital by the time I am twenty-nine. I will never amount to anything." How wrong she was.
Dunham's book is focused on her thoughts, fears and reactions to the world and her place in it. While at times, as critics have mentioned, this can be infuriating, in other ways Dunham shows just how empowering self-expression can be. As she 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 … There are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren't needed."
Of the many hilarious and horrifying sexual encounters Dunham recounts and we can all relate to, the loss of her virginity is perhaps the most important, only because it doesn't really matter in the end. Dunham realizes that what seemed like the beginning of a metamorphosis is actually just something that happens. "That night, lying down felt the same, and sleep came easily. No floodgate had been opened. No vault of true womanhood unlocked. She remained, and she was me."
One particularly weird chapter involves Dunham talking about her love of sharing her bed with other men platonically, sometimes kissing but never having sex. "I was being desexualized in slow motion," she eventually pined, "becoming a teddy bear with breasts." For a lot of it, it feels like an idiosyncratic compunction until she zooms out to reveal her larger point: Never compromise just to feel loved. "I was a working woman. I deserved kisses. I deserved to be treated like a piece of meat but also respected for my intellect."
The power of chatrooms and instant messaging is nostalgically and beautifully recounted in the book, as is the malign behavior some people feel is alright when there's a screen between you and them. "A year later I have to change my screen name because a boy at school, a massive hairy boy with a face like a Picasso painting, sends me an email saying he's going to rape me and cover me in barbecue sauce. He's the only guy who likes me in that way, and I wish he wouldn't."
Nora Ephron is frequently, and rightfully, held up by Dunham as a feminist and literary icon: Her work even creeps into a few of Not That Kind of Girl's charming illustrations. But one ex-boyfriend made Dunham shift her love of rom-com queen Ephron into faux irony: "Ironic references to rom-coms are a great way to show that you are NOT the kind of girl/woman who cares about romantic conventions" she notes in one aside. A man who makes you like what you like ironically, probably isn't worth the fight.
One passage in the book finds Dunham recalling a particularly mortifying experience with sexting that should remind us all that sexting just isn't that great and can be incredibly embarrassing. "He responded with texts that read 'I want to fuck you with the air conditioner on' and 'I want to fuck you after I set my alarm clock for 8:45a.m.' … It took about eleven of these texts to realize he was doing some kind of Dadaist performance art at my expense."
Dunham makes no secret of her liberal and holistic education throughout the book. In one school "we put on plays … I was allowed to circulate literature about veganism in the stairwell." But while her schools and their eccentricities are often played for laughs, Dunham also praises how, from a very early age, she was made to appreciate liberal ideas like feminism. "I understood that feminism was a worthy concept long before I was aware of being female," Dunham said.
Dunham never apologizes for her wealthy, artistic, New York upbringing, although she shows a wonderful awareness of what it does and did for her. At one point, however, she ended up in a bad relationship out of some sense of privilege guilt. "What was it that I couldn't understand and how could I understand it, short of moving to a war-torn nation? I couldn't escape the feeling that I had experiences to gain, things to learn. That feeling was the crux of my whole relationship with Joaquin."
In a section detailing the excellent advice Dunham has collected from her mother, there's one piece of advice that rings true for anyone with a leftfield sense of style. "It's ok to ignore the dress code if you're an 'artist.' People will think you're operating on a higher plane and feel suddenly self-conscious." Considering one anecdote features Dunham on a date in a vintage wedding dress, its safe to say she lives by this mantra.
An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to recollections of the moments just after breakups with assorted jerk-off boyfriends. The best, however, might be her mother's response. "I am crippled by what feels like sadness but what I will later diagnose as embarrassment. She tells me this is a great excuse: to take time for myself, to cry a bunch, to eat only carbohydrates slathered in cheese." Dunham's mother also gives a piece of advice we would all be better off remembering: "You will find," she said, "that there’s a certain grace to having your heart broken."
Dunham recounts many of her early short films in the book, as well as much of her melancholy poetry, theater and prose. But her most defining early work is the snarky, poorly made social commentary webseries she developed with two best friends that ended up finding success in the art world. "It didn't have a narrative propulsion or cinematic graces. But watching it now, I can also feel the giddiness, the joy of creation we were all expecting, the catharsis of admitting our situation. It jumps off the screen. It's silly and obvious and high on its own supply, but it's something. It's a step forward." It's a simple lesson: If you want to make it, you have to make something.
In an essay reflecting on her grandmother's death, Dunham thinks about how limited her idea of death was at the time, and how she couldn't imagine ideas like reincarnation. "If we are reincarnated, as my mother promises, how long do we have to wait around before we get inside that new baby? Is it a long line, like the Japanese girls lined up outside a newly opened Topshop?"
The moments when Dunham talks about the here and now are moments of relief and optimism, which should serve to give us all hope that we can be this happy in our 20s. She too worked bad jobs to pay the rent, but eventually she found her purpose. "Soon you will find yourself in more situations you don't want to run from. At work you'll realize that you've spent the entire day in your body, really in it, not imagining what you look like to the people who surround you but just being who you are. You are a tool being put to its proper use. That changes a lot of things."