Lena Dunham has spent many listless hours in this very same Barnes & Noble, sometimes eyeing the cheesier glossy magazines, once almost dumping a man on the fourth floor who asked her to read his writing too early into their relationship. This anecdote is delivered by the 28-year-old director-actress-author not with gravitas, but a simple and comfortable measure. It’s the first night of Lena Dunham’s book tour promoting her new confessional-to-the-brim memoir Not That Kind of Girl and here she is, still confessing.
Called everything from “honest to the point of making you squirm,” “caustic,” and a “must-read,” Dunham’s first book has been a source of contention for several reasons – her $3 million plus book deal, her initial reluctance to compensate accompanying tour acts, and the very idea that she has any sound advice to offer the rest of us within her pages. In a discussion at the New Yorker Festival several years back, Dunham once said she was fascinated by self-help books and “the idea of mastering a mysterious human emotion and then writing a book on how to handle it properly.” Now, with the release of her own kind of self-help read, it seems that if Dunham has mastered anything, it’s being brutally honest about her personal life (some call it navel-gazing) and remaining unapologetic through it all (she doesn’t care).
Waiting in the weaving line for her book tour’s opening night, it seemed the army of Dunham fans was overwhelmingly female (“That’s maybe 90 percent women,” an onlooker chimed in), largely young (ages 18 to 28 predominantly), and expertly coiffed (ombré tufts of hair, brightly lipsticked lips). When I filtered through the line asking about everyone’s apparent connection to the book, I got a few of the same replies. “I just love her, I want to be her,” said a young anxious college student. “I was looking at the font of her book and was immediately jealous. Now I can’t use that type of print for my book.” It was a Hannah Horvathian statement no doubt.
“This is just a present for my girlfriend’s sister,” one man responds with a shrug when I ask him why he was one of the few men in the crowd. Blake, a bartender, said that Dunham’s focus on women’s issues has never alienated him. “I believe in her authorial voice,” he claims. Another woman in her mid-twenties explained her history with Dunham, “I’ve been following her since Tiny Furniture and even her earlier films. She’s just so honest. You gotta love her. She’s just so her.” All seemed ready to congratulate Dunham for the very act of being emphatically herself. In an age where image is paramount, authenticity, even in a self-effacing, overly aware package, feels like a breath of fresh air. To many women who have felt their awkward, non-catalogue bodies have been underrepresented, it feels like salvation.
It’s that almost required quality of admiration that makes Lena Dunham one of the most polarizing icons of the 21st century — you either gush or leave muttering insults. Dunham’s art is me-oriented — society only exists in relation to her and her family and whatever her therapist commented about it. And her memoir, unsurprisingly, is of the same ilk: ride or die, lean into the sinews of Dunham’s pre-K neurosis, the granular aspects of her art-drenched adolescence, the praise and admonishments her parents gave to her, the shiver-inducing folds of her early sexual experiences. Or don’t read at all.
Dunham’s book, which is really a memoir disguised in sectioned off “advice” chapters, is a big nod to Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 how-to Having It All. Gurley’s text complicated the idea of the self-sufficient woman with instruction such as “You have to feel slightly uncomfortable and hungry during your weight loss or it probably isn’t happening,” or “the more sex you have, the more you can tolerate.” Dunham, on the other hand, isn’t so much doling out the same kind of hyper-feminine advice as much as scrounging around anecdotes and fitting them with some kind of prescriptive moral. She writes in her intro:
“If I could take what I learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep was worthwhile […] I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontline of that struggle.”
If you’re looking for true revelations or facts about Dunham that you couldn’t have already assumed, look elsewhere. As Katy Waldman notes on Slate, with Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham “invites us to inspect everything that we think of as private:” an embarrassingly grim encounter with an online boyfriend named Igor, her over-the-line relationships with her therapists and their children, and a hard-to-read account of a nonconsensual night with a “creepy” man she barely knew. Only, with Dunham, the personal is never private. “I was hungry to be seen,” Dunham confides in a description of a college party she attends, but the same can be said of the book. The pages are accompanied with cutesy illustrations from Joana Avillez that give the text the type of textile diary quality Dunham has always delivered. The seductive prose grabs your ear like a new friend and it’s easy to get lost in the lines, feeling the glow of a cool girl finally paying attention to us, the readers. Reading her memoir, and attending the launch, it became evident that Dunham wasn’t so much a cultural force as everybody in the crowd’s best friend-at-large.
It’s fitting that comedian Amy Schumer was there to present and talk with Dunham — a woman who deconstructs her body image (“I’m really a monster”) and the nature of female friendships almost as much as Dunham herself. If within Amy Schumer’s sketches the women that participate in female friendships are literally cannibalized, then in Dunham’s Girls and her book, women cannibalize each other through subtler, insidious means: stealing boyfriends, kicking one another out of apartments, belittling career goals, criticizing choices in style.
Both Schumer and Dunham offer a new kind of girl talk, one that involves boys, bodies, and gossip, but moreover an unabashed and therapeutic display of the self, (HPV) warts and all. In Schumer and Dunham’s world, women can shit, have pimples, overeat, and have serious concerns over their creative process. Schumer shares an account of how she recently split a lip trying to shove a handful of popcorn in her mouth, while Dunham stumbles over the words “hosiery” and “anonymity” during her reading. “Is that how you say it?” she asks the audience with a smile, earnest and yet aware of the effect second-guessing herself always has. It’s cute and relatable and only makes her seem more gracious. After all, this is a Lena-ism: blustering through error, awkwardness, and anxiety-inducing experiences without compunction and coming out on top because of sheer charm.
Right before she reads a few excerpts from her memoir, Dunham presents the type of caveat that only she could. “I’m going to read you two essays — I’m still learning to read in public, you know. It still has that anxiety-producing fourth grade on-the-spot quality,” she says. And then, more confidently, as if we were her best friends cozying up to one another on a couch, “so if I stumble or something sounds messy coming out of my mouth, let’s just make it a bonding experience for all of us. You can say we went through something together.” And despite the multi-million book deal, the celebrity host of her book launch, her well-regarded artist parents, her HBO show, her Instagram photos with Mindy Kaling, her rockstar boyfriend, and recent appearance on The Daily Show, there she is again. Lena Dunham, our best friend.