Not That Kind of Girl:
Lena Dunham’s Exercises in Writing it All Down
Writers love using the term zeitgeist when discussing Lena Dunham, proclaiming that her work buttons up the millennial anxiety — that she’s the voice of her generation. She’s praised for her piercing wit and pragmatic approach to real issues like female body image, the gender gap, education, and healthcare; meanwhile, her strongest critics have dubbed her as disillusioned, self-absorbed, and fueling a resurgence of the lost generation.
While too often criticized for her myopic view on the human experience, Dunham’s work is entirely the opposite to that of which her critics compare. To the tune of the zeitgeist, Dunham has created an accurately fictitious world that closely mirrors our own. As viewers, we’re exposed to questions that both force and enable us to face realistic anxieties of 2015. As Nathan Heller put it in his 2014 essay in Vogue, “Dunham’s ability to speak for a hyperconnected generation rich in entitled ambition but poor in practical know-how has carved a trenchant cultural portrait” (Heller, Vogue, 2014).
Positive or negative, the collective reviews of Dunham’s work overshadow her talent as an artist, and her role as a creator is overlooked in the noise that erupts in reaction to her work on screen and on paper. Through her reflective character constructions, personal dating tales from the crypt, and details of everyday neuroses that will make anyone feel a little less alone in their craziness, Dunham has brilliantly constructed an uninhibited and relevant collection of work that articulates an exercise in meeting one’s maker, championing experiences as part of a larger plotline, and taking responsibility in each episode. Most of all, Dunham is teaching us a lesson in embracing the creative vehicles we need to get it all out in her own very public and entirely cathartic creation of a now iconic character named Hannah Horvath.
The Power of the White Girl in the Literary Marketplace
In Hilton Als’s 2014 book White Girls, Als openly comments on a topic that many writers fail to publicly acknowledge: the literary market and figuring out your place within it. Als furthers with the power of the “white girl” as a voice in society, going on to discuss Truman Capote and how he found his a voice that lead him to deem himself “the most famous woman author of his generation” (Als, White Girls). Als attributes much of Capote’s success in planting roots in the literary and social circles of New York publishing to his identification and personal branding as an adult man identifying as a white female voice.
Appreciate it or not, Dunham, having made a name for herself in Vogue in 1998 and then in the Times in 2003, is entirely characteristic of Al’s definition of the incredibly political role of the ‘white girl.’ Her critics would argue that this, her relationship with Nora Ephron, and her personal funding of her 2010 film Tiny Furniture are the only reasons she’s made it this far. When we remove the politics, however, and look at her work for what it is, Dunham’s approach differs from that which we’ve seen on network TV or in twenty-something memoirs of the past. She isn’t trying to be a white girl with #whitegirlproblems; in fact, she’s willing to acknowledge that maybe it’s her whiteness that got her into the spotlight.
Where Dunham differs from her counterparts is in her open embrace of the ‘white girl’ role in the market of literature. It is here that she has branded herself and her collection of characters as just that, stating “so what” and using it against audience expectations to challenge the realities of current socioeconomic structures. The significant shock factor in Dunham’s work and what grounds her place in the market is her ability to create characters that are relatable to ourselves in their decisions of both conflict and conquest that both align with and oppose our expectations of the white girl. We see ourselves in both her characters’ actions and missteps, and it is through them that we realize her fictitious world on screen is both a documentary and sitcom, with characters whose values are both analogous and dichotomous to our own standards.
The Power of Character Constructions, On and Offscreen
In an interview with New York Times Magazine, Dunham states, “I want to make it clear that the utterly self-involved, politically disengaged character I play on Girls is not who I am” (Dunham, New York Times Magazine). We see this statement hold true in her curious construction of the fascinating character of Hannah Horvath on Girls: a character who similar to Dunham in theory, but who is entirely opposite in action. As we watch Hannah grapple with her career, relationships, and personal development, we understand that Dunham is using Hannah as the ultimate mechanism of catharsis.
What is particularly unique in this duality is that Dunham’s and Hannah’s values and foresight do not always align. For example, Hannah is more consumed with the idea of being a writer than acting upon it. Dunham’s relationship to her characters — particularly that to Hannah — has canonized her as an author. In defiance to literary norms, her characters are a foil through which she is able to make a statement against all of that which she isn’t, and a statement for all of that which she stands for. Dunham strips her characters of those traits we typically align with the hero in literature, forcing audiences to reevaluate their view of a powerful role model.
Dunham is an advocate for embracing our “flaws” or “abnormalities” that we must work with each day in order to be human, and her dynamic character constructions depict this brilliantly in the way that Sex and the City glamorized “figuring it all out as we go along” during the 1990s. It’s not only through Hannah that Dunham is working through her own personal insecurities and anxieties. Like Darren Star (Sex and the City’s creator), Dunham has built four different characters that represent four categories of women with unique pyramids of human needs — the lover, the scholar, the philosopher, and the home-body — each seeking shelter from growing pains. Dunham has categorized the emotions, social and economic statuses of young women today through the creation of these four, each of whom are both an extension of herself and her peers. These women are thus relatable to women in social circles everywhere, allowing her to garner buy in from a wide range of audiences. Dunham shows how each of her characters uniquely grow, and, more importantly, how each overlap and align to make up the parts of our whole as a being. Dunham’s characters and their stories allow us to engage on a personal level, and it is through these four seemingly lost women that we’re able to view our ability to arrive upon, confront and, in turn, manage change.
Is She Making the Noise Louder? Or Is It Now More Audible?
Dunham has branded herself not only as a social figure aiming to inspire the audience whom she’s so closely captivated, but also as an observational writer with a mission to document. What is particularly unique in how closely she examines individual situations and ties in a thread for each of her character developments. Her approach is more holistic than others — reading her work feels as though she is hovering outside of her body, experiencing life both first and second-hand. She writes as though she has a third eye that sees both potential and shortcomings in her observations. Her keen eye for detail drives her to ask questions, weed through the noise and find the root of cause in action in today’s “hyperconnected generation.”
What is most powerful in Dunham’s work is the values (though fleeting) she instills within her characters on Girls — those of family, friends, relationships, and personal accountability. Albeit one of the most difficult aspects to carefully write into one’s work, we see a uniquely calculated feminist push in her characters’ dedication to not holding back opinions. It’s difficult for women to write about feelings without coming across consumed, and Dunham thoughtfully injects her work with praise for women standing up for themselves and acknowledging their feelings. She nods to the delicate balance required by women of an unspoken holy trinity (their personal, career, and social lives) and through her collective of characters is able to work through the desires and vulnerabilities in each realm, trying to find substantive answers rooted in their overlap.
As Meghan Daum puts it in an essay for New York Times Magazine, “Dunham has functioned as a proxy for the collective aspirations and insecurities of her generation, or at least a certain educated, mostly white, mostly urban-dwelling micro-demographic therein. She is perhaps to the millennials what J. D. Salinger was to the post-WWII generation and Woody Allen was to the baby boomers: a singular voice who spoke as an outsider and, in doing so, became the ultimate insider” (Daum, New York Times Magazine). Daum, herself, published an essay collection in 2001 called My Misspent Youth (see primary essay: My Misspent Youth) that shook Gen Xers everywhere and left them wanting more. In it, she discusses the overseen moments between the bigger moments and our obsessions in life: “the condition that I feel most strongly affects the way we as humans go about the business of living our lives: our habit of expressing ourselves through the trappings of particular ideas rather than through the substance of those ideas.”
Dunham is victorious in opening the table for discussion where others have fallen short. Returning to the topic of the literary market, what Dunham has accomplished (and what Daum set out to do) is nothing new in aspiration. What sets Dunham apart is that she has found a niche in the market of today’s literature that extends beyond simply writing for a twenty-something, upper-middle class, female audience. By creating women on screen characteristic of traits that are relatable, and, more so, those traits that she sees as a fault, Dunham is able to define whom she is not and what she aspires not to be.
Operating on a Scale Larger than Network Television
An advocate for social equality, Dunham is more than just a figure to be forgotten in a decade’s time. Her voice as a young woman is harmonizing with that of women of all ages, professions, sexual orientations, and nationalities. Her work bravely addresses the everyday politics in work, life and sex — concerns echoed in Sheryl Sandberg’s women’s call to arms book, Lean In, in which she states, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back where we should be leaning in” (Sandberg). While she understands the impracticality of “having it all,” Dunham pushes a theme of taking responsibility for and respecting oneself in any and all situations, even those that seem trivial. She acknowledges in the introduction of her book her intent in its publication, stating, “If I could take what I’ve 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 of mine was worthwhile” (Not that Kind of Girl, xvii).
Dunham’s reactions to criticism are more active than reactive, proving that she isn’t just throwing performance art into the world to be metabolized. We can see that she isn’t finished; in fact, it’s obvious that she’s only just begun. Her book tours, as Daum states, “drive home the message that any woman writing about her personal experiences is engaged in an inherently political act.” For this, even as critics, we champion Dunham for asking questions and not letting anything slip over her head. Daum continues, “Dunham’s interpretation may be rooted in her unwavering commitment to the idea that personal experiences, especially women’s personal experiences, are valid and necessary as subject matter” (Daum, New York Times Magazine).
In an interview with NPR in September of 2014, Dunham notes the importance of community amongst women today. “There are more women than there has ever been before and each one is unique and there’s a lot of ways to express your femaleness… So what I love about feminism is that it seems like an irrefutable concept, which is equality, caring for each other, supporting each other, looking out for each other and being strong in the face of a lot of societal factors that are telling us to sit down and shut up.” She furthers, with her frustration about the public misunderstanding of feminism, “What it actually means is you believe in human rights and women should be fairly compensated for the jobs that they do and that they should be [offered] the same opportunities and they shouldn’t be discriminated against or hurt because of their gender” (Dunham, NPR).
Dunham is anything but terse in her comedic conclusions about the banalities of life; however, through all of her quips, neuroses, and horrific sex tales, she’s found a delicate balance between saying too much and not saying enough. She doesn’t jump to conclusions or try to arrive us at a happy ending. Instead, her scenarios on screen open the table for women to have an honest and realistic conversation with others and, more importantly, with themselves. Much of her success lies in her ability to publicly disrobe — literally and figuratively — and it seems she finds comfort in the resolution she finds after moments of vulnerability. As Nathan Heller states, “Dunham’s comfort in her own skin — even when bared — has become part of her cool iconoclasm” (Heller, Vogue, 2014). If Dunham stands for anything, it’s the power of the independent female woman today and the importance of respecting oneself enough to throw your point into the mix. As she states, she’s simply “ambling along,” which is humbling coming from a young woman who is exposing her questions and insecurities for the world to see.
Has She Said it All?
Dunham has undoubtedly created a tall order of expectations from a diverse audience group, which we can only assume fuels a symbiotic relationship with her reader base and creates a significant pressure on her to leave a cultural impression. Despite the exhaustive amount of work that she’s produced in the past five years, it’s obvious that she has only just begun her journey as a female voice within the canon. She’s warming up not only the form and structure of her work, but also the substance and its function.
As readers and viewers, we grow frustrated as Dunham’s work appears to have plateaued a bit in its evolution: we are depending on her to direct us to answers, to a single conclusion derived from all of her sparring. Yet, Dunham hasn’t promised this to us, and our expectation is misplaced. In fact, she’s actually stated the opposite in that she’s not creating a bedside bible to which young women can prescribe for the answers to life’s greatest questions.
Reading and watching Dunham at work in her rapt with the ambiguities of life is what we can assume was the enchantment and enlightenment that surrounded the salons and studios of Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and the like in the years following WWI. Today, women are encouraged to lean in closer in the boardroom, just as women were told to speak up with the passage of the right to vote in 1920. The loosening of regulations around alternative substances today mirrors that of prohibition, and activity in New York and Missouri harken back to the social upheaval of the classes across numerous post-war generations. Just as we study the content and form of Hemingway’s work at the same time we’re studying him as a historic figure, we are studying Dunham as both cultural figure and creator of works as part of a larger conversation.
Dunham’s work echoes the reaction to the theme of the “lost generation” epigraph found in Hemingway’s and other modernists’ work; however, she isn’t championing a resurgence of the lost generation at all, in fact, she’s selflessly daring to ask, who is calling whom lost? In an embrace of the so-called nontraditional path that defines life in 2015, Dunham represents a new generation, one who dares to confront our avoidance of social progress and ask, where did we become so weak in our ability to embrace change?