Guest Post by Dana Sukontarak
After reading ‘Not That Kind of Girl,’ the collection of personal essays she released in September, I was more or less in the same space regarding my feelings toward Lena Dunham. The book was essentially the literary counterpart to her hit HBO series GIRLS, which explores the tremulous experiences of twenty-somethings trying to reconcile the comforts and ease of their childhood with the pains and brutality of growing up and trying to find some slice of success. In NTKOG, Dunham takes a less general approach, and directly divulges her personal tales of everything from bad diets and body image to self-destructive relationships and gray-area sexual encounters. It should come as no surprise that Dunham is an open book. Much like her GIRLS character, Hannah Horvath, Dunham is arguably spoiled, misguided, self-centered, and aggressively annoying. She is not a child molester, as one severe reach-a-saurus put it in a recent article—one that not only decimates the principles of journalism but also taints the way someone who hasn’t read the book will digest the material, if they even decide that they want to read it at all.
In the book, Dunham describes looking into her one-year-old sister’s vagina, her curiosity about the female anatomy overpowering her. Dunham herself is seven (which the article originally, and erroneously, stated as seventeen), and immediately runs to her mom. It turns out her little sister had stuffed a handful of pebbles into her vagina—it’s an unconventional story, but don’t we all have a couple of those in our arsenal? The article also misuses quotes from Dunham’s book to paint a very grim picture: “…anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.” This is what we call a metaphor.
In reality, Dunham is obviously very troubled. But she seems to have a pretty solid grasp on the extent of that trouble. She is clearly intelligent and witty, though she tends to opt for paunchy puns over political correctness. That said, it is damn near impossible to form a valid opinion about Dunham—whether about her molester status, or her creative influence, or the Venn diagram of her reality and her artistic repertoire—without first reading her book in its entirety. Because this twisted exposition of one of Dunham’s childhood memories has cast a shadow over other discussions she prompts with this book, I think it’s only fair to provide a holistic interpretation of what really can be found in these 262 pages.
Reading Dunham’s memoirs confirmed one thing for me—if you’re looking for a sweet, healthy, levelheaded female role model, Dunham’s not that kind of girl. Rather, she’s the kind of girl who treats herself like a science experiment, fucking all the unsavory losers she can and eating baby spoonfuls of cottage cheese for dinner so that you don’t have to. You can simply read about her experiences of being used and abused by misogynist, artsy types (hello, Adam), and about her horribly awkward childhood recollections (telling an adult at a party that when she misbehaves, her father “sticks a fork in [her] vagina”), and about all the weird, unsettling things she did while at Oberlin (apparently the ideal college experience for someone raised by a couple of sexual, open-minded semi-beatniks living in Brooklyn).
NTKOG pulls the reader into the existence of a privileged, prosciutto-eating kid who was raised to speak her mind (sometimes beyond social norms) and was once, according to her, obsessed with her own beauty. It’s strange, yet completely understandable, how this translated into the woman Dunham is today—ambitious, often self-deprecating (under the guise of good old-fashioned humor and the virtues of not taking one’s self so seriously), and absolutely fine with being nude on TV (despite critics who have viciously chastised her Baby Cupid-esque body, as well as her directorial decisions to often display it completely exposed on her show). She definitely delights the reader in small ways—describing her little sister’s style as that of a “Hawaiian criminal,” for example.
Although flippant about some very grave issues, Dunham does provide some very poignant moments of clarity and advice, including this segment about self-worth: “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. You are not made up of compartments! You are one whole person! What gets said gets said to all of you, ditto what gets done. Being treated like shit is not an amusing game or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve. This is so simple. But I tried so hard to make it complicated.”
For me, the most powerful—and awkward—chapter of the book comes in the first section (of five total), ‘Love and Sex.’ It is simply titled “Barry,” and recounts a drunken college experience in which she is kinda raped (getting fucked in a half-conscious stupor while egging him on as sort of a way to “own” a situation she didn’t want to admit she had no control over), and laughs off friends who vocally identify this as rape. Dunham appears to have a shifting understanding of this situation over time, though she doesn’t quite spell it out. She leaves a lot of space for readers to create conjectures—sometimes that means people will label her as a child molester, but mostly it means people will see that Dunham is still learning and growing (and even failing) despite reaching this level of success in her life and her career.
If read as a “how-to” book, NTKOG is a bomb waiting to detonate all over your life. However, if taken simply as a collection of perhaps-embellished stories from the warped mind of a quirky egoist, designed to prevent you from the same downfalls, the book is something like a gem. If nothing else, Dunham will make you feel good about not being “that” girl—the pristine, poised one, the one that’s got it all together. She knows that, mostly, girls her age are (sorta) just like her: looking to live, love, learn, and feel.
Dana is 25 and living just outside of the nation’s capital in Hyattsville, Md. She is a Journalism graduate of the University of Maryland College Park. Some of her favorite things include snail mail, vacations, and great literature.