Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham - book review: Author succeeds in redefining a thorny, pernicious pressure on women

Dunham alludes to tales of misogyny she’d recount, reputations of patronising sleazebags she’d shatter if she were writing this at 80

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The Independent Culture

The subtitle is significant: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”.

The fact that Lena Dunham had written, directed and starred in two films and the era-defining HBO show, Girls, by the age of 25 perhaps makes memoir-publishing at 28 less absurd, but she is still sufficiently self-aware to flag up her youth. Then there are those quotation marks – a firing gun of millennial irony. She gets in there first, mocking the ridiculousness of her imparting wisdom when she’s made a career of parading screws-up.

If it’s a defence mechanism, it’s an understandable one. Dunham is – let’s be clear – brilliant; Girls has been a televisual game-changer. But because she’s been so successful so young, Dunham has also been impossibly burdened with expectation. The flip side of being the “voice of a generation”, however, is that you get an advance of $3.7m (£2.3m). So, was it worth it?

Introduced as “hopeful dispatches from the frontlines” in the struggle to “have it all”, Dunham lays out her neuroses – terrible sex, dissociative anxiety, hypochondria, “not-very-effective” eating disorders, obsession with death. But she’s also a very funny writer, with a breezily confessional tone, and imbues the gloom with hope – that we’re always marching forward on journeys of “self-actualisation”. Her writing is fizzy, with enough acid to cut through the New York, vegan-cookie-eating, chatting-with-my-therapist clichés of privilege. Being 28 myself, I am unsurprisingly receptive to her output. We’ve grown up in the same changing world; I get the references. But a good memoir surely transcends that. And I’m not sure Not That Kind of Girl does.

Unlike the most obvious recent precursor, Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, the brutally honest, bruisingly comic life-stories do not always illuminate the wider world and how to make your way through it. Indeed, Dunham often presents her experiences as unique, special. She used to be attracted to “jerks” – is that really because she’s fascinatingly troubled? Surely it’s common in girls with self-esteem issues.

Dunham admits to self-obsession – even when her grandmother dies, she asks: “What does this all mean for me?” But acknowledging narcissism doesn’t neutralise it, and there is some shameful fodder among the spicy, tell-all anecdotes. A list of what’s in her handbag? Puh-leeze. Reprinting your food diary? Bridget Jones without the wit.

Where she genuinely has rare insight – into the depressingly macho world of Hollywood and TV – her account is glancing. Dunham alludes to tales of misogyny she’d recount, reputations of patronising sleazebags she’d shatter if she were writing this at 80. I wish she’d stick the boot in now: the anger at men who think “girls are there to be your props” is righteous, but this is a strangely coy way to vent.

Nonetheless, the book succeeds in redefining a thorny, pernicious pressure on women. “Having it all” need not mean hitting narrow markers of success – the perfect job/man/body – but instead being able to own your experiences: the good, the bad, the ugly. All of it.