How Lena Dunham became Oprah
In her new book Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham imparts life lessons for Millennials
When I tell people that I write about gender and culture for a living, one of the first questions that comes up is what I think about Lena Dunham. As I begin to explain my opinion — which is mostly positive, save for a few reservations — I often come to see that they aren't really asking me what I think about Dunham. They're asking me what they should think about her.
That's the thing about Dunham. Everyone either has something to say or is in search of something to say — and thousands of think pieces later we still can't shut up. When it comes to Dunham, agnosticism is simply not an option.
So what do I think about Dunham? And why exactly is she such a magnet of gushing praise and bitter critique? I think I can answer both at once.
Dunham is a very talented actress, showrunner, and writer, a young woman with a distinct voice that is humane, intelligent, and charming. Her show Girls may not be flawless, but it is a fleshed-out look at the lives of four compelling young women, and it is often quite funny. The same can be said for Dunham's new book Not That Kind of Girl, which recounts personal experiences that echo themes on her show, like sex, dating, friends, food, and mental illness. Dunham's commitment to the lives of young women is a radical and important act, testifying to the fact that the stories of young women — yes, even your average, privileged ones — matter. The fact that she does it well is a major plus.
It is not her work as an artist that rubs people the wrong way, but her work as celebrity figure Lena Dunham — or "Lena Dunham" — because surely her public persona is partly another one of her well-executed constructs. "Lena" has become, in her Girls character Hannah Hovarth's words, "the voice of [her] generation, or at least a voice of a generation," a Millennial Oprah of sorts whose public role is not just to make great art but also to mine that art for life lessons.
This tension between creative Lena and cheerleader Lena is most apparent in her new book, which could have been executed as a book of essays but was instead packaged as a kind of self-help book. The promotional videos for the book aren't about her art, but about the really swell advice she gives. And the text itself wrestles with her lived experiences in order to produce some shiny moral that might come in handy for all the artsy coeds around the world.
"[I]f 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," she writes in the intro.
Dunham is true to her word and delivers a number of awkward sex, friendship, and dieting anecdotes from the point of view of a slightly older, considerably wiser woman. The problem is, she doesn't go beyond that.
As many critics have pointed out, we don't hear much about Dunham the very ambitious career women, or Dunham the sometimes worshipped and sometimes panned wunderkind. In fact, what it feels like to exist within the contours of fame is entirely absent. Perhaps had the book been allowed to exist purely as a collection of personal essays, Dunham would have felt less pressure to be relatable and we would get to experience more of her. Instead, what we get is something betwixt and between.
In the book Dunham 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. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren't needed. [Not That Kind of Girl]
If only Dunham would have listened to her own advice.
We don't expect our great artists to provide us with answers or life lessons. Nobody expects Philip Roth or Joni Mitchell to stop the bleeding. We rely on artists to tell us great stories, which can be balms in and of themselves.
Feminist writer Rebecca Traister recently made the point that the magnifying lens that Lena Dunham lives under is a result of there being too few "Lena Dunhams," or young women with large public platforms. I agree, and I think this dearth of prominent young women has something to do with the pressure Dunham feels to not only serve us great stories but break open the fortune cookies as well. It's a lot of work being "a voice of a generation" and there is little room for error.