OCTOBER 4, 2014
WHAT CONSTITUTES self-involvement, exactly? If I told you an entertaining story about the existential dread that befell me as my parents moved from one run-down desert town to another, would you consider that self-involved? What if I described falling into a panic because I lost my boyfriend in a crowd one day? Would that qualify me as self-absorbed? How about if I reflected on some sexual dalliances and analyzed my confusion about romantic love? Is that navel-gazing? Is it navel-gazing if I do so while listing my favorite bands of the ’80s, or while setting forth on a strenuous hike of epic proportions? What if I were to dig up the Latin roots of a few words, would that help? Or maybe I could place all of my emotional journeys in the context of world travel, or Pilgrims, or mountaintop removal mining?
The hyphenated word “self-involved” describes any story that involves the self. Yet the term is wielded mostly against women with an interest in expressing their experiences in a direct manner, without filtering their reflections through layers of metaphor, or packing them into a serious historical context, or lacing them with literary references, or intellectualizing so relentlessly that every shred of emotion is ground to a fine dust. Women writers can’t tell a few simple stories — “Here’s what happened to me and here’s how it felt” — the way Chuck Klosterman or David Sedaris might, without inspiring the herd to pull out their poison pens and scrawl those same words: SELF-INVOLVED.
Contrary to early reviews, in Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham’s engagement with her past selves goes far beyond recounting a handful of sexual (and nonsexual) dalliances. For Dunham, being involved with the self means reflecting on the strange ideas you had when you were younger, and comparing them to what you’ve learned since. It means offering up the most humiliating stories and misguided moments in order to demonstrate the inherent confusion and messiness of growing up. That may sound like the stuff of folksy books by Mitch Albom, except with yucky lady problems where the homespun clichés should go. But as Dunham proves beyond a shadow of a doubt in Not That Kind of Girl, she’s not remotely at risk of offering up the same old sentimental tales we’ve read dozens of times. Dunham’s outer and inner worlds are so eccentric and distinct that every anecdote, every observation, every mundane moment of self-doubt actually feels valuable and revelatory. From the unusual advice handed out by her artist parents to the strange habits of her first few boyfriends to her uneasy relationship with her sister, the folds of Dunham’s experience prove engrossing, in part because they’re presented with such an admirable lack of vanity or self-protective restraint. In spite of efforts to portray Dunham as some kind of trespasser in the legitimate literary realm (you know, the one ruled by E. L. James and Bill O’Reilly), the author isn’t such a fly-by-night media darling after all. Not That Kind of Girl not only offers a reassuring tale of overcoming anxiety and friendlessness and identity confusion at a young age, but it’s also a true testament to the oft-repeated but rarely demonstrated grace bestowed on those with the courage to be themselves at all costs.
That’s a rare thing. Because, though we may be living in the golden age of the unique snowflake, our gurus and spiritual guides rarely break down the science of how not to melt away under the blazing heat of self-scrutiny. For young women, just dipping a tentative toe into the pool of love and sex and personal fulfillment can quickly lead to drowning. Questioning whether or not you’re good enough or truly lovable or too unstable to survive isn’t solely the purview of the massively insecure. And who better to teach us this than one of the most defiantly confident 28-year-olds on record?
Dunham digs up her lowest and most uncertain moments, but she also demonstrates the perils of overconfidence. In one chapter, for instance, she explains that she somewhat recklessly assumed that she was smart enough, and practical enough, to endure the company of a guy who treated her badly. She figured she could maintain “a strong sense of self-respect” even while putting up with an overbearing, detached boyfriend. The resulting insights are deceptively simple, but they resonate, thanks to Dunham’s straightforward conversational style:
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 to you gets said to all of you, ditto what gets done.
Earnestness is not the pervasive tone of Not That Kind of Girl, though — not remotely. Dunham’s prose is heartfelt, but it’s also shot through with snark and jokes and recklessness. Of one ex she writes, “He is the one who ended my vegetarian streak, for which I will be forever grateful because I grow strong on the blood of animals.” In recounting her early ideas of sex, Dunham writes:
Everything I saw as a child, from 90210 to The Bridges of Madison County, had led me to believe that sex was a cringey, warmly lit event where two smooth-skinned, gooey-eyed losers achieved mutual orgasm by breathing on each other’s faces.
Her list of flirtatious pickup lines includes some unnerving details. (“I’m the kind of person who should probably date older guys, but I can’t deal with their balls.”) Even those long lists of what Dunham ate when she was trying to lose weight as a kid serve a strangely satisfying purpose: they offer a peek into the demented mind of a young dieter.
Although there are plenty of funny moments in Not That Kind of Girl, the best parts of the book offer a balance between lightness and melancholy. About halfway through, Dunham tells the story of a fifth-grade teacher who befriended her when she didn’t have any other friends. Sounding like the ideal mentor for a precocious 10-year-old, he reassures her that “popular kids never grow up to be interesting and that interesting kids are never popular.” But then things get a little creepy, and the whole story turns sad unexpectedly. In the end, Dunham writes, “I was reminded again that there are so many things we need that can also hurt us: cars, knives, grown-ups. I was reminded how no one really listens to kids.”
Palpable throughout the book is Dunham’s empathy for teenagers and children. In a chapter subtitled “A Guide to Running Away for Nine-Year-Old Girls,” Dunham writes,
You are mad at your mother because sometimes she doesn’t pay attention and she says yes to a question that needs a different kind of answer. She is distracted. When she holds your hand it’s too loose and you have to show her how to do it right, how to make a little hammock for your fingers.
This affectionate tone — wise and vulnerable at the same time — can be found throughout Not That Kind of Girl. Dunham has a subtle way of plucking at our heartstrings, almost as if it’s an accident.
Detractors will find it easy to latch onto specific snippets of Dunham’s book and use them to justify a personal distaste for the author. Or they’ll zoom out and delineate her privilege or the lily whiteness of her world or her strange hairstyles or bad wardrobe choices, using each as evidence that she somehow doesn’t deserve her place in the spotlight. Even away from the page, though, Dunham addresses and weathers withering criticisms while still burbling happily and going about her business in a romper or a bright yellow dress or a white-blond bowl-cut wig. That kind of confidence can’t be faked. Sometimes it seems as if that’s the real problem naysayers have with Dunham: that she’ll weigh outside concerns and make some minor adjustments, but generally, she’s going to trust her own instincts. Her demeanor indicates that she’s impervious to attack.
If that seems unlovable, take a closer look at authors who embody the argumentative, defensive, endlessly debating alternative. Because nothing is more myopic than defensiveness; it assumes that the subject of criticism is the center of the known universe and a prolonged discussion of his or her worth is not only warranted but of interest to the random bystander. The beauty of Lena Dunham is that she understands the value of sidestepping lengthy counterattacks in favor of funny little dances and weird wigs and great jokes. Paradoxically, this is her way of embodying feminism — by letting us know she will not be called to account for all of womankind. Her message: I am just a fucking person, and I will act like a person and you will treat me like a person whether you want to or not. And tellingly, this behavior wins her more respect than getting tangled up in the intricacies of someone’s revulsion for her. “This is what I do,” the unique snowflake says as the temperature rises. “Like it or lump it.” If that’s self-involvement, well, I say let it snow.