Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Publisher: Random House
Release date: January 1st 2014
Genre: memoir
Source: Bought

From the acclaimed creator, producer, and star of HBO's Girls comes a hilarious, wise, and fiercely candid collection of personal essays that establishes Lena Dunham as one of the most original young talents writing today. In Not that Kind of Girl, Dunham illuminates the experiences that are part of making one's way in the world: falling in love, feeling alone, being ten pounds overweight despite eating only health food, having to prove yourself in a room full of men twice your age, finding true love, and, most of all, having the guts to believe that your story is one that deserves to be told. Exuberant, moving, and keenly observed, Not that Kind of Girl is a series of dispatches from the frontlines of the struggle that is growing up. "I'm already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you," Dunham writes. "But if I can 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 will have been worthwhile."
I feel wholly unequipped to write this review because I think this is the first non-fiction book I've read that isn't for school, and it's definitely the first I'm reviewing. So I don't have much to compare it to or much of a basis for what creative non-fiction should be. I've also never seen Girls or anything else Lena Dunham has written/directed/starred in, and I didn't really know anything about her before picking up this book. But none of this means that I don't have strong opinions on Not That Kind of Girl.

There were many things that made feminist-me happy about this book, especially in the first section chronicling Lena's romantic and sexual relationships. Her discussion of sex is very honest, and she admits things about sex that I resonated with and had never really known anyone to publicly admit to before. The discussion of sex alone makes this a feminist work, in my opinion. The most meaningful part, for me, was Lena talking about her experiences with sexual assault. I can see how some feminists might take issues with how she talks about rape so casually, as something that happened to her but doesn't shape the rest of the story in a significant way. But I really loved this honest approach  - Lena's story is one that I relate to both because what happened to her is similar to what happened to me, and because our reactions to undergoing sexual assault are very similar, how she doesn't recognize it as rape at first and still has issues with calling herself a victim of sexual assault, but how you can still clearly tell that it affected her deeply. This honest portrayal was very powerful to read about for me.

I also loved the portrayal of mental illness. It's not the central theme, but it is illustrated again and again how Lena struggles with OCD and anxiety. It's a very honest portrayal of mental illness, showing up all-encompassing it is because the reader sees it affect so many parts of Lena's life from childhood on, and it is noticeable in many scenes that aren't about mental illness at all. I think this is a very important portrayal of mental illness, specifically OCD, which is joked about so often in our society. At the same time, even though we can see how much Lena struggles, it's also an empowering story because we know that she has managed to be very successful despite her setbacks. I was very impressed with the depiction of mental illness all around.

I do wish Lena was a little bit more aware of her privilege. It's hinted at a couple of times how some people call her out on her privilege, telling her she doesn't understand the struggles of being poor or a person of color. But this is never addressed or discussed in enough depth to really make a difference, and Lena doesn't always seem to be aware of how many of her stories just scream privilege. There's also some feminist issues relating to Lena's relationship with her sister Grace - she outs her sister as a lesbian even though she told her not to tell her parents, and, as children, Lena displays some inappropriate behavior towards baby Grace. I didn't really mind the fact that this happens because it seems honest and in-line with Lena's flaws and mental issues. What I did mind, though, is that she never addresses these things in hind-sight, admitting that they were wrong; she writes about them as something that just kind of... happened. While Lena is very self-aware in most of the book, I wish she had displayed some more self-awareness and self-criticism regarding her privilege and her treatment of Grace. But despite this, this is a very feminist memoir with some important messages.

Asides from the feministness, though, I have mixed feelings about the actual quality of this book. I loved the writing: Lena's voice is funny, witty, and always entertaining. But the actual story is very... meh. I know I can't expect this to be a story arch as well-rounded as the fiction I'm used to, but I still think creative non-fiction/memoirs need to have some kind of point. And, for a good part of it, Not That Kind of Girl just doesn't seem to be going anywhere. I didn't see the reasoning behind organizing the sections the way they are because it didn't make for a cohesive story at all. Yes, some of the random stories are very funny. But others... I just didn't know why they would be worth reading. The best way I can explain it is that Lena Dunham talks about things that aren't usually talked about - sometimes that's good, like her frank depictions of sexuality - but some things aren't talked about because they simply aren't interesting, like when she gives us pages listing everything she eats in a week and pages of random emails she's sent. I just didn't get why. I get that memoirs are inherently self-indulgent, but assuming that people would want to read about every single item you've eaten just seemed a little much.

I'm not sure if I can recommend Not That Kind of Girl. The beginning, which focuses on romantic and sexual relationships, is what I enjoyed the most and where the feminist message is strongest. While Lena has a great voice, a lot of the story later on is just kind of rambly and not going anywhere. I wouldn't recommend Not That Kind of Girl for the story, and while the feminist and mental-health messages are powerful, you can probably find texts with a comparable message without the long-winded story. But maybe this book is more enjoyable for people who actually know Lena Dunham's regular productions.

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