There’s a vein of truth in Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl that brings me to enlightened laughter on the bus, in the park, at my kitchen table. In these essays, Dunham follows the chutes-and-ladders path of finding oneself in the modern world, while speaking to larger questions of personal belonging and womanhood.
The contents of Dunham’s stories are exceptional and entertaining. She grew up challenged by obsessive compulsive disorder living in a Manhattan loft with her artist parents, younger sister, and a hairless cat. Despite the proximity, my childhood could not have been further from her reality. Thirty miles up the road from her loft, I appeared seemingly “normal,” living in a colonial house, on a cul-de-sac, with Republican parents, two siblings, and a furry dog. Despite our lack of common ground, Dunham’s essays hit me squarely in my gut. The universality of her message blossomed from the specifics of her life, wrapped in shrewd detail and told in a rich, comedic voice.
Largely based on the format of a how-to book she stumbled on at a thrift shop, Dunham’s essays offer unexpected wisdom. The most impactful stories delve into what-not-to-dos, rather than to-dos. In an email to a once-boyfriend, Dunham wrote, “I’m sorry not to you, but in a deeper way, sorry for my brain chemistry and who I am.” There is humor in her revelations, but also the tragedy of a girl in all of her ferocity, denying her power.
Dunham lays bare these vulnerable moments with astute detail. The most striking revelation in Not That Kind of Girl is the acknowledgment of her rape. During the assault Dunham tried to convince herself that sex was her choice. As the essay unfolds Lena shares the incident with her boyfriend, ultimately telling the truth of the experience. Expressing her story sets her free; Dunham’s bravery practically leaps through the page.
Lena speaks about womanhood as a tactile thing—something that should be turned in our palms and felt. By depicting the inane and the deep, she captures the contradicting aspects growing up as a girl in our society. Dunham reflects on the beauty of womanhood despite the challenges, stating:
But I also consider being female such a unique gift, such a sacred joy, in ways that run so deep I can’t articulate them. It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.
With a narrative that weaves together both past inner dialogue and current reflections, Dunham mimics the way that our minds wrap themselves around our experiences. In accepting herself on the page, she shows us how to grow: by facing the beautiful, the traumatic, and the mundane, always with truth and humor.