If you're a pop-culture aficionado, you've probably read and heard and seen quite a bit of Lena Dunham lately. If you're a "Girls" fan, you've probably seen just about all of her over the HBO show's past three seasons. And if you're a 20-something urban female (as I am) or a millennial scrutineer (in which guise I sometimes moonlight), you've probably thought about her more than you'd like to admit.
Of course, if you were Dunham you'd admit everything. Her much anticipated book of personal essays -- "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned'" -- was published last week. The book is both successful and cathartic in its oversharing.
A memoir by the writer/actor/director/producer seemed to promise authenticity, unmediated by a film script or a television character or the interposition of a New York Times writer (there have been many). Except a book is just another medium. Dunham declared in hers: "I'm an unreliable narrator."
That may be the most authentic thing about her. In the first episode of "Girls," the character Dunham plays, Hannah Horvath, said: "I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation."
Dunham is not the voice of my generation, and she knows it.“I think the ‘voice of a generation’ concept was lost with beatnik literature," Dunham said in 2013. "Because of globalization and increasing populations, my generation kind of consists of so many different voices that need so many different kinds of attention. But if my writing can show what it’s like to be young, I’m happy.”
She's right. Our generation has an abundance of digital outlets for individual voices; we don't need to rest upon her singular -- notably privileged, as well as ridiculously talented -- one. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani concluded: "Ms. Dunham doesn’t presume to be 'the voice of my generation' or even 'a voice of a generation,' as Hannah does in the show. Instead, by simply telling her own story in all its specificity and sometimes embarrassing detail, she has written a book that’s as acute and heartfelt as it is funny."
Dunham does seem to presume that she has something to teach. (Or "teach," given the ironic quotes around "learned" in the book's title.) In a New York Times Magazine story last month, Meghan Daum wrote that the book "might best be described as a primer for millennial women negotiating the path to adulthood." In the book's introduction, Dunham explained: "If 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."
But we can't simply read the book as a how-to -- or a how-not-to. Dunham is, after all, only 28 years old. The oddities that make her stories so intriguing also limit their potential as generational templates. She can't save us from our own vulnerabilities or mistakes. At most, she can take us on an entertaining tour of her own anxieties and dead ends.
However, Dunham's extreme candor works as a shield for the rest of us. Dunham noted in her book that "sharing is my first instinct." She mentioned living "in a world that is almost compulsively free of secrets." Her artistic honesty has even seemed to earn her some unlikely fans. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote this weekend that "Girls" is “a show for liberals that, merely by being realistic, sharp-edge, complicated, almost gives cultural conservatism its due.”
Even Dunham can find herself withholding: She has written about her current boyfriend, she revealed in the book, but after having surveyed the words, "I realized they are mine. He is mine to protect." Fortunately, she doesn't abstain often -- in writing, on camera or otherwise. She broadcasts the sorts of tales others keep close. Blurts out words that others keep in. Takes off garments others keep on (and puts on garments that others keep off).
"My therapist has never given me advice," Dunham explained in "Not That Kind of Girl." "She's all about making me give myself advice." Dunham’s book succeeds so long as we don't try too hard to learn from it. Dunham is not our teacher. She's not our voice. She's not our representative. But she does give us cover, with a personality both likable and expansive enough for a legion of young women to hide behind. While we're sheltering in her indulgent, and indulging, shadow, avoiding the public examinations she routinely welcomes, we have time to filter her experiences -- and perhaps some of our own -- in private. And, yes, maybe learn something along the way.
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