Defining Brave: A Review of Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl”

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By Siena Richardson, Fusion Editorial Staff 

When one of the most famous young actor-writer-producers in television releases a memoir, giving glimpses of her life leading up to the current massive success of HBO’s Girls, we at Fusion can’t help but take notice. Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl is a collection of personal essays that take us from her childhood in Soho through turbulent years at Oberlin College to ‘A Guide to Running Away for Twenty-Seven-Year-Old Women,’ the final chapter in which she describes how, as an adult, she doesn’t have to flee.

While the collection as a whole is noteworthy, it’s distinguished by Dunham’s remarkable self-awareness and an unapologetic admission of her youth: past mistakes, struggles she has not quite yet overcome, and lingering anger at how people treated her and her work, before the culture began to embrace it. The essays themselves, despite repetition that allows us to weave them into the chronology of her development, have the clarity and depth, to stand individually.

In “Sex Scenes, Nude Scenes, and Publicly Sharing Your Body,” Dunham describes her mother’s nude self-portraits (“my mother invented the selfie”), which inform her own lack of inhibitions about appearing nude on television, a behavior which arose out of a lack of suitable actors for her films in college. She protests against compliments of her “bravery” as appraisal of her body as imperfect, and insists that, “it’s not brave to do something that doesn’t scare you.” In perhaps the bravest of these essays, “Barry,” Dunham depicts a sexual assault she experienced in college, acknowledging confusion as to how to classify a painful encounter while heavily intoxicated.  She describes friends’ and coworkers’ classification of the incident as rape, as a validation of her discomfort with the experience.

“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,” says Dunham, in her introduction. She acknowledges that people have told her, as they often tell women, that her stories are “an exercise in vanity” that the world prefers not to hear. And yet, somehow, she dares. Despite criticism, mental illness, self-destructive behaviors, fears that she grew up too privileged to have anything important to add to our culture, Dunham has created a wildly popular television show, feature films, a memoir. We view her past decisions through the lens of her present success, as even her most distressing stories are tinged with the incredible refrain: and I’ve succeeded anyway. Dunham’s craft is seamless, her stories are affecting, and her boldness is empowering. To young creative people seeking validation that their stories are smart, interesting, or important enough to share, Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl urges: dare to tell them anyway.