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Her Harsh Honesty

Arts & Culture | October 20, 2014

Lena Dunham’s book title claims she’s Not That Kind of Girl. But if not that kind of girl, then what kind? Lena Dunham is a Golden Globe winning actress, writer, and director. But she is also the girl who stuffs a q-tip in her ear to the point of serious injury due to her OCD on her acclaimed—but highly contested—HBO show “Girls.” The girl who, as she writes in her memoir, once flirted with someone by saying, “I was a really chubby teenager, covered in a thick layer of grease. Seriously, I’ll show you a picture.” The girl who is constantly being asked why she chooses to appear naked so much in her own cinematic works.

Twenty-eight year-old Dunham is often critiqued for her “TMI” approach to storytelling, whether it is in her movies, on her show, or in her recently released memoir. Yet it seems that this is the method from which her success has grown. Dunham’s creative works have a particular method to their madness: harsh honesty. She does not contrive or create stories for the sake of entertainment. In many of her works, Lena’s representation is Lena’s existence.Lena Dunham’s book title claims she’s Not That Kind of Girl. But if not that kind of girl, then what kind? Lena Dunham is a Golden Globe winning actress, writer, and director. But she is also the girl who stuffs a q-tip in her ear to the point of serious injury due to her OCD on her acclaimed—but highly contested—HBO show “Girls.” The girl who, as she writes in her memoir, once flirted with someone by saying, “I was a really chubby teenager, covered in a thick layer of grease. Seriously, I’ll show you a picture.” The girl who is constantly being asked why she chooses to appear naked so much in her own cinematic works.

In Creative Writing Nonfiction (2009), Dunham’s first film, she plays Ella, a college student unable to finish her screenplay. Dunham was still at Oberlin when she created the movie. In Tiny Furniture (2010), she plays a disillusioned post-grad living with her artist mother. Dunham was a post-grad in Creative Writing at the time. Her real life mother is artist Laurie Simmons. You get the picture.

Even now, Dunham demonstrates how shockingly similar she is to Hannah Hovarth, her starring role on her show “Girls.” Both are awkward, funny, and incredibly self-critical.

Most of the time, the show is squirm-in-your-seat honest. “Girls,” whose fourth season premieres in 2015, is Lena representing her microworld, a world peppered with masturbation scenes, OCD, and best friend fights during which no one really says anything. And Dunham does not shy away from awkward sex scenes. As much as other artists might not want to admit as freely as Dunham, real sex—along with all those other issues—can be complicated, awkward, and uncomfortable to watch.

Many say her honesty in mainstream media is downright unhealthy for young girls looking for a role model. In his TIME article “The Problem with Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls,’” Bill Persky argues that she may not be the right person to influence the sensitive minds of young girls: “I don’t question that Ms. Dunham is being honest and writing in a way that feels true to life, but it is an uninspiring experience to hold up as an example to young women who are trying to find their way in today’s complex and unsupportive world. Instead of wanting more…the girls seem satisfied with accepting less—of themselves and others.” Persky continues to describe how in a second season episode, Hannah “proceeds to snort crack, expose herself publicly, and let down her friends.” Is Dunham’s presentation of her reality too stark, too real, and too allocated out for the general public?

In her interview on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” Dunham explained, “The term ‘oversharing’ is so complicated because I do think that it’s really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it’s bravery, and when women share their experiences, it’s…‘TMI.’”

Many have also criticized Dunham for her singular voice—that of a privileged white New Yorker, born to successful artists who had the means to send her to a prestigious prep school and then a private college. Her narrative, some claim, is one without any racial diversity.

“When I first started seeing the show, during the first season, it was disappointing to me that someone that young, who should be that aware of diversity, had none on the show…[It] was really showing such a narrow slice of life in one of the most diverse cities in the country,” commented Roxane Gay on an interview on “Morning Edition” with NPR.

Any actors or actresses of color that appear on the show, such as Donald Glover and Greta Lee, recur in the show for four episodes or less, further diminishing the role of people of color in the Hollywood industry.

Still, Gay and many say that diversifying media is a big burden to place on one twenty-eight year-old woman: “This problem is a Hollywood problem, it’s a representation problem, and to expect Lena Dunham to solve it is just not fair.”

Dunham stated that she wanted to avoid “tokenism in casting” in her first interview with “Fresh Air.” Critics argue that Dunham, as part of the Hollywood industry, should be doing all she can to help promote minority groups, even if she does not feel qualified to speak for them. After all, the show contains other demographics with which Dunham does not identify, such as males and parental figures.

Yet fans of the show agree that by telling her own story—rather than the stories of others—she connects strongly with those who can identify with her experiences. “There’s a tendency in society to want to silence people by discrediting their perspective,” explained sophomore Abigail McFee. “But this is exactly why people respond to Lena Dunham and connect with her work: because she owns her perspective.” In the fifties, we had Marilyn Monroe, a sex icon who climbed to fame by publically owning the hourglass figure, a raspy voice, and, most importantly, her sexuality. In similar ways, Dunham claims ownership of her body and her identity through a “kind of aggressive self-acceptance.” Dunham doesn’t try to represent all twenty-somethings struggling to find love, employment, etc.; she’s just trying to represent herself.

In the first season, Hannah states, “I think I might be the voice of our generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation.” The statement has become the infamous tagline for the show. As Hannah is Lena and Lena is Hannah, many chose to believe that this is Lena affirming her role as the overarching voice of the millennials. Dunham is writing for the entertainment media: “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 stated in an interview with the Huffington Post about the line. Dunham never thought the phrase would rise to such a spotlight. Besides, Hannah was high on opium at the time.

Lena chooses to tell the story of growing up as a woman today. “I definitely get sick of being the person who moves through the world just to point out misogyny in every direction, like it’s not the most fun job, but it’s also necessary,” Dunham stated on her book tour. She has partnered with Planned Parenthood, who hands out contraception and brochures at each of her stops. There is even a birth control mascot to support the cause. But Not That Kind of Girl isn’t just a piece on feminism; it’s primarily one on storytelling. In her narrative, Dunham describes campus assault, losing her virginity, a severely impairing mental disorder, body image, friendships, relationships, employment, unemployment, and more. Dunham empowers herself and other female artists to speak honestly—to reveal their artistic expression, both metaphorically and physically.

The fourth season of “Girls” is in the works and Dunham is set to release another HBO show, All Dressed Up and Everywhere to Go. At the moment, however, Dunham is on tour promoting her memoir with local acts, such as a Boston University a capella group that she hired to open for her in each of her city stops. “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,” the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in “Hannah’s Self-Aware Alter Ego” about her memoir. Just like her cinematic works, Dunham’s book is one of confessions. Although her stories contain immense complexity, her idea is age-old: write what you know. At the Boston book tour stop, she explained that she understands that during the process of releasing a major work, especially as a female, she will receive criticism that she must take: “…making things involves people liking them and people hating them. And what really matters is your own relationship to what you do, that you feel like you’ve expressed yourself honestly, that you feel that you are portraying your own values, and that you feel like you put something in the world you can be proud of.”