What I learned from Lena

lena-dunham

Have you read Lena Dunham’s new book?

If you’ve seen her amazing show Girls, then the content of this book will be quite familiar. There’s an essay about working in an overpriced children’s store, there’s a mention of popping her own eardrum out of anxiety, and there is line after line where you could just swear that you were hearing Hannah Horvath.

Of course, one should expect this- it’s not a secret that Hannah’s character is not-so-loosely based on Lena’s own life and experiences, and this book is proof. And while overall I came away enjoying the book as an escape, and as the words of a woman whose work and ambition I so admire, there was something that left me feeling unsettled.

I wasn’t unsettled by the garish retellings of her most horrific stories, although I could see how some would be. I think I was unsettled because I had heard this all before. I love Girls because while the story it tells is relatable, the characters are so wildly exaggerated, and you laugh because thank God your friends aren’t that crazy. But in reading the book, it became clear the characters are barely exaggerated, and the stories she are sharing in the pages of her book are ones I’ve all heard before.

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t some kind of wisdom being passed down, because there definitely is. She articulates beautifully why she loves being a woman. She defends the desire and necessity of sharing one’s story. And she wants girls to stop spending their time being made to feel bad about themselves by horrible men (both relationally and professionally). She is eloquent, and startling in the truths she shares. But I came away wishing I had seen more of writer-Lena, or director-Lena, or amazingly successful comedienne-Lena. But mostly what I saw was this now strangely confusing hybrid of Lena and the character she plays on TV, and frankly, I would never take Hannah’s advice, even if she is genuinely good-willed about it. I wanted to see a separation of Lena from her work. What I saw was that Girls is the real memoir, and this book is just a fun bonus-feature.

For me, I’m going to continue watching Girls, and I’m going to walk away from the book taking a few beautiful quotes with me, which I will leave for you to take as well:

“When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself. You are not made up of compartments! You are one whole person! What gets said to you gets said to all of you, ditto what gets done. Being treated like shit is not an amusing game or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve. This is so simple. But I tried so hard to make it complicated.”

“Respect isn’t something you command through intimidation and intellectual bullying. It’s something you build through a long life of treating people how you want to be treated and focusing on your mission.”

“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. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter…But I want to tell my stories and, more than that, I have to in order to stay sane.”

“I 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.”

 

So what did you think? Did you read it? Will you?

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2 thoughts on “What I learned from Lena

  1. I read this when you posted it, and am finally getting around to commenting now that I’ve finished the book. I think I was rather more taken aback than you at some of her stories, but also came to the same conclusion as you: the book was disappointing in that the Lena set forth by herself in the book is nearly identical to Hannah.

    I did enjoy the sections on “Work” and “Big Picture.” On the whole, though, I relate to Lena very little. Perhaps it is because I didn’t grow up the child of liberal parents in Manhattan, perhaps it is because we have such different career trajectories. Unfortunately, it prevented me from enjoying the book as much as I expected to.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Naomi. I think I was trying to like it more than I actually did. There were a good amount of stories I enjoyed, but some I think I was shocked about, but tried not to be, because I wanted to love it because I love Lena and “Girls.” But it’s true- I relate to her somewhat on her anxiety issues and feeling kind of odd compared to others, but other than that, I can’t really relate to any of her stories. I do think that has a lot to do with our extremely different childhood environments.

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