Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Not That Kind of Girl" Indeed

Here is the short list of what Lena Dunham does not address in her bestselling book, Not That Kind of Girl: racism, classism, addiction, alcoholism, stalking, domestic violence, suicide, student loans, health insurance, home ownership, the recession, bankruptcy, graduate school, the Boomerang Generation, abortion, miscarriage, pregnancy, infertility, parenthood, single motherhood, getting engaged, the decision to cohabit (or not), marriage, adultery, divorce, child support, blended families, spirituality, the writing process, how to be creative in a capitalist society. I could go on.

What Dunham does address, in excess: childhood and sex, an odd couple of literary topics if there ever was one. The emphasis on the former is a common mistake made by first-time authors and many editors. One's early years are rarely as interesting to other people as they are to oneself. I can't blame Dunham for lingering in the latter--I've been there, done that. Writing about sex is fun--but even when it comes to that subject, she doesn't go all in. (What of the STD she contracted? Doesn't she have a position on abortion? How does she feel about sex outside of committed relationships? Why do so many of her "exploits" end in "Nobody came"? What about cheating? Or the temptation of married men? Threesomes? S&M? Anal? Etc.)

Which brings me to my next objection about Not That Kind of Girl: this is not a book of essays. An essayist takes a stand, makes a thesis statement, and backs it up with research, or at the very least, scholarly literature. Not That Kind of Girl is not necessarily a memoir, either, or if it is, it lacks some serious structure and insight. (This is evident right on the cover in Dunham's subtitle A young woman tells you what she's "learned". That quotation placement is not accidental.) Like a non-consensual conversation where one party over-shares and the other party is held captive, a key question in memoir writing is, "Why are you telling me this?" I don't think Dunham knows, and I'll bet she was never even asked, given all the "yes" men (and women) currently riding her coattails.

Essays are cerebral. Memoirs are from the heart. What we have with Not That Kind of Girl, if anything, is a celebrity autobiography. I only wish it would have been labeled as such so I wouldn't have expected anything from it but fluff. When a celebrity publishes a book (which they often haven't even written themselves--I've met their ghostwriters), the publisher is pimping out that celebrity's name and nothing more. The content of the book is irrelevant. Publishers will always take the easy route when it comes to making a profit, and celebrities are it. Granted, I'd wager that Dunham writes better than, say, any of the Kardashians--but Dunham has far less life experience than any of them, so perhaps the Kardashian "sisterhood autobiography" would be more enlightening.

Yes, Dunham does touch on (and by that I mean she taps it on the shoulder rather than tackles) date rape (though she doesn't use that word) and sexism in the professional sphere. I won't pick apart her unfortunate sexual experience out of respect for truly traumatized sexual assault victims. As for the sexism, it's hard to empathize with someone who's sitting at a table with major media players that want to produce a show written, directed, and starring her. Welcome to the cutthroat world of...Hollywood? At least Dunham got some face time; I've worked under male bosses who told me that meeting in person was "unnecessary." Then there was a slew of male writers with whom I agreed to meet for networking purposes when in fact their version of "getting down to business" was different than mine and did not involve my earning a cent.

Thank goodness Dunham has a platform on which to call out those misogynistic jerks--and yet, she chooses not to use it, stating that she'd rather wait until they are dead so as to avoid a lawsuit. How brave of you! (She hates when people call her that. "It's not brave to do something that doesn't scare you," she writes. FYI: In writing, the stuff that scares you is what's worth being written.)

You know what's really insulting in the workplace? Being offered a job at a publication rife with sex industry ads, then having that offer rescinded because "someone" on staff is "uncomfortable" with the erotic food writing you do on your own time (I requested a meeting with this mystery person and was refused). Or negotiating a $100/article rate with a female editor who is replaced six months later by a male editor who says you can write for free or find another publication (I did). Or fighting with a pack of male superiors (some of whom are chronologically and/or experientially your juniors) for the "right" to write articles that they'd rather assign to their bros (I'm still losing this battle). Or penning any assignment (most about white men and their fame/successes) that pays at least $25 just so you can feed your family--and then having people tell you that you should be grateful you've made writing your "career." You could be catering, after all. Unless you're Lena Dunham, of course. As she writes about doing nude scenes on Girls: "I do it because my boss tells me to. And my boss is me." (Lucky you.) If you think sexism is bad in the upper echelon of entertainment, Lena, I invite you to be the only female in a food service kitchen during a double shift. It won't be long before you're hearing the words "swamp ass," getting spanked with baking pans, and being told you should be donkey punched. Then you can tell me how violated you feel.

I could also easily dismiss Dunham's musings on love. She only recently embarked on her first reciprocal love relationship. When that man cheats on you, packs up all of your belongings and leaves them on the porch two weeks before your wedding, then you can share your thoughts about love. Until then, I don't need your rosy-hued blathering about how good you've got it. You don't know love until you've had your heart broken hard.

While I, like many people, believed that Dunham was referring to promiscuity with the title Not That Kind of Girl, after reading the book, I realize she's not. We could debate whether or not her sexual behavior has earned her the title of "slut," but I'm really not interested in that discussion. Let's leave that issue to the social media trolls to chew on. What Not That Kind of Girl really means is: Dunham is not one of us. And by "us" I mean the vast majority of young females in the United States. Dunham is the one percent. She leads a privileged, segregated, relatively unscathed life. There is little to no loss, suffering, struggle, or failure in her story. Her viewpoint is not universal (though in our society, we often assume the white POV is such); hers is the viewpoint of a modern day Disney princess, albeit with a weight problem (which isn't really a problem given that she doesn't seem interested in doing anything about it, like exercise).

Dunham's character in Girls (which was worth watching for one season and quickly devolved into a whiny 20-something soap opera for seasons two and three) says, "I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation." If Dunham is the voice of your generation, I pity you. And I will mute you.

Now, I don't expect a 28-year-old to have lived every item in the Real Life Shit list at the beginning of this review rant. But I will say that by the time my memoir was published at age 28, I had experienced the bulk of those things, and they were all in those pages. Like Dunham, I was wooed by one of the "Big Three" in publishing. Unfortunately, you probably haven't heard of Insatiable: A young mother's struggle with anorexia because the marketing budget for my book was, well, whatever I was able to pony up on my own. There was no book tour, no print or internet ads. Penguin likely sunk its publicity budget into some other author who wrote what they call a "hot babe" in the publishing industry.

Not That Kind of Girl is one such "hot babe" and Dunham received an insane advance for it--$3.7 million. You may assume I'm envious, and you'd be right--what writer wouldn't welcome millions of dollars to literarily masturbate on the page? But what infuriates me about the amount of money invested in her tome is how many other writers must have been rejected so that Random House could cut that check. Imagine how many authors' careers could have been jump-started with those funds. What breadth and depth of voices could have instead been represented on bookshelves with that money? Why does the publishing industry insist on selling us the same drivel of white, upper-class, New Yorkers over and over again?

It will come as no surprise that from the beginning, I didn't want to like Dunham's book. Then I read it, and I'll admit, I found some sections to be humorous or tender. But a few days after finishing it, I got angry. Dunham wasted her words on Not That Kind of Girl. She received an opportunity that most female writers will never get and she squandered it on saccharine, nostalgic, silly storytelling (i.e. a "My Regrets" chapter about missing out on water skiing and "What's in My Bag" which covers exactly that). What's worse, with sales of the book skyrocketing, Dunham will likely get the chance to do it again. I can only hope life throws her enough curveballs that she'll have something more poignant to say the next time around.