Not That Kind of Girl

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

I read Lena Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl last week and thought it was an enjoyable, quick read—but ultimately not how I wanted to kick off a new year of books.

It clearly compelled me enough to keep turning the pages—I finished it in just a few days. But I felt neither better nor worse off for having read it. I can point to a few reasons why.

I came across Dunham’s award-winning series Girls like I do with most popular shows: late. In catch-up mode, I watched a few episodes back-to-back but couldn’t get into it. Given the show’s popularity, I felt like I was just missing something, until I started seeing criticism of the show piling up. As for the critics’ accusations (it’s racist, vapid) I couldn’t rightfully agree or disagree having only watched a few episodes, but the flak Dunham received for being naked on-screen all the time seemed rife with sexism and double-standards.

Beyond the talk surrounding Girls, I didn’t know much about Lena Dunham until her book came out. By then, I’d read several articles about her, including an interview by Roxane Gay that intrigued me. Clearly she was smart, well-spoken and a feminist. Even if I don’t “get” her work, she seemed like someone whose sensibilities I could get behind.

Not That Kind of Girl was entertaining. It was honest, open, introspective, controversial and funny at times, and I went into it with an open mind, or so I thought, until I found myself criticizing certain passages. And then I’d catch myself: Wait, am I being critical because I really think that, or because I’ve read so much criticism of Lena Dunham? 

Dunham said in her interview with Roxane Gay that she wished she would be seen for her craft and not just for her personal attributes. Not That Kind of Girl, of course, puts her personal attributes directly under the microscope (it is a memoir, after all), but it’s still possible and right to be objective about the craft. And I think technically, she does a good job. It wasn’t the stand-up routine in book form she feared she’d be forced into, though it was formulaic. I think it’s probably hard not to be, though, when you set out to write your personal story in which Manhattan serves as the primary backdrop. Still, lines like this Carrie Bradshaw voiceover-esque line stood out to me: “I didn’t know the word for it, but I was happy.” (The word she’s looking for is happy.)

The main criticism of Not That Kind of Girl I’ve seen is that Dunham doesn’t come across as very relatable, and I felt this as well. We shouldn’t be so quick to criticize Dunham for her upper middle-class upbringing without considering how many of our beloved artists came from similar backgrounds. There have been plenty of other rich—and richer—authors before Dunham, and there will be more after her. But the question is: Will her work still be held up next to theirs decades from now? Girls, I don’t know—maybe. Not That Kind of Girl—I doubt it.

I had a hard time writing this review because I don’t feel very comfortable with being a critic. Maybe I was disappointed because I read this and thought I could write something just as good knowing it would never be a bestseller. Maybe that disappointment morphed into irritation because I haven’t.

In any case, here’s an excerpt from a chapter in the “Work” section that I did really enjoy:

“I’ll recount all the interactions where I went from having an engaging conversation on craft with a man to hearing about his sexual dissatisfaction with his wife, who used to be passionate and is currently on fertility drugs. Suddenly, we’re talking about the way his college girlfriend left her boots on when she fucked and how marriage is ‘a lot of hard work.’

What this translates to is: my wife doesn’t turn me on and you aren’t a model but you sure are young and probably some bold new sexual moves have emerged since the last time I was single in 1992 so let’s try it and then you can go back to being married to your work and I’ll go back to being married to an ‘eco-friendly interior decorator’ and I’ll never watch any of your films again.

I’ll talk about how I never fucked any of them. I fucked guys who lived in vans, guys who shared illegal lofts with their ex-girlfriends who were away at Coachella, guys who were into indigenous plant live, and guys who watched PBS.

But I never fucked them.

I’ll talk about the way these relationships fell apart as soon as they realized I wasn’t going to be anyone’s protegee, pet, private fan club, or eager plus-one.”

 Have you read Not That Kind of Girl? What did you think?

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Comments

  1. I read it, and my only thought was, “Anyone who doesn’t care what anyone thinks about them could write this book.” Of course, Lena does have a signature style and she can be funny at times, but her trademark is mostly unfiltered honesty. Book deals that are given to people who are famous for doing other things often result in disappointing books. I recently read Amy Poehler’s “Yes Please” and although there were good parts, it didn’t seem like a complete book to me. She talks a lot about how hard it is to write the book, which continually took me OUT of the book, and made it seem like the book was something she was forced to write rather than compelled to because she had something to say.

    It is hard to approach anything Lena Dunham does with fresh eyes because she is so heavily criticized, but I also don’t think that it’s her job in her memoir to be relatable. Lena’s book wouldn’t have suffered from not being relatable if the writing was excellent — but it wasn’t.

    This is the first review I’ve seen where it’s not talking about controversies surrounding it or the problems with Lena as a person, but instead focuses on the fact that it’s just not a very good book. This “The word she’s looking for is happy” was hilarious, too.

    • Cassie Paton says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Shannon! You make an interesting point about Amy Poehler’s book, and while I haven’t read that one, I think that would be a distraction for me, too. All the defining characteristics of a celebrity memoir are a bit of a distraction for me honestly, because I’m scanning for cliches whether I’m conscious of it or not. Though I do still want to read Bossypants, ’cause Tina Fey’s awesome.

      • I haven’t even properly watched 30 Rock (I know, I knooow, my friends want to kill me too) but I thoroughly enjoyed Bossypants. I thought I wasn’t going to, but I did. A very random set of things happened where I ended up alone in the lounge of a friend’s flat, and it was the only appealing book at that moment that appealed to me, so I started reading it, then liked it so much I borrowed it and finished it.

        Back to Lena Dunham though… I am SO HAPPY to read that you don’t “get” the show either — for the longest time I’ve felt like the only one! The two girls and guy I used to live with used to have weekly flat viewings of the latest Girls episode. Sometimes they’d even “save them up” so they can have a mini marathon. I just didn’t like it! But I’ve been curious about the book… and now I guess I really won’t read it. There are better books out there that need to be read.

  2. I’ve never read this book, and for a while I wanted to but in all honesty, I probably won’t. The few books I have read by celebrities don’t seem very “complete” – as you said with Yes Please – and I’m not really surprised if you think about it…here are movie stars, actresses/actors, musicians, etc. who are famous for one talent trying to find fame in another category – writing – in which they’re just as “expert” as anybody. The “good books” come from people whose specialty is writing, not acting. Maybe I’m just too hard of a critic but just a thought for you 🙂
    ~ Samantha

    • Cassie Paton says:

      Yeah, I thought since Lena Dunham IS a writer (even if mostly for television) it might have been done a bit better, but for celebrities who aren’t writers period… I’m not reading your ghost-written book, thanks. It kills me when undeserving celebs receive these massive advances for a paint-by-numbers “memoir” when thousands of talented writers can’t even make a decent living off of their work. I won’t support that.

  3. I’m not a big celebrity memoir girl (or even much of a memoir girl at all, for whatever reason) but I dislike Lena Dunham so strongly that I know I will never read this book, nor will I watch Girls. I don’t know — maybe my opinion of her is clouded by all of the criticism of her I’ve come across. But in the interviews and articles I’ve read, I just… I don’t know. I haven’t been very impressed. But I’m most unimpressed by how she’s been hailed as the voice of our generation. An upper class white girl born to successful parents being hailed as the voice of our generation? Oh, please. Our generation is so much more varied than that. She can be *a* voice of our generation, most certainly (no sarcasm there!) but not THE voice. No one person can be THE voice!! I suppose that’s not a criticism with her though, and more so the media…

    • Cassie Paton says:

      Yeah, there’s just too much privilege there to be the voice of a generation, and I think that term in general needs to die already… millennials are too diverse to have fewer than dozens (or hundreds) receiving praise for representing us well.

  4. I’m going to be reading it for my book club in the coming months! Lena Dunham is a very polarizing figure, and I’m a bit disgusted by Girls as a show (part of me feels I’m just a little bit too old), so I’m really interested to read Noy That Kind of Girl and gauge my own impressions!

    • Cassie Paton says:

      I don’t think your reaction is an indication of age… I think a LOT of people (myself included) feel the same. I’ve read Lena Dunham’s reasoning for why the show is graphic, and she swears it’s not just for the sake of being edgy, but I have a hard time believing that. No, I don’t think critics should lambast her for being naked (plenty of shows have nudity) and certainly not for having a body type that’s underrepresented in film and TV. But c’mon, the latest season’s opening episode is a prime example of how it’s graphic for the sake of being graphic. I did not need to see the GIF that made rounds online. Bleh.

  5. I’m really turned off by Lena because of all the controversies. I understand that she’s a brutally honest person (which I respect), but she could have approached a few subjects with a little more grace. At the same time, I’m curious about her and therefore I’m interested in seeing her show or reading the book just to make my own conclusion. I’m just not compelled enough to do so above other things, so I haven’t taken the time yet. I also prefer to read about people that I can relate to, because then I can apply their lessons to my own life.

    As far as books by female celebrities go, there are a LOT of good ones. I loved Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter, Tiny Fey’s Bossypants, and Sophia Amoruso’s #GIRLBOSS. Each of them were completely different, but well-written, inspiring and awesome.

    • Cassie Paton says:

      I loved The Bedwetter!! Sarah Silverman… now there’s a lady I like. I still want to read Bossypants and #GIRLBOSS too.

  6. Truthfully, the only reason I read it was because of the controversies and because I wanted to gauge my own impression of her writing and who she is. I can’t say I like the book or her very much as a result of it. I find her to be too vapid and self-absorbed to be able to really empathize with her struggles.

  7. I really disliked this book. Like you said, I just didn’t feel like I could relate to Lena and I think a lot of it felt forced – like she was trying to continue to uphold her reputation. I think it would have been prudent to wait a few years before writing a memoir (like Tina and Amy did) so that she would have a bit more perspective on life and what’s important. Her perspective on things is interesting and she is a strong feminist voice, but one of the things that really stuck out to me in this book (and honestly, often times in Girls also – I haven’t enjoyed the critical acclaim that show has received when it’s simply NOT a realistic representation of 95% of the millennial generation, though a lot of people really want it to be) came across as immature a lot of the time.

    Great post!

  8. I haven’t read it and I probably won’t. I’m not a Lena fan and I didn’t like what I saw of Girls. You bring up some valid points and the passage you shared is interesting, but that’s about it.

  9. I like Shannon’s comment above Re: Amy Poeler’s book Yes Please, I recently finished reading it and it was funny but read like a series of monologues or disconnected (somewhat) pieces. But that seems to be a trend in memoirs right now (Mindy Kaling, Amy’s, Girl Boss, A slew of youtuber’s books). Are they still enjoyable and quick reads? absolutely, but are they great books maybe not. Thanks for your review on not that kind of girl, I’ve passed by it a couple of times at the book store lately, and will probably give it a go (hopefully pick up a used copy) having read your post.

  10. re: Sara; I actually really loved Mindy Kaling’s book– I thought it was fresh, funny and very indicative of who she was as a person. I also thought it was great writing, but it definitely only appeals to people who are her fans. (Which is unfortunate, because she is a great writer and a lot of celebrities get the pushover
    As for Lena Dunham, I guess she’s just problematic in my eyes. I’m super supportive of her doing her own thing or whatever, but I just don’t really see the hype in what she does? She’s not a great writer and GIRLS, while addictive, represents most of the things I hate about modern-day twentysomethings. But admittedly, I didn’t even think of reading the book when it first came out due to the massive amount of hype the press release had on Jezebel (with the leaked excerpts.) I just wasn’t into it, and while I appreciate honesty unfiltered– Lena Dunham’s style just isn’t my cup of tea.

  11. This book is on my to-read list, but I have been hesitant to read it due to the criticism you’re talking about. I’ve known about Lena Dunham since before Girls — mainly I became familiar with her for Tiny Furniture. I’ve always had an odd fascination with her, but I think one of the things holding me back is I feel like I already know what to expect from her book. I’ve read a lot of interviews and the like with her, and I’m just not sure what the book will add that I haven’t already heard. I’m also wary of the fact that she’s younger than me and has only been working in the business for a reasonably short period of time — it just seems too early to be writing a memoir. I’m sure I’ll read it eventually, but I’m not racing to do so. Especially after reading many of the comments here.

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