Lena Dunham‘s autobiography Not That Kind of Girl (disguised as a how to not want to kill yourself post the quarter-life turned I have no choice but to become an adult crisis handbook) is as absurd a document with some hard-to-admit likable moments as you imagined. Published by Random House last September, it was certifiably anticipated for Dunham’s been labeled the voice of White millennial women (a torch passed down from Lauren Conrad). It became a New York Times best-seller and later an au courant of controversy when it was disclosed the author had included a brief passage about opening her baby sister Grace‘s legs and looking at her vagina when she herself was just a toddler. (Reportedly many psychologists determined that her behavior was not however sexual abuse).
At 262 pages, if you’ve ever watched Dunham’s HBO series Girls, you’ll find yourself thinking that a lot of the scenarios and dialogue featured in her provocative show were actually weirder in the reality of her Soho, New York upbringing. Her prose is a juxtaposition of no disclaimer cutthroat and stuffy English pragmatics, exposing classically puerile tendencies, courtesy of a semi-sheltered childhood. (“I had a lucky little girlhood…Only when I got to college did it dawn on me that maybe my upbringing hadn’t been very ‘real.'” pg. 46).
Lines like “When I’m bad, my father sticks a fork in my vagina (pg. 41)”, apparently said when she was five years old and at an art gallery reception (sorry for selecting two ‘downtown’ references in just under two paragraphs), will make you squirm, but not stop you from reading Not That Kind of Girl.
For all her cringe-worthy recollections of college sex, thinking she had the worse of the worst of STDs, and honest portrayal of the yo-yo dieting life, Dunham does knows how to be straight-forward real. During the chapter Girls & Jerks of Section 1: Love & Sex, after experiencing a doomed dating life with a grungy guy named Joaquin (a Joaquin in Lower Manhattan? Of course), she recalls on wishing she had acted on knowing better and refusing to be continuously treated as someone’s “for the time being”:
“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 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 (pg. 49).”
This bit has been largely favored on Tumblr as a cautionary re-blog for young girls today. I’m in the same age-range as Dunham and I can still find it hard to deal with this hard truth when you really can’t help how you feel. Alright. Dunham. You win this round.
From Section IV: Work and its chapter Little Leather Gloves: The Joy of Wasting Time, I found what would be my favorite part of what Dunham’s claimed she’s learned in her 29 years.
After graduating from liberal Oberlin College in Ohio and returning to Manhattan, through two of her friends, Isabel and Joana, she got a job at the laid-back Peach & The Babke, an overpriced children’s and babies apparel and accessories store in the NY neighborhood of Tribeca.
Roughly in the 23-25 range then, Dunham like many, and yet despite her privileged road, was unemployed and agitated at the fact, prior to a peachy-y hiring.
“I was unemployed. And while I had a roof over my head (my parents’) and food to eat (also technically theirs), my days were shapeless, and the disappointment of the people who loved me (my parents) was palpable. I slept until noon, became defensive when asked about my plans for the future and gained wight like it was a viable profession. I was becoming the kind of adult parents worry about producing (pg. 178).”
All the same on the flip side, she remembered just months ago, how enthusiastic she was about being a grad and how open she was to living and learning as freely as possible.
“I had been ambitious once. In college, I seemed to do was found literary magazines with inexplicable names and stage experimental black-box theater and join teams (rugby, if only for a day or so. I was eager and hungry; for new art, for new friendships, for sex. Despite my ambivalence about academia, college gig, thousands of hours to tend to yourself like a garden. But now I was back to zero. No grades. No semesters. No CliffsNotes in case of emergency. I was lost (pg. 178).”
While much of Not That Kind of Girl feels over the top, Little Leather Gloves is its most humbling moment. Here, Dunham is a relatable girl who sees that “the real world” doesn’t continue holding your hand to your next desired point. And that there are No teachers to guide you on how to fix your mistakes and then given an immediate second chance. As a post-grad, you’ll likely feel stuck in an in an awkward stagnant of wanting to hurry up and get to the big leagues of a fat paycheck, but also just still wanting to somehow fulfill a kind of Eat, Pray, Love lifestyle nary of crappy consequences.
“The days at Peach and the Babke followed a certain rhythm. With only one window up front, it was hard to get a sense of time passing, and so life became a sedentary, if pleasant, mass of risotto and tiny overalls (pg. 179).”
“Sometimes I would find Phoebe [the store manager] crying by the air conditioner, head on the desk where she kept her old PC, staring at a pile of unpaid bills (pg. 183-4).”
“Every day, we hoped for a big sale, and every day we watched Phoebe’s brow furrow as she went over the books, and every night we took our one-hundred-dollar bill home without reservations [at the end of each shift] (pg. 184).”
I felt like I connected to this chapter because it reminded me of both the college years and my first two years in New York. Working in retail as a Beantown transplant, I somehow made just enough to support my $490 rent in a 3-bedroom apartment in Riverdale in the Bronx and have a social life that included going hard to get into Le Bain and eating ramen for $3 at a now very missed spot by Cooper Union. I didn’t necessarily think I was living the life, but I had nobody to answer to and I had completed something worthwhile such as a university degree. My twenty-something existence of adorable clueless-ness, I was still able to get away with.
Also, a majority of my co-workers and I were still following our real aspirations before and after work, whether it was photography, journalism and fashion merchandising through internships, freelance and co-ops. Dating was just as vital as getting said internships but it didn’t consume as much as it did during sophomore year of college. The thrill of being on the way even though we sometimes reacted desperate and green, was all it took to fuel my new New York peers and I.
“Upon graduation I had felt a heavy dose of doom, a sense that nothing would be simple again. But look, look what we had found! We were making it work, with our cash and our bad wrapping jobs, with our fried overdyed hair and our fried overprocessed foods (pg. 184).”
Dunham sees the humor in that to an extent, the pot she had to piss in was small, but at least she had some kind of a pot. During this time, along with her pals, her creative spark was also enlivened again, a necessary breakthrough.The three of them began to think of a web series and art shows and Dunham quickly knew what these self-imposed workshops would mean for her days at the Peach and Babke: “But ambition is a funny thing: it creeps in when you least expect it and keeps you moving, even when you think you want to stay put. I missed making things…(pg. 185).”
By the end of the chapter, Dunham and her friends are not only over their lackluster job but eventually fly away (literally, Dunham goes to Los Angeles) to their hopeful destinies. She gracefully acknowledges that her time at Peach and the Babke (in)directly led her towards creating her indie film Tiny Furniture and later Girls. In retrospect, she concedes that she also had some of the funnest times back then. Those kind of days live forever, even if they might make you sad. I know the feeling. When I walk past my former retail joints, I’m glad I left, as a whole other generation that will hate retail are in there now, creating their own camaraderie. I miss those days all the same time. The type of job where it was actually fun to go to work and the drama was uproarious enough that everyone got a laugh of it and labeled most situations as “whatever.” You always remember how everything used to be.
“Once my boss yelled at me for giving Gwyneth Paltrow the wrong size in baby leggings,” I say, wincing at the memory. What I don’t say is that it felt like home, that [Peach and the Babke] started our journey, that we ate the best lunches I’ve ever had. What I don’t say is that I miss it (pg. 190).”
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