So, What Kind of Girl Is She? The Critics’ Appraisal of Lena Dunham

Photo: Fred Lee/ABC

Human litmus test Lena Dunham just published her first book, the essay collection Not That Kind of Girl. It’s 265 pages, sells for $28.00, was bought for $3.7 million, and is of red-alert interest to people in the opinion business. I read 23,219 words (a respectable novella!) worth of reviews, and I’m here to report that Not That Kind of Girl left few critical stones unperturbed.

In honor of the title, critics are pleased to inform the public about what this kind of book is not. “This book is emphatically not a feminist polemic,” writes Helen Lewis at the New Statesman, and Alice Jones at the Independent says, “This is not, however, a foolproof how-to-be-a-woman guide.” At Time, Roxane Gay attests “it’s not all laughing around the hard stuff.” Lindsey Stanberry, in a Refinery 29 review, noted that it “doesn’t prescribe a magical cure-all for any of the problems that come with that struggle” (the struggle being how to live a life). Haley Mlotek at the National Post writes “the book doesn’t ask what we’ll do once we’ve finished reading.” In the Boston Globe, Eugenia Williamson describes it as being written by “someone not yet 30.”

A handful of writers were determined to mention their Dunham-like bona-fides. Among our reviewers, we have one self-declared Brooklyn transplant who once purchased artisanal, infused olive oil (Jillian Mapes, Flavorwire). Another feels sensitively attached to Dunham because she first read her while waiting for a therapist appointment (Heidi Stevens, the Chicago Tribune). One more attests that she was born in the 1980s (Rachel Dry, the Washington Post). Should we assume that the rest of the reviewers are old, boys, Republicans, or residents of places without artisanal anything?

Then there were the critics with questions. Here’s a sampling:

“How much is Dunham inhabiting a persona — in effect wearing a mask made from her own face?”

“Is Dunham’s entire project, so supposedly ‘honest’ and ‘real,’ in fact a web of unlikely things … said flirtatiously? Who is she when we’re not looking?”

“The question is, after all this can there really be anything left for Lena to share?”

“What if she had to settle for anonymity?”

“So what we have to look forward to in 55 years?”

“She is a brilliant talent who will write better books than this – and, really, who can blame her for taking the money and running?”

“Did we hear any kickback when Aziz Ansari got $3.5 million to write about ‘modern love’? Do I have to have capital-f Feelings about Not That Kind of Girl?”

“How can anyone hear this level of vitriol — and understand it to be so obviously rooted in the profound threat of a woman who does not care about your estimations of her—and not openly and enthusiastically root for her?”

“And what is a voice of a generation, really?”

Not That Kind of Girl also supplied answers. For example, it helped many critics solve the puzzle of whether Lena Dunham is Lena Dunham or Hannah Horvath. The critical consensus is that the author is not a Girls character. Helen Lewis at the New Statesman, though, argued that Dunham isn’t even really herself:

It’s impossible to review Lena Dunham’s book without reviewing Lena … Her whole life is a performance art piece where she plays a noxious brat with great skill, and poses herself, either eerily like one of her mother’s dolls, or sexually, like her father’s nudes. And as the carapace of fame around her has expanded, she has shrunk within it, leaving only gnomic statements about granola and blowjobs. Reading this book, you realize that Lena Dunham has been playing ‘Lena Dunham’ for a long time. She is not real.

Ontology aside, critics are still concerned with whether or not Dunham is relatable. At Flavorwire, Alison Herman says that she is so relatable that she “sacrifices something in the name of relatability.” At the Washington Post, Rachel Fry writes that she is relatable in a “delightful” fashion. Daily Beast writer Kevin Fallon notes she “could not be less relatable,” except sometimes, for example, when she mentions “seeing a nutritionist, which is something we can more or less all relate to.”

Other critics were concerned with what Dunham left out of the book. The Wall Street Journal would have preferred more slapstick, writes Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs. Quite a few reviewers clamored for her to name the douche directors who, she says, hit on her (Dunham promises she will release their names when she is 80, but internet users are not a patient people). Others requested more stories about the things only specific to Lena Dunham; less summer camp and bad sex, more details about being media’s sacrificial lamb, a controversial front-runner for a voice of a generation, and an Emmy nominee. As for a theme that was too abundent, Hadley Freeman at The Guardian wanted fewer vaginas:

At one point, I started counting the number of times Dunham wrote about vaginas in the book (hers, mainly). I quit when I got to 25. There's sexual honesty, and then there's just sticking your head up your vagina.

That’s quite a trick! One might even call it the most extreme navel-gazing a human body could physically achieve. Did it take this long to mention navel-gazing? Oh, yes, our critics noted plenty of navel-gazing, in plenty of different forms. There is “sincere, excruciating navel-gazing,” navel-gazing “cut with pure self-loathing,” “genuine navel-gazing,” and “strenuous navel-gazing."

Dunham’s voice got just as much attention as her navel. She has a “distinctive voice," an “insightful voice," one of the “funniest voices” (The Wall Street Journal), a “gutsy ambitious voice,” a “28-year-old’s voice,” an “inviting voice,” and a “smart humane voice.” At least nine reviews quoted Dunham’s Girls declaration, letting Dunham (through her television doppelgänger Hannah Horvath) wonder for herself if she is the “voice of my generation” or at least “a voice.”

That question persists, as does Lena Dunham. For hers is a reflective power that lets her be whatever critics want her to be. And as for Dunham’s own take on her generational status, she did title her book Not That Kind of Girl. In so many words, she might be telling us, it ain’t me, babe.