Things Lena Dunham Has/Has Done/Experienced That I Haven’t
I’m assuming that Kevin D. Williamson actually read Dunham’s entire book, so I’m going to use his article as a listing point where I can bold the ways she’s different from me and probably all lower and middle class kids… and probably disqualifies her entirely as someone who can represent a generation. This isn’t my way of endorsing Mr. Williamson’s stance on her (because his view points on life in general don’t really fit in with the vast majority of the United States and it’s not surprisingly he’s on the extreme on Dunham), but my way to openly wonder why she’s a representation of my generation in pop culture.
Lena Dunham is fond of lists. Here is a list of things in Lena Dunham’s life that do not strike Lena Dunham as being unusual: growing up in a $6.25 million Tribeca apartment; attending a selection of elite private schools; renting a home in Hollywood Hills well before having anything quite resembling a job and complaining that the home is insufficiently “chic”; the habitual education of the men in her family at Andover; the services of a string of foreign nannies; being referred to a homework therapist when she refused to do her homework and being referred to a relationship therapist when she fought with her mother; constant visits to homeopathic doctors, and visits to child psychologists three times a week; having a summer home on a lake in Connecticut, and complaining about it; writing a “voice of her generation” memoir in which ordinary life events among members of her generation, such as making student-loan payments or worrying about the rent or health insurance, never come up; making casual trips to Malibu; her grandparents’ having taken seven-week trips to Europe during her mother’s childhood; spending a summer at a camp at which the costs can total almost as much as the median American family’s annual rent; being histrionically miserable at said camp and demanding to be brought home early; demanding to be sent back to the same expensive camp the next year.
“I think I may be the voice of my generation.” So says Lena Dunham in the role of her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, in the first episode of Girls, the HBO series she has been writing and starring in since 2012. The scene is classic Dunham, if we can use “classic” to describe a phenomenon of such recent vintage. The basic sentiment is there in plain English, but it must be qualified, run through the irony dicer until it is practically a Cubist representation of the original, and held at a comfortable distance. Dunham very clearly does want to be considered the voice of her generation, as her recently published memoir — Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” — makes unmistakably clear; in fact, she has been hailed as precisely that by Time, Glamour, Today, and others. But she cannot say that herself — not with a straight face, not in Brooklyn. Instead, the line is assigned to her alter ego, who is at the time of the utterance high as a Georgia pine on opium tea and trying to convince her parents to keep supporting her financially. Having delivered the line, Hannah retreats into uncomfortable self-awareness, adding: “Or a voice of a generation.” As a literary stratagem — laying down a marker in the popular culture without making herself vulnerable to accusations that she might be taking herself too seriously — the maneuver is transparent. It is far more troubling that she uses the same technique in real life, for matters much more serious than the plot of Girls: Specifically, she uses it in her memoir to accuse a man of rape without having to take responsibility for the accusation.
Dunham describes herself as an “unreliable narrator,” which in the context of a memoir or another work of purported nonfiction means “liar,” strictly construed. Dunham writes of incorporating stories from other people’s lives and telling them as though they were her own, and of fabricating details. The episode with her sister’s vaginal pebbles seems to be especially suspicious. When Dunham inspects her sister’s business, she shrieks at what she sees: “Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there… . Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been such a success.” Dunham’s writing often is unclear (willfully so, it seems), but the context here — Grace has overheard her older sister asking whether her baby sister has a uterus — and Grace’s satisfaction with her prank suggest that Grace was expecting her older sister to go poking around in her genitals and inserted the pebbles in expectation of it. Grace is around one year old at the time of these events. There is no non-horrific interpretation of this episode. As for stroking her mother’s vagina, having mistaken it for her hairless cat …
That Dunham’s parents tolerated this is completely in character with the portrait of them she offers. Experiencing some very common problems with the childhood fear of going to bed alone, young Lena invades her parents’ bedroom every morning at 1 a.m., evicting her father from the bed, “probably my way of making sure my parents didn’t ever have sex again.” Her father eventually reaches a strange and broken-down compromise with her: She goes to bed at 9 p.m., and he wakes every morning at 3 a.m. to carry her into his bedroom. These shenanigans went on for twelve years. Getting up in the middle of the night for a newborn is one thing; getting up in the middle of the night, every night, for an adolescent is a different class of thing.
In Dunham’s telling, she had been at a party, drinking and taking Xanax and cocaine, and went to bed willingly with Barry. But the encounter turned rough — so rough, she says, that she required medical attention — and she noticed mid-coitus that he was not using a condom. She told him to leave; he left. She relates an encounter between the same Barry and another woman that turned so violent that it left the walls spattered in blood, “like a crime scene.” But neither Dunham nor the other woman felt the need to press charges, file a complaint, or otherwise document the encounter. The latter woman, in fact, reports that Barry accompanied her to the campus clinic the next day for morning-after pills, joking about naming the baby they weren’t going to have. If any of this is true, then there are medical records at Oberlin supporting the story, but the release of Dunham’s records would require Dunham’s consent, and the second woman’s records would require the consent of the second woman, if she exists.
Dunham’s writing all this is, needless to say, a gutless and passive-aggressive act. Barry is not a character in a book; he is a real person, one whose life is no doubt being turned upside down by a New York Times No. 1 best-seller containing half-articulated accusations that he raped a woman in college, accusations that are easily connected to him. Dunham won’t call him a rapist, but she is happy to use other people as sock puppets to call him a rapist. She doesn’t use his full name, but she surely knows how easily it can be found. She wouldn’t face him in a court of law, but she’ll lynch him in print.