Lena Dunham, whose memoir Not that Kind of Girl has just been published. Photo: Getty
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Lena Dunham is not real

Lena Dunhams Not That Kind of Girl is a confessional book where you cannot be sure if the confessions are true: it’s either a brilliantly ironic subversion of the form, or a deeply wearying put-on by someone who has no sense of who they are when no one is watching.

Not That Kind of Girl: a Young Woman Tells
You What She’s “Learned” 

Lena Dunham
Fourth Estate, 288pp, £16.99

It’s impossible to review Lena Dunham’s book without reviewing Lena Dunham. Or at least, “Lena Dunham”, the strange, confected, caricatured, endlessly examined carapace inside which, presumably, the real woman resides. Dunham’s first appearance in print came in 1998, when a Vogue story on New York tweens quoted her thoughts about big-name fashion designers – “I really like Jil Sander, but it’s so expensive” – and her attempts to re-create them on a $5-a-week allowance. She was 11.

Within five years, she was already on her second appearance in the New York Times, after a reporter was despatched to a vegan dinner party she gave for her private-school friends. “A crunchy menu for a youthful crowd”, records the headline. The 16-year-old Lena found that “meat was easy to give up, cheese, almost impossible”. But: “One year into a totally vegan diet, she has become a soy connoisseur.”

Dunham’s parents are New-York-loft-dwelling artists. Her father Carroll’s work includes garish nudes of women with riot-red labia, some executed in crayon like the drawings of a particularly disturbed five-year-old. Her mother, Laurie Simmons, explores a miniature world; she poses dolls in strange, sometimes sexually suggestive ways, their heads replaced by guns or model houses. In the 1970s, Dunham says, her mother “invented the selfie”, taking hundreds of naked photographs of herself.

Her mother’s work gave Dunham the title of her feature film Tiny Furniture, shot on a budget of $50,000 and released in 2010. In it, her mother and sister star alongside her, playing exaggerated versions of themselves. In the final scene, Dunham’s character, Aura, lies in bed with her mother, explaining how she has had sex, without protection, in a pipe in the street. Her mother reacts with vexed weariness. (For your amusement, try to imagine asking your mother to star with you in a film where you confess to having sex in a pipe in the street. I just cannot make my brain comprehend such a thing. All I get is darkness, like a safety curtain descending at the theatre.)

Dunham with her mother, Laurie Simmons.

Tiny Furniture’s success led to Dunham getting her own HBO series, Girls, in 2012. In turn, this led to a million articles using Girls, and Dunham herself, as a metaphor for whatever the writer really wanted to talk about, from race to body issues to the gentrification of Brooklyn. “Happy GIRLS think-piece season . . .” tweeted BuzzFeed’s Heben Nigatu in January, as the latest series aired. That same month, American Prospect’s Jaime Fuller chronicled the obsession of the New York press: the NYT had run over 300 articles mentioning Dunham or Girls since 2001, 99 per cent of these in the four years since the release of Tiny Furniture. Fuller noted that Dunham was hardly ever the subject matter of such pieces, but: “Any story with a wisp of beard, a hint of first-person, a fragrance of futon, will surely mention Girls or the mind the show sprung from before it reaches its kicker.”

Dunham’s identification as a feminist has given her critics a further weapon with which to bludgeon her: now she can be measured against the mythical purity of the Perfect Feminist, who makes her choices free from the constraints and compromises inevitable when living in a capitalist patriarchy. The website Jezebel embraced this line of attack with unique enthusiasm: it once offered a $10,000 bounty for unretouched photos from Dunham’s Vogue shoot. Why? To prove that fashion magazines use Photo­shop: well, yes, stop the presses. To show Dunham’s unadulterated body? She’s way ahead of you there – I’ve seen her stomach so often I could sculpt it from memory. Whatever the intention, it came off as a thinly veiled attempt to shame her for “double standards”: looking more glamorous in a fashion magazine than she does on her TV show. “Dunham is a woman who trumpets body positivity,” the Jezebel editor Jessica Coen noted, the unspoken end of the sentence being: “ . . . so we will not rest until we have seen her cellulite!”

In the end, Jezebel got the photos. They’d made Dunham’s neck a bit smaller. It wasn’t worth $10,000 to find this out.

As with Mad Men before it, Girls holds an importance for columnists and writers of trend pieces which far outstrips its reach. The third-series premiere in January was watched by 1.1 million viewers in America. (To put that in perspective, the Christmas special of the BBC’s cross-dressing Irish sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys was watched by 9.4 million. And when did you ever read a think-piece about Mrs Brown’s Boys?)

There are now two pieces of received wisdom about Dunham’s work in Girls. The first is that she is terrifically brave to show her completely normal body in a state of undress so often, and to depict such unsatisfying, embarrassing, unglamorous sex. The second is that the show is offensive in restricting itself to interrogating the lives of white, middle-class graduates who can afford to leave jobs they find unfulfilling because Mom and Dad’s brownstone/SoHo loft is only a cab ride away. The first series in particular came under fire for its treatment of race: there were no significant black or Hispanic characters, although it was set in a borough where the majority of the population is non-white.

The point is not that this criticism is unfounded but that, as ever, women are held to a standard that men are not. From some of the commentary, you would think that because Dunham wrote and directed the show, she should have been able to dismantle the entire racist, sexist structure of the US media single-handedly. Sex and the City (which had a male showrunner) is whiter than a yoga class in Surrey. There’s a satirical song on YouTube offering a complete list of all the black actors in Friends (mostly waiters). Take a wild guess how many films by Judd Apatow – Dunham’s “guardian angel” and the executive producer of Girls – have a black lead character. US broadcast media have a long and storied history of relegating non-white actors to the sassy best friend, the home help or the “magical negro” whose folksy wisdom sets the white hero on the right path.

None of this is to impugn the individual writers who, correctly and fearlessly, called out Dunham. But taken collectively, the punishment beating she received was disproportionate both to the offence committed and her power in the media landscape. It also reflects the overload of expectations on any successful woman: no one expected Jerry Seinfeld or Frasier Crane to represent a universal male experience, even though they were to some extent fictionalised versions of the actors playing them. Some criticism also failed to give Dunham credit for the ironic distance between her as a writer and her character, Hannah Horvath. When we find Hannah obnoxious, entitled, brattish or spoiled, that is not an accident – she has been written that way.

Dunham with her Girls co-stars and Judd Apatow.

To be fair, it is often hard to distinguish between Dunham and her characters because she deliberately obscures the line between them. Much of her work prompts the question: how much is Dunham inhabiting a persona – in effect wearing a mask made from her own face?

Her memoir only compounds this confusion. The reported advance fee of $3.5m triggered another think-piece season; the book’s release will bring a sequel. The publishers treated the manuscript with a reverence last accorded the Dead Sea Scrolls: perhaps not surprising, as Jezebel posted her 66-page book proposal on its site in December 2012, so that everyone could read it in a super-sisterly way and definitely not mock it. Every page of the A4 printouts of the memoir I received was watermarked with the NS literary editor’s name to discourage a repeat of this.

When challenged by Dunham’s lawyers, Jezebel countered the copyright infringement claims by posting commentary next to each quotation. Each section ended with: “The quoted sentence . . . is indicative of a nauseating and cloying posture of precociousness that permeates the entire proposal.” Well, I hope the good ladies of Jezebel have their sharpest quills out, because there are enough postures of precociousness in Not That Kind of Girl for a month’s worth of blog posts. Here are actual sentences from the book: “Fellows? If you are rude to me in a health food store? I will be intrigued by you.” A bad boyfriend has a friend known only as “Leo the puppeteer”. Last example: “He called me terrible names when I broke up with him for a Puerto Rican named Joe with a tattoo that said MOM in Comic Sans.” The memoir also contains ten pages of Dunham’s food diary from 2009, complete with calorie counts; a boring email to a boyfriend in which she wishes she could spend four months in Los Angeles “embracing this alien city of bad trees”; a complete inventory of the contents of her handbag; a list of her top health concerns, one of which is “lamp dust”; and a chapter epigram from her mother’s psychic, Terry. The constant references to therapy and medication for her anxiety and obsessive-compulsive dis­order give her the air of a young female Woody Allen – like him, she seems to be in love with the idea of being fragile or broken.

This book is emphatically not a feminist polemic. There is one chapter where she imagines the memoir she’ll write at 80, in which she will name the names of all the creepy male directors who have propositioned her, and one letter (in a collection of “emails I would send if I were one ounce crazier/angrier/braver”) that smacks of real, rather than posturing anger, at having her feminism derided. But everywhere else, perhaps from a desire to separate art from activism, the focus is relentlessly inward. (Her sister, Grace, is arranging for representatives of Planned Parenthood to campaign at events on Lena’s book tour; the book does not mention abortion.)

So how much of this is sincere, excruciating navel-gazing, and how much of it is the performance of the same for artistic effect? It’s impossible to tell. The book is studded with references to her feeling that a situation is not “real”, for example: “Only when I got to college did it dawn on me that maybe my upbringing hadn’t been very ‘real’.” After a break-up, she lies in bed “rubbing my feet together and whispering: ‘You are real. You are real . . .’ ” In the next chapter, she confesses that she is an “unreliable narrator” who adds invented detail to stories about her mother and fabricates memories of her childhood.

She is also an inveterate self-mythologiser, always looking at herself with a director’s eye. After one break-up, she says: “I’d ride the subway in a beret imagining I saw him getting on at every stop.” One chapter deals with her sister coming out as a lesbian. She has since told an interviewer: “What I didn’t say in the book is how it messed up our relationship for, like, two years.” The one subject that is defiantly off-limits is her current relationship with the musician Jack Antonoff: “I have written all sorts of paragraphs recounting [our] months together . . . but surveying those words I realised they are mine. He is mine to protect.”

So, this is a confessional book where you cannot be sure if the confessions are true: it’s either a brilliantly ironic subversion of the form, or a deeply wearying put-on by someone who has no sense of who they are when no one is watching. I honestly don’t know which it is.

Dunham speaks of suffering dissociative episodes after Girls became big: to me, her entire career seems like a dissociative episode, designed to rebut criticism by anticipating it. She invites you to judge her size 12 thighs, marooned in a sea of perfect bodies on screen; she proffers herself for our hatred as a representative of a precocious, gilded elite. In Girls, she shoots herself from angles she does not inflict on her co-stars; at award ceremonies, she eschews the cantilevering and corsetry forced on actresses who have dared to eat carbs in the past two years.

She writes in the book: “When I am playing a character, I am never allowed to explicitly state the takeaway message of the scenes I’m performing – after all, part of the dramatic conflict is that the person I’m portraying doesn’t really know it yet.” The same applies to most of the book: 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 realise that Lena Dunham has been playing “Lena Dunham” for a long time. She is not real. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

Collection Christophel/Alamy
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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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