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

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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