Lena & the college girl mentality: where relatability meets writing

Lena Dunham

Like most 20-something girls, I fell in love with Lena Dunham when my also 20-something friend told me I “had” to watch GIRLS on HBO. I crawled into my uncomfortable bed in my freshman year dorm and navigated my Macbook until the first episode popped up. And there she was, Lena (playing her alter ego Hannah Horvath), face stuffed with pasta.

I kept watching as she argued with her parents and dubbed herself “the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice.” I thought: this girl gets me.

Turns out, that’s exactly the point. Dunham, who has now released her first book, titled Not That Kind of Girl, has built her 1.2 million Instagram followers, successful HBO show, Planned Parenthood-collaboration book tour empire on her unabashed honesty and relatability. The result, unsurprisingly, is pretty funny.

Dunham spoke at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco Thursday night as a part of her book tour. She stepped on stage, her bleach-blonde bob cut and brunette roots glimmering in the spotlight’s glare, immediately announcing to the audience that her underwear was “acting funny.” She then began to read from her book — a series of lists, essays and broken up vignettes about her life as a child with near-crippling anxiety and as a semi-adult without a real job.

The 28-year-old often sounded exactly like my friends from home. She talked about people who “get it” and “don’t get it,” and how the women in her life influence her work. She said the word “obsessed” at least five times.

One of the stories in her book is titled, “Igor: Or, My Internet Boyfriend Died and So Could Yours.” It’s a classic Lena Dunham comedy routine — naivete verging on absurdity, a heightening of emotion around a romantic interest we can almost 100 percent% assume never existed. When her friend instant-messages her to tell her Igor, whom she has never actually met, is dead, Dunham responds: “Did Shayne say if Igor stopped liking me?” At another point she advises, “If someone says ‘I’m not going to hurt you’ or ‘I’m not a creep,’ they probably are. Noncreeps don’t feel the need to go around saying it all the time.”

Perhaps as a testament to the similarity we draw between ourselves and Dunham’s characters, my friends and I have taken to referring to her as simply “Lena” — a intimacy we before reserved exclusively for Taylor Swift. (As in: “Tay has a new album dropping this month,” etc.)

Leaving the theater in a swarm of young women, I heard another audience member (a girl about my age) say, “It’s just funny because I’ve had that experience before.”

Measuring Dunham’s talent by this metric is difficult. Her humor, for readers and viewers, stems largely from her ability to voice the self-indulgent, confused, often miniscule-but-enormous problems of youth that now crowd BuzzFeed and college students’ Facebook newsfeeds. Still, it’s difficult to discern the merit of Dunham’s writing without this familiarity. Would I want to read her book if I hadn’t seen GIRLS or her latest tweet? If they hadn’t reminded me of myself?

A New Yorker article published this summer puts it aptly: “Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends.”

 But relatability is the center of Dunham’s work, not the beginning. Her 200+ page book hits again and again on familiar tropes of growing up, revealing in excruciating detail, the horror and beauty of being a prepubescent, then pubescent girl. Pushing for a deeper meaning, one might discuss her effort to break down body shame and say all the things that young women feel they should keep suppressed. But that’s all still confessional. Which explains why a male friend told me he put the book down before finishing five pages. 

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dunham’s whole tour is based on advocating for women and speaking up for women. Her stories, she would agree, are tuned for a female ear. And her message (Yes, your twenties suck. It will be okay) seems to be the main thing keeping her fanbase growing. But it is telling. Lena Dunham is, in some ways, the Thought Catalogue of memoir writing. It’s all there — even with the occasional “lesson learned” paragraph to tell readers how she made it through alive, and that they would too. In her insistence that she really is one of us, Dunham both nurtures us, humors us and demands that we ask ourselves why it is we are reading her words in the first place.

 The question, it seems to me, is whether seeing myself in Lena’s encounters with eccentric and awful men and her obsession with death is enough to justify fanhood. Finding a woman only a few years older than me who could drag that many young people out on a Thursday evening for a book reading is rare. The infatuation with Dunham and her work’s inclusivity get at the question of the purposes writing can serve.

“Writing allows you to take ownership of your own experiences,” Dunham herself said at the San Francisco event. And it certainly works — her account of being denied by an older man she attempted to kiss doesn’t even read as shameful, nor does a recollection of vomiting all over the carpet of a young artist she was trying to impress. 

Dunham’s work pretty obviously falls outside of the category of “serious” writing or “literature” per se. She is, after all, a comedian. And, the writing is necessarily colored by Dunham’s humor, which she uses to face personal demons.  Still, her writing reveals hidden truths about being young and being a woman today, and presenting art that looks and talks like these women is powerful. As a reader, it can still feel alien to read accounts of texting on an iPhone or, in Dunham’s case, having sex with a disinterested boy who is screaming expletives. But this language and these images are seen and heard all the time, on screens and in person.

This is what life’s like, Dunham says, and it’s hilarious. 

I hid her book from other passengers on BART as I headed home from the reading, making sure the bright pink words on the cover didn’t attract any attention or judgement. I wondered, “Does this make Lena a guilty pleasure?”

Maybe. But that’s not the point. The Dunham message is there’s magic in mistakes and something worth remembering about being twenty or twenty-five that isn’t just about escaping to the next step. It’s cliche sounding. But, in this case, it does just the trick.

Contact Libby Rainey at [email protected]