Sex, Memoir, and the Real Lena Dunham

October 21, 2014 | 8 books mentioned 45 9 min read


cover“Why is Helen Gurley Brown trending?” a confused man in San Francisco recently tweeted. The answer is Lena Dunham, who has put HGB back in the spotlight again, with the publication of her memoir/self-help manual, Not That Kind of Girl.

coverAnyone who has read or simply read about Dunham’s book probably knows that she was inspired by Brown’s 1982 bestseller, Having It All, which she bought for 65 cents at a thrift store in Ohio, thinking it would be “a decorative joke, something for my shelf of kitschy trophies.”

As it happened, the book became an unlikely lifeline. A student at Oberlin at the time, Lena inhaled Helen’s recipes for success (and probably a fair amount of dust), with some reservations. “Most of her advice . . . is absolutely bananas,” Dunham writes in her introduction to Not That Kind of Girl. “But despite her demented theories, which jibe not even a little bit with my distinctly feminist upbringing, I appreciate the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say, Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone.”

As someone who has been working on a book about Helen Gurley Brown for the past few years, I’m thrilled to see her name in the press again, and I think it’s great that Dunham is tipping her hat to Brown in her own memoir, which features a similar structure as Having It All (both books are divided into themed sections), a photo of the author in a classic ’80s power pose, and the line, “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all.”

I, too, own a copy of Having It All. When I read Dunham’s description of her thrift-store find, which came with a stranger’s inscription, I smiled in recognition . . . My pre-loved copy of the book came via Amazon, with a slight scent of mildew, dog-eared pages, and an ancient, discolored photograph that fell out as soon as I opened it. I do not know the mustached, mostly naked, overly tanned man pictured in the photo. I only know that whoever took the photo used too much flash and must have thought that her boyfriend/lover looked pretty damn sexy posing in a bathroom doorway wearing his tightest black banana-hammock with brown cowboy boots and a thin gold chain. As long as I own this copy of Having It All, he will continue to live among its pages, along with some of Helen Gurley Brown’s best and worst advice. They simply belong together.

Not That Kind of Girl and Having It All belong together, too, in the relatively small canon of cheeky memoir/self-help-books-written-for-women-by-women. I understand why, in press interviews and public talks, Dunham keeps referencing Brown’s guide for attracting “love, success, sex, money, even if you’re starting with nothing.”

Granted, Dunham hardly started with nothing: The daughter of artists, she grew up in Soho and attended the prestigious Saint Anne’s School in Brooklyn, before studying creative writing at Oberlin. Brown’s childhood was far less comfy. Born in the tiny town of Green Forest, Arkansas, she was just a girl when her father died in an elevator accident, forcing her grieving mother to uproot the family to Los Angeles, where Helen’s older sister was diagnosed with polio. I’m guessing that Dunham probably could afford not to work. Helen didn’t have a choice. She worked her way through 17 secretarial jobs before landing the career (and the husband) of her dreams.

The story of Helen Gurley Brown is ultimately one about the power of will, and I understand why, as a college student, Dunham gravitated toward Helen’s belief that, as the Girls creator put it, “a powerful, confident, and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born.” (See: Having It All, Chapter II, “How to ‘Mouseburger’ Your Way to the Top.”)

But I still think that Lena is spotlighting the wrong book.

coverThe book that she should be talking about—that we all should be talking about, at least those of us who are talking about Lena Dunham and Helen Gurley Brown—is Sex and the Single Girl, which came out 20 years before Having It All, and changed the way people talked about sex (nice girls had premarital sex, too!), paving the way for shows like Sex and the City and Girls. (Props to Marisa Meltzer who made the connection at Yahoo! Style.)

Life isn’t a college syllabus, and it’s not Dunham’s job to talk about a book that didn’t speak to her, or that she may not have read yet. But from a critical perspective, talking about Having It All without mentioning Sex and the Single Girl is kind of like talking about How to Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong’s follow-up to Fear of Flying, without mentioning Fear of Flying.

covercoverBrown published Having It All when she was 60. She published Sex and the Single Girl when she was 40 and much closer to her experiences as a single woman working in advertising and dating around. She married the Hollywood producer David Brown at 37, considered spinster-age at the time. “I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world’s worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor . . . But I don’t think it’s a miracle that I married my husband,” she began, before launching into her if-I-can-do-it-you-can-too spiel for how to lead a “rich, full life” as a single woman.

“Here is what it doesn’t take. Great beauty,” she continued. “What you do have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.”

Sex and the Single Girl became an instant bestseller, with chapters giving women advice on where to meet men and how to have an affair from beginning to end. Yes, some of the advice was beyond ridiculous. Want to get a man’s attention? “Paint your car hot orange  . . . or shocking pink.” Better yet: “Carry a controversial book at all times—like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a perfectly simple way of saying, ‘I’m open to conversation,’ without having to start one.”

But Brown also dispensed practical, often wise advice to her readers on how to start a career, how to save money, how to find an apartment, and how to embrace their own sexuality, flaws and all. “What is a sexy woman? Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex,” she wrote in a chapter called “How to Be Sexy.” “Being sexy means that you accept yourself as a woman . . . with all the functions of a woman . . . Being sexy means that you accept all the parts of your body as worthy and lovable.”

What a concept! It’s hard to say what Helen Gurley Brown would have made of Lena Dunham and her nude scenes in Girls—in another chapter, she told readers that if they wanted to find a man, “Your figure can’t harbor an ounce of baby fat”—but their message of self-acceptance is similar.

Like so many books that delve into the subject of sex and have been written by women, Brown’s book was a sensation and a shock. After reading the manuscript, her own mother was appalled and recommended putting off publication. Would her book get a lot of publicity? Sure, she said, but then again so would rape or murder!*

In The San Francisco Examiner, one furious male reader called Helen Gurley Brown’s message in Sex and the Single Girl “a libel against womanhood” that threatened the chastity of the nation’s girls. “The breaking down of moral values . . . which this book indirectly advocates is leading Western civilization into a decline,” he fumed.

Fifty years later, I read Sex and the Single Girl for the first time, at the age of 34. I know it was groundbreaking at the time, but the chapters about sex seemed tame; hardly shocking to someone who was still wearing skorts and Scrunchies when Madonna writhed on a bed in a cone bra and sang about being touched for the very first time.

Admittedly, I had a similar reaction when I read Fear of Flying, a book that I now count among my favorites of all time. The “zipless fuck” doesn’t seem quite so scandalous when your mother keeps asking you if you’ve “gotten to that part yet.”

Everyone said these books were about sex, and they were, but they are also about so much more. Sex and the Single Girl, Fear of Flying, Girls . . . as different as these works are in many ways, they are all about young women learning how to be alone with themselves, how to develop themselves, and how to take care of themselves; hard and often harrowing work that, preferably, happens before finding a partner. “When you accept yourself, with all your foibles, you will be able to accept other people too,” Brown wrote. “And you and they will be happier to be near you.”

That’s the message that Dunham is trying to get across, too, and I think she succeeds. I’ve read more than a few reviews in which critics repeat some version of the line, “I read Lena Dunham’s new book. I learned nothing about Lena Dunham,” suggesting that she is putting on a persona that has little in common with the “real” Lena. Really? I felt I learned so much about her, but also about her family, her fears. I was particularly moved by Dunham’s portrait of her younger sister Grace, who used to crawl into her bed as a small child and had “the comforting, sleep-inducing properties of a hot-water bottle or a cat.” (When Dunham was writing her book, Grace was graduating college. “She’s emerged as a surprising, strange adult,” Lena says, sounding more like her mother than her sister.)

Reading about her penchant for “bed-sharing” that continued into college, I remembered girls I knew in college who went to similar lengths to avoid being alone with themselves. Her experiences as a girl growing into a woman, despite being so different from mine, were also deeply familiar. I found her memoir to be personal and unflinching, funny and at times profound. But not everyone did.

In The Guardian, book critic Hadley Freeman suggested that Dunham’s memoir be filed in a new genre of writing called “clit lit,” “books by young women writing about what is usually described as ‘all their flaws,’ which means everything that happens in their vaginas, from masturbation to menstruation, from sex to cystitis,” writes Freeman, who, at a certain point, began counting the number of times that Dunham uses the word “vagina.” She stopped when she reached 25.“ There’s sexual honesty, and then there’s just sticking your head up your vagina.”

Maybe Freeman is just trying to be funny, I don’t know. I do know that Dunham uses the word “vagina” when describing the pain she felt after being raped by a guy she knew in college and before going to see her mother’s doctor, who, upon examining her, acknowledged that, “It must have been pretty rough.”

Dunham also uses the words “vagina” and “uterus” liberally in a chapter recounting the severe stinging sensation in her crotch that sent her to her gynecologist, who diagnosed her with classic endometriosis, a disorder of the uterus that can lead to problems conceiving children. “I’m afraid that I’m infertile,” she says later in the book.

Are women writers not supposed to use the word “vagina” when discussing such subjects? Or is the problem simply discussing the subjects themselves? As for the writer at New York’s “Vulture” who, weighing in on Hannah Horvath’s nakedness on Girls, said not to apply the word “brave” to Dunham because, as he put it, “she’s not a rape victim, she is a writer-actor-director who is exceptionally well compensated both financially and in the artist’s capital of choice—attention,” maybe you should read the chapter in Dunham’s book called “Barry.” (Also, forgetting Dunham for a second, how could you assume to know this kind of personal history about anyone? )

coverA lot has happened since 1962 when Sex and the Single Girl came out. Lena is able to write about subjects that Helen wasn’t, including what constitutes “rape.” (In an early draft of Sex and the Office*, Brown’s 1964 sequel to Sex and the Single Girl, she included a vignette called “Rape—More or Less,” recounting one woman’s experience of being attacked by a man she knew from work. The term “date rape” didn’t exist yet, and the story never made it to her final draft.) And yet, as two women who wrote memoir-manuals more than a half a century apart, they have been treated very similarly in the press. They weren’t honest enough. They were too honest—narcissistic navel-gazers.

“I’m an unreliable narrator,” Lena writes, before recounting the story of her rape, an episode that she told differently earlier in the book.

Like people, stories change. It doesn’t mean that they’re not true. Any memoir is an exercise in reconstructing memory. Every narrator is flawed. It’s not that Dunham is more flawed than anyone else. As was the case with Helen Gurley Brown, she is just more willing to look at her flaws, to write about them—and in the process, to rewrite herself.

Like stories, people change. It doesn’t mean they’re “not real,” a popular accusation that critics have been hurling at Dunham as of late.

“How much is Dunham inhabiting a persona—in effect wearing a mask made from her own face?” New Statesmen critic Helen Lewis asked recently. “Her whole life is a performance art piece where she plays a noxious brat with great skill . . . Reading this book, you realise that Lena Dunham has been playing ‘Lena Dunham’ for a long time. She is not real.”

This just seems goofy to me. We all have our public/private faces. To some degree, we are all performers in the daily dramas of our own lives. We are all unreliable narrators of our own stories. We are all editors who choose which truths to reveal, and which to tweak or cut out altogether.

I’ve been remembering a story about Helen’s teenage cousin, Lou, who visited her in the Pacific Palisades shortly after Sex and the Single Girl came out. When Lou stayed with Helen and David in 1962, copies of the book were still in boxes, stacked in the den. One day, she asked Helen for her own copy of Sex and the Single Girl.

Lou stayed up all night reading. She was riveted. But she couldn’t help but wonder if Helen really believed everything she had written about life as a single girl—how it’s OK to sleep with guys before you get married, or have affairs with married men.

“Do you really believe that?” Lou asked Helen the next morning.

“Absolutely,” Helen said. “I believe the things I said. I just didn’t talk about how lonely it can be.”

As Dunham continues her book tour, I hope someone raises the question that Helen’s cousin asked her all those years ago. Do you believe everything you wrote?

Who knows how she would answer . .  . But no one can accuse her of not talking about how lonely it can be.

*From the Helen Gurley Brown Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

is the author of the new biography, Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman. She has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Allure, Marie Claire, and Glamour, among other publications. Her first book, The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens, was a winner of the American Library Association's Alex Award. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family and has taught nonfiction writing at Smith College.


  1. I totally see the draw behind this kind of story. Everyone wants to be seen as sexy and receive the love and desire they deserve. That’s why Cosmo is so popular!

    But as a conservative married woman and mother, I can also see how people could react badly to this kind of risqué story promoting sex and “loose” ethics and morals. That’s one thing I love about honest writers. They don’t care which side people chose. They just want to put all the information out there to give the reader something to think about. And talk about, at all those fancy cocktail parties they are killing in their sexy LBD.

  2. Yawn. Why do people care about this person? Does she have anything remotely interesting to say about anything other than the inexplicable phenomenon of Lena Dunham? And actually does she have anything very interesting to say about that? She seems to have been elevated into the cultural consciousness as a sort of avatar of the worst aspects of young, privileged, creative class–heedless grasping ambition, marginal talent, and most of all, a suffocating tumblrized narcissism. The fact that HGB came from nowhere and nothing is slightly glossed over here, but is not incidental to the relevance of her story (and the irrelevance of Dunham’s), nor is the fact that she was saying what she said fifty years ago. If I were a young, artistic woman I would be somewhat offended by the cultural podium and capital being given to Dunham instead of someone like Miranda July (too old now, I know, but you get my meaning).

  3. @Patrick, Naturally

    It’s easy to dump on Dunham for being privileged until you take a second and consider that out of what must be millions of equally privileged kids in America, she is the one with the hit HBO show. You don’t have to like her but you can’t deny her work ethic, popularity, or success. It’s also bizarre to take an artist to task for “heedless ambition”. Do you think Dunham is taking too much of the pie? Too late, the pie was already eaten by privileged men.

  4. a.) The main thing I remember about “Having It All” from my furtive bookstore glimpses in the early 1980’s was that you should NOT eat the entire recipe for tuna salad in one sitting. I assume that would make you blow up like a whale, and render all the other advice in the book null and void.

    b.) Oh, Mr. ,Naturally. You are truly the spiritual descendant of the “furious male reader” from San Francisco and his diatribe about HGB. Now, instead of accusations of being a “a libel against womanhood,” a threat to the nation’s girls, and a force for the decline of Western civilization, we have the puzzled ingenuousness of the well meaning guy. Why would “this person” be of interest to anyone? I suppose she uses the word “vagina” too much as well.

    c.) For just a little fun, how about a slight revision. Re: “Catcher In The Rye” —

    Yawn. Why do people care about this person? Does he have anything remotely interesting to say? He is a sort of avatar of the worst aspects of young, privileged brats, drunk and whoring. If I were a young, artistic man I would be somewhat offended by the cultural podium and capital being given to Salinger instead of someone like James A. Michener.”

    d.) @Timble. Nice catch on the “heedless ambition.” Would love to see how often that term has been applied to a dude. Naughty, naughty, little greedy girl!

    Moe Murph
    How About Another Slice of Pie

  5. “out of what must be millions of equally privileged kids in America, she is the one with the hit HBO show”

    I honestly don’t understand what this means. You are saying LD has peers, and she also has a TV show? Um, I think we can all agree on these extraordinarily simple facts…what’s the point?

    “you can’t deny her work ethic, popularity, or success”

    You can’t deny Dan Brown’s work ethic, popularity, or success, either.

    These things have nothing to do with what Pat Nat wrote, nor do they constitute any type of serious critical discussion of LD.

  6. @Timble

    More gentle puzzlement. Seems to be the fashion.

    (And please, Mr. Trimble, let us have naught but serious critical discussion here.)

  7. To the LD defenders reflexively playing the gender card:

    What about her work do you value? Is it inventive? It is intellectually challenging? Do you consider Girls “art”?

    I’m honestly asking. I’d really like to hear a reasoned defense of her as an actual artist instead of her gender. I watched Tiny Furniture and one episode of Girls and to me it was just another tired entry in the boring autobiographical-navel-gazing-in-Brooklyn genre that anyone who reads these comments knows I loathe (regardless of gender). But maybe that’s a small sample size? I really want to know why LD gets propped up moreso than someone like Emily Gould (for example).

  8. @Ed Bast
    “I honestly don’t understand what this means.”

    Well, it’s a pretty simple sentence, but I’ll try to break it down for you.

    There are many people who have privileged lives (which, according to Patrick, is “not incidental” to the “irrelevance” of their stories).

    However, only a relative handful of people, privileged or not, have created popular television dramas (or “been elevated into the cultural consciousness”).

    Lena Dunham is one of these people.

    Therefore (this is the point), the “inexplicable phenomenon” may actually be quite simply explained. Dunham capitalized on her privilege to create, through hard work, something that people actually like, and her success is her own. Minimizing her accomplishments by calling her out for being privileged is meaningless; if privilege led to creative success, every wealthy young New Yorker would have a television show.

    For some reason this makes some people really angry.

    “…nor do they constitute any type of serious critical discussion of LD.”

    Whereas “a sort of avatar of the worst aspects of young, privileged, creative class” and “suffocating tumblrized narcissism” is certainly not the clueless, out-of-touch ranting of a senior citizen.

    As for Dan Brown. When you read about Dan Brown, how often do articles lead with his education at an elite prep school where his father was tenured, or say things like “I’m guessing that [Brown] probably could afford not to work”?

  9. I shall decline The Challenge but will happily meet you at dawn to engage in a fierce battle of rubber chicken throwing until all are depleted.

    Moe Murph
    Retiring From Fray To Plan The Next Reflexive Gender Card Attack With My Brigade of Sister Social-Justice Warriors

  10. @Ed Bast
    “I’d really like to hear a reasoned defense of her as an actual artist instead of her gender.”

    Presumably, a reasoned attack on her as an actual artist would come first, unless you consider calling someone irrelevant, marginally talented and narcissistic a reasoned attack.

    Look, I’m not a fan of Dunham’s work. I’ve watched Girls and didn’t care for it. However, there is a bizarre disconnect between Dunham’s general competence and medium talent and the response she generates, which invariably rests on the notion that she doesn’t deserve the success she has, and I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with the fact that she says “vagina” a lot. You can’t really talk about Dunham without talking about gender. That’s like asking someone to talk about Scorcese without mentioning violence.

  11. I haven’t read Dunham’s essay collection and probably won’t, simply because there is so much other good stuff out there, but I think “Girls” is pretty great. The characters are self-absorbed, yes, but that’s hardly an interesting or penetrating critique of the show itself. Hell, so were the characters in “The Sun Also Rises.”

  12. “It’s easy to dump on Dunham for being privileged until you take a second and consider that out of what must be millions of equally privileged kids in America, she is the one with the hit HBO show. You don’t have to like her but you can’t deny her work ethic, popularity, or success. It’s also bizarre to take an artist to task for “heedless ambition”. Do you think Dunham is taking too much of the pie? Too late, the pie was already eaten by privileged men.”

    No, I just think she ‘s kind of boring and sucky. You’re the one turning this into a gender critique.

  13. “Yawn. Why do people care about this person? Does he have anything remotely interesting to say? He is a sort of avatar of the worst aspects of young, privileged brats, drunk and whoring. If I were a young, artistic man I would be somewhat offended by the cultural podium and capital being given to Salinger instead of someone like James A. Michener.”

    Please don’t assign your prejudices to me. I think Holden Caufield/CITR is/are both pretty overrated and annoying. I find plenty of other Brooklynite navel-gazers, as Ed puts it, besides LD boring and annoying and heedlessly ambitious, both male and female. Most of them, Ben Lerner, say, don’t have the cultural platform or recognition she does, so it’s not really worth making a post wondering why anyone cares.

    None of you have explained LD as a cultural phenomenon, btw, although you have provided lots of handwaving and preemptive “sexist!” responses.

  14. Ross G,

    It’s not a penetrating critique to say a character or characters in a work of narrative aren’t self-aware, no, but it’s a different thing to say that the author herself isn’t aware of this lack of self-awareness. Hemingway, presumably, had some idea that his characters were insufferable shitbags (though maybe not!)

  15. I have decided to name my next Roller Derby team “The Heedlessly Ambitious.”

    Our headquarters will be the old closed-down Roseland Ballroom and we will all dress like Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones.”

    Every so often, we will head on the subway to Brooklyn, terrorizing other passengers by waving our hands, and yelling “sexist!” on crowded trains. We’ll hang out at Brooklyn poetry readings, and smoke too close to the door. We’ll refuse to get off stage after our five minutes are up. We’ll also promiscuously assign prejudices and make prank calls to Ben Lerner.

    In 2016, an obscure tiki bar in Hoboken will name a cocktail after us. It will be known as The Suffocating Tumblrized Narcissist.

    It will be awesome.

    Moe Murph

  16. Just going to toss my two cents in here. Full-disclosure, I am a white man of youngish age (according to the police) and I live in the Midwest and work generally minimum wage, minimum skill level jobs in order to not be homeless. Contemplating becoming a thief, but it’s a competitive market. Anyway, I don’t think I’m Lena Dunham’s target audience. But I fucking love Girls. I don’t feel that her nonfiction/writing in general is so successful, but she’s a talented director and screenwriter, from where I’m sitting, at least as long as honesty’s a virtue. And, like someone said, there is a kind of Sun Also Rises aspect to moments in that show, but obviously with more irony and modern accoutrements than most people are comfortable with – a lot of people like to imagine themselves in Paris in the 1920s, but really that’s just a kind of dumb pseudo-nostalgia. I’m sure Dunham’s aware her characters can be pretty shitty. That’s the point. Isn’t that always the point, if there has to be one? Anyway, good for her. She’s better than John “Fuckin” Updike, that’s for sure.

  17. @Patrick, Naturally
    “None of you have explained LD as a cultural phenomenon”

    She’s not a cultural phenomenon, she’s just popular. I guess the explanation you’re looking for is “lots of people like her and give her money”. Yes, I realize you’re being intentionally obtuse. Obviously nobody is baffled by the success of someone like James Franco, because it’s the kind of success we’re all primed to expect. I’m guessing you literally think all Dunham has going for her is that she was unattractively naked on television.

  18. @timble

    unable to engage and explain why you like Dunham or Girls requires a litany of weird comparisons. I don’t think any rational person actually enjoys James Franco’s literary pursuits (but Pineapple Express is another story – great movie, marginally great actor). I’m all for eternal nakedness, which is why David Yow is my mayor

  19. Hello, Mr. Humbly,

    Loved your “Girls” comment! Please refrain from embarking as of yet on a life of crime…just love your writer’s “voice” and would enjoy reading your fiction. There’s a sorta hybrid John Steinbeck/Jack London vibe you’ve got going there. Perhaps a smidgen of Willa Cather as well?

    Please share with us your knockabout tales from the Midwest

    Best regards,

    Moe Murph.

  20. Timble,

    No one is baffled by the success of James Franco if they’ve seen Freaks and Geeks, a GOAT show, or some of the other pretty/very good movies he’s been in. What I’ve seen of Girls, however, has indeed left me wondering why it’s popular. Maybe I’ve just seen the wrong episodes.

    I think of LD as a cultural phenomenon b/c she seems to trade on her Lena Dunhamness in a way that, say, Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t trade on her Jennifer Lawrenceness, if this makes any sense. Lena Dunham has made being Lena Dunham central to her persona and career–the book reviewed here is exhibit A. And well yes, she did kind of get famous by being twenty pounds overweight on TV, no?

    I don’t have anything against people doing this kind of thing per se, but with LD, I wonder why people are so interested. I’m not being intentionally obtuse–I don’t get it. The show doesn’t seem that smart, just kind of crude and obvious, although occasionally funny, and I don’t really get the sense of her having authorial control of, or ironic distance from, the characters’ horribleness. In the first episode, for example, there’s the thing about her parents finally cutting her off, and the horror of having to get a job, which I thought was great until I realized the show wasn’t really poking fun at LD’s character, and that getting cut off was mostly being treated straightfaced as a bad thing.

  21. Count me in the camp of those baffled by the successes of both Dunham & Franco.

    I guess up until this book I didn’t consider LD to be some sort of feminist icon. I suppose now that she’s placed herself in the tradition of HGB she’s sort of propping herself up as such, so such gender-centric conversations are inevitable. However it does no good to dismiss criticism toward her as just men being obtuse, unless we think LD should be immune to criticism because she’s a woman, which, god help us all.

  22. “However it does no good to dismiss criticism toward her as just men being obtuse, unless we think LD should be immune to criticism because she’s a woman, which, god help us all.”

    There is a universe of context within the use of “us” in this statement.

    No need to dismiss criticism as “obtuse” based upon its particular target, criticism is rightly dismissed as obtuse when it is, indeed obtuse.

    Moe Murph

  23. If my criticism of LD was obtuse, fine. It seemed like your and Timble’s problem with it was some kind of perceived sexism, cue the kneejerk circling of the wagons around this narcissistic, marginally talented person, which was my actual criticism in the first place. If this was the male equivalent of LD (not sure whom that would be, a hipster Tucker Max or someone?), would a post asking why anyone cares have bothered you? I doubt it. While I understand that the amount of horrible men and general dumbassery in the world makes intelligent women interpret everything as sexism, not everything is. And reflexively taking sides with someone just because they have a vagina (which they ruthlessly exploit) is not a great look, either.

  24. “There is a universe of context within the use of “us” in this statement.”

    Not really. Us, as in, society. As in, if we are at a point in our society where a person is or isn’t allowed to offer cultural criticism based on the gender of the subject in question then we may as well just say fuck it and end intellectual discourse altogether.

  25. Ah, then we end up opening the whole barrel of worms as in, the context of the word “our society.”


    The arguments here, and the bland presumption and solipsistic worldview with which someone like Patrick, Naturally makes such #NotAllMen statements as the ones listed below leads me to my initial assumption that the arguments presented here are, as I mentioned in my first comment, “the spiritual descendants” of San Franciso’s “furious male reader.”

    [:While I understand that the amount of horrible men and general dumbassery in the world makes intelligent women interpret everything as sexism, not everything is. And reflexively taking sides with someone just because they have a vagina (which they ruthlessly exploit) I[MAM editorial comment: WHAAAAAT??] s not a great look, either.”]

    Moe Murph
    Signing Off From Any More Flogging of This Dead Horse

  26. You’re just proving my point Moe. I would say if either of us is being solipsistic or presumptuous, it’s you. I posted saying I don’t get why LD is famous, or why people care. You called me a sexist and played the “exchange LD with Holden Caufield” card, as though you have any idea what my taste in literature is, or that it would be dictated by male characters doing male things. I don’t presume to know anything about you, other than that you’re usually a good poster in most theads, but are showing your ass in this one.

  27. My takeaway from this thread is, per Ed Bast, that we actually aren’t at the point where we can discuss someone like Lena Dunham’s art or persona on their own merits. If I find her brand of au courant narcissism and sexual provocation boring and disposable, it must surely be because I am a sexist and prefer the artistic output of boring Brooklyn narcissists with penises. I need to find out if Tao Lin is a man or woman so I can decide whether or not I think she or he is, respectively, terrible or good.

  28. People whose interest in the world is limited to themselves and their immediate social circle are inherently tiresome. More so when that group gets a disproportionate share of media time already, and still more when that media can’t shut up about said people.
    This may be the first time in our pop culture such a response has applied to a woman (genius monikers and all) but that doesn’t make LD’s work any more interesting to me.

  29. A fascinating taxonomy to accompany my reference to the #NotAllMen hashtag.

    (Bratty cousin to the twin duo of “Hey You Kneejerk Feminist” & “Mansplainer Interpreting Your Reality For You.”)

    And for even more hilarity, the fascinating development of the “Not All Men” meme to include “Not All Aquamen” & “Not All Koolaid Guy.” The citation below only for those who dare to cross the threshold of the Jezebel website. No, they will not collect & drink your tears, boys!

  30. Oh, there it is. I assume I am still “awaiting moderation.”

    Moe Murph
    Tends Towards The Immoderate

  31. @Patrick, Naturally

    Re: “I don’t presume to know anything about you, other than that you’re usually a good poster in most threads…”

    Perfect! Just the correct combination of starchiness and hot air redolent of the burned out Jesuit stuck preparing the 8th Graders for confirmation as he confiscates contraband copies of “Love Story”

    “You girls are usually such good students… tut tut….so disappointing.”

    Moe Murph
    (Still Rolling About The Ruthless “V” Exploitation)

  32. As a glass ceiling-breaker just a bit after HGB, I think women are taking all of this way too seriously. Like Helen, I used my sexuality and youthful cuteness when I began as an Executive Assistant to very powerful International Bankers in an old Chateau Building next to the Library on 40th & Fifth in Manhattan.

    Moved on to San Francisco, and worked my way up to become one of the first Managing Directors of one of the largest Global Banks, finally running its offices in Boston and back to New York. HGB got it right. She did it with wit, wits and yes, her sexual intuition.

    That said, Brooke’s essay is brilliantly researched and I can’t wait to read the book on the inimitable HGB. btw my husband discovered Lena Dunham’s “Girls”. So.

  33. “As a glass ceiling-breaker just a bit after HGB, I think women are taking all of this way too seriously”

    First, congrats on the ceiling break.

    What precisely is the “this” that The Gals are taking too seriously? I am perhaps in a bit more sour mood than usual in a 10-day span in which women gaming commenters, with the temerity to provide some well-reasoned critiques of “tropes” of women in video games went, literally, into hidling after death threats. Not to mention that little dust-up in Utah on October 14th.

    Moe Murph
    (Uh Oh, Am I One of Those Horrible Humorless Feminists My Mother Warned Me About?)

  34. Rumbling on by, I think that while it might be a good idea to avoid “narcissism” in fiction, or solipsism, or whatever you want to call it, there are plenty of great works that do engage with that shit, or are emblematic of it. Thinking right now of “Book of Disquiet” and most “autobiographical” stuff, like Celine or Henry Miller or Virginia Woolf or whoever. I don’t think every book or every show or film has to engage with all facets of life, because what would that look like? A literal encyclopedia of history and culture? Maybe fiction should be universal? But there’s a difference in universality of surface content and universality of underlying emotion/moral/anti-moral idea. If you want empathy mixed with contempt, there’s nothing too wrong with Girls (aesthetic/humor differences might make it a deal breaker I guess). I think the main takeaway from the whole Lena Dunham “phenomenon” is that, regardless of the quality of the work she throws out there, people like to talk about her specifically because they get to attach a bunch of loaded shit like feminism, sexism, privilege, class, and money onto her, and those topics always get people talking because they’re – ah… – universal concerns? WHAT?! At least in this society. Not necessarily that she reflects any of that stuff explicitly all the time, but people just seem to LIKE talking about all that stuff, because you get to argue (evidence = this page) which can be fun and diverting and gets a bunch of page views, so it’s good for websites to keep running it. Anyway, ANYWAY, appreciate Moe Murph, who is almost unfairly witty in all threads I’ve seen of her whenever I’m drunk enough to rumble onto this website. Can’t we all agree argument is fun?

  35. @Dunbar Humbly

    Aww, blushes, stutters.

    I’m gong to go on a Millions comment de-tox for a few weeks now. Ciaou!

  36. “Perfect! Just the correct combination of starchiness and hot air redolent of the burned out Jesuit stuck preparing the 8th Graders for confirmation as he confiscates contraband copies of “Love Story”
    “You girls are usually such good students… tut tut….so disappointing.”
    Moe Murph
    (Still Rolling About The Ruthless “V” Exploitation)”

    What is your problem? To recap, I made a fairly innocuous post about LD being kind of terrible and overrated, and you called me a sexist, not to mention presumptuous and solipsistic. You’ve managed to avoid every single point I’ve made (like, for instance, have you actually ever seen Girls? For some reason, I doubt it), and simply engaged in ad hominems for no reason I can see other than not liking my tone, or something, or that I mentioned LD’s fairly gratuitous and unimaginative use of her sexuality. I do actually think you’re a good poster here, but somehow you’ve turned that into some patronizing male assault, as well. Feel free to take this in the same spirit–you seem to have problems.

  37. I’ve hesitated to say much about Lena Dunham, in part because, as a 47-year-old man, I’m pretty sure my qualifications for commenting on a young woman’s appeal to other women are next to nil. However, as an observer of culture and media (which, at this point, means having been subjected relentlessly to the details of Dunham’s life) I feel comfortable making this assertion: If Dunham were not the daughter of established, East Coast artists, we would not be having this discussion. There would be no “Girls” or “Not that Kind of Girl.” To be sure, she is not without talent, and to give Dunham some credit (probably more than she deserves) there might have been a “Tiny Furniture,” but I suspect few outside of Brooklyn would have heard about it, and it certainly would not have been released by the Criterion Collection barely two years after a limited release. Dunham is the product of privilege, wealth and luck, and that’s all. From what I can see, she has nothing of any consequence to say. Which, in America, clearly doesn’t mean you can’t land an HBO series and a multi-million book deal.

  38. @Dunbar Humbly are you seriously comparing The Book of Disquiet or Mrs. Dalloway to Girls? The wheels are really coming off this bandwagon.

  39. Lena Dunham Collected

    Being Lena Dunham Or How the Writing in Her Book Convinces Me She’s Being Paid With Counterfeit Money

    A Feral Lena Dunham, Naked on a Toilet Seat Devouring Cake, is a Scene I’ve Watched in a Hundred David Lynch Movies

    Or How Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Came to Realize That Watching Lena Dunham’s “Girls” is Like Committing Intellectual Suicide

    “Rolling Stone” = Music. Lena Dunham Can’t hold a Note, an Erudite Conversation Or Erica Jong’s Purse.

    Have Your Vote and Waste It Too Or How Lena Dunham Brought Women Back to the Stone Age

    Alexander the Great, the Voice of His Generation, Conquered the World in His Twenties. Lena Dunham Has a TV Show. And this crummy memoir.

    Lena Dunham is actually the Anti-Christ (with bad tattoos), less the style and verve. Upside down, triple nines.

    Or How “Girls” Ushered In the End of Western Intellectualism, All Is a Smoldering Wasteland Now

    “Girls” Will Never Be as Deep, Revealing & Honest as “My So-Called Life.” Claire Danes Was More 26 as a Teenager, She Burns Lena Dunham up.

    Serial Litter Bug Lena Dunham Evades Police and a Good Hair Stylist

    Lena Dunham is the voice of a masturbatory, hyper-self & her pathological breast baring represents Generation Garbage.

    The ideas for most of Lena Dunham’s work come at vacuous, bump-bump parties in LA. She’s a glorified intern.

    Lena Dunham needs an Alaskan BF who would encourage her to put on two-thousand pounds of clothes. Serial nudity problem solved.

    Moronic “Rolling Stone” Editor Closes His Eyes and Picks Photo of Pathological breast Flasher Lena Dunham for the Cover

    Television Like a Freaking Plague Or How Lena Dunham Drove Radio Audience Numbers Up to World War Two Highs

    And finally, do remember:

    Walking Wreck Lena Dunham Says Nearly Nothing About Her BFF Lisa Lampanelli’s Use of the N-Word

    Chris Roberts

  40. @justaphotographer

    I wasn’t comparing them necessarily, I was saying that without narcissism (or how about just obsessive self-examination) in some form you wouldn’t have plenty of great works of art. Not saying Girls is one of them, but I think people will forgive a lot of shit if, like, say, the “The Book of Disquiet”, a work is given a few decades to age, get a little fake mystique about it and its reclusive, drunk Portuguese author. I think it’s easy and stupid and wrongheaded, basically, to dislike a work because you notice autobiographical similarities between creator and piece.

  41. Dear Mr. , Naturally,

    I have been away taking a long ocean cruise to conquer my strange humors. Nine days ago, I became aware of a vaguely muffled squawking from the Millions comment pages. It sounded strangely similar to a very large Sea Lion.

    I see that, unsurprisingly, you were ultimately forced to resort to the inevitable conclusion that I “have problems.” I am most happy to report that the whole kerfuffle was just a case of “wondering womb.”, My medical team and I are diligently seeking to track down and retrieve the errant body part.

    Moe Murph
    Pretty Impressed By No Resort To Old Standby “Hysterical”

  42. @justaphotograper (Re: “people,” forgiveness, “the Book of Disquiet” etc.)

    Given the latest baroque, punitive, and visceral reactions to Ms. Dunham’s memoir over the past day or so, I think the only unforgivable offenses are:

    a.) To be female, overweight, and not be quiet and hiding in shame;

    b.) To be female and taking up an unacceptable amount of public space and bandwidth with said girth (see above);

    As opposed to committing “forgivable” offenses, offenses such as a.) and b.) are considered by a distressingly large % of the population to be occasions in which they consider it their sacred right to boldly pronounce such judgments (actual) as:

    [“There’s something about Lena’s squishy, pasty tattooed nakedness that really rubs people [Moe Murph: “people” ??] the wrong way. She should be eating Cheetos in a closet, not parading around in public.”]

    This and GamerGate have made the last several months an interesting tableau of of the various means of silencing disruptors to the status quo and offenders to the general comfort level of the power group.

    Moe Murph

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.