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Lena Dunham and Laurie Penny rewrite womanhood for the 21st century

Lena Dunham and Laurie Penny rewrite womanhood for the 21st century
Lena Dunham in Brooklyn in April 2013. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles Times)

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open," poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1968, a moment when the world was already splitting open and women had started to tell the truth about their lives (not to mention examining their private parts with the aid of a speculum).

In the decades that followed, a steady stream of women's memoirs filled bookstores and then websites. When I was growing up, there were few places you could find intimate descriptions of menstruation or postpartum depression, date rape or menopause. Now the Internet is awash with them. Along with a thousand bloggers mining this seam, there have been recent books by semi-confessional feminist writers like Caitlin Moran, Roxane Gay and now Laurie Penny, author of the new "Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution."

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Few women have turned female trouble into entertainment as cheekily as Lena Dunham, though, channeling it into a multimedia empire that encompasses indie film ("Tiny Furniture"), high-prestige TV ("Girls") and now a book: "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned.'"

What's not to love? Dunham propels funny, smart-mouthed, conflicted female characters onto the big and small screens. At 20, she wore her hair in a mullet and dressed "in neon that hugs in all the wrong places," turning her awkwardness and misery into self-display, and then that self-display into art. She made her first Web series at 21, an age when the rest of us were trying to cover our zits and pen the occasional maudlin poem.

What's not to envy? An HBO show at 25, book blurbs from Judy Blume and George Saunders, befriended by powerful mentors including Judd Apatow and the late Nora Ephron, who once chronicled her own adventures in femininity with great humor and to whom this book is dedicated.

Dunham seems to live as a way to generate raw material to share; events appear disappointingly flat until she can revise and imbue them with greater meaning. Losing her virginity during her sophomore year of college is rather drab — the boy dressed "like a middle-aged lesbian" and the hymen-breaking felt "less like a stab wound and more like a headache." But she finds her calling when she later rewrites the moment for her first movie, "Creative Nonfiction," explaining, "that was just sex, but this was my work."

She says her memoir was partly inspired by Helen Gurley Brown's 1982 advice book, "Having It All." Gurley Brown described herself as a former "Mouseburger" — "unpretty, unspecial, unformed" — who triumphed over her natural disadvantages. Dunham, who is not a conventional bombshell and struggles with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and disassociation, updates the Mouseburger trope while winking at another era of womanhood.

Using the loose concept of an advice tome to divide the book into thematic sections, she touches down on topics such as virginity, date rape, endometriosis, therapy and post-collegiate slacking.

There's little here that functions as actual advice, though. In reality, "Not That Kind of Girl" is a fractured memoir of a smart, ambitious young woman — and an enjoyable if not particularly revelatory read. Dunham has mastered a tone that is conspiratorial and funny, her mind always darting down the darkest path but then scrabbling back onto safe ground before you realize where you've been.

Anything nasty you might think about her, she's already thought, and worse. "I'm already predicting my future shame at thinking I have anything to offer you," she quips in the intro, "but also my future glory at having stopped you from trying a future juice cleanse or thinking it was your fault when the person you are dating suddenly backs away."

Nothing goes unexamined here — Dunham offers up a mortifying email to an ex-boyfriend, complete with self-deprecating footnotes. (She writes astutely of a disagreement over a movie, "Rather than admit he didn't want to waste two hours watching a woman's interior life unfold, he would tell me these films 'lack structure.'") Wobbly self-esteem is the book's through-line, as she repeatedly allows herself to be used or disdained (preferably both!) by reckless guys, needy guys, patronizing Hollywood power dudes. She describes crushing on a boy for whom "flirting consisted of him questioning my general intelligence and noting my lack of spatial awareness."

The accusation that Dunham's work is steeped in narcissism and white, New York privilege is both predictable and accurate. Does her awareness of it make up for self-absorption? Not really. Cocooned in parental admiration and financial stability, her mind turns on itself.

But what about Rukeyser's idea that a woman telling the truth would cause the world to explode? All this self-exposure may have revealed the inequities and double-binds of gender, but can it actually challenge the power structure, trigger social change? A new book by British journalist Laurie Penny fervently argues that middle-class women airing their angst is not enough.

Like Dunham, 28-year-old Penny is interested in the way girls' bodies and minds are molded and twisted by experiences. She knits rendingly painful personal anecdotes into the essays in "Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution," including her struggles with anorexia and online harassment. But unlike Dunham, Penny isn't just speaking her truth: She's speaking it pointedly to power — in one case confronting an older man who raped her at 19.

Furious at the idea that "[w]e can have everything we want as long as what we want is a life spent searching for exhausting work that doesn't pay enough, shopping for things we don't need" and sticking to social rules that "turn out to be as rigid as ever," Penny calls for an all-out mutiny against the system. "Further change ... will require us to ask big, challenging questions about the nature of work and love, sex and politics," she warns, "and to be prepared for the answers to be different from what we had expected."

Penny, who made her name as a columnist at the New Statesman and the Guardian, includes reported pieces from Britain and the U.S. on Occupy gatherings and porn conventions as well an essay on her stint as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, fulfilling a cute, eccentric fantasy role for geeky boys. She admits, "I tried and failed to be a character in a story somebody else has written for me."

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Where Dunham rewrites her own trauma for laughs, Penny is resolutely urgent (and sometimes very earnest) as she reaches for context, reminding us of the excluded and the undervalued. Right up front she differentiates "Unspeakable Things" from the confessional competition, declaring that her book "is not a cheesy instruction manual for how to negotiate modern patriarchy with a sassy wink and a thumbs-up."

Still, these books oddly complement each other — one is a casebook of symptoms, the other a cultural diagnosis. And though one's gaze is turned inward and the other outward, both women are trying to write their way out of the current "have it all" mythology, hoping to inspire a different breed of girl.

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Not That Kind of Girl

A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned"

Lena Dunham

Random House: 265 pp., $28

Unspeakable Things

Sex, Lies and Revolution

Laurie Penny

Bloomsbury: 288 pp., $16 paper

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