Not That Kind Of Bonfire Of The Vanities

Hoo boy, is that Lena Dunham a laugh riot or what? The lifelong paragon of wholesome living has upped the ante of revealing Millennial self-expression with her latest round of oversharing buried within the pages of her latest offering, Not That Kind of Girl.

The novel at first appeared to underwhelm expectations and strain the sweet $3.7 million deal extended by its proud publisher, Random House. Dulled—but encouraging!—reviews floated with little fanfare upon its September release before some good old-fashioned class war redirected observers’ attentions to the more pressing injustice of Dunham’s mercilessly exploitative book tour labor practices. But the favorable comparisons to fellow Great New Yorker Woody Allen quickly proved unfortunate.

Somehow, the celebrated cultural critics of the New York literary world missed the learned Dunham’s candid confessions of bawdry youthful predation. While her trendy regret-sex-cum-“rape” by a mustachioed Oberlin College Republican detailed in Chapter 6 stimulated a flurry of vicarious clucking from the sisters of perpetual grievance, disturbing passages in which Dunham describes a strange, manipulative obsession with her six-year-younger sister, Grace, received no mention in the mainstream press.  It took the muckracking of unsavory radical right-wing fringe outfits like the National Review to bring these intimate disclosures to public light.

Lest the Dunham family lawyer sees fit to threaten this humble blogger with a taste of Yankee justice, as is apparently the proper practice of the day, I’ll let the self-appointed voice of our generation speak for herself:

“Do we all have uteruses?” I asked my mother when I was seven.

“Yes,” she told me. “We’re born with them, and with all our eggs, but they start out very small. And they aren’t ready to make babies until we’re older.”

I looked at my sister, now a slim, tough one-year-old, and at her tiny belly. I imagined her eggs inside her, like the sack of spider eggs in Charlotte’s Web, and her uterus, the size of a thimble.

“Does her vagina look like mine?”

“I guess so,” my mother said. “Just smaller.”

One day, as I sat in our driveway in Long Island playing with blocks and buckets, my curiosity got the best of me. Grace was sitting up, babbling and smiling, and I leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina. She didn’t resist, and when I saw what was inside I shrieked. “My mother came running. “Mama, Mama! Grace has something in there!”

My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina. This was within the spectrum of things that I did. She just got on her knees and looked for herself. It quickly became apparent that Grace had stuffed six or seven pebbles in there. My mother removed them patiently while Grace cackled, thrilled that her prank had been such a success.

Don’t act like you didn’t regularly plan elaborate pranks by inserting fun surprises into your precious cavities at the tender age of one, you Judgy Judys. Their mother was supervising, it’s cool.

Elsewhere, she writes:

As she grew, I took to bribing her for her time and affection: one dollar in quarters if I could do her makeup like a “motorcycle chick.” Three pieces of candy if I could kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Whatever she wanted to watch on TV if she would just “relax on me.” Basically, anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.

Clearly a joke. It’s funny because Lena Dunham compares grooming her younger sister for intimacy and control to a sexual predator’s grab bag of tricks. Get it? This photo of a toddler-aged Grace in said “motorcycle chick” attire screams nothing but “harmless adolescent fun” to me.

Let those of you who have never painted, pumped, and posed your six-year-old little sister as a “Hell’s Angel’s sex property” cast the first stone.

This is not the first time Dunham has opted to unearth the lighter side of sexual abuse:

But all this proves Ms. Dunham guilty of is poor taste and sick humor. Still, you’d think that a self-appointed vanquisher of “rape culture” and stalwart champion of women’s rights might show a little more decency and refrain from such touchy territory.

Then there’s this strange excerpt, which even Dunham’s dogged defenders tend to suspiciously overlook:

I shared a bed with my sister, Grace, until I was seventeen years old. She was afraid to sleep alone and would begin asking me around 5:00 P.M. every day whether she could sleep with me. I put on a big show of saying no, taking pleasure in watching her beg and sulk, but eventually I always relented. Her sticky, muscly little body thrashed beside me every night as I read Anne Sexton, watched reruns of SNL, sometimes even as I slipped my hand into my underwear to figure some stuff out.

What’s a bit of quirky nighttime thrashing and sensual self-love between a 17-year-old spoiled dumpling and her obedient, “sticky, muscly little” 12-year-old sister, bigots?

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By all appearances, the Dunham household was an exceptionally progressive one. “When I was a child,” mother and photographer Laurie Simmons shares, “the two taboo subjects at the dinner table were sex and money. Everything was kept from me, even my father’s financial struggles.” They learned from their own parents’ mistakes. Father Carroll Dunham’s paintings—crude female forms shown bathing from behind, emphasizing only their breasts, behinds, and predominant labia—and Simmons’ “realistic lie” photography, including her famous Love Doll series, exude sexuality. “I don’t choose to over-analyze my relationship to these images,” Carroll divulged of his impulses to create “adolescent, sexual imagery” at a lecture at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, “because, if I do, it makes me self-conscious.”

Lena calls Lolita one of the best books about girls she’s ever read. She read, but misunderstood, Nabokov’s torrid and troubling masterpiece at the age of nine. That same year, she drafted a vow of celibacy which her mother refused to sign. She ate the contract.

True, most of the heavy lifting of Dunham-rearing appears to have been outsourced to a credentialed parade of Manhattan psychoanalysts à la mode moderne. One, um, non-traditional therapy technique included Dunham “forcing herself to picture her parents copulating in intricate patterns.” At the age of thirteen, she asked her mother to turn away from her so that she wouldn’t “think of sex.” “I remember saying to my mom when I was little, ‘I just had to imagine having sex with you eight times,’” she tells Rolling Stone, “and she really took it in stride! She was like, ‘Well, it’s your imagination; it didn’t really happen.’” Today, Simmons covers her own eyes during her daughter’s on-screen sex scenes. “To pretend that it’s really natural and that we’re very relaxed about watching the sex scenes — that would be just crazy.”

Anyways, the mouthpieces of the Northern elite quickly jumped to defend their friends from the torrid “right-wing” smears.

Over at the Los Angeles Times, Robin Abcarian offers in “Lena Dunham is no child molester, and shame on anyone who says she is” (emphases added):

You could do a few things to defend Lena Dunham against outlandish charges emanating from the political right that she sexually molested her younger sister.

You could call up a child development expert, who would tell you it’s normal for 6- or 7-year-old children to check out the genitals of other kids, especially their much younger siblings. You could talk to experts on adolescent development, who would tell you that it’s also normal for a kid to stick her hands down her own pants, even if a sibling is asleep next to her, or to pay a sibling to smooch her on the lips for a few seconds to see what it feels like, or to lie on top of her.

Why, oh why, won’t the backwards right wing accept that childhood sexual exploration is normal, beyond reproach, and even proper to actively encourage? Perhaps this is really an “attempt to silence and victimize courageous women.” Freud approves, back off.

Over at Slate DoubleX, resident “parenting advice columnist” Melinda Wenner Moyer writes a spirited defense of “Lena Dunham’s Totally Normal Childhood,” breaking down the lurid confessions into their proper scientific context (emphases added):

Let’s start with the episode for which [National Review writer Kevin] Williamson says “there is no non-horrific interpretation”: when Dunham approached her 1-year-old sister, Grace, and, as she writes, “leaned down between her legs and carefully spread open her vagina.” According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, touching and looking at new sibling’s genitals is a “normal, common” behavior in kids ages 2 to 6. (Yes, Dunham was apparently 7 when it happened, but still.) This was happening between sisters, too, which is important. It’s not necessarily OK for a child to play sexually with a younger child if he or she don’t typically play together, but among siblings or close friends it can be different. Sexual play often arises naturally out of pretend play, in part because, psychologists have theorized, friends and siblings become curious about each other’s body parts. Indeed, Dunham doesn’t describe trying to play with her sister’s vagina; she just wanted to see what it looked like.

Williamson says that Dunham also admits to, in his words, “casually masturbating while in bed next to her younger sister.” According to Dunham, her sister was the one crawling into her bed, and Grace was asleep when the masturbation happened [ED: not according to the original passage]—so Dunham, who was at least 13 at the time, was essentially masturbating in private. Masturbation is, of course, very normal: A 2011 study conducted by researchers at the University of Indiana School of Medicine reported that nearly half of 14-year-old girls masturbate. In fact, the paper called masturbation “integral to normal sexual development.” Hell, one survey found that two-thirds of professionals think it’s normal for 3-year-olds to masturbate.

Then there is Dunham’s admission that she bribed her sister to kiss her on the lips for five seconds. Yes, it’s coercive—but is it harmful? “It sounds, from what Dunham is writing, that it’s just playful activity. One would seriously have to question that harm was done,” Savin-Williams says. And again, this kind of play is extremely common. In one study, researchers at Bryn Mawr College found that nearly one-third of women claimed to having been coerced into playing sexual games as children, and that most of the time, these games seemed perfectly normal. Ultimately, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that more than half of children will engage in some type of sexual behavior before their 13th birthday. (For more examples of “weird sexual shit” women did as kids, check out this Tumblr.)

So the science says that this kind of behavior is normal, common, and even integral to healthy sexual development. Well, actually, that Bryn Mawr study concludes that “the amount of bullying that occurs in ‘normal’ sexual play and games may make that distinction somewhat more difficult to make than we thought,” but I’m sure Ms. Wenner Moyer can find another fine study to support her case.

The esteemed Dr. Ritch Savins-Williams—Director of the Sex & Gender Lab at Cornell University, expert on psychosexual development and same-sex attraction during adolescence, dissertator of “Dominance Behaviors & Hierarchies in Adolescents at Summer Camp: Predictors, Styles, & Sex Differences,” author of Mom, Dad, I’m GayThe New Gay Teenager…And Then I Became Gay, and Beyond pink and blue: Exploring our stereotypes of sexuality and gender, a series of classroom materials for middle and high school students commissioned by the Unitarian Universalist Associationdoes not require such trifles as personal familiarity or deeper knowledge of the situation beyond the few passages in question to determine that “this is clearly not a case of abuse.”

The queasy feeling in your stomach says more about your own repressed sexual nature than any un-kosher activities going on in the TriBeCa lofts of our cultural elite.

In a little grassy bay between tall clumps of Mediterranean heather, two children, a little boy of about seven and a little girl who might have been a year older, were playing, very gravely and with all the focussed attention of scientists intent on a labour of discovery, a rudimentary sexual game.

“Charming, charming!” the D.H.C. repeated sentimentally.

“Charming,” the boys politely agreed. But their smile was rather patronizing. They had put aside similar childish amusements too recently to be able to watch them now without a touch of contempt. Charming? but it was just a pair of kids fooling about; that was all. Just kids.

“I always think,” the Director was continuing in the same rather maudlin tone, when he was interrupted by a loud boo-hooing.

From a neighbouring shrubbery emerged a nurse, leading by the hand a small boy, who howled as he went. An anxious-looking little girl trotted at her heels.

“What’s the matter?” asked the Director.

The nurse shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing much,” she answered. “It’s just that this little boy seems rather reluctant to join in the ordinary erotic play. I’d noticed it once or twice before. And now again to-day. He started yelling just now …”

“Honestly,” put in the anxious-looking little girl, “I didn’t mean to hurt him or anything. Honestly.”

“Of course you didn’t, dear,” said the nurse reassuringly. “And so,” she went on, turning back to the Director, “I’m taking him in to see the Assistant Superintendent of Psychology. Just to see if anything’s at all abnormal.”

“Quite right,” said the Director. “Take him in. You stay here, little girl,” he added, as the nurse moved away with her still howling charge. “What’s your name?”

“Polly Trotsky.”

“And a very good name too,” said the Director. “Run away now and see if you can find some other little boy to play with.”

The child scampered off into the bushes and was lost to sight.

“Exquisite little creature!” said the Director, looking after her.

Then, turning to his students, “What I’m going to tell you now,” he said, “may sound incredible. But then, when you’re not accustomed to history, most facts about the past do sound incredible.”

He let out the amazing truth. For a very long period before the time of Our Ford, and even for some generations afterwards, erotic play between children had been regarded as abnormal (there was a roar of laughter); and not only abnormal, actually immoral (no!): and had therefore been rigorously suppressed.

A look of astonished incredulity appeared on the faces of his listeners. Poor little kids not allowed to amuse themselves? They could not believe it.

“Even adolescents,” the D.H.C. was saying, “even adolescents like yourselves …”

“Not possible!”

“Barring a little surreptitious auto-erotism and homosexuality–absolutely nothing.”


“In most cases, till they were over twenty years old.”

“Twenty years old?” echoed the students in a chorus of loud disbelief.

“Twenty,” the Director repeated. “I told you that you’d find it incredible.”

“But what happened?” they asked. “What were the results?”

“The results were terrible.”

In their rush to reiterate the normalcy and health benefits of communal masturbation and adolescent sexual liberation, commentators have reduced the sisters Dunham to their brave possibilities for vaginal actualization. They appear to worry more about normalizing incestual Sapphic curiosity—healthy though psychoanalysts tell us it may be!—than Dunham’s habit of “bribing her [sister] for her time and affection.”  Few have considered the controversy in terms of their human relationship.

“Basically, it’s like I can’t keep any of my own secrets. I consider Grace to be an extension of me, and therefore I couldn’t handle the fact that she’s a very private person with her own value system and her own aesthetic and that we do different things.”

This is how Dunham justified outing her younger sister as a lesbian against Grace’s wishes to her fans and lifelong chroniclers at the New York Times Magazine.

“Without getting into specifics,” Grace confided to her sister’s worshipers, “most of our fights have revolved around my feeling like Lena took her approach to her own personal life and made my personal life her property.”

Still, Lena maintains that anything she has written about her sister has been published with her approval.

Here’s how the supposed victim responded to the brouhaha:

Lena’s LOLs at the “right wing news story that I molested my little sister” took a backseat to her upset and disgust; Grace’s LOLs reportedly maintained vigor. After a self-described “rage spiral” on Twitter—in which she maintained the normalcy of her behavior, accused critics of “twist[ing] her words,” and shamed the sexualities of “old men”—Lena cancelled a handful of European book tour stops and issued a formal apology for “triggering” survivors of abuse. (As she well should: the hushed-up problem of sibling sexual abuse is more widespread than we like to think, and quite hard to detect partly because of the psychological impulses that drove knee-jerk reactions to the current affair.)

The general media tone has been quite defensive, particularly along the tender faultlines of sexuality and politics. The only right-thinking criticism appears to be the womanist one — building on long-standing critiques from “people of color in activist communities on Twitter” that the young creative has whitewashed diverse voices through her reckless, blind privilege. All else is dismissed as a right-wing obsession to discredit the success of America’s reigning sweetheart and clamp down on long-fought progress in sexual expression.

“I think it’s a pretty dark scene inside your head,” a drug addict informs alter ego Hannah Horvath in the vaunted HBO show GIRLS.

“Some of my anxieties might be solved by a better awareness of what’s actually befalling this planet and what makes everything run and what’s come before us,” says the real Lena. “But it overwhelms me too much. It makes me want to take a nap.”

“‘I may be the voice of my generation,’ she insists. ‘Or at least a voice, of a generation.’ The scary part is that she’s probably right,” Rolling Stone informs us. Her face adorned this year’s culture issue of the New York Times Magazine—the Grey Lady alone has written about her in 300 articles since 2001.

“We joke about being soldiers, marching forward regardless of how much flack we’re taking,” says Mr. Dunham. “A long career in the art world is hard on the ego.”

Lena Dunham will no doubt triumphantly march forward past this inconvenient controversy, vulnerable ego be damned. She must! No less than the future of our cultural understanding of decency depends on it.

Updated: October 9, 2020 — 6:56 am

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