Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler and the Modern Feminist Discourse

Melinda Parks


An article recently published in Time magazine outlines all the progress that made 2014 a great year for women. From the feminist takeover of pop culture to the accomplishments of women in traditionally male-dominated fields like math and business to the growing discourse over issues of “sexual assaults, domestic violence, and contraceptive coverage,” women made serious headway in the journey towards equality over the past 12 months.


And so it seems appropriate that Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler, influential female actors and writers in their respected realms of comedy, would choose this year to publish memoirs detailing their experiences as women in entertainment. Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned, released in September, and Poehler’s Yes Please, published a month later, build on the now well-established trend of intimate autobiographies penned by female entertainers. In fact, in her preface, Poehler cites the memoirs of comedians like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Silverman, and Rachel Dratch as inspiration for her own writing. These books make up the very specific genre of female-comedian memoirs that offers a peak behind the scenes of some of our favorite TV shows and movies, written and performed by hilarious and inspiring women.


Like their predecessors, Not That Kind of Girl and Yes Please employ a hodge-podge of essays and lists, peppered with letters, humorous poems, and old emails that jump backwards and forwards chronologically to flesh out a picture of the writers’ lives. Charming, stylized ink drawings – like the illustrations of a pre-teen chapter book from the ‘90s – decorate the pages of Dunham’s book, while Poehler’s memoir includes a collection of old photos and handwritten notes that lend it the quality of a scrapbook or a diary. Also like their predecessors, these books read less like traditional autobiographies and more like a random combination of memories, reflections, and advice meant to entertain as much as to inform; when you finish, you won’t know every detail of the writers’ lives from beginning to end, but you will have enjoyed several humorous anecdotes and learned more about their thoughts and feelings on topics ranging from love and sex to friendship to work. You’ll feel like you have a better understanding of who these women are as people, as if you had sat down to chat with them over coffee.


Female writers and self-proclaimed feminists both, Dunham and Poehler dedicate significant portions of their books to stories about and reflections on women. In her introduction, Dunham claims that she writes about her own feminine experience as a way to stay “sane” and to help other women through the simple act of putting her narrative down on paper. Addressing her book as a letter to fellow women everywhere, she says, “And if I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile.” Dunham acknowledges the “feminist indoctrination” of her upbringing, instilled by a strong mother and grandmother and by the liberal schools she attended growing up. In so many of her stories, she reveals sincere respect for the women she looks up to and love for the women she’s friends with: the chapter dedicated to her artist mother’s nude self-portraits, the story about the crazy night she spent with a famous actress she deeply admired, all the anecdotes describing her adoration for her little sister, or the many references to school friends, coworkers, and acquaintances who affected her in some way.


Likewise, Poehler fills her book with little love letters to the most important women in her life. She devotes an entire chapter to her famous relationship with fellow comedian Tina Fey, her “comedy wife” and “the fiercest and most talented voice in the comedy world,” complete with a silly acrostic poem describing Fey’s best qualities. In the section about her time at Parks and Recreation, she gushes about her co-stars Rashida Jones and Aubrey Plaza, emphasizing how strongly she values their friendship. When talking about her best elementary school friends, she says they were, “Smart. Patient. Good daughters and sisters. That’s who I ran with.” She waxes affection when describing the nannies who help raise her sons. Poehler so clearly respects the women who surround her, and she urges ladies to stop the “woman-on-woman crime” of judging each other for the way they raise their children and the professional decisions they make.   



While the reflections and experiences of these powerful female comedians prove entertaining, often funny, and sometimes insightful, their books occasionally leave the reader wondering what the point of it all is. Of course, raising the curtain to peek behind the scenes of Dunham’s and Poehler’s work is a welcome and valuable deed – and the writers definitely incorporate some of this information in their memoirs – but they delve so deeply into their own lives separate from their art that it can feel irrelevant at times. Does a celebrity’s fame automatically make the minutiae of their existences worth reading about?


Dunham, for example, is a talented writer. Her stories are beautifully crafted, and her voice is very much her own, with acute and sometimes laugh-out-loud-funny observations about the world she lives in. However, she only glosses over her experience as writer and director of Tiny Furniture and of her hit HBO show, Girls, focusing the bulk of her memoir on the friendships and relationships and memories of her high school and college years. This singularly gifted artist who has accomplished so much at a young age withholds what could have been fascinating information about her creative process, about how she balances the many hats she wears in the entertainment industry, about what happens behind the scenes of a show millions of people watch religiously, in favor of what amounts to a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories about friendships and boys. As she admits herself, the contents of Not That Kind of Girl are only fictionalized versions of her life: “I’m an unreliable narrator. Because I add an invented detail to almost every story I tell about my mother. Because my sister claims every memory we “share” has been fabricated by me to impress a crowd.”


Dunham’s writing also retains the TMI quality that makes certain scenes in Girls so difficult to watch. This writer has built a career on sharing a little bit more information than anyone ever wanted or needed to know. But when discussing her little sister Grace, Dunham’s over-sharing got her into trouble with the media almost immediately after the publication of her book. On October 29, a website called Truth Revolt published an article arguing that several of the scenes in her memoir describe sexual abuse; specifically, Dunham narrates a time when she looked into her then-one-year-old sister’s vagina, instances when she masturbated while her sister slept in the bed next to her, and all the times she bribed Grace for physical affection. Media outlets all over the internet responded to these accusations, some in agreement with Truth Revolt) and some in support of Dunham, and Dunham herself lashed out against the sexual abuse allegations with a series of angry tweets.



Now, anyone who has spent a significant amount of time around children knows that they’re curious about the human body and may innocently experiment in ways that would be inappropriate for adults (child psychologists have routinely defended Dunham’s actions since the controversy erupted). And anyone with siblings understands the complex familial relationship that allows brothers and sisters to simultaneously adore and detest each other, torture and support one another. However, Dunham’s insistence on chronicling her most personal moments opens her up to the analysis and criticism of the public, and for that she can only blame herself. Not everything needs to be shared.


Although these two memoirs share a similar structure and many of the same themes, Poehler’s writing feels less like an experiment in creative writing – her style is simpler and more straightforward, and also consistently amusing (she rose to fame writing and performing comedy sketches, after all). Unlike Dunham, Poehler spends more of her book sharing the history of her career, with entire chapters devoted to her years at SNL, her experiences doing improv in Boston and joining the Upright Citizens Brigade, her time as an actor and co-writer on Parks and Recreation, along with her many reflections on what it means to be a woman in show business. These are the gems that only Amy Poehler can give us. Still, at 329 pages, the book is long, and it drags during several sections where Poehler diverges into anecdotes about her upbringing and personal life. Some of these stories are interesting, but many of them, like the chapter about her persistent sleeping issues or the one about every waitressing job she has held over the years, feel unnecessary.


In the introduction to her memoir, Lena Dunham states, “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” This may be true, but Dunham’s and Poehler’s most important stories are the stories that explain what made them successful females in comedy; Dunham, especially, doesn’t do justice to that narrative. Women progressed by leaps and bounds in 2014, and while Not That Kind of Girl and Yes Please contributed a small part to that growth, the greatest disappointment is that they didn’t live up to their full potential. 


Author Bio:

Melinda Parks is the pen name of a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


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