The new game Cards Against Humanity advertises itself as “a party game for horrible people—despicable and awkward [like] you and your friends.” Its premise is simple. Black cards pose a question like “What did Vin Diesel eat for breakfast?” or an incomplete statement, such as, “After months of practice with ——, I think I’m finally ready for ——.” Players must answer the question or complete the statement by using white cards printed with answers that have to do primarily with unusual kinds of sex, excrement and bodily fluids, and popular culture. Some of the tamer answer cards: “a bloody pacifier” and “my genitals.”
This game, which is widely popular, is in fact a party game for ironic people. Of course its players aren’t really horrible, despicable, or awkward; they are progressive, forward-thinking, and uninhibited. Clearly it’s all a big joke, a poke in the eye of those repressed types who wouldn’t want to talk about sadomasochism with their grandparents around the game table.
Lena Dunham’s recent memoir trades on the same brand of irony. Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” uses offbeat allusions and casual obscenity to ridicule convention and tradition while establishing its author as a quirky antihero. “I am not,” she writes, “a mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise.” She dares us to conclude from this that she has nothing worthwhile to say.
What Dunham has to say is that modesty, manners, and reserve are vestiges of a closed-minded, sexist past. She therefore eschews privacy in favor of revealing more or less everything about the details of her personal life—from awkward and sometimes horrifying sexual encounters to her anxieties about body image to the infamous and arguably abusive episodes with her sister that caused such a stir in the press last fall. The book is one long self-disclosure.
But it is a certain kind of self-disclosure—call it the ironic confession—in which graphic “over-sharing” violates the standards of decency that once enabled us to speak seriously about the possibility of someone’s being “horrible.” Even the book’s title mocks traditional sexual morality. Critics have tended either to love this ironic confessional mode or to hate it. Liberals praise the fullness of Dunham’s disclosures, calling them “honest,” “subversive,” and “wrenching.” Conservatives consider the book explicit, narcissistic, and vapid. In modern parlance, it’s just “too much information.”
I confess that I have more sympathy with the latter view than with the former. But Dunham’s method of self-disclosure isn’t new. It goes back, if not to the Confessions of Augustine, then certainly to those of Rousseau—Dunham’s forebear in revealing everything, no matter how unseemly. In this modern mode of confession, self-exposure is graphic and unapologetic. It does not tell a story of penitence and reform but rather pokes fun at conventional standards of conduct and ironizes the author’s experience. Events that are usually regarded as serious don’t seem to matter so much when they are presented casually. This is irony as a defense against ethical norms, and against the possibilities of being hurt that come when we take life seriously.
Dunham isn’t alone in this rapidly expanding genre, although her book is bolder than most. It stands alongside other contemporary bestsellers written by funny and ironic “icons” such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The book also echoes the writings of popular feminists Caitlin Moran and Roxane Gay, who use edgy, sometimes vulgar humor and are willing to expose intimate bodily functions and personal desires in a way that was once thought crude and inappropriate but is now considered forthright and liberating.
What is it about our cultural moment that allows this corrosive irony, paired with explicit confession? Many of us might be tempted simply to write off the genre. But we have an obligation to understand it, both its ethical aims, such as they are, and the methods it employs. Voices like Dunham’s define the sensibilities of millions of educated people between the ages of about eighteen and forty. Many, especially young women, look to these authors as models. What are they learning?
This sort of irony emerges from an almost pathological self-awareness and often takes the form of deliberate, calculated inauthenticity. Many personal episodes are immediately compared to another image, usually something humorous or kitschy from pop culture. After an unpleasant sexual encounter, for example, Dunham sits “in a shallow bath for half an hour like someone in one of those coming-of-age movies.” Another relationship culminates “in the worst trip to Los Angeles ever seen outside of a David Lynch film.”
Though Dunham can and does say a great deal, she doesn’t often express what she truly thinks or feels, perhaps because she’s aware that others have thought or felt it already. A baby is born, a girl loses her virginity, someone dies—it’s all been done before, or at least seen in a movie. For Dunham, these occasions, ordinarily so momentous, do not call forth sincere emotion. No experience, and no thought or feeling in response to experience, feels authentic.
Christopher Lasch diagnosed this syndrome of inauthenticity nearly forty years ago in The Culture of Narcissism. He saw that an effective way of dealing with the “anxious self-scrutiny” so prevalent in modern life (and today infinitely heightened by social media) was to establish an ironic distance from “the deadly routine of everyday life.” Social routines, “formerly dignified as ritual,” have become mere role-playing. We must therefore convey to others that we know we’re acting.
The appeal of this inauthenticity is obvious. By denying the seriousness of her own disclosures, Dunham is able to mock the idea of crisis—of a time of personal trouble or significance that demands decision and action. Irony becomes a defense, in writing and in life. By “refusing to take seriously the routines [one] has to perform,” as Lasch suggests, Dunham protects herself from hurt or embarrassment.
At the same time, she wants desperately to make a mark—to be different, iconic, original, authentic. Like a tourist who feels compelled to carve his initials in well-traveled public places, Dunham wants to claim something as her own. She hopes to further the revolutionary artistry of her avant-garde parents. Admiring her mother for having photographed herself nude and semi-nude during the 1970s, she remarks that her mother’s “private experiment [with nudity] made way for my public one.” Her father paints graphic pictures of female and male genitalia as well as other things, all vaguely or explicitly disturbing.
Dunham’s contribution to this antitraditional tradition is to expose herself publicly, both in her HBO series and online. That she is slightly overweight and so doesn’t conform to society’s standards of female beauty is her way of taking a strong and assertive stand for contemporary feminism. I refuse, she implicitly says, to be intimidated by critics or by the oppression of “the male gaze.” In order to demonstrate her courage, she opens the book with an account of losing her virginity to a boy she “dated” for about twelve hours.
To a great degree, the self-exposure works. Not That Kind of Girl has the appeal of reality television: We simultaneously want and don’t want to look. In book 4 of the Republic, Plato describes Leontius struggling with his desire to view some corpses lying at the feet of an executioner, wanting both to look at them and to look away. In the end, he gives up and “takes his fill of the fair sight.” Dunham as revealed in her memoir is just such a sight.
We can “experience” Dunham’s experiences, her insecurities and disasters and mortally embarrassing moments, vicariously, and without taking them too seriously. Eventually, the events she describes begin to seem less disastrous or embarrassing, even strangely normal. It’s as if the graphic opening pages were an inoculation, allowing us to brave the rest of Dunham’s life—and perhaps our own lives—without being too troubled by any of it.
Here is where the real danger of the book lies. Using irony to celebrate a way of living in which nothing seems serious and everything is exposed, Dunham normalizes and even glorifies behavior that used to be considered straightforwardly wrong and harmful. The narrative never explicitly mentions morality or “values.” Everything is lighthearted and endearingly absurd. But the core message is simple and paradoxically unironic, to the point of being demandingly direct: This is the way things are now. Get over it. As in Cards Against Humanity, taboos exist to be broken.
It hasn’t always been this way. St. Augustine, writing in the fifth century, confesses the ugliness of his life not to normalize it but rather to show that, in spite of our ugliness, there is hope for redemption. He knows the dark sides of human nature: our temptations to sin, to observe others’ sins and strong emotions, to regard ourselves as superior to others. These aspects of life are exposed in order to be judged.
Rousseau exemplifies a more modern kind of confession. He relates all sorts of lurid and embarrassing episodes, anticipating the tell-all books of today. “What trivialities,” he asks, “what miseries will it not be necessary for me to expose? In what revolting details, indecent, puerile, and often ridiculous, must I not enter . . . ?” In his confession, as in Dunham’s, there is no judgment and no redemption—only an exploration of his inner self, and exposure of his outer self, in an attempt to see and justify what he “truly” was prior to the corruptions visited on him by society.
But it is questionable whether the true self is really discoverable or publishable in writing. The confessional author invites readers into his or her intimate life and most-private thoughts—at least, into all the intimacy and privacy that he or she wishes to make public. This selectivity leads to a crucial irony of the genre: Written confessions are not in fact direct representations of the true person but are works of artifice, including and omitting details by design.
While confessional writings may make us think that we know the human being who lived in North Africa, or France, or SoHo, all we really know is what the writer chooses to tell us. This is obvious with St. Augustine. His Confessions serve as an artful self-presentation designed to bring readers to see the truth about God and our journey to him, not the life-in-full of a North African rhetorician on his way to becoming a bishop. Dunham, with her ostensibly exhaustive confession, chooses to tell us she is a true original. But the ironic persona she embodies is already a familiar pop-culture type, exemplified in the last century by Woody Allen. The irony of Dunham’s irony is that, in our indiscreet age, even the most daring acts of self-exposure are already clichéd.
Worse, the revelation of ever more about the self may make the existence of a “true” self impossible. Radical self-exposure leaves no place for the privacy necessary to form an authentic identity, as opposed to a performative one. Human beings need a realm in which we are free to act without anyone watching, without wondering what our recollection of the moment will look like on Facebook, and without having to produce some witty remark that will show how worldly-wise we are. Privacy allows us to engage in activities for their own sake. It also allows us to be sincere without embarrassment and to act without wondering how others may evaluate us.
Am I making too much of all this? What is the harm of Dunham’s memoir? Isn’t it just another self-indulgent bestseller by a celebrity author? On the contrary, I think it is likely to prove very influential. Few genres are more effectively pedagogical than the personal confession. This is why Augustine and Rousseau each wrote one, though with different lessons in mind. The confessional book provides images—entrancing, inviting images of how we might live. As Plato knew, such images, even those that initially repel us, may change us in spite of ourselves. Often we cannot get them out of our minds. They become permanent parts of our mental landscape. This is especially true for young adults, who are still forming their views about life.
Dunham has presented the young with images of an ironic way of life—a way of life that ultimately will prove inadequate. Nobody can afford to take an ironic stance when it comes to getting married, or when a friend or parent dies, when a spouse cheats, or when a child is seriously ill. These events press on us and require us to engage with other people in sincere expressions of emotion. The concerns of the self must recede so that we can love others, or console them, or care for them, or even rebuke them. It should go without saying that there isn’t much place for irony in religious experience, either. In these moments we need custom and tradition, ways of being that we have not invented and do not ridicule. The narcissism of the contemporary ironist is utterly inappropriate in all the real crises of life.
The college students I teach—the target audience of Dunham’s memoir—yearn to know how to navigate the major decisions that face them, because they correctly sense that these decisions are enormously consequential. Many of life’s crucial determinations still lie in the future for them. Whom should I date and marry? How will I support myself? What should I study and do? This existential burden is exhilarating at best, terrifying at worst. It requires sobriety, earnestness, and hope—all characteristics in short supply among our contemporary opinion makers.
Joseph Conrad uses the evocative image of a “shadow-line” to describe the journey from youth to adulthood: “And the time, too, goes on—till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.” Beyond this shadow-line is the world of fact, not potentiality, a world of obligations and unavoidable responsibilities. We must commit to things, and people, and places. In passing the shadow-line, we become, sometimes to our own amazement, grown-ups. Young people should be taught that becoming a grown-up is not failure but an achievement that takes work, investment, and seriousness. As a culture we used to know this.
Though we no longer watch gladiatorial contests, Lena Dunham’s celebrity suggests that we now take a prurient interest in watching young women exhibit their hangups, insecurities about body image, and sex lives, all in excruciating detail. The right to privacy, discovered in 1965, has strangely led us to place sex in an ever more public position.
In that respect, Dunham isn’t revolutionary at all. She’s just the standard-bearer of a movement that emerged into public consciousness nearly fifty years ago—a sexually progressive crusade that now boasts extraordinary public support. Many young people seem eager to model themselves after Dunham. Prominent voices promote her. She’s championed as a spokeswoman of her generation.
Those of us who don’t join the chorus tend to keep quiet or ignore it all, figuring we’ve got better things to do than read such stuff. But this isn’t the right response. We need to find out what is being sold to the young people we care about. And we need to speak about the poverty of what today’s culture sells as being rich with meaning and importance.
In the opening pages of her book, Dunham maintains that 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. . . . There are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.”
There is remarkable self-deception in this declaration. At one level, it is Dunham’s way of complimenting herself. But her “gutsiness” is cheap, given that there is now an entire academic industry telling women that their stories matter, to say nothing of the media and their many productions and publications by and for women. But at a deeper level, this clichéd statement allows Dunham to avoid the real problem facing not just women but all of us: a diminished experience of privacy and the vocabulary to enjoy and explore it.
Few authors have diagnosed our situation better than Walker Percy. He understood our pervasive anxiety, our inability to be happy with all the objects we have become so expert at acquiring, our perverse desire to observe bad news and catastrophe and other people’s tragedies—in a word, our alienation. This alienation runs through the modern confessional literature. In becoming expert consumers of media and of “stuff,” we have lost sovereignty over our own experience. This loss is evident in Dunham’s persistent “as if” approach to life and to herself. Her demoralized moments appear to her as if in a movie; her troubles, as if in a novel.
Moreover, there’s a tiredness in this literature, a sense of strain toward an elusive goal. It’s getting harder and harder to find boundaries to push. Dunham’s mother and father were pathbreakers. What’s left for her? How can we claim the aristocracy of authenticity when so many others have done and are doing the same? The difficulty of answering this question explains why Dunham resorts to the calculated inauthenticity of seeing herself in movies, novels, and bits and pieces of pop culture.
Dunham is seeking a real good. Like all of us, she wants to learn how to belong to herself. She wants her life to be her own, something she inhabits as an individual with her own wounds, her own needs, her own loves, not a role player or puppet of social expectation. How difficult this is! And how unpromising is the way of self-exposure. Making things public tempts us to play to our publics, something Dunham clearly does. This isn’t a new phenomenon. As Anthony Trollope observed over a century ago in Phineas Finn, the fault of a prominent politician was “not arrogance, so much as ignorance that there is, or should be, a difference between public and private life.”
For genuine self-discovery we require a realm of privacy. In the Catholic tradition, the priest is obligated to keep secret all that is revealed in confession. Other traditions have different ways of expressing this truth: There must be an impregnable zone of privacy if we’re to feel free to expose the secrets of our souls. The same is true of our most noble possibilities. Jesus tells us not to parade our prayer, fasting, and charity in public. Privacy is a forcing ground for truth about the self—a place where we need not perform but can instead put aside our defensive irony, entering into love, friendship, work, parenting, repentance, forgiveness, and worship, with vulnerability and honesty.
Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the Honors Program at Baylor University.