The New Self-Help

Now that self-help personalities Helen Gurley Brown and Pauline Phillips, the original Dear Abby, are gone, who will the new generation of millennial readers look to for advice? Some surprising ...

Now that self-help personalities Helen Gurley Brown and Pauline Phillips, the original Dear Abby, are gone, who will the new generation of millennial readers look to for advice? Some surprising frontrunners are not therapists or professional writers, but television comediennes, such as Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and Amy Poehler, whose autobiographies offer counsel on subjects from high school to childrearing to professional achievement. But of all the funny memoir-cum-manuals to emerge of late, Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl most self-consciously engages with the history of the self-help genre that it both critiques and reactivates. Written in the wake of the tremendous success of her HBO series Girls, it is subtitled “A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned.’” Those quotations around the word “learned” were non-negotiable for Dunham, despite the resistance of her publishers.1 This is self-help in scare quotes, eschewing the universalizing impulses and conservative politics associated with the industry. At the same time, Dunham’s investment in empowerment, success, and learning from one’s mistakes lifts her book above sheer parody. Her guide navigates the outmoded conceits of self-help’s old guard to ascertain what of the genre is worth saving.

Dunham’s text upholds a contradiction central to the self-help genre: she asks readers to believe in both her text’s authority and their own self-sufficiency. Her book alternates between overt didacticism and personal anecdotes, though it sometimes combines the two, as in “13 Things I’ve Learned Are Not Okay to Say to Friends.” By the concluding chapter, “Guide to Running Away,” Dunham has come to fully inhabit self-help’s second person instructional mode, and also that central paradox. In what could be the book’s ultimate message, Dunham advises, “don’t put yourself in situations you’d like to run away from,” then adds, “But when you run, run back to yourself.”

Dunham’s deeply autobiographical take on self-help brings to the fore the historical overlap between the two genres. As self-help has always depended on the life stories of successful individuals, so too is autobiography is often read for self-help. In the United States, this association dates back at least to Benjamin Franklin, whose 1791 Autobiography offered a secular take on the Puritan advice tradition. From its very origins, when Franklin erased the enabling support of his servants and wife from his tales of productivity and success,2 self-help has been predicated on a degree of gender and class oppression. In the 19th century, industrialization, subscription book selling, and the rising prominence of millionaires like Andrew Carnegie all contributed to the emergence of the gilded-age success manual.3 Across the Atlantic, the Scotsman Samuel Smiles published his 1859 bestseller Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct, which consisted of biographical sketches of industrious men from history, and was one of the first works to coin the term “self-help.”

For better or worse, women became a more explicit self-help demographic in the United States with the rise of the proto new-age movement of New Thought in the early 20th century, as well as with the proliferation of doctors’ books addressing female nervousness and pathology.4 Only when women began entering the paid labor force in greater numbers after the Second World War did they become the targets of self-help literature offering professional advice. The intensification of workplace competition, the division of labor, and the isolation of the nuclear family marked a decline in organic gemeinschaft advice networks, and paved the way for the commercialization of women’s advice in bestsellers such as Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 Sex and the Single Girl and, two decades later, Having It All.

In her opening pages, Dunham describes stumbling across a vintage edition of Having It All in a thrift store, drawn to Gurley Brown’s cover photo, “leaning against her tidy desk in the kind of shoulder-padded plum suit I have taken to wearing ironically.” Dunham’s approach to self-help as a form of playing dress-up is reinforced by her own book’s dust jacket. The red and black block type and author’s photo are both nods to Brown. But encased in Dunham’s business-like cover also lurks an illustrated pastel blue volume with colorful end papers resembling the diary of a Judy Blume-reading tween.5 It’s a playful but pragmatic approach that extends to her online book trailers, “Ask Lena.” Dunham sits on a fake retro set at a vintage desk, champagne, prescription pills, and a rotary phone at her side, but the advice she offers on subjects from “bullies” to “bad sex” is level-headed and current.

Inside her book, Dunham continues to tread that fine line between seasoned advice-giver and inexperienced ingénue. On more than one occasion she expresses anxiety about the audacity of a 28-year-old purporting to have anything figured out. There are moments, as in her chapter listing everything she ate while on a diet, or the one where she details all of the items in her purse, when it does feel as if her life experience isn’t quite proportionate to her page count. But at others, such as her description of overcoming her fear of death, or learning to appreciate her liberal arts education, we see how being closer in time to a problem provides a sharper insight; this is why children prefer the wisdom of babysitters to that of parents.

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that self-help is a mere marketing gimmick for Dunham, but the allusions to Gurley Brown’s work are more than a kitschy joke. Having It All is known for its Machiavellian approach to workplace sexuality, and introduced the word “mouseburger,” Brown’s term for a woman who is ambitious but plain, into the self-help lexicon. It is also notorious for contending that “sexual harassment isn’t what it’s cracked up to be,” and for advice gems such as “crashing is okay, so is fasting,” and “the more sex you have, the more you can tolerate.”

Although Dunham admits to finding such nuggets “absolutely bananas,” she identifies with Brown’s underlying premise, that humiliating experiences can make useful advice for others. She comments, in the opening chapter, “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.” By grounding her advice in the specificity of her own experience, Dunham seeks to avoid homogenizing her audience’s problems and needs. She confessed in an interview to finding something “cheeky” about the very act of giving advice, “because we’re all so unique, and our needs and ideas are so specific. How can we dictate how another person should move through the world?”6

But Dunham does have particular lessons to offer: her perseverance in the face of dismissals, overtures, and hostility from the Hollywood boy’s club is just one of the compelling ways in which she has earned that authority. Here, as elsewhere, she undermines the idea of autonomous self-fashioning common in self-help writing by openly discussing her reliance on family and friends, as when she cites her friend Jenni’s theory of “Sunshine Stealers”:

“Men who have been at it a little too long, who are tired of the ride but can’t get off. They’re looking for some new form of energy, of approval … What they want to take from you is way worse than your thong in the back of their Lexus. It’s ideas, curiosity, an excitement about getting up in the morning and making things.”

Dunham regularly reminds readers that self-making does not exist in a vacuum, no matter what pioneers like Franklin may have claimed.

The invocation of Brown also aligns Dunham with self-help’s fraught political history. Reactions to Gurley Brown’s work offer a capsule history of the tenuous relation between feminism and the genre. Sex and the Single Girl appeared in 1962, a year before The Feminine Mystique, which was also marketed as self-help for women, though Betty Friedan found the Cosmo editor’s approach “obscene and horrible.”7 Their divergent politics are in part a product of the authors’ different audiences—Friedan’s educated suburban housewives to Brown’s working-class upstarts in the secretarial pool—but the debate over Brown’s relationship to feminism continues. Many contemporary critics echo Friedan, arguing that the genre, which has become a publishing industry unto itself, essentializes femininity, perpetuates victim-feminism, or promotes self-interest above social change.8 It’s a sign of how nebulously self-help is defined that it can be seen as both casting women as victims and as overly self-interested. Other recent critics, however, from Arlie Russell Hochschild to Micki McGee, are more receptive to Brown’s tactics; they argue that the self-help industry represents a form of “prepolitical” protest9 and has played a central role in “the redefinition of gender relations in American society.”10

Dunham’s own brand of self-help is as contentious among feminists today as Gurley Brown’s has been. The controversy around Dunham’s work recently came to a head in a Twitter campaign, #DropDunham, spearheaded by feminist activists who accuse her of sexual abuse for a scene describing her seven-year-old curiosity about her younger sister’s vagina. Dunham’s anecdote hit a nerve with African American feminists in particular, who read it as another example of the movement’s color bias, arguing that a black woman could not have written such an episode without consequence.11 In response, Dunham’s defenders invented the Tumblr site Those Kind of Girls, devoted to sharing the “weird sexual shit” they did as kids. Other feminist critiques of Dunham’s book focus instead on her nice-guy boyfriend “Jack,” who, by the end of her volume, emerges as the solution to all of her problems, from insomnia to OCD.12 As with Brown, whose happy marriage to film producer “David” is advertised in Sex and the Single Girl’s opening paragraphs, Dunham’s dependence on the salvation of her boyfriend undermines her feminist bent.

<i>Williamsburg, Brooklyn</i>. Photograph by Wally Gobetz / Flickr

Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photograph by Wally Gobetz / Flickr

For women with feminist upbringings like Dunham’s, self-help today has earned the status of a guilty pleasure. “I’ve hate-read that book” Dunham’s character Hannah confesses in the Girls episode “Vagina Panic,” after her friend Shoshanna pulls out a volume called Listen Ladies: A Tough Love Approach to the Tough Game of Love. “Here’s my question,” Hannah interjects after Shoshanna reads a passage, “Who are ‘the ladies?’” Fans of her show will recognize some of the anecdotes in Dunham’s memoir (the eardrum puncture, the baby store job, the OCD, etc.). As she explains, “When I’m playing a character, I am never allowed to explicitly state the takeaway message of the scenes I’m performing—after all, part of the dramatic conflict is that the person I’m portraying doesn’t really know it yet.” In her book we can enjoy some of the sitcom moralism that largely went out of fashion with the 90s laugh track. Dunham guards her show from trite moralism by delegating her life wisdom to the self-help guide. Conversely, Girls lends her book the narrative contextualization (and indie credibility) that regular advice books lack. By toggling between these media, Dunham aims to produce a self-help book that doesn’t need to be hate-read.

However, as her reception indicates, Dunham has acquired her own share of haters. Conservative bloggers cite her book as proof of the decadence and narcissism of the left.13 Liberals argue that her work is composed from a position of white upper-middle-class privilege. We tend to associate the act of giving advice with hubris, propaganda, even authoritarianism, and the act of soliciting advice with inferiority and weakness. But Dunham’s controversial reception reminds us that to be an advice giver is to inhabit a position of intense vulnerability. It is to take the risk of being wrong, of appearing arrogant and out of line, of being exposed as a fraud, a hypocrite, or incompetent. Even Dunham’s own mother is wary of her daughter’s forays into the field of personal growth. Dunham phones her to test out some recently acquired self-help lingo after a bad row:

“You’re my mother, and I need you, but in a different way than before. Please let us change, together.”
“That’s fucking bullshit,” she says. I can tell she’s in a store.

As such scenes suggest, self-help’s comedic turn preempts skepticism. After decades of snickering at self-help, from Dear Abby’s campy puns to Gurley Brown’s sex tips, self-help’s writers and readers have come to laugh at it, and themselves, in unison. Dunham’s contribution to this lineage valorizes qualities historically omitted from the self-help canon—politics, immaturity, particularity, dependence on family and intimates—while seeking to preserve the industry’s celebration of agency and moral guidance. In the end, Dunham’s attempt to articulate a palatable future for women’s self-help is more useful as a barometer of contemporary advice culture than for its particular life wisdom. Self-help’s latest generation of exponents are still struggling to come to terms with the disappointments of the genre’s history. icon

  1. Lena Dunham, interview with Jlan Ghomeshi, CBC’s The National, October 1, 2014.
  2. See Micki McGee on Franklin’s erasure of his wife from his narrative in Self-Help, Inc. (Oxford University Press, 2005) pp. 6-7.
  3. For more on the Gilded Age success manual, see Judith Hilkey, Character is Capital: Success Manuals and Manhood in Gilded Age America (University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
  4. For an exploration of this latter phenomenon, see Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English, For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of Experts’ Advice to Women (Random House, 1978).
  5. Blume actually provides a blurb on the back cover, along with some literary notables and Dunham’s mom.
  6. Lena Dunham, “The New Review Q&A with Alex Clark,” the Guardian, November 2, 2014.
  7. Quoted in Laurie Ouellette, “Inventing the Cosmo Girl: Class, Identity, and Girl-Style American Dreams.” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 21, no. 3 (1999), p. 361.
  8. See Wendy Simonds, Women and Self-Help Culture: Reading Between the Lines (Rutgers University Press, 1992), pp. 173–175.
  9. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart (University of California Press, 1983), p. 193; McGee, p. 208.
  10. Verta Taylor, Rock-A-By Baby: Feminism, Self-Help, and Postpartum Depression (Routledge, 1996).
  11. See Samantha Allen, “Will White Feminists Finally Drop Lena Dunham?The Daily Beast, November 4, 2014.
  12. See Heather Wilhelm, “Lena Dunham, Anti-Feminist.” Real Clear Politics. October 2, 2014.
  13. See, for instance, Ross Douthat, “I Love Lena,” New York Times, October 4, 2014.
Featured image: Lena Dunham. Photograph by Krista Kennell for Fortune Live Media / Flickr