On Wednesday, T: The New York Times Style Magazine unveiled the cover story for its Fall Men’s Fashion Issue: a meditation on masculinity, fantasy and envy wrapped around an analysis of S. E. Hinton’s classic novel The Outsiders. The piece was written by Girls scribe and bereaved pet owner Lena Dunham.
Titled “This Is Our Youth” (an homage to Kenneth Lonergan’s coming-of-age play of the same name) and accompanied by pictures of male models in cold-weather flannels shot by director Gus Van Sant, Dunham’s essay about the towering expectations straight teenage girls have for young men is familiarly self-conscious and blithely witty—in a word, refreshing.
Hinton’s tight-knit band of male characters, Dunham writes, comes equipped with just about every bad-boy signifier—knives, fistfights, nighttime wanderings—but they possess none of the belligerence that makes men in real life such a palpable threat to women: “Ponyboy recites poetry and watches sunsets. They idolize each other and have all the machismo of Ken dolls. There is nothing more terrifying to a teenage girl than reciprocated lust.”
One nice thing about Dunham (and there are in fact several) is that her prose never loses its capacity to surprise you. As questionable as her instincts can be, and despite the queasiness she can inspire with her unabridged ramblings about the particular miseries of her wealthy childhood, Dunham’s insights about the pain that accompanies aspiring to something unattainable are reliably cutting. “It’s taken me a decade of writing male romantic leads to stop giving them the flaws of my worst offenders and the soul of Holden Caulfield,” she writes. “I try to create what I’m lonely for, but I only know how to summon that which has hurt me.”
In comparison, Hinton, who published The Outsiders in 1967 when she was 18, tells Dunham in a phone interview that she created male characters because she envied the young men around her. “I never felt like I was a boy,” the 70-year-old author says, “but I wanted to be a boy.”
“This Is Our Youth” falls flat when Dunham attempts sweeping summations of the political landscape and “the state of things,” but the deft way she dismantles the realities of solitude resonates—it’s one of the reasons many of us, even those who’ve become her toughest critics, fell for her in the first place.
A Vogue piece by Dunham published in May addressed the fallout from the end of her relationship with musician Jack Antonoff. “It was December when we broke up, that kind of confusing weather where glaring sunlight makes the cold air feel even colder,” she wrote. “The finality nearly killed me, and I remember muttering, ‘But what if we still went on dates?’ He laughed sadly. ‘Whatever you want.'”
In some ways, Dunham has isolated herself; this often happens to writers who freely speak their minds. She can be off-putting in the way that many talented, assertive women are capable of being, but we have witnessed moments when she has wielded her faults like headlights in a squall. This is one of them.
“Boys are sexy as outsiders, but girls less so,” she writes in T. “A less discussed privilege of men is being admired for being alone.”
Lena Dunham is a solid writer on the subject of living life as a modern woman. This cover story should serve as a reminder that her fluctuating popularity notwithstanding, on the page she can be a force to be reckoned with.
The new issue of T hits newsstands this Sunday, September 9.