A Conversation With Lena Dunham

Meghan O’Rourke talks with the creator of Girls about the first season, high-school teachers, and being surprised by controversy.

Lena Dunham.
Yes, Lena Dunham may read your tweets about Girls

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images.

I last saw Lena Dunham when she gave a speech that managed to be both beautiful and hilarious at my mother’s memorial service; it made it abundantly clear that here was a writer of formidable talent. (My mother had been her math teacher at Saint Ann’s, the independent school we both attended in Brooklyn.) The other day, we caught up and talked about her evolving understanding of her HBO show Girls, which concludes on Sunday, as well as high school, ambition, feminism, and the feeling so many young women have of being disenfranchised.

This is part 1 of the conversation. In part 2, O’Rourke and Dunham discuss the season finale and plans for Season 2.

Meghan O’Rourke: Because you’re in the middle of making the second season, I wanted to ask how, at this point, you would describe what you’re trying to do with the show and where it’s going. What are for you, creatively, some of the interesting and alive junctures and issues?

Lena Dunham: I never start anything with a really overt, political, or even exactly artistic mission statement. It’s really sort of an instinctive thing, like “What do I feel like writing about, what would feel the best for me to be exploring right now?” I’ve created this world at this point that acts as a frame that can hold whatever issue’s occupying me as my concerns shift, and concerns of the show can shift. Obviously there’s certain stuff about female friendship, about relationships, about trying to tap into who you are emotionally and artistically that are, like, big themes of the show. But it’s not like we ever have to get stuck in any specific formula. In the second season, continuing to write these characters and play Hannah, I can feel that there is shifting and growing in a way that I haven’t necessarily seen in a TV comedy before. It’s not even to brag, what I’m saying. It’s that people are changing in the big ways that they do in their early 20s; it’s not like, “This week the gang goes to the spa,” “This week the gang takes a trip to the moon.”

Since the show’s come out, I’ve become pretty keenly aware of the fact while I wasn’t thinking so overtly about trying to start a feminist dialogue, as it happened, I realized it was important to me.

O’Rourke: Do you think that watching the reactions to the show has highlighted some of that for you? The show is so frequently written about and so discussed, and you seem very actively part of that discussion.

Dunham: It does, you know. And I used to be really scared of what hearing the reactions to the show would do to me. My parents are artists; in their world, in the world of modern artists, you are supposed to just go into your studio and tune everything out, and your entire relationship with your work is supposed to be a super private one. That was the way to do it and you weren’t deeply truly artistic if that wasn’t the way you were engaging the press. But I realized more and more that as the producer of the show—and television being such a medium of the people—I don’t feel I can responsibly ignore the conversation that’s happening with the show. I have to find that middle ground that’s not taking in every personal insult and letting it shift what I’m doing, but also hears the way the show’s being received.

Because it’s just a part of the growth of the show, whether I want it to be or not. There are certain debates that are happening with the show that I should ignore, and there are other ones where I think, it wouldn’t be so responsible to ignore this, and I have to engage with the dialogue in some way. If there were ever a moment where I thought sexism is dead in this country—like our moms had done the work for us—seeing the kind of mini-tornado that was the response to the show certainly showed me that that was not the case. And it made me more determined, the more people were like “shut up about this!” You know that Dixie Chicks lyric “shut up and sing”? I have a real shut-up-and-sing response to a lot of the criticism of the show, but not to others …

O’Rourke: Like what kinds of criticism, I’m curious?

Dunham: The dialogue that happened about race on the show, I totally understood. And insofar as you can be supportive of the dialogue that really, really criticizes you, I was supportive of it, you know what I mean? But the dialogue about nepotism—I’ve already commented on it, and I don’t know how big a meme that was; I get the condensed version that my mom can’t help but tell me, or the version that I get, in a moment of weakness, when I type my name in Google News or something—but like the nepotism thing. I want to use every un-P.C. word for stupid about it. Those are kind of the two ends of these extremes. Then there’s a dialogue about whether or not the show is feminist or whether it’s irresponsible to show women engaging this way sexually. Or whether this is something that will advance or arrest the cause of women—those are the things where I’m just like, Get it together.

Or last night, I was on Twitter. I like Twitter, it’s my main sort of source of news, ’cause I like to read how fans of the show are responding. Daniel Tosh—he’s a comedian who I don’t watch, but I hear he’s funny—said some things about how I need to put my boobs away and get a life. People just tweeted me about it, like, “I like your boobs, why does he have to be so mean about your boobs?” The part of me that at Saint Ann’s in high school was like, “Oh, you don’t think I’m pretty? I’m gonna wear belly shirts every day” wants to do the TV equivalent of that.

O’Rourke: You came from a fine-arts background—your parents are artists—and Tiny Furniture is a kind of fine-arts film. What has it been like to move from that milieu, into a 30-minute TV show like Girls? For example, the way the body is treated in Girls reminds me of your origins in experimental films. You have probably seen Chantal Akerman’s films—

Dunham: Yeah, I love her work.

O’Rourke: —well, there are some similarly experimental concerns about the body in Girls, just to take one example.

Dunham: Going to Saint Ann’s, when I imagined my future it was, I’m gonna be Nancy Fales Garrett [the playwriting teacher]. That’s what I thought. It was, I’m gonna write plays, and make little movies and teach feminist studies and figure out an unorthodox way to cobble my life together. At this point it’s not exactly the way that it’s gone. I love what I do, I love every minute of it. But there’s a part of me that still wants to write a weird poem and publish it in an obscure journal, or make a movie that’s completely devoid of a narrative. But when I was doing those things in college, I thought that there was something poppier about my sensibility that other people didn’t understand. So my work very much exists in a place between going into a white box with my parents and watching video art and being at the roundtable punch-up for a sitcom.

Jojo Whilden/HBO

When I was in college, I spent all my time with people who made video art and/or were reading and writing poetry, and there was part of me that was secretly bored and felt like an imposter. And now when I’m talking to people whose entire reason for existing is comedy, you know, there’s a part of me that feels all philosophical and morose.

O’Rourke: How much do you think about being an iconoclast in TV? Or is that something you even think about?

Dunham: I guess I think about doing stuff that nobody else has done. I don’t think I’ll be very content doing something that’s like “Oh great, another one of those shows about friends.” Not that I think those shows don’t need to exist, because people need to be entertained. And a lot of my favorite shows are shows that I don’t necessarily think are completely transforming the face of TV. But I feel like I have to be doing something that hasn’t necessarily been done, not that I always succeed.

I don’t realize that certain things I’m exploring are controversial until there is a controversy about them. I’ll sort of go, “Really? That’s the moment that got people worked up?” It’s a weird kind of alchemy, what you think is going to create waves, and what actually does.

O’Rourke: Some critics thought that the conclusion of the fight between Hannah and Marnie in the penultimate episode was too much of a “sitcom moment.”

Dunham: I look at that and find it so heartbreaking, that entire fight. It’s what things have been building toward, and it’s really intense and emotional. I have a very different reaction to it than that. That being said, I guess I could see that… It’s funny, in my writer’s room, sometimes I’ll pitch something and Jenni Konner, who’s my main collaborator, she’ll say, “That’s a little sitcom-y. That’s been done on Fresh Prince” or something. But I never watched that, so I don’t know. I haven’t watched an incredible amount of sitcoms, besides Friends and couple of others. I don’t even know what it is I’m fighting against, sitcom-wise.

But I look at that moment between Hannah and Marnie as being this intense, emotional plot conclusion. And then those two doors slam, and then, like, the saddest song in the world comes on.

O’Rourke: I found it very true to how women fight. I watched it with a man who turned to me and was like, “Girls are weird. Men never talk to each other like that.”

Dunham: I know, a few guys have said that to me too. “We just don’t have those kinds of interactions.”

Read part 2 of this conversation between Meghan O’Rourke and Lena Dunham.