TONIGHT’S EPISODE of Girls, “Female Author,” is the 35th look, since the show’s 2012 debut, into the inner life of Hannah Horvath and her women friends. Presently Hannah is negotiating a milieu we know well, or at least think we do: the writers’ workshop, specifically the one at the University of Iowa. She’s slacking and feeling bad about it, wondering if she has mono, and when someone asks her if she’s writing, she says that she’s in a “pre-writing stage.” We’ve all been there.
Just as with the first episode of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, Girls found an immediate place in the cultural conversation, a place it has maintained and expanded: people like to talk about the show’s creator, 28-year-old Lena Dunham, as much if not more than the show itself. We got a chance to ask this cultural touchstone some questions that she answered with characteristic candor and thoughtfulness.
Laurie Winer: Is friendship the great subject of writers in their twenties? Erik Erikson famously outlined “the identity crisis” followed by “the intimacy crisis” as the two stages of moving from adolescence into full adulthood — is friendship where the two get worked out?
Lena Dunham: What I’ll say is that friendship, particularly female friendship, has always struck me as more romantic than romance, more familial than family, a complex world where we are reflected back to ourselves in broken/gilded/found-on-the-street mirrors. I love art that addresses the complexity of it — whether it’s the confused semi-platonic love between a probably gay man with a limp and a poker-faced prostitute in Of Human Bondage, or the passion Edna St. Vincent Millay expresses for her Vassar friends in her early poems, or the two girls wandering the New York streets on Broad City. As I approach 30 I am only just reaching a place of peace with the women in my life, where their decisions don’t fill me with pain, dread, something akin to jealousy. They are no longer my mirrors but instead some other piece of essential furniture, a source of support.
Do you consider Girls an ongoing autobiography of a slightly younger self?
That is the perfect way to put it and I’ll steal that, thank you. Basically Hannah is walking three feet behind me and I am dragging her by the hand, begging her to make the right decisions and knowing she just won’t. In many ways she is the part of me incapable of reaching for joy, for satisfaction or peace or an Eastern religion attitude. She is the part of us all that is just kicking and screaming our way into adulthood. I wish I didn’t have to answer calls or emails or pay bills, but here I am. She just doesn’t do it.
There is also something I am very jealous of in Hannah: an ability to just not give a shit when she’s perceived by the world very differently than she perceives herself. For me that divide can be a source of pain at times. For her it is just part of getting the job done.
Are we correct in assuming you are skeptical of writing that is developed in a group-therapy-like setting, a.k.a. the writers’ workshop? Is it another version of the kind of parenting you examine, one that is coddling yet undermining?
I think writers need to do what works for them. There is no prescription for productivity, and writers must find environments that support them and lift them up. For me that was never a writing workshop, though I had some amazing teachers at Oberlin and even in high school. In fact, I was always the resident yawning bitch. But I know people who grew as writers, established essential friendships and a voice and a vision in MFA environments. I will say the writers’ room of a show is a sort of writers’ workshop, and we have a roundtable of writers who make Girls possible. It was hard for me at first (after all, I was raised to believe artists go into their studios alone and wrestle their demons to the ground). But now I rely on it. Making art doesn’t have to be so lonely.
Do you think art is useful?
I was raised to believe that art is the most powerful tool we have for revolution, self-reflection, and change. That is the only way we have to understand and preserve human experience, to dissent in a way that is nonviolent yet deeply effective. Art rallies the people against injustice and makes them feel less alone. That is why freedom of speech and expression are such essential issues to me. The alternative is hell. The alternative is a world where we never see ourselves reflected back at ourselves, and to me that is the ultimate pain — never seeing a version of your truth in another artist’s work. That’s why diversity on television is so important (an issue I’ve thought about a great deal in the last three years).
So yes, on my best days I believe all of this. I believe art is how we’re gonna get to whatever heaven is. On my worst days I wonder whether everyone in Hollywood is floating to hell on a raft made of money.
How much is your famous lack of embarrassment about the human body related to growing up with two artist parents?
Growing up around visual artists who utilized aspects of the human body (and of the grotesque) in their work definitely made me feel the physical self was fair game to explore in ways that weren’t always flattering. No one ever told me if I made an ugly face it was going to stay that way.
Because my mother employs elements of collage, her studio was full of vintage Playboy magazines. (I remember a Swedish edition with a slutty nude milkmaid spread eagle in a bale of hay particularly vividly.) My father took us to the Met every Sunday to examine Renaissance paintings and never tried to censor his work (or anyone else’s).
My favorite artist as a seven year old was Greer Lankton, a transgender woman whose work as a dollmaker turned a cartoonish lens on naked femininity. I posed for Keith Edmier and Alan Turner and borrowed Halloween costume elements from Cindy Sherman’s studio. I share all this not to sound like a precious overachiever but to say that the female form was celebrated in all its complexity and that I had very little shame around my own body. I learned through osmosis it could be a tool for self-expression.
I was comfortably guided into adolescence by my familiarity with work by Carolee Schneemann and Lynda Benglis and Hannah Wilke.
Is success and fame anything like what you imagined it would be?
In some sense, yes: more free things, easier time getting tables at restaurants, parties where you can’t tell if you know people from camp or have just seen them on TV. As a kid I used to obsessively ask my father, “If two famous people see each other at a doctor’s office or something and they’ve never met but recognize each other do they say hi!?” The answer, it turns out, is yes.
In some other sense, not at all — because it doesn’t guard against self-doubt, fear, or pain. I shouldn’t be shocked yet somehow I was. Just being honest.
Who is better at intimacy: actors or writers?
Actors are better at intimacy — if you count fake intimacy. Any actor worth their salt could convince you they loved you for a day. They could share furtive touches and childhood traumas and favorite snacks. They could kiss you on your innermost cheek near your lip. Then they could board a plane to London or Moscow and forget your name.
Note: I am not a real actor.
Writers and intimacy? Well, sometimes writers cannot even make eye contact.
You seem uninterested in constructing wish-fulfillment fantasies for women, a cultural staple from Jane Austen to Nora Ephron. Is that fair to say? Or is it more true to say that you prefer the story beyond the fulfillment of the wish?
I must say that my passion lies in the mess, the anger, the pain. But in some sense that’s just an aesthetic choice, like appreciating wood paneling or hating the color green. Because Nora (or Jane Austen or Helen Fielding or Sex and the City or Sophie Kinsella or Beyoncé) has explored the happy ending in a way that sheds volumes of light on the female experience. Depicting the dream and allowing women to react (yes, that is my dream! Or: hell no, not MY dream) has just as much power as what I do or what Shonda Rhimes does or what Lionel Trilling does or what Miranda July does or what Prime Suspect does, etc., etc.
What do you do with vitriol directed toward you or your work (but usually you). Can anything be done with it?
I respond if the criticism has opened my eyes to a new reality, or if I feel I have been (willfully or accidentally) misunderstood. Otherwise there is nothing to say. I don’t have the space in my body for anger (or for the millions of other things people on the internet have told me to stuff in my body).
The hysteria surrounding your writing about your childhood sexual curiosity — is this classic American Puritanism at work? Was it sincere or manufactured? Is it a refusal to accept the 100+-year-old insights of Freud and company about polymorphous perversity?
In some sense I will never know. In some sense it’s my job never to know. I can (and have) analyzed it for hours. I know my truth, which is that I am a survivor, an advocate, a feminist, and a devoted and loving sister. But I can’t try and take the temperature of the hive mind, or try and parse the real criticisms from the willful (often politically motivated) misunderstanding of my work. The internet is too violent an atmosphere in which to attempt to make those distinctions right now. And there are far bigger problems for us to tackle as a culture.