Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy series “Girls,” about four twentysomething women trying to figure out their lives in New York, finally premieres Sunday. Dunham’s already gotten tons of press (including this New York Magazine cover story), but the show also boasts an impressive, mostly female roster of writers in addition to Dunham, including co-producer Jenni Konner; Lesley Arfin, formerly of “Vice” and “Missbehave” magazines, and author of the book “Dear Diary”; Sarah Heyward, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and contributor to Zooey Deschanel’s website Hello Giggles; and Deborah Schoeneman, who’s written for “New York” and the “New York Times” magazines and may have coined the verb “to Google.” Below, they discuss “Girls,” stereotypes about women on television, and why “Friends” was so great.
Were you conscious of avoiding stereotypes about women and men when you were working on “Girls”? If so, was that ever difficult?
Lesley Arfin: Sexism and stereotypes are real things that come up. Why avoid them just to avoid them?
Sarah Heyward: We never explicitly discussed avoiding stereotypes. One of our primary goals in the room was to create a show that felt as real and true to life as possible. Whether that meant eschewing stereotypes or occasionally validating them, we were more concerned with creating fully fleshed out, complicated characters. Part of what I love about Lena’s work is how surprising it is, despite featuring characters and scenarios that are familiar to my life.
What’s your response to Lee Aronsohn’s comment that “We’re approaching peak vagina on television?”
LA: Whatever dude, you sound like a 1950’s dad. Cool comment. Really smart. Are we really still talking like this? This dude [wrote for] “Murphy Brown” so… isn’t he partly responsible for this “season of the vagina”? It’s so funny to me when people broadcast their fear. Yeah, we’re coming for your job dude, sucks for you! (Please note that I am speaking as Lesley Arfin and not the entire cast/crew of “Girls.”)
SH: His comment is directly connected to my distaste for the comparisons between all the shows about women on television right now. Nobody would ever complain that there are too many shows about guys or families or groups of friends, so why are people complaining about shows about girls? Critics need to stop counting how many times the word “vagina” is used and start paying attention to the jokes, characters, and originality of each of these shows.
Deborah Schoeneman: Oh, I don’t think we’ve peaked yet. I hope the success of the current crop of female centric shows and movies means we’re just at the base of that mountain.
What’s your take on “Whitney” and “2 Broke Girls”? Do you think those shows are funny?
LA: Oh my God yes. And also “New Girl,” my favorite. We once watched an episode of “Whitney” at work and when it was over we were all … can we watch another one? “2 Broke Girls” is very funny and has very smart writers on it. It reminds me of the shows I was really into when I was growing up (must be the multi cam). I’m also excited for the show “BFF.”
SH: I watch both “Whitney” and “2 Broke Girls.” I recently wrote a post for Hello Giggles professing my love for “Whitney” and encouraging people to give the show a second (or third or fourth) chance. I have so much respect for all of the other “girls” shows on the air right now and feel they actually have nothing to do with each other or with our show.
Just as every show created by and starring men on television fills its own niche. So do “Whitney,” “2 Broke Girls,” and “The New Girl,” and so will our show. It’s frustrating to hear the inevitable comparisons because it suggests that there’s only room for a certain number of “shows for women”. To me, these are all just television shows, trying to do very different things from each other and yes, succeeding. Of course, I’m excited if an abundance of popular shows created by and starring women means that TV executives will be more willing to hire female writers and show-runners, but in a perfect world, whether a show was created by a woman or a man wouldn’t even be noteworthy.
DS: I think they’re great and funny. Whitney Cummings was one of the first friends I made when I moved to LA about 4 years ago. We used to write from the lobby of the Palihouse Hotel in West Hollywood and hope things would work out. I always knew they would for her because she’s one of the most hilarious, ambitious and hard working people I have ever met.
There’s lots of room for successful women in TV. The more the merrier. It’s good for any woman writer in Hollywood when another hits it big. I have found the female community in Hollywood to be very welcoming and supportive. It’s one of the best things about working in the industry.
What’s it like working on a show that’s created by, and largely written by, women? How is it different from other environments you’ve worked in?
LA: When I was at “Vice” it was all super-cool guys who liked to puff out their chests all the time and took themselves a little too seriously — sorry guys! That being said, it was important work for me at the time and one of the best experiences of my life. At “Missbehave” it was all women, but I felt like they all hated me. I was insecure about how well I was doing my job which really interfered with … how well I was doing my job.
I think the difference for me with “Girls” is that I really believe in the product. I believe in the work and Lena’s vision. As a person, it feels important to me to have this TV show in the world. Maybe that sounds pompous or inflated but whatever. I was up for some other jobs and when I saw the “Girls” pilot I knew immediately that this was the kind of work I wanted to do. I’ve never felt that as strongly at my other jobs.
SH:“Girls” is definitely not a typical writers’ room — even starting out as a staff writer, I never felt like there was a strict hierarchy in the room. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily because they are women, but from day one, [producer Jenni Konner] and Lena made us feel comfortable and valuable. I’ve never been afraid to speak up with my opinions or pitch ideas, and yes, we talk about our emotions. A lot. Our room is essentially one big group therapy session.
DS: “Girls” is the greatest working experience I’ve ever had. Our boss ladies are smart, funny and supportive. Sorry if this sounds braggy, but it’s dreamy. I’ve worked for a lot of other women and men in the past. I don’t find gender to have that much to do with if I like a boss or not.
What part of the show are you most proud of? What’s the part you’d point to and say, I did that?
LA: You know what? And don’t get me wrong, my ego is as big as anyone else’s, but what I feel proudest about is that show isn’t “my voice” or “I did that!” I feel proud to work in a room of writers and collaborate. This was a big lesson for me. I had never worked with people like this before and was so attached to “my voice” and “being heard.” Maybe this sounds cheesy but I feel like I’m part of a band. We have a lead singer of course — Lena — and maybe I’m just the weird sax player that you can’t really hear, but if it was taken away you’d be like “This band sounds different, where’s the sax?” One day I’ll have my solo but for now I enjoy being part of an ensemble and working hard for that solo.
SH: I’m proud of everything! It’s definitely Lena’s creation, but so much of what we do in the room is tell stories from our own lives, so it’s exciting to see little bits and pieces from my past pop up on the show, whether it’s a character’s name or an entire plot line. I do feel that my background as a fiction writer gives me a leg up when we’re breaking story, but Lena and Jenni were so careful to fill the room with creative, hilarious weirdos that it’s hard to point to any one thing and call it mine. I will say that Shoshanna’s virginity arc in season one definitely echoed aspects of my own experience.
DS: I’m proud of the whole series. I think the characters really deepened as we learned about our actors and figured out how to write to their strengths. It’s fun when I hear a joke of mine that made it into the final edited episode or when I can see my influence on a particular storyline. I really see my job as to help Lena execute her vision, though, so it’s not really about picking apart what’s mine.
What do you say to recent criticisms of the show that imply that it’s actually bad for young women — like Liel Liebovitz’s argument that the show’s message is “that real choice is the freedom to choose anything, including subjugation,” and that Lena’s character is “little more than a plaything for men”?
SH: To me, that’s a very reductive way of looking at “Girls.” It seems like that particular critic is disturbed by the sex and by Lena’s body to the point of blindness to all other aspects of the show. I’m not quite sure how showing “real” bodies and realistic sex — in all its messy, uncomfortable glory — could be bad for young women. Lebowitz compares the show to a “hard-core porno” when in truth it’s just the opposite. Depictions of sex in TV and film — especially porn — are usually highly stylized and simplified: a gorgeous couple orgasms simultaneously after two minutes of penetration and zero foreplay. As a result, many young women grow up thinking something is wrong with them for, say, not being able to orgasm from penetration alone. The sex on “Girls” isn’t supposed to be educational or representative of everyone’s sexual experiences; it just depicts the kind of sex some people are having, and does so far more honestly than most shows I’ve seen.
What are your favorite shows on TV right now (other than “Girls”)? And are there any shows that influenced you when you were writing?
LA: I love that show “Awkward” on MTV. “Game Of Thrones,” “Parks and Rec,” “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “Eastbound,” “Mad Men”… at work we reference so many shows you wouldn’t believe it. Shows you only vaguely remember because they maybe were on for half a season. A show that really helped me personally with romance stuff was “Friends.” Ten seasons and we were still interested in Ross and Rachel? Impressive.
SH: I love being able to say that watching television is a part of my job, and I definitely have a wide range of favorites, from “Homeland” to “Pretty Little Liars” and everything in between. In terms of what influenced us while writing “Girls,” we actually talked about movies and books as much as TV shows. Lena has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things media, but in particular we certainly discussed the films of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, Claudia Weil’s “Girlfriends,” books about groups of women and New York, shows ranging from “My So-Called Life” to Mary Tyler Moore, and, yes, “Sex and the City.” I was the resident SATC expert and despite the fact that our show is (truly!) dissimilar in many ways, we of course had to look to our predecessor and learn from its massively brilliant and comprehensive legacy.
DS: I’m currently bingeing on “Friday Night Lights.” That show does a great job of making the viewer care about all the characters and the acting is awesome. I also love “Downton Abbey,” “Homeland,” “Mad Men,” “New Girl,” and “30 Rock.”