Introducing Lena Dunham at the New Yorker Festival this Sunday, the magazine’s television critic Emily Nussbaum joked that the premiere of Dunham’s Girls this spring spawned some 3,000 analyses of the HBO show.
But that may not even be a hyperbolic figure. Everything that can be said about Dunham and Girls seems to have been said — repeatedly. She’s the new queen of TV. She’s racist. She’s overrated. She’s the voice of a generation. No wait, she isn’t. Dunham told the New Yorker Festival audience that her mother has a “Lena Dunham” Google Alert. It must keep her pretty busy.
In real life — or at least in front of her audience Sunday — Dunham comes off as more of a ladder-climbing businesswoman than you might expect of someone so well-known for eating a cupcake in a bathtub on cable television.
Dunham seems genuinely confident in her abilities, despite the criticism she continues to face and the years of experience many showrunners have on her. She says while shooting, she doesn’t do very many takes. She trusts her gut and doesn’t always feel the need to listen to the cranky whims of actors — or “someone who hasn’t eaten in four-and-a-half weeks,” she told Nussbaum.
But like any good boss, she doesn’t shut opinions out. “I’ve literally never gotten a note that I’ve regretted taking,” says Dunham, referring to contributions from her trusted fellow producers Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow. She describes herself as “anti-regret.”
Dunham’s conversation with Nussbaum — formally titled “Girl Power” — and subsequent Q&A session covered a lot of ground, from Girls’ large male viewership and the phenomenon of young female showrunners supporting each other, to the charm of Louis C.K. and Dunham’s favorite Spice Girl. (Sporty, for her vocals and “low profile in the media,” she says.) Still, the conversation had a way of turning back to how Dunham runs her show.
She even explored one of Girls’ most controversial moments: Writer Lesley Arfin’s offensive tweet at the height of criticism that the Brooklyn-based show was racist for not featuring characters who represented Brooklyn’s large African-American population. (“What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME,” Arfin tweeted and later deleted.)
“Firstly, I’m not interested in doing a public firing of anyone,” Dunham says, explaining that Arfin, who wrote for season one, had already left the show by the time she tweeted the Precious comment. Dunham called the incident “upsetting,” but maintained that internal issues were something she wanted to work out privately. “I [addressed] it in a managerial position, I [addressed] it the way that I [wanted] to, but issuing a public statement to cover up someone else’s defense of a work that they didn’t really make was just not on my agenda.”
Dunham generally tries to refrain from responding to much of the criticism of her work. “As an artist… I want to shelter myself and create a safe space for me to work in. [But] as an executive producer… I need to open myself up to understanding peoples’ reactions,” she says. “The criticisms that — I wouldn’t say they surprised me, but they disappointed me — were the whole privilege and nepotism area of things. It’s upsetting, it’s confusing… I have plenty of counter-arguments to that, but it’s not elegant to share them.”
It’s easy to forget that Dunham, notorious for dramatizing 20-something, Thought Catalog-esque problems, is also responsible for hiring, firing and managing a staff of employees. Yes, the painfully self-aware showrunner gets naked on TV a lot and tweets about mundane things like napping (repeatedly) and therapy (also repeatedly). But get past the oversharing humor and “nepotism” and you have a burgeoning mogul who’s running a major coast-to-coast operation, overseeing a production that — just 12 episodes in — was nominated in the same Emmy categories as comedies with directors, writers and actors twice Dunham’s age with twice her experience. (Though Girls didn’t win any awards.)
With the news of Dunham’s $3.6 million (or more) advice-book deal being finalized — something Dunham wasn’t asked about Sunday — it seems as if the conversation is turning from “Do we love Girls or hate Girls?” to “Is Lena Dunham really a privileged, messy millennial — or does she just write and play one on TV?” And if she’s not a real-life Hannah Horvath, who is this 26-year-old whose book deal dollar figure might not be that far off from comedy veteran Tina Fey’s $5 million one? What does she know about “how to stay focused on work” and “how not to ruin a potential relationship” — topic ideas listed in the book’s proposal, leaked by Slate?
Those questions weren’t asked during her 90-minute interview, but she still somehow answered them. Toward the end of the talk, a woman in the audience expressed disappointment with how she related to the show’s first few episodes, but not later plot points — like when one of the characters gets unexpectedly married. She asked, “What are you setting out to do with the show, if not to portray my life?”
Dunham acknowledges that not every Girls scene is relatable, but that she does her best to make the characters’ lives realistic. Her response offers insight not only to the Girls ethos, but possibly her work as a whole — in movies, television, and probably soon in hardback.
“I do write hoping that my experience will resonate with other peoples’ experiences,” Dunham says. “Then we can all feel less alone.”