Lena Dunham at The New Yorker Festival’s “In Coversation: Girl Power” on Oct. 7.
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 (right) as Girls’ Hannah, with Allison Williams as Marni.
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.”
- jesspixieb thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Win
I am not jealous of Lena Dunham. I would never want to be famous for making vapid, boring television. I am appalled by her success because it is just one more instance of “young person underdog success” when she isn’t actually an underdog, nor is she talented. I lament that an opportunity that could have gone to a better show, a better writer, a better cast, went to the snorefest that is Girls instead.
- huffingtonpost.com readers just made Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... hotter
- Diogo Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...
- theweek.com readers just made Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... hotter
- rhadams thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Win
- tinap3 Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... and thinks it’s Win
- janice! Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... and thinks it’s WTF, Fail & Ew
- Ru n Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...
- tbarrios47 thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Win
- Yolie4u thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Ew & Fail
- Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is starting to get hot on Facebook Share It
- popsugar.com readers just made Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... hotter
To the extent you’re complaining about people’s comments on the lack of diversity on the show - I have to disagree with the argument that this has something to do with journalists/bloggers self-obsession. If you are living the Brooklyn life the Girls are living, it is literally not possible to go a day (or whatever) without interacting with people of color. They’re not just the people that sell you candy at the bodega, they are the people around you. They are talking to you in line at the coffee shop, they are your neighbor, they are your colleague (sometimes boss), they are (likely) your friend. The problem is not that the show has decided to show one specific slice of Brooklyn that excludes people of color; it’s that they’ve decided to portray a slice of Brooklyn that simply does not exist. It’s like Dunham (and the rest of the show-runners) have decided that people of color are not good for the show and/or do not have a right to be portrayed in a a show that glorifies a Brooklyn existence that people of color helped to create. Maybe the show authentically represents her voice - but it does not authentically represent Girls’ Brooklyn. That is the problem.
I totally disagree with you. While your social circle may indeed be very diverse (and good for you), it’s not necessarily the same for white twentysomething Brooklyn - especially the neighborhoods depicted in Girls (W’burg, Greenpoint, Bushwick). I lived in the burg for many years, and it always surprised me how incredibly white the “hipster” world was, given that they lived in neighborhoods with high Latin populations. The fact is most twentysomething hipsters in these hoods don’t associate with anyone that doesn’t look like themselves - white, fashionable, young. The people of color around them are just “local color,” and that’s that. I’m not going to decry them as racist, though. That seems to be the way most people operate - they hang with their tribe - regardless of color. I think it’s unfair to demand that Dunham include some token people of color, when that’s likely not her reality, and not that of many of the people whose social circumstances mirror those of the people of the show.
I mean we can do a BK pissing match if we care to - I’m a black twentysomething that lives in Williamsburg. Absolutely, most of the people around me are white. But hey - I’m around them. And it’s not. just. me. If I’m painting broad strokes for you, then I’m sorry but yeesh - all of my friends have at least one POC friend. :/ We really are everywhere - you may not have even noticed because our pants are equally tight or whatever lame hipster stereotype we’re trying to get at here. Additionally, I’m prickling your implied assertion that POC cannot live in the same culture whites live in. Why aren’t there characters that have the same ethos of the Girls that are POC. No, they aren’t the majority - but there’s plenty plenty plenty. Additionally additionally, I cannot begin to describe the ways in which devaluing POC existence among you as “local color” is just. ugh. god. don’t you read what you’re writing?
pifflove, when you write “Absolutely, most of the people around me are white,” you’re making my point for me. Yes, obviously it’s not. just. you, but I wager that what one could loosely define as white hipster brooklyn - especially in the north brooklyn neighborhoods - approaches 90% white. I’m not saying there’s anything right or wrong with that, it’s just what it is. Asking a twenty something hipster white girl to include POC in her show when more than likely she doesnt count POC in her social circle is essentially asking for inauthenticity for the sake of tokenism. Like the “black guy” in the beer commercials. doesn’t. ring. true.
- Surya N. thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Ew
- elle438 thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Fail
- tokie thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Win
- meghannd Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...
- Katelyn thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Win
- oddee.com readers just made Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... hotter
- thesuperficial.com readers just made Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... hotter
- Artemis03 Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...
You know what I find funny? That so many people - journalists and bloggers mainly - expect a show to relate specifically to THEM. How dare you put on a show, and not make it about people like ME? How dare you make a film that doesn’t speak to MY experience? I’ll leave it to psychiatrists to figure out where this impulse comes from, but needless to say, I find it utterly ridiculous. This has been one of the biggest criticisms launched at Dunham, as though she has a responsibility to include a representative token of every possibly type to somehow make her show legit. Grow up, babies. Her only responsibility is to make a show that authentically reflects her creative voice.
People are so jealous of her. I think that from the outside, what she does looks easy to the mid-20s layabouts who begrudge her success. They all think they could do it better. I love this show and I am probably ten years past the target demographic and was born and raised on the opposite coast. As a woman, so many of the situations in the show are uncomfortably relatable, even if they happened to me 15 years ago. Look forward to much more from her!
- alisonr2 thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Win
- msmcgee82 Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... and thinks it’s Win
- canderoc Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...
- justjared.com readers just made Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... hotter
- thedailybeast.com readers just made Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... hotter
- bombchel88 Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...
- Amarieza Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...
- Mark Castle Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... and thinks it’s Win
- tumblr.com readers just made Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... hotter
- cosetteo thinks Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is Win
- creatingclaire Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...
- Lena Dunham: It's 'Not... is starting to get hot on Twitter Tweet It
- Summer Anne Burton Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...
- caitlinc14 Lena Dunham: It's 'Not...