On Sunday morning, Lena Dunham — on a break between days of shooting the fifth season of Girls and escorting her young cousin to a Taylor Swift concert — was sitting in a Brooklyn Heights restaurant, talking about Lenny, the weekly newsletter for young women she's launching in September with her production partner and Girls showrunner Jenni Konner. Lenny, said Dunham, will be for “an army of like-minded intellectually curious women and the people who love them, who want to bring change but also want to know, like, where to buy the best tube top for summer that isn’t going to cost your entire paycheck.”
Lenny will be filled with writing from Dunham’s vast network of celebrity friends, but will also draw from its own staff — including editor-in-chief Jessica Grose, a former writer for Jezebel and editor at Slate; associate editor and Rookie writer Laia Garcia; and editor-at-large Doreen St. Félix, who has written for Pitchfork, The Hairpin, and BuzzFeed — and readers with all sorts of opinions and perspectives on the myriad issues that make up the experience of living as a young woman in the world. Benjamin Cooley — Konner's ex-husband and fellow producer — functions as CEO and the only man of the operation.
The project will be self-funded at first, but slowly establish revenue streams from a mix of carefully selected advertisers and, as Konner put it, “e-commerce that collaborates with independent female artists and designers in ethical, affordable, and witty apparel and design items.” (In other words, Dunham's spin on affiliate links, which fashion bloggers have been using for years to fund their enterprises.)
"We want people who have totally diverse interests," said Dunham, who was wearing a bright blue jumpsuit and intermittently charming the baby at the adjacent table. She was accompanied by Grose and Audrey Gelman, her power-girl best friend and occasional Girls walk-on, who is an adviser on the project and is serving as its publicist. “People who want to talk about radical politics but also want to talk about fashion and also want to talk about Rihanna, and also understand that all of those things can be happening at the same time.”
That’s the Lenny pitch: contemporary feminism for the inbox, in all of its contradictions and complexities. Clear and cogent pieces on the politicians who push for issues that matter to women, stacked above a monthly face mask routine.
Granted, that doesn’t sound that different from most women’s magazines today, or from the dozens of other feminist websites that currently pepper the internet; it’s unclear, pre-launch, what will differentiate them from other sites that have built themselves on the same reality that women are interested in both the high and low, the personal and the political.
But in theory, Lenny will not only be devoted to its newsletter form, but to promoting and modeling a different type of feminist discourse. Its inspiration is less Feministing or Jezebel and more “Rookie’s Big Sister,” as Grose put it, “or Goop meets Grantland.”
“We love Goop,” Dunham said. “Jenni and I have always been obsessed with Goop. We feel strongly that even if some of it is aspirational, it’s aspirations like ‘I want to know how to take care of my body and soufflé something.’”
It's perhaps surprising that Dunham — who has not, to put it mildly, been treated kindly by the internet — would be launching a product that exists only on the internet. Willingly or not, her image has become the focal point of discussions of intersectional feminism, body image, privilege, sexual abuse, and general female unruliness; wherever she steps on the internet, conversations about those things (some thoughtful; most hateful) follow.
Despite all that, Dunham still has a deep passion for the internet, and loves the conversations she’s had with fans and others — but is also totally and understandingly terrified by it. That duality — between the internet as horrible and deadening and the internet as inspiring and necessary — is part of what drove Dunham toward the idea of a newsletter. (Not to mention that newsletters like Skimm have successfully targeted the exact demographic Lenny is pursuing, even after the demise of the much-loved Daily Candy.)
After all, newsletters are themselves throwbacks to a pre-digital time when media transmitted in one direction — from producer to consumer — with little in the way of interactivity or feedback. And while newsletters have been having a moment for the last couple of years, their popularity, like that of podcasts, is predicated upon creating "community" not via comments or Twitter, but the common reading (or viewing or listening) experience more familiar to readers of, say, Sassy magazine than of the internet.
That’s a feeling that Lenny will try to re-create — part of what has been called the “slow internet,” which aims to offer an escape from, rather than fuel for, the overwhelming sensation of stepping into the digital world. It’s meant to challenge and interrogate popular culture and politics and what it means to be a woman of a certain demographic, the ones who are trying to pay student loans and sometimes make meals and also spend time reading things on their smartphones about the world around them.
But it’s also intended as a refuge. Lenny will be a way "to remember that the internet has the power to take you into quiet places — something we don’t usually use it for,” said Dunham.
Like Goop, Lenny will eventually morph into a something of a website-letter hybrid, but even then, there won’t be a traditional comments section. No place for trolls to write “Lena Dunham is fat” on another writer's work; no chance for the sort of misogyny, body-shaming, or generalized hate that follow Dunham to compromise the reading experience.
That vision is something that Dunham saw in action while touring the country last fall, promoting her book Not That Kind of Girl. She partnered with Planned Parenthood for each event, and invited various “people and thinkers and writers I admire” — Carrie Brownstein, authors like Zadie Smith and Mary Karr, Rookie's Jenny Zhang, and the writer Ashley Ford (a former BuzzFeed writer) — and could see that the people were hungry and excited for a space that was at once political, lighthearted, and antagonistic.
“I literally heard girls being like, ‘How do you keep those pink streaks in your hair?’” Dunham recalled, “but also ‘Who are you going to vote for?’”
Grose — who’s spent nine years in women’s media — also knows what they’re not looking to replicate on Lenny. “The internet feminism conversation can be very circular and limiting and exclusive,” she said. “And it saddens me to see that a lot of the competition is about saying ‘you’re not feminist enough’: trying to kick people out of feminism rather than bring them in. And Lenny is an opportunity to say, ‘There are many different types of feminisms, and we can work together.’”
But doesn't this idealistic view of feminism water it down to the point of being almost meaningless? Can you just be a feminist because you say you are?
“I have no problem with the pop culturization of feminism — I’m thrilled to see Beyoncé standing in front of the word ‘feminism.’ How can that hurt us?" Dunham said. "But at the same time, it turns into a misunderstanding in which people think of feminism as 'It’s feminist because I’m a woman and I’m doing it.’ And that’s not how it works.”
Feminism, per Dunham, is about women protecting each other, educating each other, and recognizing "that part of feminism is giving women the freedom to make choices that you don’t necessarily agree with — without also excusing all female behavior, or announcing that all female behavior is feminist, which is condescending and ridiculous.”
So instead of, say, pointing out that Sarah Palin isn't a feminist, Lenny will show by example with essays from trans women that celebrate or interrogate things about themselves that aren’t limited to their gender identity, by talking to women in the armed forces about how they negotiate femininity and female friendship, or publishing pieces like “Sheryl Sandberg Talks About Her Biggest Screwup at Work." “Women spend so much time trying to align themselves with an image in the media that they can’t match,” Dunham said, “that their hostility towards themselves and others becomes overwhelming.”
To disrupt that hostility in a way that’s generative and generous, that’s exploratory and fun — that's Lenny's mission. It’s unclear whether that’s possible on the internet, especially with the complexities of Dunham's image attached. And though the newsletter is well-trodden territory, Dunham sees it as an experiment worth championing.
"With Lenny there’s no such thing as TMI, there’s no such thing as self-involved," she said. "We’ll be allowed to show the ugly and complicated thought processes that go into forming your own brand of feminism, and your own identity, because it’s not all clean back here."
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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