37 Funny And Inspired Thoughts From Lena Dunham's Book Tour
The 28-year-old author and Girls creator charmed London on her recent book tour. Here are the highlights.
On Friday night, Lena Dunham appeared at London's Southbank Centre to talk about her debut book, Not That Kind of Girl.
In front of 2,500 fans at the sold-out Royal Festival Hall, including Sarah Millican, Richard E. Grant, and the cast of Call the Midwife, Dunham's friend and fellow author Caitlin Moran chatted to her about life, feminism, and everything.
Here are the highlights.
This is a place that's offered me much cultural inspiration. I'm what we annoyingly call in the States an Anglophile, to the point where I'm like, 'Ooh, look at this rain! Look at this peeling, sexy rain.'I saw a rat in the restaurant at my hotel and I was like, 'Ooh, a British rat!'
Ab Fab was a hugely formative influence on me, because I always say my favourite characters are ones where there's this massive gap between how they view themselves and how the world views them. That's one of the reasons why I love David Brent, too.And so, for me, Edina Monsoon was sort of the platonic ideal of that, and a starting-off point – seeing a woman on screen behaving madly and badly and tearing things up. She said to me, 'You know, when I do the show I like to wear clothes that are too small for me,' and I was like, 'When I do my show I like to wear clothes that are too small for me! It's fucking hilarious!' It's also a beautiful thing to meet someone you admire and they're as great as you thought they would be, because it doesn't always happen.
I started watching Call the Midwife this past summer because I was actually researching for a scene in Girls – spoiler alert – because there are these really great, explicit birth scenes on the show.I watched every episode in the course of three days. I was sick for two of them, and then fake-sick for the third. I loved it.I tweeted about it and I was sent a special and exclusive Call the Midwife bicycle bell. I don't have a bicycle so I just kind of walk around my house, like, *ding ding* at my dog and my boyfriend and whoever else will accept the behaviour.
I love Caitlin. In fact, it says on Caitlin's book: '"I love Caitlin Moran" –Lena Dunham.' I could have been more articulate, but again, why did I need to be?
I feel that was so much less of an issue here (in the UK). Despite your reputation of uptight crustiness, I feel welcomed both creatively and breastily.
The last time I dressed up for Halloween I dressed up as Louis C.K. I put on a swim cap with red hair, big black T-shirt, jeans. I went to a party and every woman was dressed as a sexy animal or a variant thereof, and one starlet, a drunken starlet – I will not name names because that's impolite – she said, [affects a whiny LA-brat voice] 'Oh my god, who are you?', and I said 'I'm Louis C.K.' and she said, 'Who's that?', and I said, 'He's a noted American comedian and I am dressed as him.'Then she grabbed my stomach and said, 'You did the padding and everything,' and I was like, 'No, that's my stomach. You're holding on to the flesh of my stomach.'It became so uncomfortable that I took off the wig and the moustache and tied up the shirt and said I was a member of the group TLC from the 'Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls' video, and that still – shockingly enough – didn't get me laid. And now I'm in a committed relationship and I no longer dress up for Halloween.
I think because of the fact that we grew up knowing that accepting their work was a part of our job as their children, they feel accepting my work is a part of their job as my parents, and so whether they liked it or not they'll be supportive because of their inherent belief that you have to express what's in you to express.
People always say I should do Pilates. I know without even thinking about it that my pelvic floor is bullshit.
I feel great right now, but after we get off stage I'll be concerned about finding the people I need to find, and making sure that they feel good. And making sure that the Call the Midwife cast knows how happy I am to see them. That's a really serious concern, like, what if they don't feel the magnitude of my gratitude? And then it will probably abate around 11. And then I will eat enough so that I can fall asleep.
I used to very much be of the school that like torture was what created art. Like the two things had to walk hand in hand. My dad once said something amazing to me – he said, 'Fear isn't what keeps the plane in the air,' and that was really a little Zen koan that he gave me that cracked something open for me. Because so many of us do have this sense that by worrying we can prevent what's challenging about life, and I think that everything that's really thrown me for a loop has not been the thing that I thought to worry about.I think that there is something obviously there; pain can cause you to create in a very deep way, and creating work is one of the ways that we process the things that we've been through and I guess it could be argued that anxiety, the constant cycle of fear, makes you productive because it's all about, 'I wanna get things done while I'm on this earth, never stop, never stop, never sleep till I'm dead.' But I truly believe that there's a way to make work and to be happy and I wish that for all my creative friends.
This year for me, 2014, has been about the power of saying 'no'. It's a big issue for everybody, but especially for women: 'No' is not a word that we're taught when we're young. Or not enough of us are taught, or not taught to say it often enough. There's a sense that we need to be amenable and pleasing and give people what they want, and also when you're a woman and you're successful you feel like you want to apologise for it, and you want to give everyone a piece of what you have lest they think that you don't deserve it. So for me this year's been about saying 'no'.There's a lot of really wonderful things in my life, and I feel incredibly lucky, but those things won't get taken away if I set boundaries for myself, and in fact setting boundaries is the only thing that allows us to continue on. It's the only thing that allows us to keep our light on inside of us.
I remember being on my way to SXSW to screen the first series of Girls and a young, fairly famous actor was in the airport with me, clearly still drunk from the night before, on one of those carts that fancy people get taken around the airport on, and he was like, [shouting] 'What's up motherfuckers!' I thought, Oh my god, the amount that I don't even feel comfortable purchasing a pair of shoes not on the internet – lest I be seen buying shoes I don't deserve – is so extreme that the idea I could be wasted in the airport on a golf cart, that must be a fucking pleasure.
I was raised in a household where we were taught you don't ask people about their money, you don't talk about your money, it's not polite – you know, you suffer or profit in private. And I was asked questions about it in a way that I've truly never heard a man engaged on the topic.I remember doing Howard Stern's show, and I really like Howard Stern, despite the fact that we met because he said that I looked like Jonah Hill and he wanted to apologise on air. He asked me about money and I said I don't feel that men are challenged this way when they make a living and he said to me, 'No, I think you're wrong, Lena. We talk all the time about how much athletes make, and I don't think you're right, I don't think it's a specific thing, I think we're just obsessed with money as a culture,' and he kept moving.I was kind of paralysed for a second and I went, 'No, no, we need to go back to that, you're wrong.' I just couldn't let that point go, because it felt like we were, right at that moment, an example of – me asserting and him dismissing – we were the whole problem in action. I felt, if I can just get Howard Stern to agree with me I could fix the problems of feminism.
I completely recognise that we live in a society where entertainers are unfairly paid for their work, and teachers and care workers are denied, and the best thing we can do in this unfair and unnecessary position of privilege is to talk about things we believe in and share both the reach of our voices and the money we amass to do things that we're passionate about. But women should not be forced to represent that problem for everybody else.
I did this interview on the first day the book was out in the US, and they call you to do a pre-interview before you go on the talk show, and they were like, 'We want to talk about body image, we want to talk about the date-rape essay in your book, we want to talk about racism, we want to talk about Ferguson,' and I gave all my answers, but then they were like, 'But can we also make it funny?' And I was like, 'Well, ask me about food!'
My fridge is totally empty. I live completely on all manner of takeout, and I'm close enough to the people at the takeout place on my block that they gave me a staff T-shirt.
I've eaten like, six crumpets a day since I arrived, and I feel like if you just have that, and a little bit of fruit, you're good to go.
I had done a signing at Waterstones [in London] so my sister and I were like, 'Let's see if anyone has posted anything cute or fun' – I wanted to read about myself – and we were googling and the Daily Mail said I had 'debuted a noticeably slimmer face'. And it looks exactly the same. I mean it could not look more the same. And it's so weird because I was enraged from a feminist point of view, and also kind of like, 'Thank you.'
There's been a lot of catcalling conversation the last few days, and the thing that I think is the most destructive is that it's horrible and it's validating, and that combination is super dark. That's something I think about a lot when men yell at me in the street: I'm enraged that this is the culture we live in, and I'm enraged that this makes me feel better walking into this meeting.
It's a weird thing because so much of it is people being angry that you didn't dress for them – you didn't dress to their tastes, you didn't dress to please them.I mean, if I'm gonna go and spend eight hours standing up and listening to us celebrate the cast of Two and a Half Men or whatever we're there to do, then why shouldn't I wear something that I feel good in and amuses me, and not whatever like, nude, satin, mermaid fishtail gown that we're now contractually required to wear to an event because I'm not interested. It's an interesting thing because people take it as an almost personal offence that you don't share their same desire to be seen and accepted. The amount of 'what were you thinking' rage makes you really think about how much time those people must spend thinking about blending in as they walk down the street, and what an uncomfortable state that must be.[At the Emmys] I ended up wearing a dress that I did feel good about that everyone else hated, which was the same thing. It's really a pleasure to embody yourself, and I think there's this misconception that when women dress in a way that isn't exactly the style of the moment that they're trying to attract a certain kind of attention, or confuse people, or like, troll the audience. I don't think people really understand that dressing like yourself feels really good.
People love a Pygmalion story. That's their favourite thing in the world. Like, 'She came to Hollywood all kooky, and look at her now: She. Is. Normal!'People thought the dress I wore to the Emmys this year – the big pink thing – was a real effort to ruin everyone's day. But the funniest part is that I was like, 'Well, I finally nailed it!'
My pyjama collection is bigger than my regular clothes collection. I have this T-shirt of my mom's from the early '90s that says 'Women's Action Coalition' with like, a pissed-off suffragette, and it's full of holes and it's 100% the coolest thing I own, so I can wear that and a pair of men's XXXL pants.
I'm always within two or three days. My book agent is here so she might not agree, but I feel like I mostly hit it. And especially with the show, you kind of have to. At a certain point you're doing it, so you can't let a script fly by too much or else the brakes are put on the whole process.And I also don't like the feeling of disappointing people, I find it very panic-inducing, so whenever I have really gone past a deadline in an extreme way it has not felt good to me, but I also will go down to the wire. I mean, I'm not handing things in a couple of days early.
I don't mind when other people do it, it's just not for me. It makes me feel really self-conscious, which I know sounds ridiculous. I once had a teacher say to me in college that cursing was a crutch, and I think it affected me in a way that only sly things teachers say can. He was like, 'If you want to say 'fuck' always think about what the real word that you wanna use is.' Which isn't always fun, and there are definitely times when I've just gone on a real 'fuck' parade.On Girls, when we're doing improv, I always tell the actors to mind their fucks, and to keep it to a minimum, only because we're doing so much stuff that isn't always palatable that it's nice just to have a, you know, clean line of 'fuck'-free dialogue.There's nothing I love more than a swearing woman, it's a really good look, I just don't think it's one that I can pull off.
I would love to be able to tell you that you're not missing out on much, but it's THE BEST. I'm in a unique position, which is that I was a crazy-massive fangirl who'd been to her concerts and watched every music video and pre-ordered every album, so it was again that experience of meeting someone you are obsessed with and them being all you'd hoped for.I'd also told all my friends for a long time, like, 'I really think that if Taylor and I met we'd really get along. We have really similar attitudes about the world, and we're both processing our life through our art, we've both been criticised for our approaches to romance, and I think we have a lot to share,' and they were all like, 'Shut up, Taylor Swift hates you,' and then we met and she's just so rad.It's getting to know someone who has such an amazing amount of control over their business and an amazing amount of influence, and is strong and tough but humble, you know, I can't say enough good things about her. She smells amazing.
It's a lot of hanging out in an apartment either making or procuring baked goods, and going over some stuff, and it's really nice.
Her new album has just been the soundtrack to my life. I love that everyone likes it. I mean, I love it, my dad loves it, my lesbian sister loves it – and I only pointed out that she's a lesbian because those songs are *clearly* about men. It's really profound, and she's like the thing keeping the music industry afloat right now.
My boyfriend [musician Jack Antonoff] tried to get me to write lyrics with him once. He was like, 'I feel stuck,' and I sat down for five minutes. He was trying to work on a song for a girl who had been formerly on the Disney Channel – there is a number of them so you can't even pick it – and I was like, 'Will you love me or are we just friends? / Will you love me when my contract with Disney ends?', and he was like, 'You're fired.'But then he sent me flowers once and the card said, 'Will you still love me when my contract with Disney ends?'
I did a Scandinavian talk show, everyone was lovely. I was on with James May from Top Gear, what a great guy. He's so handsome and nice.
[In that scene, Jessa] is so excited because she's having pre-abortion sex, as one does. She then gets her period and it's a moment of celebration where she realises she doesn't have to go through with this thing she was so concerned about. So it's the period blood of liberation.It's interesting. A lot of people also felt it was a cop out in that it was a way to not show abortion on television, which believe me I have no problem with, but I felt as though this idea of a character who doesn't even... A lot of women have so much trouble sometimes in knowing their bodies and so much fear around their bodies, she may have been too scared to take a pregnancy test and just made an appointment assuming that she was pregnant. She couldn't be honest with her friends, she said she'd had an exam when she hadn't, and that feels so real to me.It was also partially based on the story of a woman who's close to me who's older who, previous to Roe vs Wade when abortion was not legal in the U.S., she was sure she was pregnant. And she was going to Puerto Rico to get an abortion and she got her period at the airport, and remembers going, 'I don't have to get on this plane,' turning around with her suitcase, and that was such a chilling image to me, and that was where Jessa's story came from.That day I was busy running around directing, and our prop guy, it was just clear he'd never seen a period before. Like, at first the guy picked his hand up and it was like a massacre, and I was like, 'No, he hasn't slaughtered a pig.'
I think about this all the time. I started out thinking, 'We're gonna do the UK model and be classy: 14 episodes and a Christmas special and we're out,' but the thing that's amazing is that I love these characters, and I love the idea of following them through their lives. Especially as I find out more about what it means to be a woman in the workplace, to be a woman in a committed relationship, to be a woman dealing with certain kinds of changes in my body, to watch other women I know grow.Since we started this show, Jemima's had two children, Alison's gotten engaged, Zosia's moved across the country, I've had a lot of professional experiences I never imagined... There's been this incredible growth and it's hard not to imagine reflecting that in the characters. My desire is always to normalise female experience, and if I can keep doing that for my age group as we go on, then I would never quit that job early.
The next series comes out in January. It's my favourite season so far. Hannah goes to graduate school, and that was really, really fun to shoot because I never went to graduate school so I got to have a faux graduate-school experience.I loved seeing and playing Hannah in this new context, where she was attempting to behave like what she thought a model student would be, and I felt it was time for her as a character to make some kind of attempt to keep growing, and obviously this is Girls, so she's not like, aces at it.
Right now, I'd use sleepy, invigorated, mad.
The last time I watched it I remember noticing some awkwardness in the timing and certain edits that didn't feel right to me, just things I had learned through the process of making and finessing a few seasons of Girls that I felt like, you know, there's no substitute for experience.The ending was something I was always really proud of, and a lot of people were like, 'What does it mean?!', but I was like, 'I'm not David Lynch.' It's just what it seems like.
I tend to look at a lot of my old work with a lot of sympathy for my former self, because I feel like there's something really brave about making things at any point, no matter how well you do it. I think it's a nice way to look at your old work, to look back and just hug yourself for trying.
There's a lot of criticism I don't care about: I don't care about being called fat, I don't care about called unlikeable. I do care when I hear from women that they feel excluded by something that I've made, because that's exactly counter to what I feel like my purpose is on earth. That doesn't mean that I can accurately represent everyone's experience, but what I can do is really engage the dialogue. And what I feel is two things: I started the show when I was 23. I'm 28 now and my hope is that as I've grown, that the show continues to grow, and can include more voices and stories. I'm really excited about some of the diverse characters we have next season and I can't wait for people's feedback to see if they feel the same way. The other thing that it really brought up for me is the problem of representation in television. Here's the issue: People need to see themselves on television, it's so important that every woman sees a version of herself. What's really important is that more women are put in positions of power to make that television and to tell their stories, so I really hope that through the production company I'm working on with my partner on the show, Jenni Konnor, and through whatever little scrap of power I've been given, I can be helpful in bringing those other voices to television who can tell their story better than I might be equipped to. There are so many particularities and complexities to being a feminist and to being a woman of colour that I can empathise with but are not my experience. So one of my biggest goals right now is to be a force in bringing a wider range of women to positions of power in television, and also just to continue this dialogue, which is an important one, and I feel grateful to have been brought into.This is a conversation that needs to happen. And if my show and I was the one that was going to take one for the team to start that conversation, then I'm all in, I'm not complaining, I want to be there and I want to hear. There are definitely things that I've learned about what it means to be a feminist and a woman of colour that I did not know or have an awareness of, growing up as a white, upper-middle-class woman, that I feel so grateful for the way that certain people on the internet and beyond ushered me through that conversation, and have been generous with their time and their education tools. Part of being a feminist is looking out for equality for everyone and making sure that every woman and person is covered, because that is the essential bedrock on which feminism is built, and we're not born into this world knowing everything, we have to be open to experience and change and to understanding what we don't know.
I have a lot of heroes, an incredible range of women who have informed my life and my politics. From Nora Ephron, to whom this book is dedicated, to Janet Mock, a female trans activist who is making it clear that gender is so much more complex than we understand and we're so much farther from acceptance than we know. Sandra Fluke, who totally took on the reproductive rights battle in the US, and didn't stand down when she was being attacked in a way that no human should have to endure. We're living in this golden age of women taking action, and I feel so lucky to get to say that there's such a vast range of women who thrill and excite me.And like everyone, I care a lot about Beyoncé.