Don't tell Lena Dunham she's the "voice of her generation."
The Girls creator and star says that line, from the pilot episode of her hit HBO show, follows her around wherever she goes.
"I don't think I ever imagined that it would haunt me the way it is," said Dunham Wednesday at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she appeared at a discussion with her mother, artist Laurie Simmons. "The character was on opium! I think the 'voice of a generation' concept was lost with beatnik literature. Because of globalization and increasing populations, my generation kind of consists of so many different voices that need so many different kinds of attention. But if my writing can show what it's like to be young, I'm happy."
The discussion, titled "A Voice of Two Generations," gave an inside look at the creative processes of Dunham and her mother, and the unique childhood that inspired Dunham's evolution into a creative tour de force. Growing up in New York City, Dunham was constantly going through different phases, ranging from rescuing rabbits to being the first "ballerina-pig farmer." At 14, she asked for stand-up comedy lessons for Christmas.
Her opening line?
"Hi, I'm 14, and I'm an alcoholic. Just kidding, my father is," her mother remembered, laughing.
"It was the pits," said Dunham. "We lost the video of me in purple capri pants and a matching jacket talking about kids at school."
Lena says the inherent sense of self-confidence that allows her to portray young women so realistically on Girls is a direct result of how her parents raised her.
"I feel like I was raised in an environment where I was sort of given a clear message that what we were seeing in the media wasn't an actual reflection of what a woman is or what a woman should be. I try to not get too didactic or political using my body, but it's been interesting seeing the diverse reactions to the show, because it speaks so closely to our country's relation with the woman's body. The foreign press has a different reaction. This is a very American reaction. The cultures with more bathhouses are more comfortable," Lena said, laughing.
When Lena was young, Simmons worked in a photo studio that had previously shot Gwyneth Paltrow for a fashion spread. Laurie noticed several discarded photographs on the ground, each showing Paltrow's un-retouched face, covered in blemishes. Simmons brought the photos home to show her daughters that what's in the magazines isn't reality.
"I said, 'Look, I want you to see what happens. Please understand what happens in the magazines,'" Simmons told the crowd.
Of all the questions Dunham is most frequently asked, she says there's one that constantly pops up: Does she consider herself to be a feminist? It's a concept, Dunham says, that is not up for debate.
"The idea of post-feminism is so broken because it implies that the work of feminism is over," said Dunham. "The idea of being a feminist — so many women have come to this idea of it being anti-male and not able to connect with opposite sex… But what feminism is is about equality and human rights. For me that is just an essential part of my identity. I hope the show contributes to a continuance of feminist dialogue."
The maturity with which Dunham responds to the media's negative criticism of her work has left a lasting impression on her mother. "There's a lot of that. It's not just somebody writing a nasty review in The New York Times on Friday. It's 1 million mothers saying, 'I don't like your hair, your dress,'" she said. "For Lena to see two artists whose lives were a series of peaks and valleys, where a show opens where not one work sells and one person writes a negative review, for Lena to see that is to help her grapple with the criticism that comes her way."
But along with the heavy criticism comes the legions of fans who hope to follow in Dunham's path.
"That's the piece of advice I always give when kids or adults approach me saying, 'I want to write and I want to know what your tip is for breaking through and making people read your work,'" Dunham told the crowd. "To never fit yourself into a mold of what you think Hollywood needs, what NBC needs in its 9:30 slot. The more you go into your own experience, if you express your truth, it's going to resonate with someone."