Lena Dun­ham

She's a Pez dis­penser of laughs and wis­dom who is shap­ing minds with ev­ery new project. We chat to the writer and ac­tor about Girls, fem­i­nism and why she's never kept a diary.


What in­spired you to make the show? The in­spi­ra­tion for the show was that I wanted to see women who re­mind me of women I know. I wanted to see an hon­est de­pic­tion of fe­male sex­u­al­ity and fe­male am­bi­tion. I’m lucky that HBO let me do that in an un­fil­tered way. And that was really the idea that I came to them with, it was sim­ply that I want to see my friends, who I have not seen on tele­vi­sion be­fore.

What are the ma­jor ob­sta­cles that you’ve faced? I’ve definitely faced a lot of ob­sta­cles both in my per­sonal and pro­fes­sional life. Ob­vi­ously I’m in­cred­i­bly lucky to have this show and to be work­ing at such a young age but as we all know, with at­ten­tion comes neg­a­tive at­ten­tion and I’ve had to fig­ure out how to process that, put it in its place and con­tinue to do my work. And you know, my hope was al­ways that my show and the mes­sage of Girls would be a pos­i­tive one for women. That was my ul­ti­mate goal. So I hope the way that I han­dled crit­i­cism and con­tin­ued work­ing can also, hope­fully, be a pos­i­tive ex­am­ple for women. Be­cause life is one big high school so I try to think of it like it’s the same way you get bul­lied in the tenth grade; you get bul­lied in your adult life and you have to con­tinue on try­ing to be your­self.

How much has fame and suc­cess changed you? For me the great­est thing about the suc­cess of the show is just the fact that hope­fully I’m go­ing to get to con­tinue to make work. And there’s not really any other job that I’ve ever… I was a babysit­ter, I was a le­gal as­sis­tant, I worked in a cloth­ing store and I was ter­ri­ble at all of it. And so this is the only job for me. And, for me, the suc­cess of the show just in­di­cates that I’ll con­tinue to get to do that sort of work. And in terms of the way that fame or celebrity shifts things, yes, it’s the sort of mun­dane de­tails; it’s no longer quite as easy to sit alone in a diner and read the news­pa­per, which hap­pens to be my favourite ac­tiv­ity. You have to ac­count for the fact that there is a dif­fer­ent kind of at­ten­tion and a dif­fer­ent kind of scru­tiny. As I al­ways say to peo­ple: I never liked leav­ing my house that much any­way. So now there is a great ex­cuse not to.

You re­cently be­came in­volved with Planned Par­ent­hood and gave a very frank talk about sex ed­u­ca­tion. What

prompted you to get in­volved? Well I’ve been work­ing with Planned Par­ent­hood for the past three years but it was only in the last year that I sort of came for­ward as a spokesper­son for the or­gan­i­sa­tion. And the rea­son it took that long is be­cause I wanted to make sure that I was truly ed­u­cated about them, both the ad­vo­cacy work they do, the health­care work they do, and really, the ser­vices they of­fer so that I could speak from an ed­u­cated per­spec­tive about what Planned Par­ent­hood has to of­fer Amer­i­can women, Amer­i­can fam­i­lies and so, once I kind of really metabolised all that in­for­ma­tion that’s when I re­alised, ‘Oh, this is an or­gan­i­sa­tion that I feel I have to speak for’. Peo­ple really try to dis­til it down to a con­ver­sa­tion about abor­tion – pro-choice, anti-choice – but it’s about so much more. It’s about af­ford­able health­care, it’s about op­por­tu­ni­ties for young fam­i­lies, it’s about re­mov­ing the clas­sist na­ture of the Amer­i­can health­care sys­tem and that is why Planned Par­ent­hood is so im­por­tant to me. I also love that they’re ac­cept­ing of who I am. I don’t have to be a per­fect spokesper­son. I can make a dirty joke or take my shirt off on TV [laughs] and still be con­sid­ered a vi­able face for that or­gan­i­sa­tion and that’s mean­ing­ful to me and so I hope to con­tinue to work with them. Next year is go­ing to be their 100th-year an­niver­sary and I’m part of the cre­ative team that’s go­ing to be fig­ur­ing out the best way to share the history of the or­gan­i­sa­tion with young women and peo­ple every­where. It’s one of the most mean­ing­ful things I’ve ever got­ten to do.

Is it harder for you to write for your­self than the other char­ac­ters? And do you ever tell your par­ents not to

watch? It is harder to write for my­self be­cause – I’m not say­ing this just to be self-ef­fac­ing, I really mean it – the other peo­ple on the show are very gifted ac­tors who I know can han­dle what­ever comes their way. I love per­form­ing, but I have a very spe­cific range. I recog­nise that I am not Ju­lianne Moore or a mas­ter of trans­for­ma­tion. It’s some­thing very spe­cific that I do so I have to make sure that what I write, I feel that I can gen­uinely de­liver. Whereas with the other ac­tors I know that what­ever I hand them, they’re go­ing to do an amaz­ing job. I’m not wor­ried about them. And there are of­ten times where I get to set and I read the scripts and go, ‘What part of me thought that I could say this in a con­vinc­ing way?!’ and then I have to scrib­ble it and kind of re­work it a lit­tle bit be­cause I know that there are very spe­cific rhythms to Hannah’s di­a­logue and there are very spe­cific ways that I’m com­fort­able work­ing. As far as my par­ents… they’re pretty re­silient. They’ve never missed an episode. I’ve watched some of the most awk­ward episodes right along with my dad, who seems to­tally fine with it. And as my dad once said, per­fectly, he said, “It’s not nat­u­ral for a fa­ther to see their daugh­ter hav­ing sex on TV. That goes against the or­der of

the nat­u­ral world.” That be­ing said, I think he is proud of the show and I know he is proud of what he thinks it’s say­ing about hu­man sex­u­al­ity.

Your gen­er­a­tion seems to ad­mire their par­ents, what’s

some­thing they op­pose? Well it’s funny; I am al­ways wait­ing for that mo­ment when I rebel against my par­ents. I’m 28 and it still hasn’t hap­pened, so it might never hap­pen. At this point I may just skip it al­to­gether. I do think that there are con­cerns that my mother had as a young woman that I didn’t have. Ob­vi­ously my mother was grow­ing up in a time be­fore Roe v. Wade. She was deal­ing with very dif­fer­ent re­stric­tions on women’s right to ed­u­ca­tion. That be­ing said, I am also shocked by how lit­tle has changed. By how many of the same is­sues that my mother was fight­ing for in the seven­ties – wage equal­ity, re­spect in the work­place – are still is­sues that are on the ta­ble that we are bat­tling as women. I think the thing that con­fuses my par­ents is that, they come from sort of the free-lov­ing hip­pie gen­er­a­tion, yet they’re still a lit­tle con­fused by the hook-up cul­ture that hap­pens on the show. They’re like, “Why doesn’t any­body want a girl­friend? Why doesn’t any­body want to get mar­ried? Aren’t th­ese peo­ple in­ter­ested in hav­ing chil­dren?” Al­though it’s funny be­cause I no­tice that my mum and her friends got into com­mit­ted re­la­tion­ships, had kids but did it a lit­tle bit later. Whereas a lot of my friends are now re­belling by be­ing a lit­tle more tra­di­tional. I have lots of 26 and 27-year-old girl­friends get­ting mar­ried and hav­ing kids which is al­most a re­ac­tion to the baby boomer de­sire to wait to have chil­dren. So now it’s like al­most more al­ter­na­tive to get mar­ried at an early age and pop out a few chil­dren than what my mum did, which is wait un­til she was 40 to have kids. It’s in­ter­est­ing just to see the vac­il­la­tions. I’m curious to see how my kids re­act against me.

You’re in a re­la­tion­ship now, how dif­fer­ent is that? Yeah, I have… I mean, I ac­tu­ally don’t think it is that… both my boyfriend and I have par­ents who have been mar­ried for 40 years and we both really value com­mit­ment. I would say that we are not nec­es­sar­ily the norm for peo­ple our age. I al­ways say we’re like two older les­bians. We just want to be in our house with our dog and not go out to par­ties. I wouldn’t say our re­la­tion­ship is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of maybe the av­er­age 20-some­thing re­la­tion­ship but I’m en­joy­ing it.

What is your re­la­tion­ship with so­cial me­dia like? It’s in­ter­est­ing, I love and ap­pre­ci­ate the me­dia and so­cial me­dia and I know that’s the rea­son our show has an au­di­ence, be­cause of the sup­port we’ve got­ten. And I’m also a me­dia maven; I want to meet ev­ery re­porter, I want to talk to ev­ery­body. I’m in­ter­ested in me­dia just as a fan. But I also have to be pro­tec­tive of my life and pro­tec­tive of my fam­ily. There’s a new set of con­cerns, which is not want­ing to let any­one in who will be in­va­sive of the peo­ple I love. And not want­ing to over­sat­u­rate the planet and have ev­ery­body get sick of my face. But in terms of so­cial me­dia, I love so­cial me­dia. I have a great time con­nect­ing with peo­ple. I’ve made friends on Twit­ter and In­sta­gram. I found that it’s where I get most of my news. I love it. That be­ing said, so­cial me­dia is not a safe place, es­pe­cially for women. There are a lot of abuse nar­ra­tives that are di­rected at women. The CEO of Twit­ter made an an­nounce­ment. He said, “We’re not good enough at block­ing trolls, we’re not good enough at pro­tect­ing women who use the in­ter­net from vi­o­lent lan­guage and hate speak and threats.” And so for me now I’m much more about tweeting out into the world and not look­ing at my men­tions or en­gag­ing with ev­ery­body. Not be­cause there aren’t a mil­lion great peo­ple but be­cause ten sour grapes can really spoil the whole bot­tle of wine

when it comes to your ex­pe­ri­ence of the in­ter­net. So I think you have to be­come more cau­tious just purely to pro­tect your­self and pro­tect that place in­side you as a cre­ator, that needs to be light and free in or­der to make your work.

In Amer­ica violence is so ac­cept­able on tele­vi­sion but

nu­dity isn’t. What is with Amer­ica and sex­u­al­ity? I will never understand why ex­ces­sive violence is okay to show to peo­ple, to show to chil­dren, but healthy hu­man sex­u­al­ity is not. That is one of the great mys­ter­ies of our cul­ture to me. It’s a cer­tain kind of pu­ri­tan­i­cal ap­proach that is very specif­i­cally Amer­i­can be­cause, you know, when I go to Europe one of the things that I love... When I go to France, no­body is ask­ing me, ‘Why are you naked on the show?’ It’s like you’ve got full frontal nu­dity in your com­mer­cials and no one gives a shit. The movies that I love, the movies that have in­spired me, are some of the great films of the seven­ties – whether it’s Cas­savetes, Paul Mazursky, or Hal Ashby – where peo­ple’s nu­dity was ca­sual and peo­ple were liv­ing as they really lived. And that’s what I wanted to cap­ture in this show. So to then have it treated like it’s ex­plicit… It’s funny, some­one made a porn par­ody of Girls and ev­ery­one thought I would think it was funny. And I didn’t; I was an­gry. And the rea­son that I was an­gry was be­cause, to me, to re­duce Girls to pornog­ra­phy is to com­pletely miss the point of what it is we are try­ing to do. Much of the nu­dity on our show is not sex­u­alised. It’s just what it means for a hu­man to ex­ist in their life. It’s like when I’m alone in my bed­room I don’t go like this when I change my shirt. I am naked with my­self and I want to see that in all its glory on tele­vi­sion. When I hear that on ABC they are not al­lowed to show thrust­ing dur­ing sex but they can show a be­head­ing, I think there is some­thing se­ri­ously wrong cul­tur­ally. And I don’t know what the best way to fix it is be­sides to con­tinue to pro­mote anti-violence and call at­ten­tion to just what’s so wrong about that par­a­digm. You are definitely a prod­uct of mod­ern times; you be­lieve in in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences, but how do you find hope and pa­tience with peo­ple who have dif­fer­ent ideas to you? Yeah, some­thing that I think we are work­ing to­wards, not just in Amer­ica but every­where, is ac­cep­tance of each other’s be­liefs. Of the dif­fer­ences be­tween hu­mans. I mean, we are all do­ing our best to get through life and that in­volves em­brac­ing a set of be­liefs that are mean­ing­ful to us. Whether that’s Chris­tian­ity or whether that’s hav­ing an open sex life. I think where we run into trou­ble is when peo­ple at­tempt to con­trol each other, at­tempt to con­trol each other’s be­liefs and thoughts and ideals. Some­thing I of­ten say about fem­i­nism is that, to me, a big part of fem­i­nism is giv­ing other women the space to make choices that you wouldn’t make your­self. It doesn’t mean we all be­come robot clones of each other. It means we are all free to act as we want to. And, you know, I’m not go­ing to speak to any spe­cific sort of re­li­gious wars or ter­ror­ism but I will just say that so much good could come from ac­cep­tance. That we are all do­ing the best we can and get­ting through life with a set of be­liefs that is the most help­ful to us.

It seems like a lot of mil­len­ni­als are re­ject­ing fem­i­nism. What

are your thoughts on that? It’s funny, when­ever some­one tells me that they are not a fem­i­nist, my first re­ac­tion is, and I stole this from Ruth Bader Gins­burg, that I don’t think they know what it means. Fem­i­nism is not say­ing, ‘Let’s cre­ate a plan where men are our slaves and we are go­ing to walk around in loin cloths with spears and rule the earth.’ What fem­i­nism means is that you be­lieve that ev­ery­body should have equal op­por­tu­ni­ties. It means that you be­lieve that no hu­man de­serves more than any other hu­man. And so it’s all en­com­pass­ing; if you be­lieve in racial equal­ity, if you be­lieve in re­li­gious equal­ity, then you are also a fem­i­nist, you be­lieve in equal­ity. I think that jour­nal­ists have been try­ing to al­most trick young ac­tresses into say­ing that they are not fem­i­nist, but the fact is they are ask­ing th­ese 14-year-old girls if they are a fem­i­nist and maybe they’ve been told not to say they’re fem­i­nist be­cause it’s not sexy, it’s go­ing to iso­late your au­di­ence or they’ve never been taught what it means in the first place be­cause they’ve been in Los An­ge­les since they were 11 work­ing for Dis­ney. So they don’t know [laughs]. I’m sick of th­ese jour­nal­ists who are try­ing to get girls to say th­ese things and then af­ter­wards they go, “I don’t even know what I just said be­cause no one has ever taken the time to ed­u­cate me.” Fem­i­nism isn’t some­thing you learn about in el­e­men­tary school. It’s some­thing you learn about when you have a really de­voted teacher and for me that teacher was my mother and her friends.

Grow­ing up did you keep a jour­nal? I was never that girl who kept a jour­nal. Par­tially be­cause I never un­der­stood why you would write some­thing that other peo­ple wouldn’t see. So when­ever I would write a jour­nal I would leave it open and then hope my par­ents would find it. I was that kind of jerk who just wanted at­ten­tion. I wrote a lot through­out high school; I wrote po­ems, I wrote sto­ries, I wrote plays – I went to an in­cred­i­ble school in Brook­lyn, called Saint Ann’s, where they had stu­dents writ­ing plays, di­rect­ing plays, cre­at­ing lit­er­ary mag­a­zines. We were given the full range of op­por­tu­nity. I was the ed­i­tor of the al­ter­na­tive school news­pa­per. I got th­ese in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­er­cise my mus­cle as a writer. So by the time I got to col­lege I’d had the time to get to do all th­ese things – take poetry class; I’d been in poetry class for the last ten years when a lot of kids where tak­ing their first poetry class. I’m not say­ing I was bet­ter than any­one else, I’m just say­ing that I had been given this amaz­ing gift of an ed­u­ca­tion se­ri­ously as an artist, as a kid. So I hope when I have chil­dren I can find a sim­i­lar en­vi­ron­ment. I mean my school was so crazy; we had a pup­peteer­ing class where you would build your own pup­pets and then we would have a pa­rade at the end of the year with ev­ery­body. My sis­ter got on the front of the Brook­lyn Daily Ea­gle news­pa­per be­cause she made an Eif­fel Tower she could stand in­side of with two arms [out] and was hold­ing a baguette in one and the other was hold­ing a wedge of cheese. So we were given al­most too much cre­ative free­dom.

Girls sea­son 4 is out on DVD on 9 De­cem­ber.

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