Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Spring 2014 Vol. 109 No. 2 OAM Home | Oberlin Online

Lena Dunham Is Entitled…

To Your Affection

The creator of Girls never claimed to have all the 
answers, but she has a few for Professor David Walker ’72.

Photographs by Caroll Taveras

Lena Dunham ’08, the creator of HBO’s Girls, catapulted into public consciousness soon after the show—a frank look at the trials and tribulations of (a very particular segment of) her generation—began airing in 2012. The show follows main character Hannah Horvath, played by Dunham, and her three female friends as they fumble awkwardly toward adulthood, looking for jobs and relationships in a New York City that doesn’t yield them easily. “You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again,” a gynecologist tells Hannah, who is splayed in stirrups for an STD exam.

“Well,” Hannah replies, “they’re not paying me at all.”

Dunham began making films while at Oberlin, including a movie called Creative Nonfiction that she began writing as a winter-term project. That film screened at the buzzmaking South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas, a year after she graduated from Oberlin. In 2010, Tiny Furniture won the top narrative feature film award there. It caught the attention of Hollywood producer Judd Apatow, who contacted Dunham to talk about working together. That led to the television series Girls, for which Dunham has received rave reviews, a number of big awards, and a lot of criticism, mostly centered around the privileged positions of its main characters. (The celebrity pedigree of the four women actors doesn’t help.)

Dunham returned to campus in February for a conversation before a packed Finney Chapel with David Walker ’72, Oberlin professor of English and creative writing and Dunham’s former teacher, whom she cast as her character’s disapproving English professor in Creative Nonfiction. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

David Walker: Welcome back. Is it weird?

Lena Dunham: You guys will experience this—maybe you already do: There are memories on every corner, and because of how small this town is, you make every part of it your own. So it’s really a beautiful thing to come back and feel all of those emotions again.

It’s so funny that for me, three years of my life—I transferred here as a sophomore—could be so completely transformative, and informative, of the rest of my life. So far.

DW: Most people know your work from Girls. But I would like to start by asking you a few questions about the journey from here to there. When you were at Oberlin, you started out making subversive guerrilla-style videos that you posted on YouTube.

LD: That’s such a nice way of putting it.

DW: One of them, probably the best known, is called The Fountain, in which you stripped down to a bikini and bathed and brushed your teeth in the fountain in front of the art museum…

LD: I did.

DW: …until a security officer came along and told you to stop.

LD: He did.

DW: In another one, called Hooker on Campus, you dressed up in fishnet tights and wandered around campus asking other students if they’d like to have a good time.

LD: Which, by the way, is how I met the boyfriend I had for my whole senior year. It worked.

DW: Can you talk about what you were trying to accomplish with those videos?

LD: I know at that point I was interested in issues of gender and sexuality and the media’s conceptions and misconceptions about female bodies, but I wouldn’t have been able to articulate any of that at the time. It was just like, “It would be really funny if I got into the fountain outside of the art museum.” But looking back, it so clearly has a connection to everything that has come after it.

And something that was amazing about Oberlin was the way that my teachers, my friends, the community embraced the fact that that can be an art project. And exploration. Nobody thought it was just me just ’effing around between classes.

[Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and English] Geoff Pingree saw Hooker on Campus and actually screened it between two serious documentaries made by students trying to attempt to discuss real issues. And you [Walker] were willing to let me film in your class. And the [audio visual department’s] equipment cage was willing to give me a camera. That kind of institutional support that could be considered trivial and trite in another setting was totally incredible. At the time, of course, I was unable to appreciate it. I just thought everyone was given support for walking around campus like a hooker. But now I recognize how unusual that is.

DW: In building your early films [Tiny Furniture and Creative Nonfiction] so directly on the structure of your life, did you think of them as essentially autobiographical?

LD: Creative Nonfiction contained a screenplay within a screenplay. When I began the screenplay within a screenplay—a girl taken captive by her high school teacher for four years—it was essentially like a really bad Showtime thriller. It didn’t feel personal to me. It didn’t feel exciting. I wasn’t happy to wake up and write.

I had been watching a lot of what is now considered [airquotes] mumblecore film—Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski—filmmakers who are working in a somewhat low-fi way telling personal stories. I was home in New York, and my brain cracked open, and I realized, “Oh, I can nestle this story within another story that is actually reflective of the experience I was having.” In some way it was the beginning of me being able to express myself in any way at all. In some ways it was the birth of me making my work.

The fact is there was logistical benefit to using the Oberlin environment, like the great production value of shooting in the snow in Tappan Square. But it also felt incredibly cathartic to be working these experiences through in real time. I took that aesthetic with me into the next film, and in some ways I took it with me to Girls.

DW: Was there a clear difference between you and the characters [in those films]?

LD: I think I’ve always played characters that are close enough to myself that I didn’t feel stretched in uncomfortable ways. But also they were sort of the worst parts of me, writ large and turned into almost caricatures, though hopefully more human. So that was the goal: to take all the anxiety I have about being self-involved, about being unimportant, about being fat, or sad, or a little pissed off, and to make a character that embodies those things and work through it that way.

For example, I had a lot of self-consciousness at Oberlin about writing. So, in some ways, Creative Nonfiction was my way of exploring that. Getting you [Walker] on camera to say that my screenplay was bad, was my way of exploring that.

DW: Both of those films were selected to be shown at SXSW, which is a major deal, especially since the first one was shown the year after you graduated and the second one, Tiny Furniture, won the prize for best narrative feature.

In my version of the story, the next thing that happens is that Judd Apatow sees this film, calls you up, and asks if you’d like to make a pilot for HBO. It can’t really have been that easy?

LD: Some of the events were reversed slightly, but that was the basic gist of it, and it was shocking.

[After seeing the film, Apatow] wrote me an email saying he’d connected to it—he casts his own children in his films, and he’s done a lot of super autobiographical filmmaking. I wrote him back and said, “If this is Judd Apatow, thank you, and if this is my friend Isabel, go fuck yourself, this isn’t a funny joke.” That’s how it began.

The TV development process can be really soul-sucking. And HBO is better than almost anywhere to do the job. But people spend years working on projects that never come to fruition. They spill a lot of blood in order to make things that often run for only two episodes. It’s like having your heart broken over and over again.

I recognize how lucky I’ve been—I wrote a pilot, it got made, it got taken to series, and we continue to get to do it. Of course, there are challenges that happen along the way, but it’s been incredibly gratifying. I’ve been taken care of by my colleagues.

DW: How do you make a television show if you’ve never done it?

LD: I knew nothing—I watched a lot of TV. There’s something sort of great—I’m sure you guys feel this all the time—about being a little ignorant about not even knowing how little you know. Only four years later, I feel like I should have been really scared. But I wasn’t.

The first day I was on set with Girls—I’d only ever shot in my house or at Oberlin with a friend with a mic stuck to a broomstick—I was terrified; suddenly there were 50 old Italian guys who were going to watch me take a shower.

In New York, the tradition on soundstages is that they ring three alarm bells to let everyone know to keep it quiet, that we’re ready to roll. But I thought it was the fire alarm. I remember thinking, “thank God we get to go home.” Now I’m used to the three alarm bells.

DW: Do you remember how you first pitched the series?

LD: I went in to talk to HBO, and they asked me, “What kind of shows do you wish were on TV?”

And I said, “You know, I don’t feel like I’ve seen a show about people who are my age. I have all these friends who are incredibly self-aware, yet incredibly stunted. They’ve been in therapy since they were 10, they only communicate via text message, they take too much medication.” I was kind of describing a genre of person that we probably all recognize and thinking, “I haven’t seen those girls.” And they said, “well that’s interesting, what else can you tell us about that?”

So I went home and sat on my computer listening to Tegan and Sara, feeling really emo. I went to town writing almost an abstract prose poem about what I thought defined the women who were close to me…And I sent that to HBO, which was an insane thing to do.

My agent, a gruff, older man, called and 
said, “I don’t know what it is, but they want to 
do this girl pilot.” Judd got involved around then and had faith in the idea. And the characters just sort of came to me. They were like archetypal variations of this person I described. And that’s how the show came to be. There’s been a lot of adjusting and learning but the seed of it has stayed pretty true. Hannah came to me fully formed as the person that she was and has stayed.

DW: Was it always the case that you were going to play her?

LD: Funny you ask—I just assumed, because they’d seen Tiny Furniture, that they wanted me to do it myself. Which is insane in hindsight. They probably wanted me to find an actress who could act and cast her.

DW: I’m interested in the fact you made Hannah not a native New Yorker like yourself but a Midwesterner.

LD: I wanted to engage a little bit in that almost age-old fairytale of the girl coming to New York to make her fortune. And when I went back, even though I was born there, the New York I went back to after college felt really different. It didn’t feel like my own. It felt like I had to conquer it in a different way. I always get asked by cab drivers “Where you from?” I say, “I’m from Brooklyn,” and they’re, like, “No way.” For some reason people always think I’m from, like, Iowa, and I’m totally fine with that. So I just thought I’d take the Midwestern disposition that cab drivers seem to think I have and apply it to this character. I like the fact that Hannah’s entitled in a lot of different ways, but that New York stills scares her a little bit. I wanted that to be a part of the spirit of the show.

DW: You’re making a series about women who are struggling to define themselves and to feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and meanwhile, you, Lena, are starting to be noticed, and celebrated, and written about. Suddenly the gap between your own experiences and the character’s experience starts to widen. You’re no longer writing from a place that’s very close to Hannah’s. Does that change the process?

LD: I think I always imagined that the minute you have some sort of success in your field that all your problems would evaporate and you’d feel joyful and integrated at all times.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I’m still full of tortured emotions.

And Hollywood’s a very hard world to navigate. It’s a very hard world to navigate as a young woman. I’m constantly making mistakes and putting my foot in my mouth and having to deal with that. So it’s very easy to transfer my emotional reality onto Hannah. Obviously her anxiety and humiliation is not going to take place at an awards show. Life doesn’t change that much. The places change, but the feelings stay the same.

Also, the fact that I have a lot of friends my age and a lot of people who are still experiencing it—as a writer, I hope to be a little more observant than my character is on Girls. And I also talk to other writers on my staff, try and experience the reality of my friends. And that all becomes part of the story.

And it’s also about people getting older. It’s a show about people who are rapidly, rapidly changing. My hope is that by the end of the series we will have seen them grow into adulthood. That’s sort of the macro goal of the show.

DW: Is Girls a comedy series, and if so, why does it often make me feel so sad?

LD: I’m so sorry! You’re the last person I want to make sad. I care about you.

“I knew nothing. 
I watched a lot of TV.”

DW: Answer the question.

LD: I think about it as a comedy because there’s always something that makes me laugh and because it’s not a straightforward drama. But, besides the fact it’s a half-hour long, which is traditionally the comedic length, I don’t feel that tied to genre.

Something I love about working with HBO and doing this show is that some weeks we’re a comedy, and some weeks we’re not. Some weeks we’re an episodic serialized show, and some weeks it’s more like a little movie. There’s that freedom to change approach all the time that makes working in television, specifically at this network, such a joyful experience.

I also never really thought that much about comedy versus drama. I’ve written lots of things in my life that I thought were sad, and then people read them and laughed. I’m like “Oh, I guess that’s comedy.” I’m always sort of learning about where those boundaries are.

DW: In the very first episode, Hannah has a line that’s been much quoted. She’s been supported by her parents, they take her out to dinner to tell her that they’re going to cut off her financial support, and Hannah is desperately trying to justify her aspirations as a writer to them so they will continue to support that. Maybe I should also say she’s high on opium at the time. She says to them, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.” Which I think is one of the funniest lines ever. That line has somehow been morphed in various articles to “Lena Dunham: The voice of her generation.”

LD: Or “Lena Dunham thinks she’s the voice of her generation.” Which is the worst. I mean, the character said it when she was on drugs. It couldn’t be more of a joke. I’ve kind of settled into the fact that that’s going to be on my tombstone. But it was funny because I was trying to think of the most absurd, self-righteous thing you could ever say. Basically someone who’s taken way too many Beat Lit [classes] and is just excited to ‘lay it down’ for their parents. So it was funny to me when people thought I was, like, “Guys, I’m here!” Which is not what it was. But, I guess—anything that makes for a good headline.

DW: People are still quoting that.

LD: It doesn’t stop.

You guys know—the idea of a voice of a generation in a globalized world where our generation consists of people of so many facets, so many races, the rainbow of genders, to think that any one person can speak for the totality! I hope to be speaking for certain generational issues, but I’ve never presumed to think that one piece of art could speak to the experience of everyone born in 1986.

“Life doesn’t change that much. The places change, but the feelings stay the same.”

DW: Girls seems to go much farther [than shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm] toward making its characters so neurotic that it’s sometimes painful to watch. Is that just me?

LD: No! I think a lot of people feel that way. And a lot of people take issue with it: Do the creators even like these characters? Why am I being forced to watch them? I’ve always wanted to show characters who are as complex as my friends are. I love my friends. I don’t like them all the time. So for me, seeing a group of girls who get along perfectly and just have to figure out where their next date is occurring didn’t feel exciting, it didn’t feel sustainable. I also like the idea that characters take two steps forward in maturing and then three steps back. It’s such a complex, exhausting process to become an adult.

It’s really interesting; I get so many questions about likeability, and I never want to sound the misogyny alarm falsely, but people who have been on TV who are beloved—Tony Soprano, Walter White, Dexter—these people are murderers, you guys! All Hannah did was steal a twenty from her parents and not be the best girlfriend. People ask, “Do you like her character?” It doesn’t really matter if I like her, because I know her. And I think in some way we all know her. That doesn’t make it escapist. A lot of people want to project a darkness: Do these characters signal the end of the world? No, this is the way people have behaved for a long time. And I always want to do it consciously—I don’t want to just be, like, “So this is what people are actually like, so get used to it.” I want to really look at it, but I also want to point out that women behaving badly is historically really problematic for audiences.

DW: I want to go to the dark side—as I am wont to do. The series has been wildly successful. It’s had lots of favorable critical attention, it’s won major awards. At the same time, as you well know, it’s also been a lightning rod for criticism of various sorts. And I’d like to ask about a number of the challenges that it’s received in terms of its politics.

LD: [to audience] Did the protestors come? Someone told me that people were going to protest. I was, like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I respect it. I understand that it’s part of what I love about this institution. But if they’re there I’d like to invite them in so we can hash it out.

[No protestors emerge.]

“I’m used to playing this character. 
I know what she does. 
It’s not easy—every day being seen like that is not always fun.”

DW: The privilege question: why are all the characters relatively privileged, economically and socially?

LD: Well, it’s a great question. I conceived something in my home in the night where each character was a portion of who I am. Shoshanna was the anxious, pop culture-obsessed, Jew-camp nerd freak; Marnie was the person who wanted to have desperate control over everything around her; Jessa was the person who wanted to say “fuck it” to responsibility and live like Stevie Nicks; and Hannah was maybe the clearest incarnation of me, but everyone was involved. I’ve said it before: I’m half Jewish and half Wasp, and there were two Jews and two Wasps. I wasn’t thinking about taking on the totality of the incredibly diverse people that populate my generation.

Maybe I should have been thinking about it more. I went to school here. I’m taught to turn things on their head and analyze them and try to understand what is right. And so I will always analyze that and look at it, but I also created this show as a 23-year-old woman as an expression of the life that I had lived so far. And as for the criticism that was leveled at the show around the issue of diversity, I’ll start by saying it’s something that we heard, and it’s something that we address, and new characters have been introduced in seasons three and two who speak to that request on the part of the audience. Because there was no part of me, having the education that I had, especially here, that was going to brush off people who had a sense that it wasn’t an inclusive representation of New York City, or who felt isolated by what they were seeing on television. That was the last thing I wanted.

And the conversation about race on television needs to happen. It’s essential. Of course, the defensive part of me was, like, “But what about Friends? What about Sex and the City? But I recognize that hopefully my show harkens some kind of change. And so if we have to take one for the team to start that conversation and be criticized to start that conversation, good—let’s do this. I also want to talk about why there aren’t showrunners of color working at most major networks. And why Shonda Rhimes has to hold up that flag for every single person in the United States. I want to talk about all of that. Something that was hard, though: the media is no place to have that conversation. Everything is taken and pulverized and reimagined as 140 characters on Twitter.

The way I’m getting to talk to you now, the way I’m getting to have this conversation now and articulate every angle which I came at it from, that’s not possible in a media conversation. That conversation wasn’t there for me to have. All I got was someone from Us Weekly saying, “Do you know people are pissed at you?”

It was painful. It was painful to be faced with those questions and to sort of be shut up by the very system. And maybe I should have gone on HuffPo and written an essay, but the fact is I’d rather just work it out in my work and keep moving and keep going. And so maybe there were people who weren’t happy with the way I engaged it, and that’s something that I understand too.

"It was painful to be faced with those questions and to sort of be shut up by the very system.”

DW: It has to be painful to be called insensitive, to be called racist in public.

LD: Well it’s painful when your self-perception is that of Liberal Girl Number One. It was definitely a reality check. I’m also grateful for what I learned. Something I loved about being here—and I could cry talking about this, is that every single day I was given a new perspective, new information. It was easy for me to make fun of: What’s everybody walking out of class about this time? But I learned so much, and I wanted that conversation to continue when I left Oberlin. I want to keep learning for my entire life. So sometimes it’s painful to learn on that grand scale of 10 bloggers you respect telling you that they’re really, really upset with the way that your show deals with super-important issues, but it also keeps the ball rolling. And for that I’m really grateful.

DW: When you talked about Tiny Furniture you said that acting was the part of your work that you were least confident about. I’m wondering if that’s changed at all now that you have been nominated for two Emmys as an actor and won a Golden Globe as an actor.

LD: When the Golden Globe [nominations] happened, my dad was, like, “I’m sorry, but you’re not going to win anything. It’s great that you’re there, it’s just not going to happen.” And then I called him and was, like, “Papa, I won!” And he was, like, “Which one?” “For acting!” He was, like, “You won an award for acting?” It totally caused him to lose faith in the entire institution. I’m used to playing this character. I know what she does. It’s not easy—every day being seen like that is not always fun. And sometimes you just want to hide in your sweatpants and not have to switch into that mode.

DW: Not take off your sweatpants.

LD: Not take off your sweatpants—exactly. Oh, god. Good one, Walker.

DW: Imagine that there’s a 20-year-old aspiring Lena Dunham out there in the audience.

LD: [Looking out at audience] She’s so cute!

DW: Is there any advice you’d like to give her?

LD: I don’t know how to say this except to let you know that there’s a lot of really powerful energy here. I know sometimes it’s really frustrating to live in a tiny town with 1,200 other people whose faces you’re sick of. But there’s something magical happening. Slow down and appreciate it and understand that right now you’re getting this amazing chance to be yourself and examine what’s important to you. Life moves really fast. I know I’m only 28—it’s not like I’m speaking to you from my deathbed.

And so I think I would just say, slow down, enjoy it, your life is going to find you, don’t worry so much—you don’t need to tread water so hard to try and prove to yourself that you’re going to be okay, because you are, and you are learning things, and you are becoming who you are, but it doesn’t feel like it all the time. And to really go where the bliss is. And so I wish that for all of you.


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