Talking To Lena Dunham About Being A "Girl"

by Kase Wickman

It may feel like “Girls” has been on the air for months already, but the series actually doesn’t premiere on HBO until April 15th. Its creator, writer and star is Lena Dunham, about whom, if you’re reading this, you probably already have an opinion — although it’s difficult to come up with an opinion or observation about Dunham that she has not already anticipated, heard or joked about herself. Her 2010 feature, Tiny Furniture, released when she was 23, was just added to the Criterion Collection. Now there’s “Girls,” a comedy about four 20-something women puzzling out adulthood in the city, executive produced by Judd Apatow. Dunham and I met recently in New York to discuss the show, although we ended up talking about a lot of other things as well, from Hoda and Kathie Lee, to entitlement and jealousy and hate-reading, to which is more awkward to do on screen: have sex or be weighed?

Kase Wickman: So just to get my token Britney Spears reference out of the way: are you a girl, not yet a woman? Are you a girl, a woman or a lady?

Lena Dunham: I think I’m a girl, not yet a woman. I think I’m somewhere in the in-between. Yeah, I’m not a girl, not yet a woman. That’s my favorite song. Was that from her Crossroads phase?

I think that was immediately prior. Like in her wearing-all-white, arm-wave-y phase.

Totally. That’s exactly what it was. But yeah, I love that. I think about that video way more than I should. It’s pretty important.

How did you choose the title of the show?

It was the “Untitled Lena Dunham Project” for a while, to the point where it was like, will this show ever have a title? It was actually Judd Apatow who came up with what we all thought was a temp title, which we all got attached to, which was “Girls.” So many of the titles we were coming up with had the word “Girls” in them, and so he said, “hey we’re using the word ‘girls’ a lot, so why don’t we just go with the meta version of this and just say ‘Girls’?” And it ended up feeling really right. That was before there was kind of a spate of shows with the word “Girls” in them, and we just decided to stick with it.

Speaking of which, people talk about “Girls” as if it’s joining a sorority of women-centric shows. What do you think of that?

You know, I think all of them are flattering, because I think all of the shows we’re being compared to, from “Sex and the City” to “New Girl,” are all shows that mean a lot to me and that I love. I think our show is really different in tone and once people watch they’ll feel what the separation is, but those are shows that I would never kick out of bed for eating crackers.

When people say it’s the new “Sex and the City,” how do you respond? I mean, you even have a poster pretty prominently displayed in one of the show’s sets.

I’d say it’s a show about girls who grew up watching “Sex and the City,” and it’s a show that couldn’t exist without “SATC.” But “SATC” is an unfillable slot because it did something for women that is amazing, which is give them something to aspire to and make them feel more known, but I also think our show is just tonally really different and covering a different phase of life.

So you won’t be riding any camels anytime soon?

No, but I love that! I think about Lawrence of My Labia once or twice a day.

Within the first few episodes, you get weighed on screen and have sex on screen. Were either — both — awkward?

Probably I’m more awkward about getting weighed on-screen, although neither of them stressed me out too much, maybe because it’s scenes that I wrote with people I love. It’s funny, I will tell you that I did not use my real weight on-screen. I’m not telling you which direction, if I went down or up, but I thought, I’m going to fictionalize this slightly. I needed a step away. To tell you the truth I was one pound heavier. I wrote it, and then I gained a nice production cupcake pound, and I was like, I’m not gonna make a big deal about this. It’s true, no one’s mentioned getting weighed on-screen. You don’t ever really hear someone say how much they actually weigh, ever. There’s some website that guesstimates how much celebrities weigh, and it fascinated me for, like, a month. I don’t want to [be at] anyone else’s weight, I was just interested in the idea of looking at people and deciding how much they weigh, which I’m completely incapable of.

I completely get it, and I have those moments too, where I think, I’m sick of the sound of my own voice, and why does anybody care what I weigh, and what foods I’m overeating.

It’s an easy thing to get obsessive about. Have you ever been to My Body Gallery? You can enter things like “this height and this size pants,” and then it shows you pictures of people with those stats.

Can you really? You don’t even know, I’m never leaving My Body Gallery again. Never again. I always look at pictures, just because you can’t tell like, am I skinnier or fatter than that lady?

But yeah, for some reason, those sex scenes, I think it’s because I had such a high level of control over the scene, and it was with people I liked. Like Adam Driver, who I have most of my sex scenes with is one of my favorite humans in the world and makes me feel so comfortable and is such a talented person that I learn from all the time, so you kind of couldn’t ask for a better person to get naked with at work for many days.

When getting naked is your job — oh, Hoda and Kathie Lee weighed themselves on screen too.

Did they really? I love Hoda and Kathie Lee. Hoda is an American folk hero. She and Kathie Lee, how much did they weigh?

Hoda is 146, I think.

Hoda’s 146?

And Kathie Lee was something like 112, and she said that she was 102 at her wedding.

Oh no. Then she gained 10 pounds after that thing with the stewardess. I love them. I love their friendship. They talked about “Girls” on the show, and it was the highlight. They said, “Allison Williams plays a raunchy person.” And just the use of the words “raunchy person,” I just go around like, you know, “I’m a raunchy person.”

There’s a lot of you out there for people to access — the sex scenes, your weight, your personal Twitter. A lot of your work is based on the experience of being you. What do you say to people who accuse you of oversharing?

I completely get it, and I have those moments too, where I think, I’m sick of the sound of my own voice, and why does anybody care what I weigh, and what foods I’m overeating. Every now and then I’ll tweet something and I’ll just think, “what?!” And then someone favorites it and I guess I feel a little less alone. I understand completely the critique of oversharing. It can feel like a loss of manners in our society, but it’s always been my own instinct to make my own experiences — it’s comforting to me. It’s almost a selfish thing, it’s comforting to me to have other people connect to things I’ve gone through, and I’m also interested in it as a tool to fuel narrative work. It may be that there’s a phase where I decide that the work that I want to make is much less personal, but at this point, I’m interested in that blurry line between life and art.

Do you think it’s possibly a generational thing as well?

Definitely. I think that there are so many more tools for putting yourself out there. The concept that your diary is now a LiveJournal. Like, my dad finds Twitter just infinitely unrelatable. He’s like, “Why would I want to tell anybody what I had for a snack, it’s private?!” And I’m like, “Why would you even have a snack if you didn’t tell anybody? Why bother eating?”

I think I fall between those two views. I mean, there are parts of my life that I want to keep private, but I don’t talk about them, because they’re private.

You said that “Girls” was untitled for a long time. I read that a friend had joked that it was the “Entitled Lena Dunham Project.”

He was like, “change one letter!” When I first told him, he thought that I had said “entitled,” and he made me a tiny sign for my door, it was the funniest thing ever, that said the “Entitled Lena Dunham Project.”

Do you think that people think that about you? That you’re entitled?

I’ve definitely heard that critique of the movie, and a little bit of the show, less though since it’s clear that the character is having a financial struggle.

The thing about Tiny Furniture is it was a character who moved home to what looked to be a luxury New York apartment. Although it’s funny, when a friend came over, she said, “It looks a lot nicer in the movie.” My DP worked some magic to make the whole thing look whiter, crisper and larger.

But that said, I think that people don’t always love seeing a certain kind of privilege shown on screen, even if the creator is self-aware about it, which I tried to be. I tried to make it clear that this character was not necessarily appreciative of all she’d been given, and that all she’d been given wasn’t necessarily a gift, because it prevented her from having a work ethic and it prevented her from other things.

I hope that there’s room in our society for an exploration of class in that way that goes beyond. I like a movie like Raising Victor Vargas, that’s one version of New York, but I think there’s also room for a movie about the kids who grew up taking too many different kinds of piano and dance lessons in Tribeca. I hope that the artistic landscape can accommodate all of that and that I’ve approached it in a way that’s self-aware enough that people know where I’m coming from. But of course there will always be detractors and I was prepared for that. Sometimes I’m my own detractor.

Do you think jealousy plays into that, people scoffing at your work?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t think that anybody looks at me and says, “she looks amazing and I want to be that lady,” but I think that there’s a thing that people trying to present their own experience, there’s a little bit of “who told you you were allowed to do this and why do you think we’re interested?” phenomenon, which I completely understand, although I think that people challenge women more who want to tell their own story.

Nobody challenges why they want to watch Larry David at lunch. You know why you want to watch Larry David at lunch: Cause he’s fucking hilarious and it’s amazing to watch him at lunch. You don’t care that he’s mean to his friends and lives in a giant house, it’s just interesting, and I think that women often have to make more excuses for why they want to portray themselves. I used to always apologize, to say, I’m so sorry for bringing misogyny up, but I’m going to stop apologizing for bringing it up, because we all know it’s real.

I used to always apologize, to say, I’m so sorry for bringing misogyny up, but I’m going to stop apologizing for bringing it up, because we all know it’s real.

Is there anyone that you’re jealous of?

Jealousy and regret are the two things that I try to avoid most in my life, because I think they’re two of the most corrosive human emotions. I’ll totally go with lust, rage, hatred and feelings of demoralization, but jealousy? No. That being said, there are so many things I want to do in my career, there’s no one whose career is like, that is what I want.

People I’m jealous of are whoever’s married to David Walton, the star of “Bent.” He’s fucking adorable, I’m jealous of his wife. I’m jealous of people who have a natural propensity for exercise, because I have a hard time making myself do that. And I’m jealous of whoever lives in certain little mews-like courtyards in the West Village. There are a few things about which I think, “I want that shit,” but I’m feeling really lucky and good to be me right now. Check back with me in five years, I may have changed my mind.

On “Girls,” you guys watch a show called “Baggage,” which is apparently a real thing.

Oh yes, it’s on the Game Show Network, hosted by Jerry Springer.

Wow. So people reveal small, medium and large pieces of “baggage” and then the other person decides whether that’s a dealbreaker, whether they’re still dating material.

It’s an incredible show. Isabelle Halley, one of my best friends, who I’ve worked with before, watched it, and, literally, I learned about it from her recounting the full episode to me. And I was basically taking notes, like, “your recap of ‘Baggage’ is so much better than ‘Baggage’ itself could actually be. “Baggage” was still pretty amazing, but I was like, “your recap is the jam.”

So are you obsessed with it now? Do you DVR it?

I love it. I just got my first DVR. It’s crazy, and I’m still learning to use it.

So you just learned how to live.

Basically. I’m so into it. I watch “Baggage” and I got so lucky, because when we decided to use it on TV, they sent us a bunch of DVDs of the show and I was just laying in bed watching it and I was in heaven. It’s the “Singled Out” of today. I used to come home from school and just sit and eat cheesy popcorn and watch “Singled Out,” and I don’t know how I ever thought things could get better than that.

How did our parents think that was an OK show to watch?

Oh my god, I know. My parents were always like, “why are they kissing, they just met?!”

Obviously you have to have thought about what your baggage would be.

I have. I’ve thought about it, and it shifts day to day. I’d say my small baggage is that I don’t know how to drive and I failed my driver’s test. My medium baggage is that I have a horrible, bad sense of direction. Anyone who’s dating me will figure out that I almost never know where I am and it’s embarrassing and frustrating. It also involves me being late a lot and it’s fun for no one. I think I’m still figuring out my large baggage. It could be that I like hang out with my parents constantly, which for some people would be a plus, but for some they’re like, “great, I have to be best friends with two 63-year-olds now, that’s gonna be my life. And we’re only gonna vacation with people over 60.” That might be the big one.

On the show, your character says that she hate-read a self-help relationship book, and then recites lessons from it. Have you ever hate-read or hate-watched anything?

Yes, but sometimes I’ll hate-read something and it will turn into love-reading. Like I hate-read He’s Just Not That Into You and then I loved it. So that was one. I’m worried I’m gonna hate-read 50 Shades of Grey. Did you do it yet? I’m worried it’s gonna happen any day.

In terms of hate-watching, I’ve done a fair amount of, I’d say everybody’s relationship to the “Real Housewives” is a hate-watch, because to love it is to admit that there’s a void inside your soul. But that said, it’s incredibly enjoyable. I feel like in 4th grade, I hate-read Jewel’s book of poetry because I was like [scoffing], “Jewel!” But then I thought, oh of course, she’s so brave for writing a book of poetry. My thing is that I respect so much anybody, even 50 Shades of Grey, I respect so much that anybody sat in their house and wrote three books, it’s hard for me to fully hate on it. Because I’m like “ugh!” but then, “you did it, girl! You did it!”

You are infamously pantsless for much of Tiny Furniture, and the trend continues on “Girls.” Are you anti-pants?

Yes. I am anti-pants. As you can see, I’m wearing a dress. I’m anti-pants, I’m pro-tights. It’s been a big change from when I was little, because I used to hate tights. And then one day I woke up and I was like, no, I’m wrong, these are the most comfortable garment known to man.

You feel so secure.

Exactly. I feel strapped in, yet free. But yeah, I’m pretty anti-pants. I’ll wear jeans occasionally, but I never feel cozy in jeans like I do in a dress.

And do you take advantage of that in your work? Like, “I don’t have to wear pants, I’m the boss”?

Every time. I feel like now I’m going to have to give up my trick of “oh, let’s make this scene funnier by way of pants removal.” It’s going to wear thin. I’m going to need to start using it more judiciously.

So on the show “The O.C.,” one of the main characters had the Seth Cohen Starter Pack, which was a set of books, a movie and music that he would give to people as kind of a friendship primer. What would be in the Lena Dunham Starter Pack?

I love Seth Cohen. That’s so good. That’s such a good question. This is just off the top of my head, here’s what I would put in my start pack currently, if I was trying to make everybody feel the inside of my brain: I’d probably put Ariel, the Sylvia Plath book of poems, I’d put the new Sheila Heti novel, How Should a Person Be, I’d put Wallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron. Those would be my three books. I’d put Gilda Live, the documentary of Gilda directed by Mike Nichols, I’d put An Unmarried Woman, and I’d put in Clueless and then maybe like one Sufjan Stevens for feeling feelings too: Seven Swans. Then I’m just gonna throw Betty Davis — Miles Davis’s wife Betty Davis, not the disco crazy nutbag singer — I’d put her cd in there. Right now, if I was like, I want you to feel my feelings, I’d hand you those things.

Related: Two Ways Of Looking At ‘Tiny Furniture’

Kase Wickman is a girl. She lives and brunches in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter.