Female friendships take center stage in Lena Dunham’s new HBO show
Hannah, the character Lena Dunham plays in her new HBO series, Girls (which premiered April 15), thinks she may be the voice of her generation. Or, she adds, “at least a voice of a generation.” And while Hannah may be right to amend her assertion, in Dunham’s case, the former statement may be more accurate. The 25-year-old native New Yorker first came to prominence with her 2010 film, Tiny Furniture, which she wrote, directed, and starred in, all before even being old enough to rent a car. A spot-on account of the life of a recent college grad who returns home to N.Y.C. to figure out what to do next, the film won Dunham an Independent Spirit Award and brought her to the attention of HBO.
As with Tiny Furniture, Dunham writes, directs, produces, and stars in Girls. And much like she did with her boldly original film script, Dunham has infused her new show with female friendships, sexuality, and a refreshingly uncensored point of view of the lives of 20-somethings. The story centers on Hannah, a writer desperate to find work after her parents stop footing the bill for her unpaid-intern lifestyle; her best friend, Marnie (Allison Williams, daughter of news anchor Brian), a prim gallery assistant; their freewheeling friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke), a wild child who rolls back into town after adventures abroad; and Jessa’s cousin Shoshanna (Zozia Mamet, daughter of playwright David), a Sex and the City–adoring college student. But while the concept of four friends in N.Y.C. may sound familiar, this show doesn’t put anyone into a stereotypical box. Dunham’s characters emerge as funny, fascinating young women scene by scene, and you’ll be hungry for more by the end of each episode. I called Dunham in L.A. to discuss Girls, BFFs, and the human papillomavirus.
The characters on Girls have very loving yet complicated friendships. What experiences from your life do you bring into these relationships?
The friendship at the center of Girls, between Hannah and Marnie, is really closely based on my own longstanding best friendship. My best friend and I have matching tattoos—that’s always the thing I bring up first, because it seems like you’re really committing to something there. We have so much shared history and there are ways that we communicate that nobody else in the world understands, and there are ways that we are completely and totally different. And so it’s challenging. You’re constantly having to check yourself, especially at this age, and make sure you’re not judging the life choices of someone you love.
Abortion and HPV are two issues you handle with great care on the show. Was it important for you to address these topics in a certain way?
When I was a little kid, my mom was part of the Women’s Action Coalition in downtown New York that was really involved with pro-choice picketing when Roe v. Wade was in question and there were a lot of people committing acts of terror around abortion clinics. She basically explained to me, “Abortion means that women who don’t want to have babies don’t have to have babies.” And I said, “That sounds good.” So I went through high school and college with a more casual attitude about the issue, but I’ve met women who are also pro-choice but who’ve had dark or hard times when they’ve gone through abortions. And so with the show, I was looking at the different ways that girls can approach it. And in terms of HPV, I literally did not know one girl in college who hadn’t thought she had it, heard she had it, or had to have some weird conversation with a guy who didn’t think he had it. And I was like, Someone just needs to explain the basic facts of this on television so that guys will stop thinking that you’re talking about HIV.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it come into play in your work?
Of course I’m a feminist; I wouldn’t even know another thing to be. It’s something that I don’t tackle in a way that’s overt, but it’s part of everything I do. My biggest desire is to write interesting, complex parts for women and increase the visibility of women both behind and in front of the camera, and that is essentially a feminist goal. I also think that feminism is really complicated. We’re not fighting as clear a fight now as, like, when we wanted to vote and own property. It’s a much more nuanced thing now that I’m constantly navigating in my work and my romantic life. As everyone knows, a little gender-role stuff is fun in the way that Halloween is fun, but too much of it is not a pleasure.
In Girls, Hannah has slightly degrading sex with her occasional fuck buddy, while Marnie would rather snuggle with Hannah than share a bed with her long-term boyfriend. What are you exploring with these kinds of relationships?
There is no overt political statement to the sex, although I know that sex is one of the most political acts there is. Generationally, young people are really loath to define their relationships right now. So I was trying to show that a girl who’s not a whore can be in a relationship like the one Hannah’s in, and a girl who is a little more adventurous can be trapped in a loving relationship that doesn’t satisfy her.
I can’t wait to see all the episodes!
Thanks so much. I love making it, and you guys are the exact audience I would hope to please. It’s a show about women, for smart women, made by women. So when I found out BUST was going to write about it, I was like, “God, those are exactly the people I want to understand this.”
By Anna Bean
Photographed by Emily Shur
This interview appears in the April/May issue of BUST Magazine with cover girl Krysten Ritter. Subscribe now.