The past six months have seen creator, writer and star of Girls Lena Dunham become the feminist icon du jour. Dawn O’Porter tells us why every woman should know her name
I am sitting in a bar in Hollywood writing this. By chance, just a little further down Sunset Boulevard I see the subject of this article’s face blown up to the size of a 40-storey building.
It’s Lena Dunham, currently the hottest name in Hollywood. She is quite literally everywhere I look. I’m not going to assume you have heard of Lena and her hit TV show, Girls, but you should have. It follows the lives of four 20-something women in Brooklyn, New York. Life and love is a struggle and they battle with the trials and tribulations of being financially independent and sexually adventurous. The characters, Hannah (played by Lena), Marnie, Shoshonna and Jessa are all in their early 20s – an age when sex is experimental and possibly less cautious than at other times of life. It’s a fascinating time in a woman’s sexual adventure. Lena’s choice to explore it is exciting, not to mention very, very funny.
In series one, Hannah’s relationship with her sort-of boyfriend Adam is excruciating to watch. His sexual tics are uncomfortable, even revolting at times, but she is relentlessly willing to participate. It’s because she wants to experience life, she wants to know where new things take her. She is, excuse the pun, open to anything. When he asks her to wait on the couch face down with her bum in the air you want to scream at her to get up and leave, but at the same time you want to see what happens. Just like she does.
On a creative level it’s clear to see why the industry is paving the way for Lena. She has set new boundaries for writers, especially those who are female. Her message is not to be afraid, but to pour your soul into your work and not hold back. As a writer myself it’s the most encouraging thing to see. As someone who lived by the word of writer Nora Ephron, when I read that Lena was mentored by her for the last year of Nora’s life all the pieces fell together – she learned from the best.
Ephron famously said, [in her address to Wellesley College’s graduating class of 1996] ‘I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.’ And that is just what Lena is doing. She took notes and listened, and now she is doing what so many people don’t have the guts to do… making a little trouble on behalf of women. I for one, am grateful.
The daughter of pop artist Carroll Dunham and photographer/designer Laurie Simmons, Lena has, in a very short space of time, become one of the most iconic female voices in TV. Her debut film, Tiny Furniture, which she wrote and filmed on returning from college in 2009, aged 23, won the Best Narrative Feature at the South by Southwest film festival before Girls was picked up by HBO in 2010.
She has become a vibrant cultural figurehead in the creative industries, but also in feminism. She has smashed the mould for how women are represented on TV. I mean that from the perspective of her fearless writing but also her fearless exposure of her body. Her countless nude scenes are not about the fact that she isn’t a size six with perfect boobs. She is just a girl who plays a girl. Hannah doesn’t go on about her body, it’s so refreshing and as a result, way more powerful than what society has become used to seeing from women on TV.
Other shows have tried to represent normal women but have failed by giving stereotypically beautiful women normal girls’ problems. Of course I am referring to Sex And The City but also to pretty much any Hollywood film where the skinny, beautiful protagonist is seemingly, unjustifiably a bit uncomfortable with herself. I am not ignoring Bridget Jones (I wish I could) but to me that ‘accurate’ portrayal of women just made us all look like total muppets. It’s fair to say that until Lena, women on TV were not represented very well at all.
I first heard about Lena when she offered my husband Chris [O’Dowd, star of Bridesmaids and The IT Crowd] a part in Girls early last year. He went to New York for a week or so to film it, and came home saying he had worked with a really great girl called Lena. The job was quick, no-one knew at that time it was going to be a hit, and Chris didn’t mention it again for a while. Then we went to America and people kept recognising him and by the looks on their faces, this was no ordinary show.
So I got my hands on the DVD of series one. And then I understood exactly why people were so excited. Girls spoke to me as loudly as my most intimate conversations with my best friends. It’s moments like watching Hannah and Marnie casually chatting while naked in the bath that remind us how comfortable we should be around our friends. As well as killer lines of dialogue like, ‘I have been dating someone who treats my heart like it’s monkey meat. I feel like a delusional, invisible person half the time so I need to learn what it’s like to be treated well before it’s too late for me.’ The honesty is almost painful, but portrayed so intricately that it all feels familiar.
“Lena abandons all personal boundaries, leaves fear of humiliation at the door and just goes for it”
‘She wrote, directed, produced and starred in that. And she is only 26?’ I asked Chris to confirm. And yes, she did. This is impressive on so many levels. On a show this impactful any of those roles would have been enough to elevate her to super stardom but the most important one of all was the idea itself. A simple concept with articulate detail. Lena abandons all personal boundaries, leaves fear of humiliation at the door and just goes for it. It’s what all good writers want to do but find terrifying. The sheer gall of her creation is what makes her a genius. No wonder Random House paid a reported £2million for her first book, Not That Kind Of Girl, off the back of a proposal.
Nice Girls can win
I had the joy of briefly meeting Lena at the This Is 40 premiere before Christmas and I have to say I was nervous. I am terrible in those situations and always say something stupid. But before I had the chance to open my mouth she was telling me that after Chris told her about me she googled my name, watched a ton of my work and said that she really enjoyed what I did. This never happens in Hollywood. Especially not from the person who everyone in the room is looking at, trying to get a minute with, whose face is plastered all over The Sunset Strip. I loved her before that moment, but what made me love her even more was that this new superstar, this fresh faced, very young, crazy clever creator of one of television’s biggest new shows, not to mention media sensation and newly appointed feminist icon, is just really, really nice. In the context of feminism, I think this is why she is winning.
Using the F Word
After Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman came out here in the UK in 2011, a younger crowd started talking about feminism and realising that our grandmothers didn’t quite manage to finish the job. But still, calling yourself one publicly can be frightening. It can get you into trouble. It opens you up to a world of criticism about how you are not feminist enough, or that you don’t really understand what you are talking about so should probably just stop.
I find this elitist attitude towards it endlessly disappointing, uninspiring and totally defeatist. It’s quite hard to get it right. You want to support the cause but in doing so you get told off. It turns women away, and that is no good for anybody.
Personally I like the way that Lena defines a feminist; it’s really just about whether you are looking out for other women or not. It’s inclusive and unthreatening. It’s how it should be. She has said [in an interview with Metro newspaper this month], ‘Do you believe that women should be paid the same for doing the same jobs? Do you believe that women should be allowed to leave the house? Do you think that women and men both deserve equal rights? Great, then you’re a feminist.’
Her work is resonating with women everywhere. I asked Girls’ executive producer, Judd Apatow why he thinks that is. ‘I think we need strong voices who have the courage to put themselves out there. Lena has a lot she wants to say about being a woman in this day and age and it rings true for an enormous amount of people. Many people can’t handle seeing someone be that open. Because they are not that open in their own lives. It makes some people uncomfortable. But her sharing is a gift. It takes tremendous courage.’
He is right, people can’t handle others being so brazen. I know how hard it is to be an open, outspoken woman on the matter of sex. In the early part of my career I laid myself bare, as it were. In my first book Diaries Of An Internet Lover, I wrote in detail about my sexual misadventures because I didn’t think that enough women spoke openly about that stuff.
From my experience, if you put yourself out there as a sexual woman some (a lot of) people can’t think of you any other way. Those people make you regret being honest and like life is just a walk of shame after giving yourself up way too easily. It’s a hard feeling to combat and, as Judd says, it takes courage to stick to what you set out to do. Lena admits to drawing from her own experiences, but through fiction she is able to express things that are really hard to get away with in real life. Saying that though, her writing and performances are so intricate and personal that she does deal with some of the same public perceptions. As series two of Girls airs we see that she hasn’t let that attitude hold her back. She has powered on, resilient and confident. She is who she is. I love her for it.
The Naked Truth
I never understood the issue with women speaking graphically about sex – why shouldn’t they? I like to hear it. It comforts me, makes me laugh, teaches me about human interaction and the ways our bodies work. If people like Lena didn’t explore these things our sexual education would be a mix between science books and Cosmo. You don’t learn about who we are from a diagram and following 10 steps to having a harder, longer orgasm. You get it by feeling more comfortable with yourself, and that comes from not feeling like you are the only one who experiences stuff. It comes from women like Lena being willing to share. Being shameless and honest, showing us all who we really are. Some people still talk about women being sexually explicit as a male trait. I find that offensive. Being sexually provocative, direct and open is not a male trait. Women are as sexual (maybe not in the physical need to f*ck, but certainly in the desire to). Most of the women I know are like that. But thank goodness for women who are open about it. Prudes think they should shut up and keep it to themselves. But that would be terribly boring and what would we ever learn if no-one spoke out?
The thing about Girls is that even though it is fiction, it is so close to reality that we can empathise with it all. The sex aches of real life. So has Lena opened doors for women everywhere to speak out, put themselves out there, be bold and not let society tell them they should be ladylike and keep their sex stuff to themselves? I asked Judd: ‘I can’t say because it is so rare to come across someone like Lena. If it happens once or twice in a lifetime, it’s a lot.’
Maybe he is right, and if he is, then thank goodness for Lena.
Girls is on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 10pm
Dawn O’Porter is a broadcast and print journalist and author. Her debut novel, Paper Aeroplanes is out this spring.
Girls: The Complete First Season is out on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download from Monday 4 February from HBO Home Entertainment
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