A Conversation With Lena Dunham
Meghan O’Rourke talks with the creator of Girls about the first season, high-school teachers, and being surprised by controversy.
Dunham: Going to Saint Ann’s, when I imagined my future it was, I’m gonna be Nancy Fales Garrett [the playwriting teacher]. That’s what I thought. It was, I’m gonna write plays, and make little movies and teach feminist studies and figure out an unorthodox way to cobble my life together. At this point it’s not exactly the way that it’s gone. I love what I do, I love every minute of it. But there’s a part of me that still wants to write a weird poem and publish it in an obscure journal, or make a movie that’s completely devoid of a narrative. But when I was doing those things in college, I thought that there was something poppier about my sensibility that other people didn’t understand. So my work very much exists in a place between going into a white box with my parents and watching video art and being at the roundtable punch-up for a sitcom.
When I was in college, I spent all my time with people who made video art and/or were reading and writing poetry, and there was part of me that was secretly bored and felt like an imposter. And now when I’m talking to people whose entire reason for existing is comedy, you know, there’s a part of me that feels all philosophical and morose.
O’Rourke: How much do you think about being an iconoclast in TV? Or is that something you even think about?
Dunham: I guess I think about doing stuff that nobody else has done. I don’t think I’ll be very content doing something that’s like “Oh great, another one of those shows about friends.” Not that I think those shows don’t need to exist, because people need to be entertained. And a lot of my favorite shows are shows that I don’t necessarily think are completely transforming the face of TV. But I feel like I have to be doing something that hasn’t necessarily been done, not that I always succeed.
I don’t realize that certain things I’m exploring are controversial until there is a controversy about them. I’ll sort of go, “Really? That’s the moment that got people worked up?” It’s a weird kind of alchemy, what you think is going to create waves, and what actually does.
O’Rourke: Some critics thought that the conclusion of the fight between Hannah and Marnie in the penultimate episode was too much of a “sitcom moment.”
Dunham: I look at that and find it so heartbreaking, that entire fight. It’s what things have been building toward, and it’s really intense and emotional. I have a very different reaction to it than that. That being said, I guess I could see that… It’s funny, in my writer’s room, sometimes I’ll pitch something and Jenni Konner, who’s my main collaborator, she’ll say, “That’s a little sitcom-y. That’s been done on Fresh Prince” or something. But I never watched that, so I don’t know. I haven’t watched an incredible amount of sitcoms, besides Friends and couple of others. I don’t even know what it is I’m fighting against, sitcom-wise.
But I look at that moment between Hannah and Marnie as being this intense, emotional plot conclusion. And then those two doors slam, and then, like, the saddest song in the world comes on.
O’Rourke: I found it very true to how women fight. I watched it with a man who turned to me and was like, “Girls are weird. Men never talk to each other like that.”
Dunham: I know, a few guys have said that to me too. “We just don’t have those kinds of interactions.”
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.