Lena Dunham, 26, writer, director, executive producer and creator of HBO’s television show “Girls,” is a recent Golden Globe winner and the latest quarter-lifer I find inspiring (and you should, too).
“I want women to make their own choices. I don’t want people to live in service of what they think television should look like or act like,” Dunham said recently, while speaking to Alec Baldwin on WNYC’s podcast, “Here’s the Thing.”
Raised by artists and obsessed with television, Dunham has created an edgy comedy that pushes what television has seen in terms of nudity, sex, relationships, dynamic characters and dialogue, in an incredibly honest portrayal of twentysomethings.
The first episode of “Girls” famously has the lead character, Hannah, played by Dunham, trying to justify to her parents her need for their financial support while she finishes writing her book. “I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” she tells them. “Or at least a voice of a generation.”
She is one of the many female showrunners on television, the place many movie actors crave to be compared to the silver screen. I wrote about the trend of women on TV two years ago and glad to see it’s a trend no more.
Dunham was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s Entertainers of the Year 2012. Her work is succinctly described as “universally polarizing. Not all like it, not all hate it but everyone is aware of it. And everyone has an opinion.”
“Girls” gets a lot of comparisons to “Sex and the City” for good reasons: Both have been the biggest jewel in HBO’s crown at the time they aired, the leads are four white women and the backdrop is New York City.
The big differences between the two shows are the ages of the main characters and also the times they live in. Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte are in their 30s, had successful careers, supportive friendships and viewed Manhattan as the place to be. The show also took place before the recession.
In comparison, the “Girls” characters, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna, are in their 20s. They’re self-doubting and anxious and live in a tumultuous time where, despite their education, jobs – not even meaningful jobs – are hard to come by. Their relationships, housing and purpose are unclear and unstable.
“I don’t think it’s possible to be an at-peace human when you’re between 22 and 30,” Dunham said. “It’s almost impossible to get through your 20s; most girls have happy moments but aren’t happy people. The characters on ‘Girls’ are tortured.”
Perhaps one reason is that “millennials,” people aged 18-33, are the most stressed-out generation in the country, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey, released Feb. 7.
The Stress in America survey noted that all generations are reporting more stress than in past years due to the economy, but millennials have less life experience to cope and many grew up with parents that protected them from economic reality, thus leaving them unprepared to deal with adversity. Similarly, 50 percent of college graduates are jobless or underemployed, most in debt from their education.
In “Girls,” Hannah quits her unpaid internship at a book publisher. Marnie is downsized from her gallery job. Jessa is a world traveler without a work ethic.
The most marked characteristic of “Girls” is its nudity and sexuality. It’s shocking to see a lead character who is not waif thin; rather, she is perfectly average. I’m envious that she feels comfortable enough with her body, but feel like the scum of my gender for being a slave to the Hollywood ideal for so long that seeing someone who doesn’t look like a model to me is off putting. The not-so-proud part of me thinks, “What average viewer wants to see themselves on screen?”
“Hannah has her moments of self-consciousness like every woman does, but she doesn’t notice that her clothes don’t quite fit. She doesn’t think about what she eats. She’s more interested in if her clothes are funny or witty. She doesn’t care about being sexy,” Dunham explained to Baldwin.
“I like playing a character who doesn’t have a perfect body, but that’s not the main source of her anxiety. I feel like we have very few female characters on television who don’t look like models and aren’t constantly discussing it,” Dunham said.
As for the relationships, they, too, are honest and awkward, just like real twentysomethings. Sexual encounters on “Sex and the City” were so outrageous they seem scripted for comedy’s sake. “Girls” illustrates today’s hook-up culture -– finally, a show that embraces how awkward sexuality really is.
Dunham is quick to say that her characters “won’t monetize sex.”
“The characters can make mistakes but they have to be emotionally responsible for the things they’ve done. I don’t ever want to have a makeover scenario where someone is doing better after they’ve put on a great dress and straight-ironed their hair,” Dunham said.
Fresh humor is another aspect that defines “Girls” to me and why it’s so successful. I love a lot of different types of comedies and the show’s jokes are fresh and sharp. A personal favorite of mine is Hannah naming her Wi-Fi network “Madame Ovaries,” or when she says, “I wanna get married in a veil and taste like 15 cakes before I do it.”
Judd Apatow, executive producer on “Girls,” said he hoped the show would provide men with an insight into “realistic females.”
What I admire most about Dunham is at 26, she has an unwavering sense of who she is.
In her interview with Baldwin, she described her awareness of young girls watching the show, and the effect she and other young female celebrities have on young women today.
“I have to be aware of what I say because there are 17-year-old girls that come up to me and tell me the shows mean a lot to them. It’s a platform that you have to take seriously,” Dunham said to Baldwin.
While controversial, I applaud her for saying what many of us were thinking regarding the Chris Brown-Rihanna relationship.
“I used to be really into Rihanna and I don’t wanna throw stones from my glass house, but I follow her on Instagram and I just think of how many little girls, beyond what I could even comprehend, are obsessed with Rihanna. She’s had this amazing career and won Grammys, she’s talented, and then she gets back together with Chris Brown and posts a million pictures of them smoking marijuana together on a bed. It cracks my heart in half.”
While the show is far from over, Dunham told Baldwin her thoughts on how “Girls” would end: “The ideal finale to the show would be a feeling, like, they don’t have to have kids, they don’t have to have husbands, but you look at them and go, they’re on their way, they’re more OK than they were when they started or they are less OK, but we have more of an understanding of what kind of an adult they’ll be.”