First published online by Paul Harris.
In theory, Lena Dunham should be out of place amid all the glitz of tonight’s Emmy awards. As America’s television industry gathers to schmooze in downtown Los Angeles, this explorer of modern women’s mishaps, mistakes and neuroses should stick out like a sore thumb.
For Dunham, who at just 26 is already a household name among her own generation in America, has risen to fame with her painfully honest explorations of her own life. In her short videos, essays, a feature film and now the hit TV series Girls , Dunham has taken on awkward sex, job failures, losing your virginity, abortion and weight issues in ways both brave and shamelessly autobiographical.
While most TV, especially in America, is full of aspirational images of body types and careers, Dunham has tacked furiously in the opposite direction. This is especially true of Girls, which she writes, directs and stars in and which has scooped four Emmy nominations. It chronicles the painful comic adventures of four young women, fresh out of college, as they seek to find their way in New York. Her characters are flawed, their motives confused, their prospects limited.
With Dunham playing the lead of Hannah Horvath, the star of the show is not the blonde, thin archetypal female so common in TV land. Instead, it is Dunham’s own pale-skinned, brunette, imperfect, humanly flawed frame that is put on display.
It will be refreshing to see Dunham on the Emmys red carpet amid the nose jobs, high heels and exquisitely chiselled cheek bones. Whatever one thinks of her privileged New York background and whether she wins or loses an award, Dunham’s success represents a breath of fresh air.
In many ways, she is there not just for herself, but for the legions of women – and not a few men – who have become Girls fans. They revel in and relate to the characters’ tribulations, just as a previous generation (and a less fiscally troubled one) caught on to Sex and the City. Dunham once explained Hannah’s attraction: “She is real and complicated and weird and annoying… the reason she resonates with people is because she feels like a multidimensional woman. She looks like people they might know and she is behaving in ways we can all relate to.” So as Dunham laps up the plaudits at the Emmys, millions of her fans and viewers will – in some small way – feel they, too, are at last being recognised.
Yet Dunham is hardly the most obvious choice to step up for the unrepresented. After all, she was born into a life of artistic and material wealth in downtown Manhattan. If Lena as Hannah resonates because people feel they might know her, the chances of anyone outside a small New York social set knowing her for real are fairly small. Her mother is famed photographer Laurie Simmons and her father is the artist Carroll Dunham.
Dunham was born in New York on 13 May 1986 and grew up in a succession of loft apartments. First, the family lived on the lower reaches of Broadway, there then followed a brief sojourn in Brooklyn Heights, before returning to Manhattan and a huge, spacious loft in Tribeca, once a warehouse district but now home to a famous film festival, Hollywood stars and Wall Street bankers.
Dunham’s childhood, as described in numerous interviews, was not exactly normal and suburban. Her liberal parents took her to gallery openings and parties with their famous friends, where she mingled happily with artists, writers and critics. She went to elite Manhattan private schools of the sort designed to encourage wealthy children to express themselves rather than learn multiplication tables.
By the age of 12, Dunham found herself at the famed Saint Ann’s school where one of her babysitters was fashion designer Zac Posen and a classmate was art dealer Vito Schnabel. It was clear Dunham was not exactly a regular child or at least not regular for anyone outside her own world. She had been in therapy since the age of seven and at Saint Ann’s she wrote a play about waiting in an abortion clinic. Her Christmas present when she was 14 was a series of stand-up comedy lessons. (She used them and gave several shows in bars, with her mother acting as chaperone.)
But while flourishing artistically, Dunham was no genius at exams. Her final marks did not send her to the Ivy League college that might have beckoned, so she spent a year at New York’s the New School and then transferred to the liberal and artistic surroundings of the private Oberlin College in Ohio. It was here that Dunham really emerged. She began shooting videos and short films, putting them online. Often, they were prankish in nature.
“She was like Ali G on campus,” one friend told the New Yorker. Watching them now, it is almost as if Dunham appeared fully formed. All the Dunham tropes are there: the awkward but honest explorations of young adult themes, the use of friends and family, the wry humour and herself in the starring role. One of the biggest hits was The Fountain, in which Dunham, wearing a bikini, does her morning wash in an Oberlin public fountain. The short got millions of hits with many YouTube commenters weighing in unpleasantly on Dunham’s full figure. Eventually, she took it down.
But that has been a rare – if not unique – moment of Dunham backing off from exposing herself and her insecurities. It is hard to imagine anyone bar the most extreme of performance artists mining her real life for artistic purposes as much as Dunham. Or so repeatedly blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. Just take her breakout film, Tiny Furniture, which was a low-budget hit in 2010. In it, Dunham, who had just left Oberlin and moved back to New York to live with her artist parents, plays Aura, who has who has just left Oberlin and moved back to New York to live with her artist mother.
In the film, Aura’s mother is played by Dunham’s real mother. Her sister in the film was played by her sister in real life. At one stage, Aura reads from her fictional mother’s diary, which was in fact Dunham’s mother’s real-life diary. Similar stuff happens in Girls. She is friends with many people involved in the show, both behind the scenes and on screen. Many events are taken from her real life and her real social circle. Indeed, the lead credits of Girls read less like the result of a casting call and more like a club for daughters of Manhattan’s arts scene. (One is the daughter of newscaster Brian Williams, another’s father is playwright David Mamet.)
By drawing so heavily on her own social scene for her inspiration, Dunham has faced inevitable accusations of elitism and racism. There’s certainly no denying that her work is markedly short of non-white characters or people who are not part of New York’s arts and hipster scene. As one critic memorably posted on Twitter: “I think Tiny Furniture is good but it does represent the cinema of unexamined privilege.” That is true. But also unfair. Just as you do not have to be a heroin addict to appreciate Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, you do not have to be a well-off, neurotic yet smart white girl in New York to tap into the emotional depths and mordant wit of Girls. An oft-quoted line from the show appears to make such broad universal claims when Hannah moans to her parents: “I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.”
That might be a step too far. But her relentless exploration of the self does seem to fit a modern internet-obsessed generation where old notions of privacy have been replaced by the never-ending sharing of Twitter and Facebook. Dunham’s unveiling of her insecurities, dreams and disappointments seems to hit a spot, personal as well as public.
Perhaps if she had been born poor, or born black, or born the daughter of dentists, or born in Indiana, she would not have been such a big hit. But Dunham played the lucky cards she was dealt and she has played a blinder. And, even with all her advantages, she still had to get over the biggest obstacle to becoming an on-screen leading lady: she was not born conventionally beautiful.
Yet instead of changing that, she celebrated it. “The parts I enjoy playing aren’t really available to me,” she once said. “So I have to write them.” And that is exactly what she did.