Lena Dunham was just 23 years old when her second feature film, Tiny Furniture, won the best narrative feature prize at the South by Southwest Film Festival. The movie's success led to Dunham striking a deal with HBO for a comedy series about a group of 20-something girls navigating New York City.
Girls, which Dunham writes and also stars in, premiered on HBO in April. Critics immediately heaped praise on the comedy for its voice and colorful storylines; The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman called the show "one of the most original, spot-on, no-missed-steps series in recent memory." A New York Magazine cover story called the show revolutionary — and USA Today noted that "Dunham is clearly a talent to be reckoned with."
But not everyone was so enamored. Within hours of Girls' premiere on April 15, a backlash started growing online, with critics charging that the show is narcissistic, lacks racial diversity and showcases whiny, privileged millennials complaining about topics only relevant to whiny, privileged millennials.
On Monday's Fresh Air, Dunham talks about creating the show, as well as her own experiences navigating life in New York City after graduating from college. She also addresses some of the criticisms lobbed at Girls, and details how she came up with the ideas for many of the scenes in the show. Interview highlights are below.
On the criticism Girls has received about a lack of diversity
"I take that criticism very seriously. ... This show isn't supposed to feel exclusionary. It's supposed to feel honest, and it's supposed to feel true to many aspects of my experience. But for me to ignore that criticism and not to take it in would really go against my beliefs and my education in so many things. And I think the liberal-arts student in me really wants to engage in a dialogue about it, but as I learn about engaging with the media, I realize it's not the same as sitting in a seminar talking things through at Oberlin. Every quote is sort of used and misused and placed and misplaced, and I really wanted to make sure I spoke sensitively to this issue. ...
"I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn't able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, 'I hear this and I want to respond to it.' And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can't speak to accurately."
On 20-somethings who still live with their parents
"I am a working woman out in the world, but I still live with my parents half the time. I've been taking this long, stuttering period of moving out. ... I feel like I'm constantly asking them to please stay out of my work life, but also to please bring me soup. It's this weird moment where you just don't have a sense of what age-appropriate behavior is because there is no age-appropriate behavior."
On her relationship with her parents
"When I graduated [from] college, my parents said, 'You can live with us,' but they made it really clear they were not going to support any of my endeavors. They were like, 'You can live with us and that's a great gift we can give you, but you have to have a job, you have to figure out, like we did, how to have a creative life, and we're giving you a great step ahead by already living in the city you want to be in, but we're not going to serve that function for you. Our parents didn't do it for us, and we don't think it's healthy.' "
On chick lit and romantic comedies
"I think romantic comedy, when done right, is my favorite genre. It's just a genre that's very human. Bridesmaids had a pink poster, and I loved it — and I don't want to call out any movie specifically, but there is a certain kind of film that is not fun to me in a guilty-pleasure way, and there is a certain kind of chick-lit book that isn't even fun to me in a guilty-pleasure way, because I don't see any of myself in it. Because none of my actions — and maybe this is speaking to my age, because I'm 25 — but none of my actions have ever been [determined] by the search for a husband, or wondering if I was going to have a family someday, or wanting to live in a really great house, or thinking it would be really great to have a diamond. There are just certain drives, and I think that those things may be representative of a desire for love or something else. I'm sure those writers would not appreciate me distilling their thesis down to the search for a diamond, but there's a kind of female character that doesn't make sense to me."
On guys she dates later coming out as gay
"It's happened to me more than once, and my mom says it must be genetic because she has a couple of them in her past, too. Our hope is that what it means is that we are a comfortable resting place for a guy who is figuring things out. Our fear is that we turn men gay."
"When I started getting tattoos, it was before I had any sexual relationship to anybody, so it was really about my relationship with myself. I kind of like that they come from that spot. They were never sensually motivated, they were personally motivated. So now I think about it more like, people who I am naked near are seeing these artifacts of who I once was, and maybe getting a clearer sense of who I am. There is something vulnerable about showing your tattoos to people, even while it gives you a feeling that you are wearing a sleeve when you are naked."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The HBO series "Girls" has become the kind of show that gets viewers to take sides - for it, or against it. "Girls" was created by my guest, Lena Dunham, who also writes the series and stars in it. She plays a 24-year-old who's in a transitionary period. She's graduated from college, but still hasn't figured out what her adult life is.
The series follows this character and her three friends as they try to find meaningful work, meaningful relationships, and figure out their sexual selves. The series has been praised for capturing what life is like for 20-somethings who have graduated from college into a jobless landscape and a lousy economy. The series has been criticized for being about white, middle-class, privileged young women.
Lena Dunham first received national recognition for her 2010 independent film "Tiny Furniture." Judd Apatow liked that film and is now the executive producer of "Girls." The story lines of both "Tiny Furniture" and "Girls" are loosely based on Dunham's own experiences as a recent college graduate in New York City.
In "Girls," her character, Hannah, is an aspiring writer living with her best friend in a small Brooklyn apartment. When the series starts, she's working as an unpaid intern at a publishing company. Here's the opening scene. She's out to dinner with her parents, who are visiting from out of town. They're played by Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "GIRLS")
PETER SCOLARI: (As Tad Horvath) Hannah, your mother and I have been talking, and we feel that it may be time - how can I phrase this? Well, we see how well you're doing at work, and you really seem to be figuring out what it is that you want. But it may be time for one final push.
LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah) What is a final push?
BECKY ANN BAKER: (As Loreen Horvath) We're not going to be supporting you any longer.
SCOLARI: (As Tad Horvath) See, I wasn't going to phrase it like that, Loreen, the way you phrased it.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) But I have no job.
BAKER: (As Loreen Horvath) No, you have an internship that you say is going to turn into a job.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) I don't know when.
BAKER: (As Loreen Horvath) You graduated from college two years ago. We've been supporting you for two years, and that's enough.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) Do you know how crazy the economy is right now? I mean, all my friends get help from their parents.
SCOLARI: (As Tad Horvath) We are sympathetic to that.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) But I'm your only child. It's not like I'm draining all your resources. I mean, this feels very arbitrary.
BAKER: (As Loreen Horvath) You don't know anything about our finances. I mean, we're professors, Hannah, professors. You know, we can't keep bankrolling your groovy lifestyle.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) My groovy lifestyle?
BAKER: (As Loreen Horvath) The bills add up. We're covering your rent, your insurance, your cell phone.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah) You said it was cheaper for you if I was on the family plan.
SCOLARI: (As Tad Horvath) Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) May I get you more of anything?
DUNHAM: (As Loreen Horvath) Uh...
BAKER: (As Hannah) No, she's fine.
GROSS: Well, that's a scene from the first episode of "Girls." Lena Dunham, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I can't believe how much has happened to you since last we spoke. When we last spoke, "Girls" was in the works. You didn't know if HBO would accept it. Now it's just, like, outside of "Mad Men" probably the most talked about series on TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And everybody's, like, picking it apart to see if this is what, like, the new wave of feminist-oriented programming by young women is like. What does it say about young women today, and what does it say about race today because the characters are white? And you must just be overwhelmed by the response.
DUNHAM: You know, I always think of myself as sort of ready for every criticism. There's a line that my character says later in the season where she says you can't think of one mean thing to say about me that I haven't already said about myself in the last 30 minutes. And that was sort of what I expected to be my experience as I was kind of preparing myself for what the reaction to "Girls" would be.
And people have come at it from so many angles that I never predicted. I've sort of had to bend and stretch and try to figure out how to respond to these new kinds of criticisms. And I'd say the overwhelming feeling is a feeling of excitement that it started a dialogue about topics that I feel are important and feeling pretty lucky that it sort of cut through all of the cultural noise and is finding its audience.
GROSS: So we'll get to some of the criticisms and controversies surrounding the show a little later. But first, let's just talk about the show. We just heard the opening scene of "Girls" from Episode 1. And, you know, like your character gets off to such a kind of an almost unlikeable start. You know, she sounds so entitled, like, no, you're my parents, you owe it to me to support me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNHAM: She's - you feel like the next words out of her mouth are going to be: I didn't ask to be born.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNHAM: She doesn't say it, but it's implied.
GROSS: There's this sense of entitlement and also this sense that she wants to be treated as a child, but she also wants to be treated as an adult.
DUNHAM: Yeah, which I think is such a marker of this age. I mean, I - it's so funny, I am, you know, I am, you know, a working woman out in the world, but I still live with my parents half the time. I've been sort of taking this very long, stuttering period of moving out.
And so I really relate to that feeling because I feel like I'm constantly asking them to please stay out of my work life but also to please bring me soup.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNHAM: Like it's this weird moment where you just don't have a sense of what age-appropriate behavior is because there sort of is no such thing as age-appropriate behavior.
GROSS: Do you feel in a way that your character is getting off to an unfair start by opening the series in a way that's asking people to judge her, that's asking people to say, oh, she's so privileged, and, you know, she's so - she feels so entitled.
DUNHAM: Yeah, I mean, I think after that first scene, you have to earn - she has to earn the admiration of the viewer in some way, and, you know, it's up for debate whether she ever does that because the fact is I always say about Hannah - her name is Hannah Horvath, my character - and although she is in some ways very close to me, I also refer to her as her because she does feel like this sort of weird, alien succubus creature that I've created.
But she - you know, I always say that if there's two choices, the good choice and the bad choice, she'll look at both of them, seriously consider each and then in good faith go with the bad choice. Like she just does - so she's a little hapless and a little disaster-prone, and so, you know, it's not like in the next scene she redeems herself by acting like the most responsible woman you've ever met.
But I also think that it felt right to me to start kind of laying her issues bare immediately. I didn't want you to sort of - she doesn't, like, save a cat and then you find out that she's a brat. It's like you know and have to choose to love her despite it, if you are going to love her.
GROSS: And it must be difficult for you in a way because you wrote the series and conceived of it and star in it, people assume, well, Hannah is really just Lena Dunham, and therefore Lena Dunham is spoiled.
DUNHAM: I'm sure that I've had some really unattractive, spoiled moments in my years, but I've never - that conversation that Hannah had has never happened to me, in large part because when I graduated from college, my parents let me live with them, but they made it really clear that they weren't going to support any of my endeavors.
They were like you can live with us, and that's a great gift we can give you, but you have to have a job, you have to figure out, just like we did, how to have a creative life, and we're giving you a great step ahead by already living in the city that you want to be in, but we're not going to serve that function for you. Our parents didn't do it for us, and we don't think it's healthy.
GROSS: That was just making me think about how almost treacherous it must be to be so out there when you're still in a fairly formative phase, you know, when you're in the early days of independent adulthood, and you're putting your life out there on the screen in a transformed, fictional way, but you're drawing on your own experiences, and you're turning them into negative experiences for dramatic purposes, for your character.
So it really must be transformational for you to be going through this now, since the early 20s are a transformational period for most people one way or another.
DUNHAM: Yeah, I mean, you know, it's funny. My dad is a painter, and he teaches graduate school, and one of the things that he always says is he thinks students should wait until after graduate school to show their work because he thinks it's important to have that moment where you kind of are experimenting without the feeling of someone's gaze on you or without the feeling that you're sort of going to be held to the decisions that you make in your creative process throughout your life.
You need - but the thing is I come from a very different generation than my father. You know, bad poetry I wrote in high school can still be found on the Internet, and, you know, there's a Web log of our college newspaper. You know, there's so many different stages of my creative development are sort of on-record if somebody were to choose to look for them.
And so I've sort of just made the decision to be OK with the fact that I'm not going to love everything that I put out into the world, and I kind of go, well, maybe, my hope is oh maybe it'll sometime be helpful for another young artist to sort of see my development and see the way that it - that I sort of lived out loud a little bit.
But there's definitely times where I - where I don't think I let the sort of the weight of it hit me, the amount of stuff about my own life, the amount of images of my own body that I've put out into the world. And then I also love what I do, and no one has forced me to do it, but there's the occasional moment at, like, 3 in the morning where I suddenly realize, like, my breasts are on TV, as is a fairly accurate account of my first post-college relationship.
And you have your, like, five minute of existential terror before you return to sleep about that topic.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Dunham, the creator, writer and star of the new HBO series "Girls." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Lena Dunham. She is the creator, writer and star of the new HBO series "Girls," which is about four girls in their 20s in that transitional period for them between college and independence in the adult world.
I think it's interesting that the title of the series is "Girls." When I was in my late teens and 20s, my friends and I insisted on calling each other and having other people call us women. It was the era of the women's movement, and we weren't girls, we were women, and we certainly weren't dames, we were women, and we weren't, like, ladies, we were women.
And so. to hear of a series like "Girls," and I think that's probably, maybe not but I think probably the word that most young women in their 20s would use to describe themselves now.
DUNHAM: It is. I feel like it's the word that most women in their early 20s use to describe themselves, and most rock singers use to address women who have done them wrong. So I like it for all of those reasons. You know, that was actually - that was the brainchild of Judd Apatow.
It had been going by the untitled Lena Dunham project for the duration of shooting the pilot, and I was starting to wonder if it would ever have a different title, and if it didn't have a different title, I knew there was no way that it was getting picked up.
But basically Judd - Judd and I had looked at a list of titles I had come up with, and every single one of them had girl in the title somewhere. And this was actually before the sort of zeitgeist. I think, like, four different shows came on the air with the word girl in the title this year alone, like "New Girl," then "Two Broke Girls." Then there was just an onslaught of - then some new show called "Dumb Girls" that was coming to MTV.
I mean, I was excited by all of their content and didn't want us all to be lumped into one big girl pile. But that's a digression. Judd said: What about if we just tried "Girls?" And as is a lot of times when somebody has a really great idea, my first reaction to it is total revulsion and then - probably because I didn't think of it.
And then I sat with it for a couple of hours and realized that there was something pretty perfect about it because even if the experience of these characters isn't universal, they think it is. The way they sort of get through their day is to go, like, we are having the classic female New York experience. We will be able to live to tell about this someday. We are the girls.
And so there was lot of kind of poetic ways that it worked for me, and then when all those other girl shows started coming out, we sort of wondered: Are we supposed to change titles? Should we jump ship here? And my dad said don't do it, you have the meta-title. He was, like, "Girls" is the meta-title. And I trust my dad in most matters, creative and personal, so I quoted him loudly, and we kept going.
GROSS: So I want to play another scene from "Girls," and this is a scene where your character Hannah is going to her boyfriend to break up with him because he texted her a picture of his privates and then texted this wasn't meant for you, and she thinks, well, who was it meant for, and, like, what's going on here? Is there another girl?
And so you show up unannounced at his door to break up with him, and in this scene, you're explaining to him who you are and what kind of girl you are.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "GIRLS")
GROSS: I think that's really interesting description of how she's defining herself as a girl. Why was it important for your character to get that out?
DUNHAM: Well, I think that there's a way that Hannah and, by extension myself, she has trouble with certain kinds of earnest expressions, and maybe that's a generational thing, maybe that's her own anxiety that if she expresses herself in a true way, she's going to get shot down. But I think it was important for her, even as she said this incredibly sort of sweet, heartfelt thing, which I want you to want to spend time with just me, I want you to want to be with me, I mean, she wants what everybody wants, which is, you know...
GROSS: She wants a monogamous boyfriend.
DUNHAM: A monogamous, loving partner, and yet she feels like she needs to explain that while she wants the thing everybody else wants, she is not like everybody else. And I think that is the important distinction to her is that she thinks with the desire for a boyfriend comes all of these other trappings of being a sort of, like, bougie(ph) woman that she doesn't think of herself as.
She's like, I'm a writer and a thinker, and so anything you equate with being a boyfriend is not what you're going to get with me, even though once they were together, she probably would want him to meet her friends, she probably would want him to sit on the couch while they shopped, and God forbid she would want him to go to brunch.
But in this moment, she sort of needs to define herself as this completely other type of woman, even as she wants what women want.
GROSS: But is your character trying to say I'm not the person you're going to see in chick lit or, you know, chick films, or you know what I'm saying?
DUNHAM: Definitely. I think she definitely is. I mean, I...
GROSS: And do you feel that way? Do you feel like I don't relate to a certain kind of character that I see in literature or that I see in movies?
DUNHAM: I do feel that way. It's funny because romantic comedy, when done right, is my favorite genre. You know, it's just a genre that's very human. It's - but I think, you know, the sort of - anything that has - "Bridesmaids" had a pink poster, and I loved it, but I don't want to call out any movie specifically, but there is a certain kind of film that isn't even fun to me in a guilty-pleasure way, and there is a certain kind of chick-lit book that isn't even fun to me in a guilty-pleasure way because I don't see any of myself in it because none of my - just none of my actions, maybe this is speaking to my age, which is 25, but I don't think this is the case. None of my actions have ever sort of been motored by the search for a husband or wondering if I was going to have a family someday or wanting to live in a really great house or thinking it would be really great to have a diamond.
Like, there's just certain drives, and I know that maybe those things are representative of, like, a bigger desire for love or something else. I'm sure those writers would not appreciate me distilling their thesis down to the search for a diamond, but there's a kind of female character that doesn't make sense to me, if that makes sense to you.
GROSS: Oh absolutely, absolutely. So I think women in particular are so hungry for a series or a movie or movies about young women who are, you know, kind of feminist, whether they describe themselves that way or not, and aren't just all about clothes and engagement rings and who are trying to, like, really figure out who they are and where they fit in in the world.
And because your series is trying to do that, it's gotten so much attention from the press and through tweets and blogs because you're trying so hard to represent young women or a certain kind of young woman. So it's gotten a lot of praise for that, but it's also gotten criticism by people who think but it's not about me. You're saying it's girls, but I don't see myself in it.
And I think that's been particularly true of people of color, who have said that, like, there's nobody of color in it except for, you know, like, a nanny or, like, somebody who's working at the job that your character's working in, but all of the people she's really closely associated with, her girlfriends, the boyfriends, they're all white.
GROSS: And I wonder what your reaction to that criticism has been and whether you thought about that before, you know, before - or as you were writing the series.
DUNHAM: The first thing I'll say is that I'm - I take that criticism very seriously, and while I try to avoid most sort of - most of the sort of noise of the blogosphere, that's one that I can't because it's really, really important to me to hear that and to process it and to really receive people's reactions to that because this show isn't supposed to feel exclusionary.
It's supposed to feel honest, and it's supposed to feel true to many aspects of my experience. But, you know, for me to ignore that criticism and not to take it in would really go against my beliefs and my education and so many things. And I think the liberal arts student in me really wants to engage in a dialogue about it, but as I learn about sort of engaging with the media, I realize it's not the same as sitting in a seminar talking things through at Oberlin.
Every quote is sort of used and misused and placed and misplaced, and I really wanted to make sure I spoke sensitively to this issue. So in some way I haven't spoken about it a tremendous amount, but believe me, I've thought about it. And what I'll say is that I - you know, I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and, you know, I co-wrote a few episodes.
But, you know, I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs, like I really - and something I wanted to avoid was sort of tokenism in casting and not speaking - you know, if I had one of the four girls, for example, if she was African-American, I feel like, you know, not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl living in Brooklyn are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience and specificity that at this point I wasn't able to speak to.
And so I thought about it, I really wrote the show from sort of a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me and/or based on, you know, someone very close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. And so as much as I can say it was an accident, it was an accident, but I also later, as the criticism came out, I thought: I hear this and I want to respond to it.
And I also, you know, the show - I don't know if this - I want - this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated. But I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can't speak to accurately, and I want to avoid, you know, kind of classic network tokenism in casting because although I think that people of color are severely underrepresented on TV, I'm not sure that that's always the solution.
That being said, you know, as I said in an interview with Huffington Post, like, now we have the opportunity to do a second season, and believe me, that will be remedied. I'm really excited to introduce new characters into the world of the show, and some of them are really great actors of color, and some of them are white actors, and we're going to continue to try to tell really honest stories, but the world of the show is definitely growing more diverse.
GROSS: Lena Dunham will be back in the second half of the show. She's the creator, writer and star of the new HBO series "Girls." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Lena Dunham, the creator, writer and star of the new HBO series "Girls." She plays Hannah, a 24-year-old who has graduated from college and is having trouble finding a job, supporting herself and figuring out what she wants sexually and emotionally from her boyfriend, and what he wants from her.
A heads up to parents of young children: Part of our conversation will include talking about sexual issues which are explored in "Girls." Nothing explicit but the subject of sex will come up during the next few minutes.
So your character is in a relationship with a guy who - it's hard to tell if he really cares about your character or not. He wants a sex partner, that's for certain.
DUNHAM: Yes. He does want a sex partner, and he wants a flexible - a sex partner who is flexible both time wise, emotionally and physically.
GROSS: Yes. And he wants to enact certain sexual fantasies and have certain sexual positions that he seems to have probably gotten from porn sites. And your character goes along with it even though your character doesn't seem to be getting any sexual pleasure out of it. It's more like an activity they can do together, that makes him happy and that's OK with her.
GROSS: It's kind of like having a boyfriend who likes to go hiking and...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: ...it's not really your thing but you'll go on a hike with him.
GROSS: So do you get a sense that a lot of guys your age have learned about sex through porn sites and have these unrealistic and sometimes ludicrous ideas of what sex is like or what a girl would like?
DUNHAM: I do get that sense. I get the sense that there's a new kind of learned behavior. I had a conversation with Frank Bruni about this for The New York Times where he was asking me yeah, about the porn question it and I told that there's certain things that you'll experience when, you know, not like I want to make it sound like I'm all over town, you know, testing different guys' sexual prowesses. But in my own personal limited sexual experience I've found that there are guys doing things where you go there's no way that that is your own personal instinct. You learned that from somewhere and it wasn't, you know, a birds and bees conversation with your mom and it also wasn't taught to you by a high school girl you met in Michigan. Like that you're your - that is something that you have, you know, learned through osmosis culturally and now A, want to try yourself, or even more insidiously, think that I will like. And I think that young people are really scared to tell each other what they actually want.
It's funny. I mean not to get too personal but I just found a diary that I kept in college. I've been an intermittent diary keeper always, never a faithful one. And there's some guy had done something. It wasn't anything, you know, to dramatic, like he'd just been I think sort of we kissed in college and he'd been sort of rough with me and I asked him if he always acted that way. And he said no, I don't. But with you I do because it's clearly what you want.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: What made him say that?
DUNHAM: Which was to me - I was looking back at it. I think at the time I just felt this guilt. I was like why am I - oh my God, what kind of girl am I that I'm projecting that that's what I want. How did I, you know, like just massive guilt? And I remember at the time thinking, oh my God, if I could just replay that and act differently then we could have had this sweet encounter and I've missed out on something great. And I realize now that that's just some way for a guy to shirk responsibility for some weird embarrassing thing that they've done. And I mean it's almost like your skirt was too short and you were asking for it. So I don't - that's the weirdest human interaction I have on record in my diary. But I was thinking that that encounter and that interaction has informed more of my work than I ever knew when I reread it.
GROSS: Do you think it's difficult, and I don't want to get too personal with you. I don't want to cross a line, so I'll ask generically.
GROSS: Do you think it's different - difficult for young, single women to say no to a guy who wants to try some things he's probably learned from a porn site and say, you know, I'm not going to enjoy that. That's not going to be pleasurable. It's not even going to be comfortable?
DUNHAM: I do. I mean it's difficult for me to say no to my friends who want to try a restaurant that I don't think I'm going to like.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNHAM: So it's like - so trying to say no to something that personal and specific it's - yeah, it's really hard. And I also think that, you know, maybe girls will rise up against me and go I don't know what your problem is but I feel perfectly comfortable saying no. But, you know, for me, I mean, I think that for young women sex is about sex but sex is also about wanting to be liked and wanting to be appreciated. And the fear when you say no is that someone will go OK, well then see you later. Like that you will, you know, lose your loving audience.
So, yeah, I think it is really challenging and I think in the sexual relationship on the show between Hannah and Adam I wanted to show that it's not a case of complete victimization. Hannah thinks about sex as a way to learn more about herself and she kind of feels like she needs to accept what ever opportunity to learn is offered to her. And Adam is continually testing the boundaries and also using sex as a way to experience to be close and also not to be close. And so he's not going to have the kind of sex where you, you know, move slowly and look into each other's eyes. He wants to be near another person but in the least intimate way possible. And as the season goes on you sort of learn more about his drives and who is and like what happens when they strip away a little bit of that role play but it's a complicated dance.
GROSS: Well, I think you just got to something really difficult emotionally, which is when sex becomes the least intimate way of communicating.
DUNHAM: Yeah. Which I think is...
GROSS: I mean that's, because you're at your most exposed and vulnerable so if that's not the most intimate and it's the least intimate, that's so uncomfortable, isn't it?
DUNHAM: Yeah. I remember in high school like long before I started having sex with anyone or kissing anyone, thinking this is - I mean this sounds like a real leap, but I've always had like a little bit of a morbid streak, like a little bit like we're all going to die so what's the point.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNHAM: Like that - that's where my brain goes when I'm tired. And I think I was like lying in bed and I was thinking like probably once your in love and once you've had sex you're not scared of dying because you know what true connection is and you know what the world is all about. And then the minute that I had sex I understood that that was at least not yet in my experience the case and that it was not the cure to like all existential anxiety and that it's very possible to feel - to be naked and feel quite alone, which is poetic in its own way.
GROSS: I guess that's one of the points your show is trying to make.
DUNHAM: Yeah. And, you know, I hope that if we get some time to follow these characters that are going to learn that all of the, in quotes, learning about themselves that they're doing through sex will pay off and we'll actually see them know what they want and get it. I mean, I don't want people to sort of think that the show is going to be about awkward sex forever because awkward sex is funny but I also want it to be a means to an end for these girls because, you know, my dream for Hannah who is now, you know, a girl who is very close to me, is that she's going to at some point realize, you know, as I feel I'm beginning to, what she does and doesn't want and what she will and won't accept and then be able to say that. And so it would be a dream to be able to follow her to that point.
GROSS: My guest is Lena Dunham and she is the creator, writer and star of the new HBO series "Girls." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Dunham and she is the creator, writer and star of the new HBO series "Girls," which is about four girls in their early 20s trying to figure out who they are and what they want from life, and they're all living in New York.
So, of course, you know, "Girls" is a comedy so even though STDs is a real anxiety-producing serious issue for the girls on the show...
GROSS: ...there's also comedic aspects of it. For example, when Hannah is told by her current boyfriend, Adam, that he doesn't have HPV. He got tested, therefore he couldn't possibly have given it to her. Then she thinks well, the only person I could have gotten it from is my old college boyfriend. So she makes an appointment to see him at a restaurant and she assumes that he's still in love with her. But she dresses up nicely to break the news that, you know, she got this probably from him and she thinks she's doing right by both of them in doing this but she's in for a big surprise.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So here is Hannah with her old college boyfriend at a restaurant and he speaks first. Oh, and I should say he is played by Andrew Rannells, who is the star of the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon." And he...
GROSS: ...he's really incredible. So here...
DUNHAM: He's really incredible and he is a great improviser too and a great - this was his first day ever besides the time that he played a headless male dancer on "Sex in the City," this was his first ever on-screen performance.
GROSS: Wow. OK. Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "GIRLS")
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That's my guest Lena Dunham and Andrew Rannells in a scene from the HBO series "Girls." I think...
DUNHAM: It's probably bad to laugh at your own work but that scene just makes me - he makes me laugh so hard. All the reversed footage of me is just me giggling my head off while he improvises.
GROSS: Yeah. And there's another half to that scene that comes later in the show that's as funny or funnier.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So I think so many young men and women find out after relationship that their former partner is now, you know, a lesbian or gay. So has that happened to you? It's so - it's really a common experience.
DUNHAM: It has certainly happened to me.
DUNHAM: It has happened to me more than once. And it's funny, my mom and I keep saying it must be genetic because she's got like a couple of them in her past, too. And so we - our hope is that what it means is that we are a comfortable resting place for a sensitive guy who is figuring things out. Our fear is that we turn men gay.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Well, your character is really being so insensitive to his discovery about his identity.
DUNHAM: Oh my God, she's being such a brat. She says some really horrifying things. I was really hoping that my, you know, my gay male friends - of which I have many - would find it hilarious and not think that I was, you know, that I was expressing my own deep-rooted homophobia because it was really important to me to look at the honest way that an - even though Hannah is an enlightened, liberal girl probably thinks about gay men as her target audience, she still is not pleased to find out that she was dating one.
GROSS: And why isn't she pleased?
DUNHAM: It has much less with him being gay and much more to do with her own sense of identity and her own self-esteem. I mean, I think that her automatic go to place is, you know, you're gay because I'm fat. That's basically where her brain goes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNHAM: So I think that's, I think that's the big anxiety, and also the sense that like your romantic past is a lie. I mean I think we really define ourselves by the idea that, you know, he loved me. That was, you know, I was passionately loved in college and he's never moved past it is a huge part of the way that she kind of gets herself through the day. So when she finds out that the person she has spun that narrative about is, you know, happily dating a guy named Bo, she's not going to have a positive reaction to that. And I think I was better about it than Hannah was, but there was still like a lack of understanding of the fact that now I can recognize, wow, coming out is really hard and even in sort of even if you've gone to a liberal arts school and have parents who sort of, you know, have PFLAG parents, it's still just, it's a challenging move to make in a world where gay rights are still not what they should be. And so coming out is hard and I think that I wish Hannah and a little bit me had had a more sensitive reaction to sort of the courage that it took to make that transition in identity rather than deciding it meant that like my breasts were in some way was subpar.
GROSS: So one of the things that happens to your character in "Girls" comes directly from your own experience. She has tattoos on her body and the tattoos are illustrations from children's books.
GROSS: And I think that's almost - and I know that you have that too.
DUNHAM: I do.
GROSS: And I think it's...
DUNHAM: We share it.
GROSS: I think it's a perfect illustration of the - a perfect metaphor for where the character is. She's trying to, like, assert her independence and adulthood through something like tattoos. But what are the tattoos pictures of? Childhood books.
DUNHAM: Yeah. That's amazing. I've actually never thought about that but that's an incredibly clear, nice visual for what she's experiencing.
GROSS: So, why did you want your tattoos, which are usually signs of, like, rebellion, to be childhood books?
DUNHAM: Well, it's funny. I got my first tattoo when I was 17 and it was Eloise from the book "Elioise" on my lower back in the sort of tramp stamp place.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNHAM: And then from there on out I just, you know, the next idea I had was a children's book idea. I've always been drawn to sort of the - I've been drawn to like the softness but sophistication of children's book illustrations. And there was something about being able to sort of carry my child - Eloise was a huge symbol of comfort for me. And so, there was something about being able to sort of, like, carry those pieces of my childhood on me always and the idea that they would be that sort of a never-forget feeling that I really liked.
So that was sort of I think the impetus for starting with the tattoos, and it really also was this thing which I say in the show about sort of taking ownership of your own body. Like, as I think so much body modification and kind of out-there style moves are that, it's sort of the desire to kind of reclaim your body and go this is not what society thinks it is. You may see a chubby teenage girl but I'm making the choice - I am making bold choices about how I want to look and how I want to feel.
GROSS: So, to sum up here, you have pictures of your favorite childhood book on your body which every sexual partner will see.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: It's not exactly like the most sexually charged kind of imagery. I mean, who else is going to see those images, right? So...
DUNHAM: That's absolutely true.
GROSS: So what does that mean?
DUNHAM: Well, that's such an interesting question. You know, it's really funny. Firstly, it's always a topic of conversation whether you're doing a sex scene or whether you're doing actual sex what these things are and I think, you know, when I started getting tattoos, it was before I had any sexual relationship to anybody. So, it was really about my relationship with myself.
And so I kind of like that they come from that spot, that they were never sort of sensually motivated, they were personally motivated. And so now I think about it more like, people who I'm naked near are seeing these artifacts of who I once was, and maybe getting a clearer sense of who I am. There's something very vulnerable about showing your tattoos to people, even while it gives you a feeling that you're wearing a sleeve when you are naked.
GROSS: Well, Lena Dunham, it's really been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
DUNHAM: Thank you so much, Terry. I really - you always make me think a lot.
GROSS: Oh, thank you. And congratulations on "Girls."
DUNHAM: Thank you.
GROSS: Lena Dunham. She's the creator, writer, and star of the new HBO series "Girls." Coming up, an excerpt of our interview with the Beastie Boys. Founding member Adam Yauch died of cancer Friday. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.