Lena Dunham Reflects on the Legacy of Girls

As the final series of Girls plays out, its writer and creator Lena Dunham looks back at the journey the show has taken her on over the past six years

Girls, written by Lena Dunham (second from left), is in its sixth and final season. Picture / Supplied

Girls airs its sixth and final season this week, with director and writer Lena Dunham, who plays main character Hannah Horvath, looking back on the show’s legacy and influence in shaping the millennial pop culture voice.

Lena has become a high-profile voice on feminism and politics; campaigning for Hillary Clinton last year, fronting the podcast miniseries Women of the Hour and launching weekly feminist newsletter Lenny Letter in 2015. The actress has also been vocal on issues of body image. Last year she came out to say that she would no longer allow her image to be Photoshopped, and stripped off to feature in a campaign for New Zealand lingerie label Lonely. She appears on the cover of Glamour’s February issue alongside her Girls co-stars wearing a pair of Marc Jacobs hot pants. On Instagram she wrote, “Thank you to @glamourmag for letting my cellulite do the damn thing on newsstands everywhere today”.

You started writing Girls when you were just 24 and recently out of college. How are you coping with the prospect of waving goodbye to your creation?
There’s no way it won’t be grief. It’s your life, friends, identity — it is so many things wrapped up into one. It’s like leaving college, high school and getting divorced — it’s a lot at once. I turned 30 the same year we were finishing the show, so there was a lot of symbolism in there. I just loved turning 30. I know that age is nothing but a number, but so much of the show is about how exhausting your 20s are. There is just something about being 30 where suddenly you are a respected member of your dialogue in the room and you can say: ‘No, no, I have a little life experience’, or ‘I object to that’.

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While Girls has always been a post-recession show and its characters have struggled with limited opportunities because of that, it always felt very hopeful and, in many ways, carefree. Do you think, given the current political climate, that it would be possible to sit down and write the show now?
No. I don’t. We got to make the whole show in this world where we had this safe father figure in the form of Obama. At the end of the day, we really felt like what was right would be protected. I think being shocked by Donald Trump’s election is a big privilege. If you talk to people of colour, trans people, queer people, immigrants, they’re like, yeah — welcome to the systems that have defined my life. As white people, we got to feel safe in a Democratic bubble. Donald Trump isn’t new, he’s just a reminder of what’s been going on. He’s a horrifying reminder of what’s always been the case for so many Americans.
I also think that I would be too afraid to write Girls now. I think if I were a young person who was observing internet culture; it would be too deep in my brain for me to feel free to write that. I would not be able to feel like I wasn’t trying to represent everybody and I wouldn’t — ignorance was bliss. Even if it didn’t strike everyone the right way, ignorance was bliss.

How does the dramatic change in these external circumstances change how you feel about the next projects you choose to pursue?
I’ve said this to a lot of friends and I think that it’s really important to keep making your art. Keep making your art in a way that feels private and sacred. It doesn’t all have to be political or making a statement — just making art is a radical act. It doesn’t all have to be designed to dethrone Donald Trump. It’s great if that’s the accidental effect of it, but I think we just have to make the work that feels important to us, and let it speak to the times that we live in. Then engage and share our resources, to the best of our abilities.

What have you learned from Hannah over the course of six years?
Something I love about Hannah and something I hope to hold onto is that she really does stand up for herself. She doesn’t let people slight her and walk away, she gets the last word in. She asks for what she needs — she doesn’t always do it gracefully, but she’s not pretending, she’s not pussyfooting around the issue and that honesty is something I’m envious of. It was really fun and inspiring to play.

SEE: Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke in Lonely 

What have been your favorite moments or scenes or situations that she’s found herself in, to play?
I always love when we find Hannah somewhere unexpected. Whether it was in season one, back home in Michigan, hooking up with a pharmacist, or her brief relationship with Patrick Wilson, or whether it’s, this season, going to surf camp in Montauk — I love when Hannah finds herself like a fish out of water, and has to navigate those spaces. She’s such a homebody and such a sort of creature of her bed, that when she’s out in the world, there’s something really funny about it. She has trouble — unless she’s in her apartment, she’s not quite in her natural habitat, which I fully relate to.

My friend Durga Chew-Bose has a book coming out, a beautiful book, called Too Much and Not in the Mood, and in it she identifies certain people as “nook people,” — people who always want to be in a little nook. I was like, oh, that’s what I am — I’m not a hermit, I’m not antisocial, I’m a nook person.

How happy were you to be able to post about the Glamour cover and your unretouched picture? It was really important to me to express, personally, the significance of being allowed to keep my body intact on the cover of a magazine. Even at age 30, it had a huge impact on my self-esteem to be given the chance to look at that magazine cover and see my body unedited. Representation matters — and we all know it. That was the first time I’ve ever posted publicity shots of myself, because it’s the first time I’ve felt like myself. It’s great to see a picture of yourself and go: ‘Oh, that’s me. And I like what I look like’.

• The final series of Girls is screening Wednesdays at 8.30pm on SoHo.

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