Lena Dunham's blueprint for bad living (and worse sex) made her the latest fast-talking feminist to polarise America. Now, the Girls star bares all to Jonathan Heaf about backing Obama, dealing with death threats and the naked truth of all that nudity.
What is it about Lena Dunham - the 26-year-old culturequake famed for writing, directing and starring (naked, mostly) in her hit HBO series Girls - that attracts such high praise and such sneering, blood-spitting vitriol? A week after Dunham won two Golden Globes in January this year (for Best Television Comedy Series and Best Actress In A Television Comedy Series), GQ found itself on Dunham's patch in New York City. Over the course of two nights - GQ dining first at Battersby (it's as good as the natives brag) and then at the restaurant at the new NoMad Hotel (who'd have thought that salted kale could be so expensive?) - Dunham's talents, her game-changing (yep, we said it) television show and what some critics are calling the young star's "pathological exhibitionism" all came up in heated conversation.
￼Hardened sceptics say it's 50/50 as to which way the legacy chips will fall for Dunham, now two series into her show with a trunk full of silverware and a book deal with Random House worth a reported £2.2m to show for it. She'll either go on to achieve her ambitions of becoming the new Nora Ephron - a goal that GQ certainly feels she has every chance of accomplishing, becoming "a voice of a generation" - or she will simply wind up as little more than Twitter's answer to Woody Allen. (Smug, zeitgeist-appropriating phrases such as the one Dunham used in a New Yorker article recently, "I guess I want to have my cake and tweet it, too," aren't exactly helping.)
So why do the critics give Dunham such a tough time? Because she takes her clothes off yet isn't the expected svelte shape we are so used to seeing day in, day out on our television screens? Because of her liberal arts background? Because of what her detractors call her perceived sense of entitlement? Who knows? Not since Keira Knightley skipped lunch has a young star been quite so divisive. Whatever your opinion of her, however, what is abundantly clear is that Dunham - like Lars von Trier movies, grilled tofu, and whether or not Jennifer Lawrence looks better as a blonde or a brunette (answer: who cares? It's Jennifer Lawrence!) - has suddenly become someone who everyone everywhere has something to say about. She's the new Diablo Cody - if Diablo Cody were someone that anyone outside of West Hollywood had ever heard of.
Over the course of the past 12 months, Dunham has experienced the thrill of the hype, the anxiety of the backlash and then the relief at the arrival of the backlash against the backlash. Yet despite all the noise, nothing that the impotent critics think will put the young auteur off her staggeringly accomplished stride. In fact, she seems to relish the fight. It isn't her breasts that the critics should be worrying so much about. It's her balls.
GQ: Hello, Lena. I'm surprised you even have time for this conversation, seeing as you're the most talked about human being on the planet...
Dunham: Oh please! I'm sorry I'm late and it's totally my fault - I was dropping my dog off at doggie daycare, and as a result everything in my life pushed on a half-hour. It's a new dog so everything is that bit slower. I'm perhaps criminally insane for having got a dog, but I love it. Everyone that knows me has been simply asking, "Are you f***ing insane?" But I believe that dogs replenish. Although I may have forgotten that they also need to be taken out at 5am.
How does it feel to be in the eye of a cultural storm?
For me, it's definitely not normal. I would have to be totally crazy for this to be normal. You do have to adjust on some level so you can just continue with your work. You can't live your whole life in awe. But it's new and insane and peculiar and just a little bit overwhelming.
Well, now you know how Robert Pattinson feels.
I have no problem knowing how Rob Pattinson feels, and I obviously mean that on all sorts of levels. I seem to enjoy talking about myself even more than I thought I did.
With the awards comes criticism. How are you handling it all? Shock jock Howard Stern called you a "little fat girl who kinda looks like Jonah Hill"...
I don't listen to it so much, but I'm on Twitter so you can't help but be aware of these things. It's hard in this day and age to avoid criticism, especially when your well-meaning friends say to you, "I can't believe Howard Stern said those horrid things about you!" So I can't really ignore it, but I try my best to bury my head in the sand. As a producer of a show you also want to get feedback from the fans - the good and the bad. Television is the medium of the people and you want to make sure you are listening. But you can definitely listen to too much of it.
Do you think the old media hierarchy thinks of you as some sort of threat?
A threat? That is not the sensation that I have. I mean, I don't know who feels like a threat, although it could be a fun thing to want to feel like. I think there's a couple of things going on here with all the criticism. I think some people aren't attracted by what I do and, for me, that's the most valid position for the criticism to come from. You know people who are like, "It's just not my thing." Or perhaps their morals don't jibe with my morals, you know, the same way I feel about Chris Brown - it's not for me, I don't like your attitude and you are not someone I want to take in. Though, admittedly, I've never beaten any of my lovers in a car while heading back from the Grammys, so maybe I'm just not "with it" or something. Then there's conservative people who aren't into what I do as it doesn't fit their perception of what women, particularly young women, should be doing. I'm aware of this, but you need to have critics. Who, after all, is universally loved? Not even Ryan Seacrest!
Actually, you're right, everyone seems to love Will Smith. I do, and I don't know him.
A lot of the religious conservative right didn't like your video in support of President Obama. [Dunham's campaign video likened voting for Obama with losing your virginity.]
I was in London hanging with my British friends when that came out, and they were like, "You know that in London if someone said they didn't believe gay people should be allowed to marry or that people shouldn't be allowed to have abortions and that religion should be a part of the government, you would have been laughed out the country as if you were a lunatic?" For many, it's not a position you are allowed to take. I get it if someone just doesn't think I'm funny, but the conservative hate couldn't give me any less pause because of how strongly I believe in what Obama is doing and having a country ruled by Democratic notions.
Have you received death threats?
Some of those people were definitely behaving like, "I'm going to kill your mom!" It's not like I had a note come through the post attached to a horse's head, but there were definitely people on Twitter saying, "I am ashamed you're alive, somebody should get rid of you!" and "If you want abortion to be legal, you should have been aborted!" Really crazy stuff. I think the comfort for me was simply thinking, "Well you're insane." It's like when a homeless man screams that he's going to cut off your head and put it in a garbage can - you tend to see it more as ridiculous than scary. That's what I feel when that person blows up my Twitter.
Should politics and celebrities mix?
All this abuse made me think: why don't more people in celebrity positions talk about politics? For example, I don't think I know who Julia Roberts voted for. It occurred to me for the first time that when you declare a political position, you isolate a big part of your audience. I mean, anyone who watches Girls knows that I come from Democratic sensibilities, at the very least, but it's interesting to see how some celebrities are scared of making choices that could mean that fewer people will be willing to buy into their product.
The fact that you're nude a great deal of the time in Girls has attracted a lot of criticism. Why can't people handle a bit of nipple?
Right! You know, I've thought about this a lot. My opinion has evolved somewhat. I used to think it was because people couldn't handle seeing the types of body that we usually don't see on television. But I don't feel so much that way any more. I've come to feel like this is more about men and women being presented in a unflattering light and presenting the sex they have in an unflattering light. I think it's stressful for people in a way I didn't understand at first.
Critics have said there's something of the pathological exhibitionist about you. How do you respond?
It's interesting. I understand that when the nudity and sex are taken out of context, but it's not like my character is an exhibitionist - she's just living her life, and I happen to be trying to capture her life on camera and not trying to avoid any parts of it. So I would think that the amount of nudity is entirely appropriate in the context of the show, though I do entirely understand people are like, "Why can't she keep her pants on?"
In hindsight, do you wish you'd used less nudity in Girls?
I don't mind it much - it can be better than a lot of questions that other people are asked time and time again. I'm sure there's a worse way it could go, and I will say that I generally feel like you're going to be asked certain questions and I have to be comfortable with this. But I wonder if I would have got the same reaction if I were one of those celebrities who is always in a bikini.
Like, for example, Beyoncé?
I wonder. You don't hear people going, "Why do you love to show off your beautiful perfect form so much?" I guess the underlying question people are really asking is this, "Why are you naked so much on a TV show when you look the way you do?" There's a general feeling of "Well, if you've got it, flaunt it. And if you don't got it, why would you want to flaunt it?"
We're confused over here at GQ. Some feminists say it's objectifying to stare at a woman in a bikini; others say it's empowering for women to show off their bodies, whatever the shape. Should the modern man stop looking at hot girls on the beach?
Oh, I think you should keep staring at women in tiny bikinis - so long as the women are willing participants and are doing it on their own terms. It's very complicated from a gender-studies point of view, and a lot of feminists argue over just such topics. Some people believe that women simply can never be willing participants because these are things they have to do in order to have a career. So even if they are superficially willing they are actually being pressured by a culture that wants them to get naked, so they get naked to get ahead. I'm sure there is some validity in that argument. I would argue that our job is to please each other and not harm anyone in the making of our own sexual pleasure.
Sold. So is Rihanna a good role model for young women?
I like Rihanna's sex-positive attitude. I think she's so sexy, and if I looked like Rihanna I would never put clothes on again in my life. She's allowed to present herself however she wants, and I like the fact that she is such a beautiful woman with such a high profile and that she's pushing the limits of what is sexually appropriate. I haven't really spoken about Rihanna as I'm a big supporter of my sisters, but perhaps it's time. I tweeted, like, three things about Chris Brown and I got about 15,000 Chris Brown followers saying, "You are going to die!" He has really devoted followers and they are all teenage girls. That's the thing that is crazy to me. You can't judge, as obviously we don't see behind Chris Brown and Rihanna's bedroom doors, and it's unfair to hold them up as a universal example, but I do think it's really dark that there's all these teenagers rooting for what they feel is this hot, forbidden love story. That's a very hard thing for me to reconcile with. I don't think it's every woman's job to be a role model for her fans, but I do think this has taken our cultural narrative about abuse against women back quite far.
So you're no longer a Rihanna fan?
I still dance my butt off to Rihanna's songs and I follow her on Twitter because I like seeing naked pictures of her ass. So I'm just as bad as the rest of them.
Since becoming famous, do you feel any pressure to lose weight?
I really don't. It's funny because when I meet people off-set they always ask me if I've lost weight. And I always say no, it's just because I carry myself on-camera very differently to when I'm off-set. People often say, "Oh my God, this is not what I expected!" But when I do the show, I put grease in my hair and I'm not wearing the clothes I would normally wear. But it also gives me some sense of pride that I can go to an event like the Golden Globes and say, "Yep, I ate today, and I have no sense of embarrassment about it."
You bring a great deal of your own life to Girls. in series two, there's a great drug-taking sequence that manages to be funny without lingering on cliché. Did you use your own coke-taking experiences for this scene?
You know, with coke I did that terrible Woody Allen thing, that scene from Annie Hall where he sneezes and it goes everywhere. That was my own personal relationship with taking cocaine in real life. I've been around all that stuff, but I've never really successfully ingested it. The actor Andy Rannells, who is in the scene with me, had to be, "No Lena, you have to snort it this way." Not that he's some huge druggie, but I was doing little baby snorts and he was like, "No one is going to believe this!"
Great day at the office, learning how to take cocaine.
Yeah, we snorted so many B vitamins that day. At least it's healthy.
There's a lot of awkward sex in Girls. Adam Driver [who plays Dunham's boyfriend] has said that he gets approached by men who thank him for making it OK to pee on their girlfriends - as he did in the show.
Listen: guys want to pee on women. That is a fact. And this is not a good thing. I showed the peeing scene to HBO and they're like, "We're supposed to believe that Hannah [Dunham's character] wants to be with him after he pees on her in the shower?" Then I showed it to my dad and he told me it was the funniest thing in the series - so we left it in.
Well, it didn't make me want to pee on my girlfriend.
Good. That is the correct response.
Feminism seems to be trendy again. Are you with Hanna Rosin in declaring The End Of Men?
That's an alarming thought. Besides men being essential for procreation, I enjoy their company. But I do think that we're entering a time when certain sections of society have to get with [sexual equality] or get out of town.
Were you shocked at responses to how much money you are being paid to write your first book?
It always throws me to have a conversation about something that personal. For me, it's weirder to talk about money than sex - I was raised feeling that money was a subject that is very uncouth when aired publicly. It definitely embarrassed me in that regard. But if it makes another woman think, "OK, great, I can actually get paid for something that I love to do," then that excites me.
Is it true that there's going to be a Girls scent?
I'm not involved with that. Who would want to smell like our show?
Are you feeling nice tonight, ONTD?