Lena Dunham on her rise, fall, and fame: “My own power is a mystery to me”

Lena Dunham on her rise, fall, and fame: “My own power is a mystery to me”
Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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Whether you love her or love to hate her, Lena Dunham’s satirical writing has forever altered the entertainment landscape.

At just 23, Dunham broke into the industry with Tiny Furniture, her first feature film, which won the narrative feature prize at SXSW Film Festival in 2010. Less than a year later, Dunham partnered with HBO to create Girls, a primetime TV comedy. In writing and starring in Girls, which aired for six seasons and won countless awards, Dunham carved out screen time and cultural space for the unapologetic celebration of young women: ones who are self-centered, confused, unconventionally shaped, screw the wrong men, and, despite their flaws (or perhaps because of them), love themselves and one another.

In Lenny Letter, the e-newsletter she founded in 2015 with Girls collaborator Jenni Konner, Dunham broke from the white privilege that her TV show epitomized, creating a feminist publication that prioritizes intersectionality and showcases the experiences and perspectives of women of all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, classes, and abilities. As an outspoken activist, Dunham has relentlessly advocated for Planned Parenthood, women’s reproductive rights, and further research on chronic illnesses like endometriosis, which she has openly struggled with.

And yet, despite her talent, many feel that Dunham has erred. She has been slammed for making seemingly racist comments, and her recent defense of an accused rapist shocked and enraged many, especially given her identity as a staunch advocate for survivors of sexual violence. Her frequent missteps are satirized in the Twitter account Lena Dunham Apologizes.

But Dunham’s vulnerability is also her strength. As Aamna Mohdin writes in Quartz, “The brilliance of Girls was its ability to hold a mirror to our deepest insecurities and flaws.” The same is true for Dunham herself. In the first episode of Girls, Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s heroine, makes a grandiose claim: “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least the voice of a generation.” Hilarious in its absurdity and pointed in its familiarity, this prophecy is Dunham’s truth.

In an interview with Quartz, Dunham talks about giving praise, being relentless, and learning how to say no.

1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?

That every woman has a story, and that all those stories need to be heard. One chubby story is not enough. One rape story is not enough. One black or trans or disability story is not enough. We must embrace the unique personhood of every female creator in order to embrace ourselves. This involves shedding internalized judgment from men in power and the creative world that tells us our female stories are parlor dramas at best, and unspeakable at worst.

2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

I’m obsessive. I am never casual about an idea, a passion, or a project. It consumes me in a way that is total, and it grips my consciousness until it is complete. I think this commitment to creation is what makes being an artist beautiful and also isolating. In short: I don’t stop.

3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

Women are being sent signals that they have to hide their true selves at work­: that they’re too messy, too emotional, too MUCH. But it’s these very qualities that make surrounding myself with women at work such a joy. Men don’t spend their time trying to subjugate their ids to get the job done. Neither should we.

4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

It hasn’t changed: I do not yet feel valuable enough to say no. My own power is a mystery to me, and often impossible for me to see and acknowledge. That leads to feeling like I owe (people and the world) pieces of myself I can’t afford to give. I’m still working that one through, and I know I’m not alone.

5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

When Girls first came out, we were leveled with some (very valid) criticism about race. As the face of the show­ and a kid still living with my parents (totally unprepared for fame),­ I became deeply angry at myself for my perceived failings. I didn’t have an ounce of forgiveness for myself, yet I was defensive and flailing. What healed me was listening and learning, treating it as a teachable moment, and moving on knowing I was open to growth.

6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

I am naturally a praise-giver. People joke that my praise is meaningless because it’s just nonstop. But I mean it. I want my colleagues to know they are loved, needed, and valued. I try and give my employees chances to stretch and expand, even when it’s scary, and to be there as a trampoline. I’m very open about my own challenges and fears, because I want to foster that.

7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

My father said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” In an industry where women are routinely pitted against each other, I repeat that to myself every day. We cannot accept the false premise that there isn’t room for all of us.

8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Men need to recognize that most women have an entirely different set of challenges outside of work, be they familial, medical, or romantic. Many women have dependents beyond just children­; we are often the go-to for friends and family in need. Making room for difference—whether it’s breastfeeding spaces, a break for taking a loved one to a midday doctor’s appointment, or the space to express grief—is essential for women in the workplace.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that you cannot get me into jazz. Especially not live jazz. Nope.

I wish people would stop telling me… that it’s not a big deal.

Everyone should own… a heating pad. Go back to the womb with one simple tool!

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.