There are definitely people who feel like the characters on Girls are intolerably in their own heads and they don’t understand the purposeful part of that.-Lena Dunham
A couple of weeks ago, Lena Dunham and I met for dinner. As soon as we’d placed our orders at a French-ish café in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, we plunged into a conversation about love between girls—both platonic and romantic. I began to describe my first real relationship, which was with a girl, and Lena immediately asked, “How did you feel about her vagina?” A few days later, I was telling this to an old friend, and the old friend said, “I’ve known you for 20 years and I’ve never thought to ask you that. . . How did you feel about her vagina?” Of course, Lena always goes straight for the most interesting thing, the thing you really want to know, even if it seems too intimate or too silly or too gross. Other things that might be considered too intimate/silly/gross: Lena’s normal-looking thighs. And stomach. Self-empowerment through self-degradation. The stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms. Or pretty much anything on her half-hour TV series Girls, the second season of which recently began airing on HBO.
I want to take a moment to point out the manner in which Lena asked me the vagina question: She asked it seriously, her two adorably big front teeth momentarily hidden by the earnest line of her lips. I felt like my answer was going to be the most important thing anyone had ever said. This, in case you don’t know, isn’t particular to Lena—this is how girls talk to one another when they really like each other, endlessly pushing deeper with growing boldness. This is why women have to talk to each other so much and for so long; it is simply more satisfying than other things—exactly in the way that Girls is more satisfying than a lot of other shows. No other show makes us (and by “us” I mean us girls and the show’s considerable male viewership—56 percent of the audience that watched the series premiere last April were men) feel so buzzed and almost uncomfortable with excitement. “What is this new feeling?” we ask ourselves. “It’s like I’m high on a drug I never knew existed.” It turns out that this is how it feels when concerns that have historically been considered too intimate/silly/gross—too female—are publicly treated with serious attention by a very skilled artist. The huge skills, along with her totally unedgy good will, are why Lena can be so radical and so mainstream at the same time. She’s a real writer, has a thrilling sense of timing, and her casting (Adam Driver, Jemima Kirke) is a gift to us all. And I also happen to know from intel on the crew that she has no problem saying, “Uh, no thank you” when her executive producer, Judd Apatow, makes a suggestion that she doesn’t think works.
People love the mythology of talent popping up fully formed out of nowhere. How could Lena’s first feature, Tiny Furniture (2010), be so good—so zingy and perfectly executed? She must be a genius! Or: nepotism! The truth is less exciting and doesn’t let your lazy ass off the hook: Tiny Furniture was Lena’s second feature—the first was Creative Nonfiction (2009), and no, it’s not quite as good. She had to work to figure it out. And Girls? Not her first multi-episode series either—and not even her first show about girls in New York. Lena’s web series, Delusional Downtown Divas, launched on Index magazine’s site in 2009 and ran for 20 episodes over two seasons. The kooky, campy divas make the privileged Girls girls look like everywomen. I’m not saying that Lena’s ascent has not been quick—my neck hurts from looking up so fast. But this is the kind of woman who is so relentlessly diligent that she makes us formerly-perceived-as-productive people have to rethink our whole approach. My answer to Lena’s question at dinner? Terrific. I felt terrific about it. I thought of it as a warm Danish from an expensive pastry shop. Lena and I did this interview over the phone a couple of days before Christmas. She was in L.A. and pushed the time of our call by 30 minutes so she could get acupuncture; I was in a house in the mountains and pushed it another 15 minutes so I could finish feeding sweet potatoes to my son.
MIRANDA JULY: I have a baby on my hip, so I need a minute.
LENA DUNHAM: Of course! Hi, Hopper!
JULY: “Hi. Lena!” He’s actually talking a lot now.
DUNHAM: Is he really? What kinds of sounds has he been making?
DUNHAM: Oh my god—I just heard one!
JULY: That was a laugh.
DUNHAM: I just heard what sounded like an adult giggle!
JULY: Yeah, exactly.
DUNHAM: So cute! Sorry I’m late. My acupuncturist pushed everything a half an hour, and he has me convinced that if I don’t do acupuncture, then something terrible is going to befall me.
JULY: He’s probably right.
DUNHAM: I brought Jack [Antonoff]—who you did see on Sunset Boulevard, by the way.
DUNHAM: Yes. I told him and he said, “I thought I saw her in a car and that I was imagining it.”
JULY: That’s such a trip to me because, I mean, I’ve only googled him once.
DUNHAM: That makes me think that you’re like some kind of super-recognizer.
JULY: The thing is that he was wearing really bright clothes. I somehow saw that in that instant, and I was like, “Would Jack wear clothes that bright?” Then I was like, “How would I know?”
DUNHAM: It’s funny that you say that because he’s been wearing these neon sneakers, and he told me that they were supposed to be a one-time statement, but now they’ve become an everyday staple. He’s really upset about it.
JULY: Well, if he hadn’t been wearing bright clothes, then I probably wouldn’t have noticed him.
DUNHAM: So then I brought him to acupuncture, and I was like, “The acupuncturist is going to let you know that you’ve really been burning the candle at both ends and it’s been a rough scene.” He told Jack that he had too much energy and not enough places to put it, and then he told me I had so little energy that I almost had no pulse, so I was sort of pissed at the situation.
JULY: You should just suck out some of Jack’s energy.
JULY: Not through his penis, though. That’s not what I meant.
DUNHAM: By the way, as we’re talking, if there’s anything that we don’t want to say in the interview, then you can always say, “Off the record.” You can say, “I would say, off the record . . . Okay, back on the record!”
JULY: Right, you have to remember to say, “Back on the record,” or there’s no interview.
DUNHAM: Yes. Otherwise, they can’t publish anything you’ve said after “off the record.”
JULY: From now on forever.DUNHAM: For some reason, I’m thrilled that you’re doing this with a baby on your hip.
JULY: He’s gone now. I banished him.
DUNHAM: Oh, he’s gone.
JULY: He and Mike [Mill’s, July’s husband] just went out the door. I’ve been thinking about you since we had dinner last week.
DUNHAM: It was so nice—and very reviving. I should tell my acupuncturist about that because that was a day when I had a lot of energy.
JULY: Speaking of that dinner, I was thinking about how most people don’t know what you’re really like, just as I didn’t know what you were like when I saw Tiny Furniture. But I remember the first time you came over to our house—Mike and I were saying that we’d never met anyone with such good manners who was also just so warm and deeply enjoyable to be with. Then Mike saw you at that Judd Apatow screening and came home and reported, “Lena was exactly the same as she was with us with, like, agents”—which we were baffled by because we’re totally weird around agents. We just can’t figure out how to be ourselves in front of them. Hopefully, our agents will be reading this. [Dunham laughs] But then I also remember you being that way with the person on the phone when you were calling the cab at my house. I remember hearing you on the phone with the Uber cab dispatcher going, “How are you?” and I was like, “Who is she talking to? Her best friend?”
DUNHAM: I would like to give Uber a plug even though their new updated app is really confusing to me.
JULY: But after meeting you and hearing about the agents and seeing you speak to the Uber cab dispatcher, I was like, “Lena is just herself with everyone.” And this might be why you seem to sort of glide through the world with a certain ease. Do you know at all what I’m talking about?
DUNHAM: Well, because of the show, I’ve started to get used to people feeling like they already know me when they meet me. I’ve obviously only experienced it within the past year of my life, but it’s really interesting to have so many people who you’re not familiar with act familiar with you. So you do have to come up with a strategy for how to handle that, and mine has been to try to match that familiarity by being familiar back. I’ve decided that instead of feeling like it’s creepy, I can feel like it’s really kind for people to go out on a limb like that and be familiar with someone they’ve never met. The only flip side to that has been that I’ve had this thing happen where I’ve been really familiar with someone and they will feel like we’ve started a close friendship, and then I’ll feel like I’ve disappointed them in some way by having a boundary in my life. Then it also makes me self-conscious because I’m worried that the close friends that I do have will think, “Oh, we’re not as close as I thought because she’s—”
JULY: Like that with everyone.
DUNHAM: Yeah. I mean, I’ve always been a big “I love you”-sayer and stuff. But then I worry. Jack once overheard me calling someone else “baby bug,” or some stupid name that I’ve called him before. I was like, “What if he now thinks I’m just a big disingenuous piece of crap?” That kind of thing gives me anxiety because I want everyone I love to know how much I love them.
JULY: How old were you when you made Tiny Furniture?
DUNHAM: I shot it when I was 23, and it came out when I was 24.
JULY: I was making work, too, at 23. I was also doing a lot of sort of quasi-prostitution—like things to shock my parents—and that’s on the record, by the way.
DUNHAM: I love it.
JULY: That part where I said it’s on the record? That is off the record. [Dunham laughs] But I know that you’re close with your parents [the artists Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons]. I have writer parents, so like you, I also had great models for how to work and value your inner life. I also kind of assume, though, that anyone who makes themselves the star of their own work, like I do, and puts themselves out there in that way, didn’t feel seen somewhere along the way. Like, part of the reason I have so much energy to put in to authorship is because I feel like I’m fighting against a huge silencing, ignoring force. That’s just my own battle and kind of the least interesting part of why I make stuff. But does that idea resonate with you at all?
DUNHAM: I knew exactly what you were saying the minute you said it. I know that in my family—despite the massive amounts of acceptance—it was thought that in order to be a person who is really contributing something to the world, you had to be generating things creatively. So performing was only really interesting to my parents in the context of things that you create. I think if I’d wanted to be like a straight-up actress, then as much as they might love watching movies and respect the work of Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep, they would have been flummoxed by the decision, because it would not have involved an appropriate amount of, to their minds, control and expression. In fact, it’s only recently that I even realized that performing was a part of the process that I enjoy. I always behaved as though I was acting in my own work out of some sort of strange utility, and once I found an appropriate stand-in, then I would stop. I think I’d aligned the idea of liking it with having a horrible ego or something, and admitting that I liked it or that it was important to me—even to myself—just didn’t feel okay. Then I always had these two things of feeling really respected and connected at home, and going to school and feeling like I just could not get it right. I didn’t feel like the other kids got me, but then I was also sort of bored and annoyed by them, so I knew that a large part of it was my problem. I actually had to switch schools because I didn’t have friends. I remember my parents saying, “She is so victimized at her school, so she has to switch.” But I was like, “I’m switching schools because I’m an asshole.” [July laughs] So in answer to your question, I did feel seen by my parents, but I sometimes felt overly seen.
JULY: And at school it was the opposite—no one took anything seriously.
DUNHAM: Yeah, like I always wanted to be in the school play, and I was constantly preparing for auditions in a way that was crazy—reading the book that the play was based on, fantasizing, working on things in the bathtub—and then I’d literally get cast as, like, a bouncing ball or a fat man or security guard.
JULY: [laughs] I’m picturing a Daniel Day Lewis approach to the bouncing ball.
DUNHAM: Yeah, so I tried to do it in a serious way, and it just wouldn’t work. But I’d still be so excited about the play. And then my parents . . . I think they kind of thought of all art forms as equal, so if they didn’t like the play, then they would walk out. [July laughs] That was a big thing, where it was like, “We stayed for your part, but it’s just not a great script and we didn’t think the leads were strong so we’ll see you at home after.”
JULY: My dad was like that. Otherwise, it’s “dishonest.”
DUNHAM: That’s totally what it was like. I think my parents thought, “We live in an artistic household where people are supposed to interact on a real level, so we’re not going to tell you that something is good if we I don’t think it’s good, because that’s not going to help any of us.” I remember with the first short film that I made, my dad was like, “It’s really great that you tried this, and I think it could be a good medium for you, but I don’t think you can show this one to anyone.” But that film is totally the thing that made me. If I hadn’t sent it to a film festival and met people, then I don’t know if I would have kept making movies. I remember that it was a big deal: My dad doesn’t like this film but I sent it to people!
I always felt like it was really special to have parents who were artists and to live the kind of life that we lived…I thought there was a kind of romance to it.-Lena Dunham
JULY: One question I had after seeing your first film but before meeting you was how does this person know not to be ashamed of the very specific upbringing that she has had? Not that your upbringing is more shameful than anyone else’s, but I think that it’s normal, initially, to try to distance yourself from the shamefully unique aspects of your life growing up. But you got over that at some point—and rather quickly.
DUNHAM: That’s an interesting question. Who knows if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but you read about a kid who grew up in the Playboy Mansion or somewhere really wild, and they’re always like, “I didn’t know anything else. I just thought this was life.” But I never felt like that. I always felt like it was really special to have parents who were artists and to live the kind of life that we lived in a big loft—which wasn’t actually that big, but felt big because I was small. But I thought there was a kind of romance to it. So I don’t know if it’s good to be engaged in that way with your own life, but I always sort of was. I’ve seen the other version of it, too, though. My two best friends from childhood both also have artist parents, and I feel like at least one of them has a more ambivalent relationship to the whole thing. She wanted to be an artist and went to art school, but she kind of felt—and she would be the first to say this—like people were interested in her because of the kind of childhood she’d had, and it made her feel like kind of a spectacle. She found it challenging in a million ways that were hard for me to understand until recently. I think it was actually hard for me to understand until I imagined having a kid and could imagine what their particular burdens would be in being my kid. I actually thought about it when I saw you with Hopper. This is going to sound like such a pretentious thing to say, but I saw you and was like, “Oh, you’re totally being a mom in a cool way that’s particular to who you are, but you’re not trying to do it.”
JULY: Being a mom is probably the most normal thing I’ve done.
DUNHAM: But you’ve seemed to find a kind of balance in the whole thing. I remember this moment when you said to Hopper, “It’s an orange and it’s orange. It’s the only thing that’s like that.” I could imagine reading that in your fiction or seeing it in one of your movies, but you’re not foisting your identity on your kid.
JULY: Yeah, and if you hadn’t been there, I might not have even said it’s an orange and it’s orange, because the truth is that stuff is just totally lost on him. He doesn’t understand.
DUNHAM: He doesn’t speak English yet.
JULY: But I do often find myself comparing you with my 10-month-old son because you’re an example of how a child of artists can turn out.
DUNHAM: When I wrote Tiny Furniture, I also had all of my mom’s journals, and I’ve always had this huge romantic relationship with her life and my parents’ life before I existed. My relationship with that stuff is still so obsessive.
JULY: Speaking of romances, you fell in love not that long ago. We’ve spoken about him already but would you like to state the full name of this person?
DUNHAM: Oh, I’m totally fine to state his name: It’s Jack Antonoff [musician and guitarist for the band Fun]. I know there’s some rule that you’re not supposed to talk about your boyfriend publicly just because it seems like all starlets under the age of 33 have decided not to do that, but if you’re in love with someone great, then I don’t understand why you wouldn’t tell everybody. You don’t have to post naked pictures of them on the internet or tweet pictures of your Christmas celebration, but I feel like, in a way, he’s my best advertisement, so I’m like, “Why would I not tell people who ask?”
JULY: Before Mike, I found it not that easy to find boyfriends who were excited about having a girlfriend who was excited about working. I’ve always had this kind of fantasy that that wouldn’t be an issue for younger women whose boyfriends were raised by—
DUNHAM: These feminist moms.
JULY: Yeah. But I don’t know. Has that been an issue for you?
DUNHAM: Well, Jack is the first person that it hasn’t been an issue with. I thought that I would eventually find someone who got it when I was older. But I was always like, “Well, this is going to be me my fate for a while . . .” It’s not really an acceptable position these days to say out loud, “I don’t want my girlfriend to work that much,” so when you date someone, it comes out in a thousand other, even more nefarious ways. I almost respect it more when some guy is like, “Listen, I know this is completely rude, but I just grew up thinking that I was going to have a girlfriend who was going to hang around and be there, so I respect what you’re doing, but please go on your merry way.” Then at least you’d have something to work with. But instead I found people getting hostile about a million other things. I mean, it’s not like I’ve been in that many serious relationships that have been torn asunder by my work habits, but I’m thinking about one in particular where it really started being like, “I think all your skirts are too short,” and weird and controlling in a thousand ways. So I sometimes thought, “Am I going to end up with one of those boyfriends who kind of isn’t that ambitious but just loves cooking and gardening and dogs?” Which I didn’t want either.
JULY: Right, someone once told me, “You need to be with a pie-maker.”
DUNHAM: Who told you that? A guy?
JULY: A guy. I won’t say his name. [both laugh] I was just like, “But how am I going to fall in love with a pie-maker?”
DUNHAM: You can’t . . . I mean, someone could. I feel like in movies, there’s always, like, an executive and she has a husband who’s a pie-maker. So, yeah, I was concerned that I was going to end up with like a pie-maker or a guy who lived in a van, and then my big appeal was going to be that I was going to be able to take that guy out of his van. But Jack works so much—I always say that he makes my job look like I work part-time in the gift shop at an old-age home. He’s just constantly doing it, and it gets me invigorated about what I’m doing and reminds me of what’s important. But did you find it stressful at all when you were first in a relationship that there wasn’t the same ability all the time—or the same desire—to get out of your bed at one o’clock in the morning and have some big creative kerfuffle? I used to always get out of bed at one o’clock in the morning and write for a while and generally just kind of do what I felt like and get things done at night. It would feel like there were more hours in the day.
JULY: Yeah, that was a lovely time in my life in which I took delight, until recently, in a sort of self-destructive way. I’d be like, “The good thing about when this relationship falls apart will be that I can be alone again and work in the middle of the night.” But it took me a while to realize that it was actually sort of an honor to share a life with this person and to figure out how to do that.
DUNHAM: Totally. But it’s really hard sometimes to feel in the moment. I mean, I was on the phone this morning with my parents, who are my favorite humans in the world. I love my parents and my sister more than anything. But I had this thought that was like, “Okay, great. Checking this off the list for the day.” And that’s not a good thought to have when you’re having a delightful conversation with your parents about your Christmas plans.
JULY: I’d actually written a question that speaks to that, but I deleted it because I didn’t want anyone to know the badness. It was something about this sort of guilt for working that one might feel, and whether that’s a woman thing. But there’s also this element of finding ways to feel bad about stuff as, like, a profession—and I think perhaps we both do that a little bit. But maybe we’ve both found ways to share that kind of thing with the world by just throwing it out there—and maybe by sharing it, it gets transformed, and then you yourself see it differently.
DUNHAM: That’s exactly how I feel, like if somehow I can admit to it at least . . . I never realized until recently how much of making work for me was also based in making the people around me understand that I got it. Sometimes when I make things, it’s because I want my parents to see that I know what a pain I’ve been. I just want them to see it and feel that I know. It’s not necessarily even wanting them to know that I’m sorry—just that I’m in on it, so don’t think I’m not. Or, for example, with a guy who I’ve slept with, I’ll think, “You’re going to see my movie and you’re going to understand that I was out-thinking you the entire time and you didn’t even know it.” Of course, that’s not how anybody perceives your work…I don’t know if you’ve ever had that fantasy.
JULY: You do a great job of that—especially on Girls. I know everyone loves this scene, but that moment where the tables are turned and Adam Driver’s character says, “You never ask me anything”—that flipping around where we do suddenly realize that the person driving the car, the director, knows so much more than your character, Hanna, but in this intimate way where we know that you’ve been there and you’re not just preaching or self-loathing.
DUNHAM: I’m so glad that you feel that way. Not like I listen to every piece of feedback, but there are definitely people who feel like the characters on Girls are intolerably in their own heads and don’t understand the purposeful part of that. I know that when I have moments like that, it occurs to me how much I’ve been viewing a situation through my own convenient lens, which is the most exciting kind of revelation to have—and the most distressing kind of one to have about yourself.
JULY: Right, but if you can put it into your work and not get mired in it, then it is pretty much just a good thing.
It felt like some weird career puberty, like how people you start to be flirty with before you notice your own breasts. I was being treated in a more adult way before I even understood why or how.-Lena Dunham
JULY: I’d imagine that working on a TV show is sort of like having a conversation with the culture in real time. But you actually can’t be aware of every single thing you put into the work. You just have to keep being like, “Well, this one thing I’ve had a long time to think about, but this other thing is brand new and I don’t even understand where it’s coming from, but it’s out there, too.” You get that sense when you’re watching Girls that it’s a real mix of those things, and everything has not necessarily been turned over and examined yet.
DUNHAM: It’s a different experience, working on TV. I never even considered it before I did it. There are times when you just need to get the thing out so you don’t even have time to necessarily be precious about your work in the same way as you might if you were making a film, which runs so counter to the way I grew up watching people make work. When you’re making features, if you’re not done, then you don’t send it to the festival. It’s much less urgent. But TV is almost like being in college, where you’ve just got to hand in your assignment whether you’ve worked on your thesis or not, because Christmas break is coming.
JULY: I think it’s much more thrilling for everyone right now that you’re not plunging your energy into the slow mechanism of features. I know that you have plans to make movies—and will make many—but for right this second, it nice to not have to wait as long to see what you’re going to do next.
DUNHAM: Do you feel frustrated ever about what it takes or how long it takes to make a feature?
JULY: Yeah, you know that I do. But that’s partly why I work in a few different mediums. It’s kind of my way around not feeling so pinned or controlled by the slow-moving machines.
DUNHAM: People sometimes have this idea that there’s something schizophrenic about wanting to apply your artistic energy in different places, but I think there’s a new definition emerging of what it means to be an artist that is almost more about having a point of view than about having a mastery over a particular material.
JULY: I do have to say, when interviewers want to spend a lot of time talking about how curious it is that I work in different mediums, I feel like it really dates them—I think, “Oh, you’re an old-timey person.” Which is fine.
DUNHAM: I remember when it was like a big deal because J.Lo was going to put out an album and she was an actress. People started going like, “She’s trying to be a triple threat!” But writing stories, writing movies, writing performances, and trying to figure out different ways to do them all is not like having a nightclub and also trying to win an Oscar. You know, like, Miranda is a nightclub owner and—
JULY: A model.
DUNHAM: You are a sock model.
JULY: I have sock-modeled for Hansel from Basel—my one modeling experience. Remember when I saw you wearing Hansel from Basel socks, I was like, “I could probably get you some free socks, Lena.”
DUNHAM: Literally, I remember having this thought that I was going to e-mail you about the socks.
JULY: I know it’s gauche to talk about money, but later, after I read about your book deal, I said to Mike, “I guess that Lena can probably buy her own socks.” [both laugh] You were too busy making millions of dollars to get back to me about the free socks.
DUNHAM: But don’t you feel like free things—even when you don’t need them—just give you a feeling like they’re so yours or something.
JULY: That’s why people shoplift.
DUNHAM: There’s a big shoplifting plot on Nashville, which is my current favorite television show. A very, very rich country singer shoplifts a nail polish. She calls it boosting.
JULY: Oh, yeah. There’s nothing like boosting.
DUNHAM: Did you ever do any stealing as a kid?
JULY: I did, but more as an adult.
DUNHAM: I was never brave enough, even though it was a big trend in my high school. Every time I walk out of a store, I’m terribly afraid that some Tourette’s-y part of me will shove something into my bag that I don’t know about, or there will be some terrible misunderstanding if I walk into a place that might sell the brand of water that I’m carrying. I’m always like, “I came in here with this!”
JULY: Well, I am for sure one of those people who tried to fill their soul’s emptiness with stolen goods. But I am sort of interested in money—not in having it, per se, but in what it means—so I wanted to talk a little more about your book deal. [Dunham was reported to have a received more than $3.5 million from Random House to write a memoir/advice book.] I know that it’s probably hard for you to see from where you are right now, but some of the details of your book deal that leaked were actually very meaningful to a lot of people I know—the fact that this really large amount of money was being spent essentially on a girl making art about her feelings. There was something kind of earth-shifting about that for people around me—you know, for women artists, and not in the way that it has been portrayed online or in the media, but in a real, like, “Wow, this is a shift that will somehow be good for me” way.
DUNHAM: That’s so exciting for me to hear because most of response was either people ignoring it, which is fine to do, or the internet commentary, a lot of which was like, “Who the fuck would spend this much money on this thing?” But I think what that was so stressful to me at first about the number being put out into the world was the sense that someone was going to think that I was going around town and being like, “Listen, you fools. I’m worth this much.” People thinking that somehow I had this weird Machiavellian hand in the whole thing was incredibly anxiety producing. So in a way, I hated people knowing the details of the book deal, but in another way, it totally runs counter to my whole ethos to hide anything. If something happens in my life, then it’s going to find its way into my work, and I don’t want to just play some game where I pretend that, since I started working, absolutely nothing in my life has changed. Some things really haven’t changed, but then there are certain other experiences that I never really imagined I would have.
JULY: I think it’s one the most belittle-able of forms: women speaking very honestly about themselves and their friends, trying to say things that have never been said before, and taking that risk that maybe it will seem unimportant—because historically, it has been considered less than unimportant. But it’s not like your publisher is a dummy. They’re looking at the culture and at the numbers, and they’re saying, “Guess what? People are actually hungry for this.”
DUNHAM: That was in some ways the most exciting part to me—that people thought there was a place for this. I tried not to look at the internet reaction, but I don’t want to be that asshole who’s like, “I just don’t read any of it,” because, in a certain way, it’s impossible not to read any of it. Apparently, Ashley Judd claims to not read any of it, and finding that out really filled me with a lot of self-loathing. But people were acting like I was Paris Hilton or something—even though I think that any kind of success that’s been achieved by all of those girls who have made a business out of having amazing hair and a specific kind of attitude is not an accident either. I think people were acting like, “What a lucky, chubby little asshole who stumbled into this situation,” and it kind of hit on some real fears I have, because sometimes I do feel that way.
JULY: But it’s not like you got this money for being crass or cruel or promoting some company or some brand. Young women have been paid large amounts of money before—but not for this.
DUNHAM: I feel like I’m starting to understand it all better, but it’s weird. I don’t know if this is exactly correct, but the best way to explain it is that when I was 23 and first going to film festivals and having meetings and stuff, there was definitely a feeling that even if you were respected, people treated you like you were cute and precocious and wanted to be protective. But once you’re a little older and they find out that you have some money—which a lot of people equate with some power—then there’s a feeling suddenly that you’re a woman walking around and playing some game that you don’t even necessarily want to be a part of, and that you’re some threat. So it felt like some weird career puberty, like how people start to be flirty with you before you notice your own breasts. I was being treated in a more adult way before I even understood why or how.
I was constantly preparing for auditions in a way that was crazy…and then I’d literally get cast as, like, a bouncing ball or a fat man or a security guard. -Lena Dunham
JULY: It’s hard to make something like that your own unique experience. You can’t commiserate with many people about that, so you’ll have to lead the way, and Tavi [Gevinson] or whomever will have an easier time of it because of your example. I actually feel now more than at any other time in my life that it’s not just that there are all of these women who are coming into power, but that we’re all drawn to each other in a way that I haven’t really seen before.
DUNHAM: It’s an amazing thing.
JULY: I’ve known some pretty interesting women over the years, but one of the things that seems different now is that there’s a kind of friendliness—it’s not about who’s going to be the coolest at the party. This is new to me, and I have to say that I think that comes from the younger women. It’s one step past riot grrrl. With the riot grrrls, you always had to have the grrr part. You always had to be rioting.
DUNHAM: Totally. And in riot grrrl culture, I feel like there was a big thing where it was like, “We’re this kind of girl, and we’re not into this kind of girl.”
JULY: I definitely think it was a more sort of prickly-fight-y era. I was talking about this with Carrie Brownstein: When you’re in your twenties, you don’t think about how there are going to be these younger women coming along. You’re probably not thinking much about that now.
DUNHAM: No, Tavi’s the only one. It’s funny, though, because Tavi’s been working since before I was working.
JULY: The younger girls seem like the 2.0 version, and some of the rough edges are worked over. They don’t have to fight in the same way, so they can just go and put their energy into making their work—and I’m not saying that is because I think we fixed it all.
DUNHAM: But it’s kind of that. I feel that way all the time about my mom and generations thereafter. I think about some of the stuff that my mom had to deal with when she was a young artist, and then I think about the stuff that her students at Yale don’t have to deal with, and I do appreciate that that’s because she and Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman were trooping around and stuffing their photos in everyone’s faces and saying it was okay to have a show that wasn’t about big theoretical ideas about math and structure and theory. I think it’s so important for people to know that. And then people like you and Carrie—to me, it’s not a given that you guys would be generous to people who were coming in after you and making work. But I remember being so overjoyed when I met you that you were open to this thing.
JULY: You guys are what we need—I really do feel that way. The way that you have tilted a lot of people’s worlds is only positive—even if it feels kind of disruptive. It’s not always a totally easy thing for everyone to adjust to a new face of power, even if it’s the thing they want the most.
DUNHAM: Well, you can see that I’m really worked up about my nonexistent pulse—I’m almost angry.
JULY: I remember having something similar, and I think the thing you have to do is eat eggs, run, and have sex a lot—or something like that.
DUNHAM: Eat eggs, run, and have sex a lot—great, I’m on it. But I remember you saying to me in an e-mail early on that you felt like there was some kind of shift happening. My dad had a really good quote about that. I took him to the Glamour Women of the Year Awards, and I think he thought it was going to be pretty cheesy, but he left so inspired by seeing everyone from, like, Chelsea Handler to a woman from Pakistan speak. So my dad said, “Watch out, boys. The girls are comin’ for your toys.”