By Mike Berlin
Photography by Pamela Littky
"Full disclosure. I have multiple gay ex-boyfriends,” says Lena Dunham.
For the 25-year-old actress, writer, and director, self-deprecation is an art form. It pervades everything from the young auteur’s overshares on Twitter to the inherent connection she says she feels with the Midwest, where she attended Oberlin College (“From the moment I got to Ohio, I was like, ‘No hills—check. Lots of free bread everywhere you go… The Midwest rules!’ ”).
It’s also the default defense mechanism for the semi-autobiographical characters Dunham plays in her 2010 debut film, Tiny Furniture, and in her upcoming HBO series, Girls. To understand Dunham’s predeliction for putting herself, and her heroines, down, one must consider her cultural provenance (her parents, Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, are both major artists) and the knee-jerk accusations of nepotism it elicits from her detractors.
In a way, Dunham uses self-flagellation to preempt criticism, which takes on a deeply personal nature, given her work’s real-life subject matter. In Tiny Furniture, she enlisted her actual mother and teenage sister -- not to mention her parents’ TriBeCa loft -- to tell the story of Aura, a college graduate living at home, floundering in post-collegiate disenchantment.
“Deciding you are a person who should have a movie or TV show can look demented to the world,” she says. “I hate to be the Girl Who Cried Misogyny, but there’s more of a precedent for crotchety, flawed men putting themselves in the center of their own work.”
Dunham’s character in Girls, Hannah, will evoke the heavy-hitters in that group -- like a younger, female Larry David. As a recent liberal arts grad who flocked with her college friends to Brooklyn, she is shocked into reality when her parents, Midwestern professors, cut her off after two years of paying her rent.
Girls focuses on a quartet of young women in their early twenties, the intensity of their friendships, and dating in the ambiguous age of texting. Already anticipating comparisons, Dunham describes her characters as having grown up idolizing Carrie Bradshaw, but arriving on set a decade later to find a barren, unsatisfying professional and sexual landscape. “HBO really cornered the female market in an amazing way with Sex and the City,” she says. “But post-recession and with the rise of social networking, there is a different kind of woman who wants something less aspirational and more reflective of her reality.”
Accordingly, Girls is an honest exposé of city life, markedly unglamorous compared to its network contemporaries and heavy on the humility of embracing adulthood, one giant faux pas at a time. In one scene, Hannah blows a near-perfect job interview by making an uncouth joke about date rape; in another, she accuses an ex-boyfriend (The Book of Mormon’s Andrew Rannells) of giving her HPV, only to find that he’s since come out of the closet.
Was Dunham working out feelings of regret for the gay men she’s loved and lost to other men? “It’s something I’m actually proud of,” she says, readying her diss. “The best option is that people who are confused about their sexuality feel really comfortable with me. The worst option is that I turn them.”