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Lena Dunham on a decade of being celebrated and hated
Illustration Callum Abbott

Lena Dunham on a decade of being celebrated and hated

The writer and actor reflects on her generation-defining TV show Girls, her frequent cancellation, and what she’s learned over the last ten years

Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we're speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.

Lena Dunham’s in London, brushing her teeth and keeping two cats and a dog from causing havoc in her hotel room. “We’re getting ready to go to a Christmas tree raising,” she gleefully tells me with a mouth full of toothpaste. Though when I ask what that is, she isn’t quite sure.

The New York-born writer is closing the decade in England – “I’m fully a dork for the UK,” she admits – after a tumultuous ten years that saw her catapulted to fame following the success of her generation-defining show, Girls.

“I thought I’d either be living in a basement,” she says on the topic of what she predicted her life would be like today, “or be the Queen of England. I don’t think I could have imagined an in-between.” 

Now 33 years old, Dunham has managed to find a middle-ground. First achieving success with 2010’s Tiny Furniture – a semi-autobiographical feature film which she wrote, directed, and starred in – it’s Girls that defines her career so far. “They’re my friends and I’ve never seen them on TV,” concluded the show’s original pitch – seven years later and the influence of Dunham’s complex portrayal of modern young women can be seen across the world.

Aired between 2012 and 2017, Girls chronicles the story of four 20-somethings as they navigate the erratic twists and turns that saturate the perplexing period between university and adulthood. Dunham’s characters are not aspirational, but rather flawed, narcissistic, frank, and – most importantly – relatable. The series follows the cast through STDs and pregnancy scares, break-ups and betrayals, internships and careers, and even the transition into motherhood. 

Starring in the show as self-involved protagonist Hannah Horvath, Dunham said the line that would besiege Girls – and the writer herself – to this day. “I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” she proclaims to her parents, “or at least a voice of a generation.” Though she asserts the line was a joke, it arguably ended up becoming true, but – as the writer has so-often discovered – with a powerful voice comes indignant critics.

Dunham is the first to admit that she hasn’t always used this voice in the best way possible – there’s the time she wished she’d had an abortion, the time she stood by her friend accused of rape, and – of course – the lack of diversity in Girls. Her repeated ‘cancellation’ online has dogged her decade, with the writer issuing so many apologies that they’re now generated automatically via Twitter.

As ten years of unprecedented fame, celebration, trolling, and hatred draws to a close, Dunham reflects on Girls and its influence, as well as her mistakes and criticisms, and the lessons she’s learned.

Girls has been heralded as the Sex and the City of its generation, and paved the way for shows like Fleabag. What is your memory of TV you consumed at the time, and why did you want to do something different?

Lena Dunham: When I was writing, I’d been watching a lot of British dramas and not that much comedy, which is a funny thing. Though of course, I’d also been watching Sex and the City over and over again, like every girl from New York does. If I’m being totally honest, I’d been watching Louie (a comedy series created by Louis C.K., who’s since been accused of sexual misconduct), which is a very complex thing for me to grapple with right now because I deeply disapprove of what he did and can’t stand by his work. It was a new kind of television that was allowing people just to exist in their world and their bodies, but I knew I wanted to do something with more narrative, and obviously much more feminist, and, you know, not feminist. I didn’t really consider myself political at the time.

You’ve said before you didn’t see yourself represented on television at the time – did that play a part in wanting to create the show?

Lena Dunham: I also didn’t see myself as representative at all. I don’t know how to say this except: I’m not normal. I’ve always felt old and I’ve always felt weird, so I didn’t see myself as explaining the 20-something experience – I thought of myself as explaining my 20-something experience and trying to capture my friends’. I think it was the “voice of a generation” line – which was a joke – that sent me down the path of people thinking I was trying to represent millennials on the whole. When you’re 24 years old, you don’t really know how to say to people, ‘I’m not a representation of anything’, because you’ve never practiced talking out loud. Suddenly you’re on this path and you’re answering all these questions about people your own age, and I don’t think I knew how to go, ‘holy fuck, I don’t know how to talk to anybody my own age’, so that’s part of what the show’s about.

“I was like: we’re growing up in this age of social media, everyone’s been on Ritalin since they were 10, no one knows how to communicate, and sex positivity is coming but we don’t know how to manage it” – Lena Dunham

Could you tell me about the day you pitched Girls?

Lena Dunham: I went into HBO – which was obviously scary because I’d barely been in an office building – and I said I want to make this show that’s in some way telling a story about girls my age, which I don’t think has been told before. I was like: we’re growing up in this age of social media, everyone’s been on Ritalin since they were 10, no one knows how to communicate, and sex positivity is coming but we don’t know how to manage it. I just had all these thoughts about how to (portray that) stuff that were maybe a little more complex than what I’d seen. I felt like girls my age were only drama characters and were never centralised, so I wanted to do that. But the narrative was slippery – it was just about what it was like to be Jemima (Kirke, who played Jessa), me, my friends Audrey, Isabel and Joanna in our 20s in New York – and I think it was Judd (Apatow, Girls’ executive producer) who said, ‘what if you made your character not from New York and it’s about coming to the city’. I had to make a narrative leap that was different to what I’d imagined, but ultimately made the show a lot better.

Do you remember when the first episode aired and the reaction to it?

Lena Dunham: I remember that before it aired, there was a lot of energy around it. I didn’t know if this always happened with TV shows, but people were like, ‘No, you don’t normally end up on the cover of New York magazine when you write a TV show’. Then I was on Twitter and started to see people reacting to me – some of it was stuff I could have expected like, ‘What is this fat girl doing on television?’ And some of it was stuff I never expected and was much more politicised, and I was forced to really grapple with questions of representation and diversity. I have to say that was a heavy combination that I didn’t really know how to manage, and probably am still learning to manage. 

I had truly never experienced anything like it in my whole life and I really didn’t know how to process any of it because no one really gives you the tools to be like, ‘OK, you’re going to be celebrated and hated, and it’s going to be really complicated’.

You mention questions of diversity – the show famously lacked people of colour – what would you do differently now?

Lena Dunham: It’s hard to say what I would do differently because I was so young. Part of me is like: I made that as a child and that’s what I made, and I’m going to make more things that reflect what I learn. But I know I would be intensely careful about making sure people felt seen and represented while also not engaging in tokenism. I do love every character I wrote because all of them are totally based on someone who was extremely close to me.

“It always wowed me that Tony Soprano could murder people on TV and be loved, and all my character did was be a little bit slutty and judgemental, and people talked about her like she was Satan” – Lena Dunham

Did you ever foresee the legacy the show had? Why do you think it became so popular?

Lena Dunham: It’s funny because in a way it was popular, and in a way nobody watched it. It was one of those things where the idea of it was almost bigger than what it was – but no, I never could have foreseen it. I kept thinking I’d make a pilot and that would be an amazing advertisement for me to be able to do rewrites in Hollywood, then suddenly it was my life for six years. When you’re in that, it’s hard to imagine anything else really, and I’m a work-horse so I just kept going – it wasn’t until I stopped that I understood the space it had created in television. I don’t mean to sound egotistical in saying that, I just think I was in the right place at the right time.

What are you most proud of about Girls?

Lena Dunham: I’m proud of the way women have told me they feel seen and less alone and less strange; that they felt depicted in the entirety of their complexity and weirdness, which is all I could have wanted. It always wowed me that Tony Soprano could murder people on TV and be loved, and all my character did was be a little bit slutty and judgemental, and people talked about her like she was Satan. But that’s the environment we were in, and sometimes coming first is very hard – I’m not saying I came first of everyone, there were so many legacies that allowed me to do what I do, but in this specific genre – because you make the mistakes, you fuck up, you experience the challenges, and then you hope that other people will feel safe to go off and do it themselves.

You’ve faced your share of online criticism over the last decade, and have had to issue a number of apologies. How have you absorbed this criticism and learned from it?

Lena Dunham: I’m an impetuous and passionate person, and I didn’t understand the difference between public and private, so of course there have been things I’ve said that I really haven’t been happy with after I’ve been educated about them. Although people make jokes about me apologising all the time, I like to think I faced the issues that arose with the people I had them with, and that I really tried to learn. I made the choice to share in a different way – I realised that most of my thoughts and feelings were not fit for public consumption and that it was time for me to manage my inner life differently.

What are the most important things you’ve learned growing up publicly?

Lena Dunham: It’s funny, the things I’ve learned are a little bit at odds with each other – I’ve learned to be careful, thoughtful, and understand the power of my voice, but I’ve also learned to tune (the critics and trolls) out. I’ve really had to learn the difference between valid criticism and cruelty, and that you can only absorb so much to continue making your work. I thought I was infallible, but when I got sick and my public life got a bit harder, I realised I wasn’t, and I don’t need to be. My advice to anyone who’s young is that it’s intoxicating to see your name all over the place, but it’s actually not an indication of real power. Real power is making your work.

“I’ve been cancelled so many times, I’m like one of those TV shows that keeps shifting networks” – Lena Dunham

Cancel culture has been a decade-defining practice – I’m interested to know what you think of it?

Lena Dunham: I’ve been cancelled so many times, I’m like one of those TV shows that keeps shifting networks. Or my friends would say I’m like a cockroach – I just can’t die. I think it’s really important for people who haven’t been heard for a lot of fucking years to be heard – that disenfranchisement is real and very painful, and it needs to be expressed. The internet has given people an equalised opportunity to express that, and that’s something I’m glad about. At the same time, I think without accepting true darkness or hatred or bigotry, we also don’t have an understanding of the human experience. When I see Lizzo getting temporarily cancelled because she tweeted a Postmates’ name, I’m like: can we all fucking calm down? But I do understand why we need to be louder than we’ve ever been before, based on the culture we’re living in.

What would you like to achieve in the next decade, and how do you hope to be perceived?

Lena Dunham: I want to make art, film, and television; I want to write books and make podcasts; I want to do theatre; I want to continue to work on my journalism skills. All of that is really meaningful to me. I think the idea of how I’m going to be perceived is something I’d like to release altogether. It’s not mine anymore to decide, and I think that I have the blessing right now of continuing to make my work – which I never take for granted – so that’s what I’m going to do.