Lena Dunham On Sex, Oversharing And Writing About Lost 'Girls'
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest is Lena Dunham, creator and star of the HBO series "Girls."
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LENA DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) Hi, dad.
PETER SCOLARI: (As Tad Horvath) Hi. Hi, honey.
DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) What's going on?
SCOLARI: (As Tad Horvath) Oh, nothing, just taking the day off to soak up some rays. Well, also, I had a small procedure - nothing to worry about - are you...
DUNHAM: (As Hannah Horvath) OK, I just met with the publisher, and they want to give me a real book deal. Not a stupid, pathetic e-book deal, a real book deal.
BIANCULLI: That's Lena Dunham's character Hannah on the phone with her father. Hannah is a writer who got and lost two book deals. One of her ambitions is to, quote, "lock eyes with New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani." Hannah would envious and resent Lena Dunham. When Dunham's collection of personal essays called "Not That Kind Of Girl" was published, she got a great review from Kakutani, who described the book as smart and funny and wrote that, quote, "by simply telling her own story in all its specificity and sometimes embarrassing detail, Dunham has written a book that's as acute and heartfelt as it is funny," unquote. "Not That Kind Of Girl" has just come out in paperback. Lena Dunham's most recent publishing adventure is online. This fall, along with "Girls" executive producer Jenni Konner, she launched Lenny, a feminist pop culture newsletter aimed at young women. Dunham has just signed a deal with Hearst Publishing to further distribute the content of Lenny., which has featured Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem and Jennifer Lawrence. And Lena Dunham continues to write for and star in "Girls," which returns on HBO with new episodes in February. Terry Gross interview Lena Dunham last year, when her book of essays originally was published. A note for parents – parts of this interview briefly veer into adult territory - nothing explicit, but perhaps not appropriate for young children.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Lena Dunham, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you back on our show.
DUNHAM: Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here.
GROSS: One of the opening quotes in your book is from your father. And you say...
DUNHAM: It is.
GROSS: And you say this is your father admonishing you. And he says, how quickly you transform the energy life throws at you into the folded bows of art. Your father and your mother are artists.
GROSS: What exactly was he criticizing about you there?
DUNHAM: I believe that we had had an argument which I had very quickly recycled into something that I was using in the show, and I told him about it. And he kind of laughed - there's this very specific laugh that my father has when he recognizes his own behavior in my work. This sort of, oh, what now kind of laugh that was - that I had just summoned from him. And then he was sort of describing - half admiringly, half with horror - the way that he didn't feel like he could do anything without it being recycled into my work. And it kind of felt like even though he didn't mean it as a compliment, it kind of felt like the perfect encapsulation of my - of sort of how the day-to-day translates into what I do, at least at this point in my creative life.
GROSS: Some people think that you over share (laughter). And I'm wondering because you do share so much, like, in your memoir and there's so much personal stuff in "Girls," whether it really happened to you or not, whether it's autobiographical or not, a lot of people just assume that it is. So have you ever made anything public that was very personal through your work or through your interviews that you later regretted saying?
DUNHAM: You know, I've thought about this a lot because it's a - it's a challenging thing when you're a person who has a desire, or let's say a compulsion, to share facts about your personal life. If that's the way you process the world is to make creative content based on your personal life, then you have to be really careful about making yourself feel too exposed. But for me the biggest concern is my family and the people that I love. And I feel very, very conscious of making sure that my parents, my boyfriend, my friends don't feel in any way demeaned, exposed or abused by the work that I make. Especially now, there's no writing about someone anonymously. People will pick it apart, they will figure out who that person is. There's sort of no sort of protective measures you can put in place at this point in history to take care of the people you love, so you have to be careful. And so there've been a couple times where I've said things about my parents or about my boyfriend that I felt have been taken out of context or misunderstood that have opened them up to criticism, and that is the stuff that pains me.
DUNHAM: And I also think...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
DUNHAM: You know, I think the term over sharing is so complicated because I do think it's really gendered. I think that when men sort of share their experiences, it's bravery and when women share their experiences, it's some sort of, you know, it's like - people are like TMI, too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information? It seems like it has a lot to do with who is giving you the information. And I feel as though there's some sense that society trivializes female experiences. And so when you share them, they aren't given - considered as vital as their male counterparts. And that's something that I've always roundly rejected.
GROSS: You know, it's interesting, I think writing about yourself and kind of shaping your personal narrative gives you a certain power over your life because you're controlling the story. But nowadays, you do that - you control your story, you put it out and the stories not finished yet because everybody's going to tweet about it. They're going to give it their interpretation. So that sense of, like, controlling your own narrative, in a way it doesn't exist anymore.
DUNHAM: That is so accurate. And there are a few things in this book that I was terrified to put into the world because I thought of the headline and sort of people hearing third-hand what existed in the essay. And it was just - it was a really scary thing and I really had to examine with a few of these essays is this something that I can bear to see sort of put through that game of telephone?
GROSS: Can you give us an example of one of the things you were concerned about?
DUNHAM: Yeah, I think the chapter about date rape in the book was a really, really terrifying thing for me to put into the world because as important as the topic is - and we are also having this massive moment of cultural awareness about campus assault, which is a very gratifying thing to see and I hope it leads to incredible change - but just sort of honestly, the idea of seeing sort of, you know, the fourth-hand UK Daily Mail headline - Lena Dunham Tells All About Rape - was - it was a nightmare to me. But at the same time, I think I knew that sharing that experience was - I not only felt it was important because of what I was seeing other young women go through, I felt it was important because of what it was going to give me spiritually to not be hiding that anymore.
GROSS: I thought that was a really interesting chapter. And your confusion about, is this rape or not? Like, am I complicit in this or not, like, what has happened here? And you were - you were hurt. I mean, I don't mean emotionally hurt, though you were that, too, you were physically hurt for a while.
DUNHAM: It was a painful experience physically and emotionally. And one I spent a long time trying to reconcile. And I actually - I've been thinking about it a lot this week because I sent an email to somebody who I had known at that time, who knew the guy who had - whatever we're going to say - perpetrated the act, who knew him. And I wanted to make it clear to this old friend what I felt had happened before he, you know, potentially, you know, bought the book at Hudson News and read about it. I just - I hated the idea of somebody finding out that information because at the time that it happened, it wasn't something that I was able to be honest about. I was able to share pieces, but I sort of used the lens of humor, which has always been my default mode, to try to talk around it. And I said to this old friend in email, I said I spent so much time scared. I spent so much time ashamed, I don't feel that way anymore. And it's not because of my job, it's not because of my boyfriend, it's not because of feminism - though all those things helped - it's because I told the story. And I still feel like myself and I feel less alone.
GROSS: You know, the way you describe it in your book, this experience happened to you, you were telling one of your girlfriends about it and your girlfriend said you were raped. And it hadn't even occurred to you to think of it that way before that.
DUNHAM: Before that I think I had just felt that something was very wrong. I had felt that something had happened and I remember thinking can I ever be the same? But I was not comfortable giving myself the clarity of that because the fact is is I know that - I knew that I was sort of at this party, where the - I was at a party, drunk, waiting for attention. And somehow that felt like such a shameful starting off point that I didn't know how to reconcile what had come after. But I knew that it wasn't right and I knew in some way that this experience had been forced on me. And when I shared it with my best friend and she used the term you were raped at the time, I sort of laughed at her and thought, like, you know, what an ambulance chasing drama queen. And later felt this incredible gratitude for her for giving me that, giving me that gift of that kind of certainty that she had. I think that a lot of times when I felt at my lowest about it, those words in some way actually lifted me up because I felt that somebody was justifying the pain of my experience.
GROSS: Did you change anything about your behavior at parties and the kind of person you would be with or, you know - I'm not saying this in a blame the victim kind of way...
DUNHAM: Of course.
GROSS: ...But I'm just curious, like, what your takeaway was from that experience?
DUNHAM: I didn't really go to anymore parties. I just stopped going. I stopped putting myself into - I don't think I - I basically didn't have a drink for the rest of college...
DUNHAM: …As far as I can tell. I mean, I really removed myself from that world. And I don't know if I would've told you at the time - oh, I'm doing this to keep myself safe - but obviously in hindsight, I started, you know, I started dating someone who was pretty hermetic and very sweet. And I basically removed myself from the social world as I'd known it. And then I spent a lot of time, which I talk about in the book, trying to figure out sort of what my - for lack of a better word - sexual preferences were and whether they were - they did in any way align with this experience I had had, whether there was any part of me that had, in quotes, "wanted that." And I think it took me a long time of self-examination and getting - I think being in a writer's room, hearing about other people's sort of sexual evolutions and realizing, oh, that's not something that happens to everyone. And when it does happen, they're allowed to mourn it and feel pain about it - hearing that helped me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lena Dunham. And she is the creator and star the HBO series "Girls" and now the author of a new memoir called "Not That Kind Of Girl." Lena, let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the HBO series "Girls." She has a new collection of personal essays called "Not That Kind Of Girl." I want parents of young children to know that this next part of our interview is about sexuality, and we're having an adult conversation.
I'm wondering how you think movies and the accessibility of Internet pornography has affected sexual relations now? And one of the things I've noticed in movies for years, and because so often now the act begins with the two people, like, walking into the home and, like, they cannot wait. They are in such a hurry that, like, they're tearing off each other's clothes and, like, they're going at it. And, like, foreplay has become almost, like, nonexistent in a lot of movies. And, you know, it's just kind of the opposite of how it used to be when there was still a lot of, you know, censorship in movies, when there were things, like, you couldn't show. But I'm wondering if that, like, tearing off the clothes kind of thing has - do you think that's kind of entered into the real world because people think that's what you're supposed to do?
DUNHAM: I do think that, you know, we - that kids have been mis-educated about what sex is by films. I think that films have whitewashed sex in many ways and sort of tried to hide what is messy and what is challenging about it. And I feel like there's, you know, a couple brands - like I'm so angry, I hate you so much, we need to have sex right now, which isn't particularly healthy, or I'm so in love with you that the minute that we get in, you know, I'm going to shed my negligee and we're going to be doing it. I think that most depictions of sex are destructive.
And I also think, you know - I am by no means sort of anti-pornography, and I know that there are certain feminists who have a very strong feeling against it. And I know it's a complicated, complicated issue, but I do think that the proliferation of Internet porn is insane because people are - that's how many boys are learning about sex. The fact is in pornography - I don't care how much they're screaming - those women are not having orgasms, at least not all of the time. And so it should not be a guidebook for anybody's sexual relations. And so, you know, as much - I don't want to walk around sort of uniformly slamming pornography because I think it's a much more complicated issue, but I do think that we are in an age where young kids are getting a totally unrealistic sexual education way before it's needed.
GROSS: You write in your book about how you have a lot of phobias, including germophobia and an obsession with death. Which are the phobias that really plague you the most?
DUNHAM: My germophobia has passed. It's expired.
GROSS: How did that happen?
DUNHAM: I feel really...
GROSS: How'd that go away?
DUNHAM: You know, I don't - I think a lot of people with OCD find that because, obviously, the things they're anxious about aren't truly the things that they're anxious about, it's a traveling anxiety that finds its comfortable place to rest. And then it's like a virus - it's a like a virus that's, you know, or - that's moving from person-to-person and living out its life in different forms. Like, that's sort of what...
GROSS: Or like a cold that travels from your nose to your chest to your throat.
DUNHAM: Exactly. Exactly, whatever sickness metaphor we want to use. It basically - it moves around, and my - I mean, my anxiety has always floated. I always have - it always has a focus, and then it always goes on its way. And there's a moment of relief after I've resolved one area of anxiety, and then it hops to another, you know, lily pad and sits there for a while. And so as a kid, germophobia was a really, really easy place to go, and then it kind of - you know, it departed and went to other things.
And obsession with death is the really hard one because no one can talk you out of that. Everybody can say to you, you know, you're not going to get cancer, or, you're not going to get Ebola. But nobody - you don't have cancer. You're not going to get Ebola. But nobody can say to you, you're not going to die. So that's an easy place for it to go back to again and again and again.
At this point, I would say my anxiety often tends to rest on something that's happening career-wise - you know, a phone call I have to make, an email I haven't gotten back, you know, a person I'm worried I've offended - but probably feeling a level of distress about those prospects that is outsized.
GROSS: I think it was in season three that your character on "Girls," Hannah, has a kind of comeback of OCD.
GROSS: And season two, season three?
DUNHAM: End of season two.
GROSS: End of season two. OK. Yeah.
DUNHAM: It was end of season two, but then it kind of pokes around in season three. So it's sort of - its arc exists through both those seasons.
GROSS: And how come you didn't address that at the beginning, but waited till, like, season two to get to the OCD 'cause I was surprised that, like, suddenly she's OCD? (Laughter).
DUNHAM: I know. Some people had that reaction. Some people were like, what? You're shoehorning a mental illness onto this character who's already weird enough? But the fact was that I had had an obsessive-compulsive sort of - I mean, let's use the term meltdown - right before season one came out and right as we were beginning to shoot season two. I had a moment where those things came back in a way that was really harsh and uncomfortable and a reminder of how bad it could get.
And that was something that, you know, because at that point, I had a whole writing staff who I worked with and a close relationship with Jenni and Judd, who produced the show with me. That was something that they had lived through with me, and we thought this is exciting and important to talk about.
So it was sort of based on the fact that, I mean, in the show, Hannah has to write her book, and she has writers block, a deadline coming up, a certain kind of attention she hasn't had before. And OCD, which can very often be instigated by stress, comes barreling back. And so that really just paralleled to my experience with making the show and finding myself under a new kind of pressure and resorting to these old habits.
GROSS: Was it helpful to write about it like that?
DUNHAM: It was, and what was hard was to perform it because, you know, you spend so much of your life as a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder - a person with any sort of, you know, mental illness - trying to camouflage your habits, trying to appear normal.
And so to say to myself, I'm going to, you know, go in front of this crew of 60 Italian men and - 60 old-school Italian men - some younger guys, too - and perform these super personal tics and quirks. Like, that was - that was really scary. That was scarier to me that any sex scene.
And also the feeling, like, once I turn this on - once I open the floodgates of letting myself, like, you know, check over my shoulders eight times and blink my eyes, am I going to be able to stop? And it's also so - so letting myself sort of enter into that pattern of physical behavior in front of my crew - that was really, really kind of intense. But...
GROSS: So you gave Hannah some of your own compulsions?
DUNHAM: Yeah, all of them 'cause I didn't know how to do any others because OCD's so personal. Like, it's funny whenever I've met another person with, you know, - and my biggest pet peeve is when people are, like, I'm so OCD, I have to organize all my socks in my door. Like, they all have to be just in little pairs. Or people will be like, I'm so OCD, I have to go to the gym every day. That's like saying, I was so - I'm so bipolar, I was mad at my mom yesterday. Like, this - that's not what obsessive-compulsive disorder is.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn't follow any, like, rules of logic. I wish my OCD had been helpful enough to force me to organize my socks. And so - but when you talk to somebody who has OCD, their habits are super specific - super specific. And so I wouldn't really know how to perform anybody else's version of it. And so I kind of just had to do my own and hope it translated.
GROSS: So was it helpful for you to actually perform it and, therefore, kind of put it under a microscope and take it outside of yourself and put it on to somebody else - your character, Hannah?
DUNHAM: Yes, and there was also something so cathartic about doing it and then calling cut and the crew laughing. Like, I had just done, like, a funny Carol Burnett physical comedy thing. Like, there was something so comforting about that 'cause I spent so much time thinking that - you know, alone in my bedroom, thinking I looked like a hideous, mentally disturbed freak, that to then have all my, like, bros at work think that it was funny - it felt really good.
GROSS: Lena Dunham, it's really just been so great to talk with you again.
DUNHAM: Thank you so much.
BIANCULLI: Lena Dunham, speaking to Terry Gross last year. Lena Dunham's collection of personal essays titled "Not That Kind Of Girl" is now out in paperback. Her HBO series "Girls" returns in February. After a quick break, we'll return with another actor turned author, Ron Perlman and with film criti David Edelstein's review of the new movie "Spotlight." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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