Photographs by Autumn De Wilde
Lena Dunham swivels in her leather mini-dress, drops her chin, then lifts her gaze to the lens. It’s the South by Southwest festival’s first-ever launch of a TV series, and buzz has been rising all week, helped along by a clever HBO campaign sending “GIRLS” bicycles around Austin, Texas. In front of the Paramount Theatre, there’s an actual red carpet—something not present when Dunham debuted her breakthrough movie, Tiny Furniture, back in 2010. “Well, this is new,” says Alex Karpovsky, an indie director who appears in Girls, gesturing toward the carpet. “You know, I think I’ll just see where the moment takes me.”
After the familiar HBO logo—hiss, buzz, dissolve—the three episodes begin. The audience awwws, they hoot; at times the laughter drowns out subtler jokes. Afterward, the show’s three collaborators line up onstage: executive producer Judd Apatow, in a pink polo shirt and sneakers; Jenni Konner, Dunham’s close friend and executive producer; and Dunham herself, the creator, star, writer, and director of Girls. Though she’s hovering on hooflike heels, Dunham has the body language of a very young woman. She holds the mike in one hand and gesticulates with the other, fanning her fingers as if she’s drying nail polish, petting her straightened hair, her toes turning inward.
Yet her answers are confident and thoughtful. At 25, Dunham is at SXSW for the third time. In 2009, she screened a feature she’d filmed while still at Oberlin College, Creative Nonfiction, in which she played Ella, a college student struggling to complete a screenplay. One year later, she returned with Tiny Furniture, as Aura, another version of herself, this time in a post-college funk; her mother, the visual artist Laurie Simmons, played her mother, and her sister Grace played her sister (her father, the artist Caroll Dunham, declined to participate, uncomfortable with the potential violation of his privacy). With its scenes of Dunham wandering pants-free around her parents’ Tribeca loft, Tiny Furniture was, as Paul Schrader says on the Criterion disc, “a good film that pretends to be an amateur film,” an affecting and peculiar self-portrait that made the case for Dunham’s composed mode of intimate self-exposure. It won Dunham the festival’s prize for best narrative feature—along with an unstable blend of worship, envy, and disdain, particularly from her peers, some of whom resented her “voice of a generation” press. Yet tonight, the audience is on her side. Toward the end, a man asks Dunham a reasonable question: Given her success, has it become harder to inhabit a girl like Hannah, who is incapable of doing a job interview without sabotaging it with a rape joke?
“How do I express this without getting too personal with you?” asks Dunham. “That lostness and that questioning—I wish I could say that it completely went away when you were getting to do the thing you wanted to do, but unfortunately, that’s not the truth.” Her work is going gangbusters, she admits—her personal life, those daily mortifications, that’s another matter. “I’m just fuckin’ it up all other kinds of ways.”
Never been as much of a sad cliche as in this emotional cold war with the hotel minibar. Seriously wish I was on pills.
Warning: feelings in tweets are less tragic than they appear
When a TV critic reports on a new show, it’s okay to say the series is promising, even the next big thing, but ideally, one shouldn’t go native. One should probably also talk in the third person. In this case, however, I’ll have to make an exception. Because from the moment I saw the pilot of Girls (which airs on April 15), I was a goner, a convert. In an office at HBO, my heart sped up. I laughed out loud; I “got” the characters—four friends, adrift in a modern New York of unpaid internships and bad sex on dirty sofas. But the show also spoke to me in another way. As a person who has followed, for more than twenty years, recurrent, maddening debates about the lives of young women, the series felt to me like a gift. Girls was a bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation by a person still in her twenties. It was a sex comedy from the female POV, taking on subjects like STDs and abortion with a radical savoir-faire as well as a visual grubbiness that was a statement in itself. It embraced digital culture, and daily confession, as a default setting. Even before the Republican candidates adopted The Handmaid’s Tale as a platform, Dunham’s sly, brazen, graphic comedy, with its stress on female friendships, its pleasure in the sick punch line, its compassion for the necessity of making mistakes, felt like a retort to a culture that pathologizes feminine adventure. As my younger colleague Willa Paskin put it, the show felt, to her peers, FUBU: “for us by us.”