Since the debut of her independent film, Tiny Furniture, in 2010, Lena Dunham has become a cultural force.
Dunham is the creator, star, writer, and director of the critically acclaimed HBO series Girls, which has become a touchstone for a generation of 20-something young women. She has been nominated for eight Emmy Awards and won two Golden Globes — including Best Actress for her work on Girls.
Now, at age 28, Dunham is out with a much-anticipated new book. "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'" is a memoir composed of candid personal essays about everything from sex and dating to mental health, body image and friendship.
The word “learned” in the title is in quotation marks for a specific reason. "Trying to give any kind of didactic, clear advice about the right way to live would be a mistake,” she says. “[W]e’re all struggling through every day, making mistakes and carrying around all this shame about our mistakes. I’d love if the book could play even the tiniest role in freeing us up from some of that.”
Dunham says she writes about her own mistakes as a way of "informing other girls of what to avoid." Even if they don't, she says, they might at least see them as an "OK part of [their] personal journey" and feel less alone.
The book deals frankly with mental health struggles: Dunham writes candidly, and often humorously, about her struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and what it was like to be in therapy as a child. Dunham says she was “afraid of everything” and unable to sleep — and it's not all in the past.
“I still go through phases of crippling anxiety,” she says. “I have this great life and I have this great job, and I’m financially secure and, career-wise, secure, and I get to wear great shoes — so sometimes I feel like I don’t have the right to say that I still really struggle with it.”
Right now, Dunham says, she is in the “luckiest possible situation a person with my particular temperament could be in. ... I have incredible outlets to talk about what I'm feeling, and amazing resources and great insurance.” Nevertheless, she feels a sense of responsibility to talk about her experiences in an open way. As a society, she says, we still haven’t come very far in terms of our ability to talk about mental health.
But if her childhood was shaped by her OCD, it was also immersed in the creative world. Dunham grew up in New York, the daughter of well-known visual artists Carrol Dunham and Laurie Simmons. From a very young age she was part of their active, alternative scene. Not surprisingly, she always felt like an oddball among her peers.
“I was always much more comfortable with adults than I was with other kids,” she says. “I had this amazing access to my parents’ world, with all these people who were creatively engaged, intelligent and funny and strange — and those were the people that I wanted to be with. ... That’s where I felt comfortable.”
Dunham says she always had a sense that she was cut out for a creative life. She understood failure was a distinct possibility — that she could end up spending the rest of her life sleeping in her parents’ basement — but refused to allow it.
“When I made a movie, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make a movie and it’s going to be good, because I’m not going to let myself make a bad movie,’” she says. “Or: ‘I’m going to write this script and I’m not going to let myself write a bad script.’”
Dunham says growing up watching her parents “do this over and over” was a good example for her. “It’s a real act of faith to go into your studio every day and make things — trusting yourself and trusting that there's a place for yourself in the world.”
As for Girls, Dunham attributes the explosive success of the show to having the right idea at the right time. “I think we were really lucky to appear at a moment when people my age were ready to see stories about themselves,” she says. “Parents were ready to see stories about their children, and people were looking for more honest content about women.”
She dismisses critics of Girls who express dismay or disapproval about the show’s frank portrayals of sex and nudity, or deride it as self-absorbed navel gazing by privileged upper-middle-class white girls.
“I think the mistake people made was that they thought we were saying, ‘This is what everyone's life is like,'" she says. "No — these are girls who don't understand the value of a dollar; they think everything is going to be handed to them. This is a commentary on what it means to be a white middle-class person.”
Dunham takes the criticism surrounding race much more seriously. She says she tried to respond to it sensitively, and notes, “I'm half Jewish and half WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs because that's what I knew how to do when I started writing the show," she explains.
"[But] I was really happy that it opened up a dialogue about race on television, which is one we need to be having. I also hope it starts a conversation about how we need more show runners of color who are telling their own stories.” As the show has expanded, Dunham says, she has tried to expand its cultural world, as well.
The flip side of this criticism, of course, is that Dunham is also seen by many as the poster girl for an entire generation. Dunham finds this by turns amusing, flattering and a bit improbable.
“When my character said, ‘I am the voice of a generation,’ she was on drugs,” she points out with a laugh. “I now accept that that line is going to follow me to my grave, and that’s totally fine. But we’re living in this incredibly globalized, tech-savvy world. Our generation is made up of far too many kinds of people with different sets of beliefs for any one person to represent them. But if I'm addressing any generational concerns, I'm happy with that.”
[Editor's note: The audio interview is no longer available on PRI.org]