Girls creator and star Lena Dunham learns to let criticism slide

Actress-director Lena Dunham says she is getting better at not letting criticism get to her

When it comes to handling criticism, Lena Dunham has had quite a bit of practice.

Girls, the award- winning television comedy she created which launched in 2012, has inspired as much hate as it has love for its unflinching depiction of sex, as well as its choice to focus on the lives of a group of privileged young women.

Many brickbats are aimed directly at the show's wunderkind writer, director and star, who cribbed from her own experiences in dreaming up Hannah, the main character, and her friends.

Dunham's 2014 memoir, Not That Kind Of Girl, has been even more controversial. She was slammed for her story about being raped by a former classmate, which initially implicated the wrong man, and an account of her childhood curiosity about her sister's body.

Speaking to reporters in New York this month, the 28-year-old says she is getting better when it comes to not letting negative comments get to her.

"You know, I've realised that as long as I keep doing this work, it's going to keep happening. So I can't act like my house is being bombed every time somebody gets angry at me on Twitter. I believe that's a direct quote from my boyfriend," she says with a laugh, referring to musician Jack Antonoff, guitarist for the indie rock band fun.

Still, she admits, "it's never easy to be attacked".

"For me, the line is whenever I feel like it hurts my family or anyone around me - that's what's painful," says Dunham, who took particular umbrage at accusations that she might have sexually abused her little sister with their childhood body-exploring games.

"And I'm learning how to do that. But for the most part, I think that I'm getting better at creating distance between me and negativity that's thrown my way. If I think something is worth responding to, I respond. If not, I block it out."

Whatever you make of Dunham or her work - which, depending on your point of view, is either praiseworthy or self-indulgent in its portrayal of the millennial generation and its neuroses - in person, she is endearingly earnest and effusively warm.

The cherubic voice and girlishness belie the fact that she is one of the youngest and most successful showrunners in TV. Indeed, Dunham was just 26 when Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2013, the same year she and the show took home the Golden Globes for Best Actress and Best Television Series in the Musical or Comedy category.

The show distinguished itself with its brutally honest look at Hannah - narcissistic, obsessive, overweight and often unlikeable - in all her car-crash glory.

This has included unflattering scenes documenting the character's romantic and sexual misadventures, which have challenged the conventional depiction of women's bodies so much that they have inspired endless debates among fans and critics.

Occasionally, Dunham and fellow Girls' executive producers Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow have taken negative feedback on board.

"Whenever anyone says these characters should be more likeable or 'I'm bored', we don't care about that stuff at all.

"But I think the conversation that happened the first season about seeing more people and women of colour on the show definitely had an effect on us because it made us think about diversity in television and the role of showrunners in contributing to that.

"So it's been a big goal of ours to respond to that in a way in which we're creating interesting, complex, diverse characters," says Dunham, whose character briefly dates an African-American boy in Season 2.

The star is also not one to shy from confronting her detractors, whether it is directly, through social media, or comedically, with the storylines of the show.

Season 4, which is airing in Singapore now, begins with Hannah embarking on a new writing course in Iowa, where she is hilariously skewered for her poorly written and lazily autobiographical story about a girl getting punched by her boyfriend.

She thinks her classmates will be bowled over by the piece, but gets a rude shock when they see it as just a story about "a really privileged girl deciding that she's just gonna let someone abuse her".

The scene invites immediate parallels with the divided opinions that greeted Dunham's book last September, but she reveals that co-writer Konner actually wrote the episode months before that.

"It turned out to have this kind of weird connection to the way my work was received, so we were like, 'Um, are we psychic?' But yeah, it was really fun to see that with a live audience and vaguely uncomfortable."

Writing her book, which is subtitled A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned", opened her up to even more criticism, she says.

"When you put something into a half-hour comedy, you can change details, you have the veil of fiction, you can talk about it through the lens of character. When you're writing a memoir, you're writing a memoir. Until I released it, I don't think I realised just how vulnerable and exposed you feel when you can't go, 'It's a character, it's a comedy'. I was definitely walking around like a gaping open wound for a couple of weeks," she says with a smile.

Dunham, an outspoken feminist whose close friends include singers and girl-power exponents Taylor Swift and Lorde, hopes the show continues to help advance the women's movement.

"The show's made by feminists and stars feminists, so it's kind of inherently a feminist show because that's what all our politics are. And that imbues the show even when we're not directly taking aim at feminist issues. Because the personal is political and, at the end of the day, representing women as they really are is how we push the conversation forward."

Neither the show nor its creator is about to start censoring itself when it comes to politically charged topics such as rape, either - although Dunham is acutely aware of the responsibility she has as someone young women may look up to.

She says: "I don't feel like I have to be more cautious in terms of, 'Oh, I don't wanna offend anyone'. But I do have to be aware of the fact that people are listening to what we have to say and so we have to stand behind that.

"I don't want to make ignorant statements, I want to think about the things that come out of my mouth because we put celebrities on this very unnecessary pedestal and your words have power. But I'm not worried about like, you know, p***ing people off if I believe in what I'm saying."

stlife@psh.com.sg

Girls airs on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Monday at 10pm.

Not That Kind Of Girl is available at Books Kinokuniya for $24.82.


Sex scenes under attack

Girls has come under fire for its depiction of the lives of a group of 20something New York women, accused of everything from parochialism to tastelessness.

  • Race: Its first season was attacked for limiting its exploration of the millennial generation to a very particular subset of privileged white New Yorkers, which includes the all-white key characters, all of whom are the scions of successful celebrities themselves in real life.

Allison Williams, who plays Marnie, is the daughter of NBC news anchor Brian Williams. Lena Dunham, the lead, writer and creator of Girls, was born to artist parents. Zosia Mamet, Shoshanna in the show, is the daughter of writer- director-playwright David Mamet.

The show's writers acknowledged this and responded by vowing to reflect more diversity, although attempts at this have been half-hearted at best - for example, giving Hannah a black boyfriend and very briefly at that.

  • Nudity: Dunham's willingness to bare all on screen has been consistently divisive throughout the series, with many of the critiques focusing on her distinctly un-Hollywood silhouette, which she has been fearless about showing, tummy folds and all.

There was also a flood of unkind comments about her appearance after an episode in which Hannah has a dalliance with a rich, handsome doctor, played by Patrick Wilson - with many media commentators and online trolls questioning whether she was attractive enough for this to be plausible.

But many have also praised Dunham for challenging conventional, picture- perfect representations of the female body on screen.

  • Sex: Explicit bedroom scenes involving Hannah and boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), and Adam and guest actress Shiri Appleby, have been controversial too, particularly when they have suggested reluctance on the part of the girls in going along with some of his odd requests and predilections.

But the show almost always plays such scenes for laughs, and has won fans for showing sex as it often really is - messy, awkward and comical.