Still a champion for Girl power

The fifth season of Girls, which stars Lena Dunham (above), will explore themes such as female friendships.
The fifth season of Girls, which stars Lena Dunham (above), will explore themes such as female friendships.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Girls' writer, director and actress Lena Dunham will continue to take on feminism in a new television project

Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrity feminists are great for the women's movement, says actress Lena Dunham - but she is hoping young women will also realise feminism is not just a pop-cultural buzzword but also a political movement that affects them all.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles, the writer, director and star of the Golden Globe- winning drama Girls - which returns for a fifth season today on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601 at 11pm) - says she is thrilled that Lawrence's essay about being paid less than her male co-stars became such a talking point.

In October last year, the 25-year-old Oscar winner (Silver Linings Playbook, 2012) called out Hollywood's gender pay gap in an essay she wrote for Dunham's e-mail newsletter Lenny Letter, titled Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-stars?.

Dunham says: "Someone like Lawrence is in a powerful position to positively and beautifully impact younger women.

"She has a ton of girls who look up to her, and to hear her talk about feminism and wage equality - which is an issue plenty of women deal with globally - that's really important and exciting."

Dunham, 29, who has been an outspoken feminist since Girls debuted in 2012 and she entered the public eye, welcomes the fact that the women's movement is now being openly embraced by Lawrence and other young celebrities such as Harry Potter actress Emma Watson and singer Miley Cyrus, who have identified themselves as feminists.

I feel it's ultimately worth it if one person comes up to me and says, 'Oh, you gave me the confidence to come out about my sexuality, stop being on this diet or tell my parents I'm queer.'

LENA DUNHAM on why she is willing to be a lightning rod for various political and cultural issues despite being the target of vociferous critiques and personal attacks

The "girl power" image promoted by influential A-listers such as Taylor Swift and her self-described "Girl Squad" of model, actress and singer friends is important too, she adds.

"It's really exciting that feminism has become such a pop-cultural buzzword and that's great because this puts it into more people's heads. It's really amazing that all these women are feeling like they can come forward and talk about their beliefs and what they've experienced."

Yet she hopes the young women who look up to these celebrities do not miss the bigger political issues at stake.

Those issues are why she is now campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, she says.

"One of the reasons it's important for me to campaign with Hillary is it's important to remember that feminism isn't just about 'girl power' or being allowed to express your sexuality however you want to," she says.

"It is about those things, but it's also about concrete political issues such as wage equality, reproductive justice and universal healthcare, all of the things that really allow women to advance and engage in society. So I think if we can merge girls' pop cultural understanding of feminism with their political understanding of feminism, that would be a really exciting step."

That goal has informed her next television project, Max, an HBO comedy about a woman navigating the magazine industry and feminist struggles of the 1960s. It has been picked up for only a pilot episode, with no confirmed air date.

It will be even more politically charged than Girls, a comedy about four young women that has sparked endless debate over everything from Dunham's frequent and unabashed nudity to the fact that its four female characters are often flawed and unlikable.

"What's fun about the pilot we did for Max is it's a little more overtly political because so much of it is about the civil-rights movement and second-wave feminism and how they intersected. There's something very on-the-nose political about that and that's a very fun thing to play with," she says.

Of course, this means there is a good chance the new show will ruffle some feathers too, and she will again find herself the target of vociferous critiques and personal attacks in the media and on social networks.

Girls executive producer Judd Apatow tells The Straits Times it never ceases to amaze him how fearlessly Dunham handles such situations - and that she is still willing to be a lightning rod for various political and cultural issues.

The actress puts this down to having growing up with a "really political mother" - photographer and artist Laurie Simmons, 66.

"When I was a kid, my mum was constantly out with a group called the Women's Action Coalition, whether it was protecting an abortion clinic in Buffalo, New York from protesters so women could enter safely or pushing back against a power plant being built on our block.

"She was always making noise and making her opinion heard - she was never apathetic. And I think when you're raised with someone like that, it just becomes second nature.

"When I entered the public eye, it was a little harder than I thought, but I feel it's ultimately worth it if one person comes up to me and says, 'Oh, you gave me the confidence to come out about my sexuality, stop being on this diet or tell my parents I'm queer.'"

Dunham is not done with Girls, however, even though HBO recently announced that the show's sixth season will be its last.

Season 5 with see Hannah (Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) mature a little in their relationships with their parents, friends and, most importantly, one another.

"Female friendships are so important to me," explains Dunham, who says her arguments with her girlfriends are far more distressing than any she may have with her boyfriend, musician Jack Antonoff, 31, lead guitarist of indie rock band Fun.

"They've been the most complex, torturous and beautiful relationships in my life. Whenever I'm really upset, it's because something happened with one of my girlfriends. Because there's something so awful and painful about being out of sync with your girlfriends."

The new season will explore this theme in its first episode, which will see one of the girls getting married.

She says: "It's very much about how it's really hard for friends to allow one another to change and grow. And weddings are a time when all of that comes to the surface.

"Now I'm getting to the age where a lot of my friends are getting married or engaged, and even though I'm in a serious relationship, I can't help but have this feeling where it's like, 'What? This is what we're all doing now?'

"So it was fun trying to work some of those demons out and incorporate all of our bridesmaid experiences in this episode."

•The fifth season of Girls is shown on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Monday at 11pm, starting today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Still a champion for Girl power'. Print Edition | Subscribe