Lena Dunham is not only the star of the critically-acclaimed new HBO series Girls, she also directs and receives primary writing credit for every episode of the show’s first season. An impressive feat, made astonishing by the fact that Dunham is all of 25 years old.
What may be more surprising than Dunham’s youth and talent, however, is her willingness to expose herself for her art – both emotionally and physically. She plays Hannah on the show, an unemployed, directionless recent college grad who finds herself drifting into a life she never imagined for herself after being cut off by her parents. The character seems to be Dunham’s parallel universe version of herself – her vision of what life would be like if good fortune and success hadn’t come knocking at such a young age.
Hannah is the new face of struggling 20-something America. Armed only with a useless liberal arts degree and a penchant for inappropriate jokes, she struggles to find her place in the world and maybe, as a bonus, a guy who’s interested in her for more than just sex. It may sound like a familiar formula, but if Sex and the City provided a fantasy for millions of American women, Girls depicts the often nightmarish reality of single life in NYC.
While this may be new territory for television, it’s terrain Dunham has explored before. She wrote, directed and starred in the award-winning 2010 film Tiny Furniture in which she cast her real-life sister and mother (renowned photographer Laurie Simmons) as her family. Like Girls, the film featured Dunham as a young, terminally confused New Yorker with a bad habit of falling for the wrong guy. Needless to say, it’s safe to assume Dunham may have some experience with these issues and insecurities.
Like her characters, Dunham’s work sometimes receives the wrong kind of attention as a result of her willingness to bare all. Sure, Carrie and company occasionally stripped down for a few-second sex scene, but they were all in possession of Hollywood gym bodies and their more risque scenes were always brief enough that they could be easily excised for basic cable syndication. Dunham, on the other hand, is not obese by any means, but hers is not the kind of figure that we’re used to seeing fully exposed on mainstream television. And as for being told by a friend with benefits to pretend she’s an 11 year-old prostitute…well, we’re not used to seeing that anywhere.
Hard as it may be to believe, the scene I just described was hilarious in execution, and therein lies the brilliance of Lena Dunham. Some comedy writers address their audience’s worst fears and memories, but Dunham forces us to fully suffer through them with her and somehow gets us to laugh through it. It’s that rare mix of comedy and catharsis that makes Girls the type of once in a generation achievement that should be cherished by viewers of both genders.