Lena Dunham Opens Up About Her Childhood Love, Hannah’s Iowa Breakdown, and Internet Trolls
The creator and star of HBO’s Girls sat down at Sundance to discuss her Eloise documentary, Hannah’s Iowa mess, and her legion of haters.
For female urbanites—and New Yorkers in particular—Eloise represented their wildest fantasy come to life: a free-spirited, wildly independent young girl who lives in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel and embarks on an endless array of First World adventures.
And for Lena Dunham, the series of children’s books was her everything. She obtained her first copy when she was just two years old, and consuming the colorful mini-tomes became an addiction.
“I had a copy of Eloise and it’s all that I wanted to read, all that I wanted to think about, and all that I wanted to talk about,” Dunham tells The Daily Beast. “I had an Eloise doll and I was the loser who brought the doll to camp when I was 15, and the girls hung it from the rafters of the bunk.”
The creator and star of HBO’s acclaimed series Girls is braving the thin mountain air and 4 percent alcohol by volume beer of Park City, Utah, to premiere It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise—a documentary short on Eloise illustrator Hilary Knight. It marks the first project from Dunham and her Girls co-conspirator Jenni Konner’s production company, A Casual Romance, and will premiere on HBO later this year.
Knight heard about Dunham’s much-discussed tattoo of Eloise gracing her back, and reached out to her. She ended up going to his house for Indian food, and eventually decided that since Knight’s world was so visual, a visual medium would be best to portray it, enlisting her longtime pal Matt Wolf to direct. As for her tattoo, well, it came about under unique circumstances—while she was 17, joined by her parents, while her family was in the midst of a road trip across the Midwest.
“We stopped at a tattoo parlor in Taos, New Mexico, and I sufficiently harassed my father, so he agreed to let me do it,” says Dunham. “I was that kid who was coming home with a pierced bellybutton that I’d have to remove two hours later. The amount of piercings I had that I don’t even have scars from—because my Dad took them out so quickly—is remarkable. I was trying to be really into body modification but was being prevented at every turn, so the tattoo was exciting.”
Our talk turns to the male version of Eloise, the Macaulay Culkin flick Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which sees the hell-raising Kevin McCallister once again lose track of his preoccupied family and enjoy a glorious sojourn in the Big Apple—shacking up at the Plaza. Dunham shares both McCallister’s fascination with the Plaza, as well as his crippling fear of Central Park.
“I would argue Central Park is the scariest place ever,” Dunham says. “Everyone who’s like, ‘I love New York parks,’ I want to keep them alive and keep them going, but [Central Park] is not for me.”
The 28-year-old’s feelings about Central Park seem to mirror her idiosyncratic character Hannah Horvath’s distaste for the sprawling fields of Iowa. During the third episode of Girls’ fourth season, which aired Sunday, Hannah viciously calls out all her Iowa Writers’ Workshop classmates, who have been very critical of her autobiographical (and sexually explicit) fiction writing, deeming her a crass amateur and her BDSM piece a lame Fifty Shades knock off.
“A quality that I share with Hannah is that we respond very negatively to feeling censored,” Dunham says. “Hannah feels censored and devalued, and the thing that’s very Hannah about it is what she’s arguing is actually accurate, which is that throughout history, women’s writing has been given short shrift. Women had to assume male names like George Eliot just to get their work taken seriously. So, Hannah is making a historically and sociologically appropriate argument, but because she’s Hannah, she has to turn it into an indictment of all her classmates and a backwards assessment of their identities, and identity politics.”
Dunham based some of Hannah’s experiences at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on her own time at Oberlin College.
“When I went to Oberlin, I had a Facebook group called ‘Political Correctness is Totally Gay,’” recalls Dunham. “In hindsight, it’s not something I would have done, and I loved Oberlin, but when I got to school I was so distressed by the level of censorship. I thought, ‘We all share politics here, we’re all people who are trying to urge the world forward with our liberal ideas, but there’s a thought police element here that makes me really uncomfortable.’”
As far as censorship goes, Dunham is regularly harassed on various forms of social media and in the right-wing press for everything from the show to her revealing autobiography to her unwavering support of women’s organizations like Planned Parenthood. She even recently deleted the Twitter app off her cellphone because the trolling became too distracting.
“Well, frankly, now I don’t really look at it anymore,” Dunham says of Twitter. “I’ll post a tweet if I’m by my computer, but most of the time I’ll tell someone who I trust to throw up something to say about a new episode. I’ve stopped really looking.”
I tell her that her most vocal critics seem to be conservative men, and ask why she thinks they find her so threatening. “It would probably be too easy a cop out to say that just Republican males hate me. Though there’s a large swath of them, for sure,” says Dunham. “I’m sure it’s connected to [women’s rights], I’m sure it’s connected to the content of the show and the way that I deal with my body on the show. Listen, I totally leave room for people to be irritated by me. They were irritated by me from 2nd through 12th grade. I know the feeling dearly. I said to my boyfriend once at a very low moment, ‘This isn’t that different from 2nd grade. People have always been trying to pick on me! Always!’” She laughs. “But I try not to be that self-pitying.”
These days, Dunham seems to have a more Zen-like approach to dealing with her legion of haters.
“I’ve tried to analyze it, but then I kind of realized that it’s not my job to understand, and it almost wouldn’t be healthy for me to understand,” she says. “The best thing I can do is be of service to other women and people who are experiencing similar things, and if I can be a guide to other outspoken, creative women, that’s the best thing I can do rather than try and understand the segment of the Internet that responds to me negatively.”