May 13, 1986
New York, New York, USA
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Unapologetic. Unafraid. Uninhibited. Unflappable. All of these capture just a fraction of the complexity of Lena Dunham, the creative force behind the groundbreaking cable series "Girls" (HBO, 2012-). Born with the help of Hollywood heavyweight Judd Apatow, the high-profile show centered on four twenty-somethings living, working and struggling in Brooklyn. But the collective love and outcry of an Internet's worth of critics and detractors was nothing new for the multi-hyphenate, self-described "voice of a generation." After writing, directing and starring in the satirical Internet series "Delusional Downtown Divas" (2009), she drew on her own college experiences for her debut film "Creative Nonfiction" (2009), which was showcased in the Emerging Visions section of South by Southwest. Her follow-up, the full-length feature "Tiny Furniture" (2010), fleshed out Dunham's style of abrasively confessional drama that had quickly become her trademark. Then came "Girls," and the $3.5 million book deal, and the debates over her nonchalant approach to female sexuality. And soon, the eyes of the generation that she professed to speak for (and a few others, as well) were all on her.
Born in a New York City spring during the tail end of Reagan's presidency, Dunham's upbringing thrust her squarely into the middle of a world that would seem alien to most. Her mother, artist Laurie Simmons, was well-known for her elaborately staged and composed photographs that utilized dolls, ventriloquist dummies and the occasional human to comment on the banal domestic rituals of contemporary life; her father, painter Carroll Dunham, had his boldly sexual, larger-than-life paintings exhibited at museums including the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. So it was no surprise when Dunham decided to study creative writing at Ohio's Oberlin College -- the school took pride in its distinction of being one of the first American colleges to routinely admit female students -- and began writing short films on the side. After graduating in 2008, Dunham created "Downtown Delusional Divas," starring herself as Oona, a self-described writer who only occasionally writes; Joana D'Avillez as Swann, a performance artist whose work was so high-concept no one could see it; and Isabel Halley as AgNess, the trio's left-brained manager who housed them all. The series deftly lampooned the ever-changing nuances of the New York City art scene and soon developed a steady following that attracted the attention of the Guggenheim, which commissioned an additional 10 episodes for their first annual Art Awards. Later that year, the 22-year-old premiered "Creative Nonfiction," an hour-long dramedy centered on Dunham's self-conscious, self-aware Ella, whose ambiguous relationship with her noncommittal roommate turns her thesis screenplay into an unwitting confession of her own anxieties and desires. The inescapable similarities between Dunham and her creations (a compulsive desire to share, overly analytical minds, four-letter names) were starting to come to the surface.
If "Creative Nonfiction" hinted that Dunham took to heart the old maxim "write what you know," her next film cemented it. Having no job, no relationship and no place to go, in 2010 Dunham moved back to her family's sprawling TriBeCa loft and wrote, directed and starred in the indie breakout hit "Tiny Furniture," centered on anxious, unmoored college grad Aura (the third time makes it official). Owing as much to mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski as to New York icon Woody Allen, the film blended fact and fiction -- it was shot entirely in the Dunham's own expansive home, and Aura's mother and sister are portrayed by Dunham's real-life family -- in an entirely surprising, emotionally earnest way. Its waves of critical acclaim and awards, which included Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay, opened up a Pandora's Box of criticisms that have followed Dunham ever since; critics called her out for her insular, privileged worldview, and questioned her almost pathological insistence on appearing nude in a number of uncomfortable scenes. The film, whose Youtube-popular Nietzschean Cowboy underscored Dunham's growing interest in social media and public personas, eventually became one of the fastest, and most polarizing, Criterion Collection releases ever.
Though she spent the next few years acting in small roles in films such as Ti West's hotel horror movie "The Innkeepers" (2010) and the award-winning HBO miniseries "Mildred Pierce" (2011), it was Dunham's work behind the camera on "Tiny Furniture" that caught the eye of fellow director and producer Judd Apatow. Their collaboration, which was built from an understanding and appreciation for the raw, often embarrassing realities of life, grew into HBO's "Girls," and instantly became one of television's most-talked about shows. Intended to portray the flipside of "Sex and The City" (1998-2004), "Girls" nevertheless aped its quartet of friends and dropped them in the middle of gentrifying Brooklyn amid a host of jobs, problems and men inspired by (you guessed it) Dunham's real-life experiences. Viewership climbed steadily throughout the buzz-heavy but low-rated first season, eventually peaking at just over one million viewers for the finale. Dunham, who served as head writer, director and co-executive producer, watched as the show picked up numerous awards and nominations. Eventually she took home a Golden Globe for her role as the fickle Hannah, along with a shared Director's Guild Award.
Despite all the critical adoration, a steady contingent of voices slammed Dunham for a cast that reflected little of New York City's racial diversity, and for her insistence on appearing in sex scenes that were more awkward home porno than "Last Tango in Paris." Dunham responded to critics throughout the season by acknowledging that her not-exactly-normal experience of growing up in an artistic, wealthy family wasn't necessarily everyone else's, and that she made a conscious decision to avoid token gestures that would seem even less authentic -- basically, she was just writing what she knew. In the run-up to the highly-anticipated second season that debuted in January 2013, news that Donald Glover from NBC's cult primetime comedy "Community" (2009-) had been cast as Hannah's new love interest only served to heighten the stakes surrounding the issue. The show struck another chord by showcasing women making choices about their bodies by themselves, for themselves; whether she was eating a cupcake naked in the bathtub, going bra-less under a fishnet T-shirt, or poking fun at herself by appearing naked in a skit during the 2012 Emmy Awards, Dunham's easy acceptance of her imperfect body and willingness to bare it all challenged audiences to re-think the strict definitions of beauty and femininity.
It was that honest relationship to sex, beauty and everything in between that convinced Random House to buy Dunham's book proposal in the fall of 2012 for $3.5 million. Entitled Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's Learned, it was described by Dunham as a series of typically self-deprecating essays that ran the gamut from how to dress a size-10 body for a business meeting to a recounting of a disappointing string of one-night stands. Her humorous approach to sex, as well as her growing influence among twenty-something women, led Dunham to film an ad for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign controversially comparing voting for the first time to losing one's virginity. In fact, it was precisely that crossover between the memoir crowd and the voting crowd that was the best example of Dunham's ever-growing reach. Her official Twitter feed, @lenadunham, racked up legions of followers devoted to her off-the-cuff remarks, heartfelt pleas and, since she adopted a rescue dog from a Brooklyn-area shelter, musings on the joys of pet ownership. Put together with her Instagram account, which consisted of messy selfies and random bathroom shots, it became clear that Dunham viewed social media as yet another tool in her exhibitionist arsenal. And with the announcement that her and "Girls" showrunner Jenni Konner would be creating a new series for HBO, based on the autobiography of legendary Bergdorf Goodman's personal shopper Betty Halbreich, Dunham's name was sure to be at the tip of everyone's tongue for the foreseeable future.