As the most talked-about Oberlin alumna in recent years, Lena Dunham, OC ’08, returned to campus for a convocation in Finney Chapel last Saturday night like a conquering hero — a funny, humble, down-to-earth one. Dunham is well known for creating and starring in the Emmy-award-winning HBO series Girls, now in its third season, and her award-winning 2010 indie film Tiny Furniture, among other projects. While Oberlin students may sometimes tire of being compared to Lena Dunham or hearing her name dropped in conversation, Dunham’s warm, smart and surprisingly poignant convocation demonstrated that the association does Oberlin well.
The convocation was staged as a candid interview between Dunham and Professor of English and Creative Writing David Walker, who was Dunham’s professor during her time at Oberlin. Dunham was greeted with huge applause, but she seemed just as happy to be back in Oberlin as the community was to have her back. She told a brief anecdote about how, upon her arrival in Oberlin the previous night, she had “wanted to go to Agave ‘cause it’s delicious,” and on the late-night run had encountered “memories on every corner.”
Those memories of Oberlin were the initial focus of Professor Walker’s questions. As he reminded the audience, Dunham had only graduated five and a half years ago, and he took the audience back to her college days. While at Oberlin, Dunham had created subversive “guerrilla-style” YouTube videos that featured, among others, Dunham bathing and brushing her teeth in the fountain in front of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. While that particular incident ended in a brush with security, according to Dunham she was nonetheless extremely grateful for the creative support she received at Oberlin. For example, her first full-length film, Creative Nonfiction, was filmed while at school — Professor Walker even had a part.
After reminiscing about Dunham’s college years, Walker and Dunham naturally segued into a discussion of Dunham’s second film, Tiny Furniture, which featured the actress playing a recent college graduate navigating the foibles of the post-grad world and starred members of her own family. Tiny Furniture, which won Best Narrative Feature at South by Southwest, got Dunham her big break. As Dunham related, producer Judd Apatow had seen a copy of the film pre-release and sent her the email that led to her HBO series. Dunham’s reply to the email? “If this is Judd Apatow, thank you. If this is my friend Isabel, go fuck yourself.” Unfortunately, Apatow’s reply was not recounted.
Walker followed this autobiographical theme fairly closely throughout the interview, leading Dunham and the audience through early negotiations with HBO over Girls before transitioning to the run of the series and Dunham’s current notoriety. Most amusingly, Dunham shared that HBO had not originally intended her to star in the show — Dunham had merely assumed that she would since she had acted in Tiny Furniture, a mix-up she had thought would get her fired. Instead, HBO installed her as the lead, and Dunham became a public face.
That publicity has not come without its downsides, though, which Walker addressed when he shifted the conversation to the controversy that Dunham and her show frequently provoke. A line from an early episode of the show is often cited as an example of Dunham’s megalomania: “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice…of a generation.” When Walker brought it up, Dunham protested, “Guys, my character said it when she was on drugs!” The line, however, has refused to die, remaining an endless source of snarky articles with headlines like Dunham’s hypothetical example “Lena Dunham Thinks She’s the Voice of Her Generation.” Of criticisms that her characters are unlikeable and overly neurotic, Dunham responded that she “just wanted to show characters who were as complex as my friends are.” She listed Tony Soprano, Walter White and Dexter as examples of beloved unlikeable male characters and noted that “women behaving badly is historically really problematic for audiences.”
These lighter criticisms aside, Walker addressed the most troubling aspect of Girls: “the privilege question.” Few discussions of Girls or its creator pass without a reference to the almost across-the-board racial and economic privilege of its characters. In response, Dunham became serious. When the show was conceived, she said, she wasn’t thinking of representing the totality of voices in her generation — she was just making characters based on herself. Her regretful answer was more explanatory than defensive, and she said she was glad that at least the racially troubling aspects of her show had started a conversation. She also pointed out that her show had responded to the criticism in later seasons: “Maybe I should have gone on HuffPo and written an essay, but I’d rather work it out in my work.”
When, to conclude, Walker asked Dunham what she would tell a twenty-year-old Lena Dunham in the audience, Dunham offered a heartfelt paean to Oberlin and the importance of finding oneself. There’s “a lot of really powerful energy here,” she said. “Go where the bliss is.”