The Politics of Lena Dunham

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Lena Dunham’s grandmother, Dorothy, died ten days before Lena spoke at the Democratic National Convention this past Tuesday. She was 96. Lena’s mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, told me about Dorothy. “My mother was a political junkie,” she said. “She always had the TV on, so I can’t help but think about how my parents would feel to not only see their granddaughter speaking for a presidential candidate, but the first woman. I’m so overwhelmed about that.” We were sitting together on a bus heading from New York to Philadelphia, where Lena would speak that night. The bus had just stopped at a rest stop on the highway, and I’d seen a group of people walking out in matching “Abolish Capitalism” shirts. At least I knew we weren’t lost. 

I met Lena around 2010 at a screening of her movie Tiny Furniture, a couple of years before she created Girls, the HBO show whose sixth and final season she is now in the middle of shooting. They shut production down for a day so that Lena could speak at the convention, and she was planning to leave Philadelphia as soon as her speech was over so they would be able to resume shooting the next morning. Television shows move at a grueling pace, and Lena, who had broken her elbow the day before her grandmother died, had also lost her voice and was currently taking steroids so she would be able to speak. One of the executive producers on Girls, Ilene Landress, was on the bus with us partly to make sure Lena made it back to set in one piece: “We have nothing to shoot without her.” Some people from Lenny, the newsletter Lena founded with Jenni Konner (her creative partner and friend and an executive producer on the show), were also on the bus to document Lena’s trip on Snapchat, which is a thing that makes me feel old. I was there to document it with whatever the opposite of Snapchat is. When I’d heard Lena was going to speak at the DNC, I reached out to ask her if I could come along.

I was interested in the crossover between art and politics in this incredibly divisive election and the decision celebrities have made about whether to get involved. Last week, at the Republican convention, I asked several delegates if it bothered them that many of their favorite TV shows and movies were made by Democrats. The answer was usually a resigned shrug. One Alabama delegate waved it off as: “It’s entertainment.” He said entertainment like it was not something he would ever let change his opinion about the world. I understand that point of view. There are plenty of celebrities, living in the strange Hansel and Gretel witch house of being famous, who think their opinions matter a little more than they do.

Lena described the criticism in her own words: “ ‘Just because I like to watch you on my TV doesn’t mean that you know anything about my life. Why do I want to hear from people who I know, for a fact, are getting sent free purses?’ And I totally get that. There are times when I’m like: ‘I’m not fit to speak on that issue. That’s not mine to talk about.’ I think you really have to put in your time learning and educating yourself if you expect to be listened to.” We were sitting next to each other on the bus. “Liberal people aren’t the only people who buy tickets to movies,” she said, “and they aren’t the only people who buy T-shirts, and they’re not the only people who buy magazines. No one wants to become ‘Hanoi Jane.’ ” Pause. “But I kind of wouldn’t mind,” she said, now laughing. To be honest, one of the reasons I can do it is because — not to be ungrateful for the things I have — but I don’t give a shit about starring in a romantic comedy.”

Jane Fonda is a role model, as well as Amy Schumer, Kerry Washington, America Ferrera (with whom she would be speaking that night), and Sarah Silverman, a Bernie supporter, who had just endorsed Hillary Clinton the night before with grace and humor. I pointed out that all the people she had listed were women. Was there something, I wondered, about being a female artist that thrusts you into the political spotlight faster, sometimes before you had time to figure out if you wanted to be there? “I think the Broad City girls did an amazing job with that,” Lena told me. “They were like: ‘Okay, we’re going to be politicized, even if it’s just us running around Brooklyn smoking weed. So we’re going to find a way to express our beliefs.’ ” Girls was, of course, even more politicized, as soon as it aired. Lena had been caught off guard about that. Like the Alabama delegate, she thought of the show as simply entertainment. Instead, it was declared to be “feminist” or a “radical action” by one group of people, and from others Lena suddenly received what she described as “an insane amount of angry right-wing attention.” She would get messages online that said, “Keep your clothes on, you fat New York pig.” “I’d look at that person’s page, and it would say ‘Proud Red-State Mother,’ and I’d be like: What the fuck is going on?

Politics had been a huge part of Lena’s childhood, always with the guidance of her mother. Some of her earliest memories were attending protests with Laurie, who was part of the Women’s Action Coalition, an organization founded by feminist New York artists in the early 1990s. They did everything from “hold hands around an abortion clinic in Buffalo” to “protesting building a ConEdison over a fruit stand.”  During one protest, Lena remembers standing with her sister, who was in a stroller, holding signs that said: DON’T RADIATE ME.  Laurie told me she took her daughters because she had trouble finding babysitters, but also because she wanted them to see. “I thought: I’m just going to take them along, let them witness this other part of my life that I’m really passionate about. That’s something you cannot force your children to get involved in.” Of all the things her daughters have accomplished, she’s the most proud of Lena and Grace’s activism. “That’s something where I say to myself: ‘Job well done,’ ” she said.

Even so, Lena retreated from activism in college. She said the most political thing she did then was run for dorm president. She put candy under everyone’s door and campaigned with the idea: “I hate my roommate. If you hate your roommate, we’re going to figure this out. We’re not going to be stuck in this room.” She won and immediately regretted winning. She didn’t vote until she was 22 years old, but “even then I had to do a write-in vote, because I fucked up my registration.” But when Girls premiered, her life changed, and she felt forced to make a decision. She thought: “I have two choices: either to hide from this and Instagram pictures of my favorite lipstick, or to embrace it.” She was as rattled by the criticism from liberals as she was from the red-state mothers. “The conversation about race and the show — race and representation — was a huge turning point for me,” she said. She felt deeply that she had not looked past her own life, and so she started to listen, and research, and think about the issues facing women of color and the way they connected to the issues that had always mattered to her, like the right for a woman to choose an abortion. “I started to understand how it all fit together, and I felt a little like I was having this crazy awakening.”

She was now reading and talking about politics more than ever, and it started to take up more of her time. In the 2012 election, the Obama campaign asked Lena to make a video to encourage first-time voters to get to the polls. “Doing that video for the campaign, which didn’t seem controversial in the least, and then receiving the blowback for that, which was insane, was another huge step,” she said. By this year, she was stumping for Hillary during primary events in New Hampshire, Illinois, and Iowa, and in April she received what has become the ultimate badge of honor in this election: She was insulted in public by Donald Trump. In response to Lena’s threat to move to Canada if he were elected, Trump called in to Fox & Friends and said, “She’s a B-actor and, you know, has no mojo.” Lena and I spent a couple minutes trying to figure out what mojo meant. “I don’t know if it’s a sexual thing,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s like: She can’t open a film. By the way, he’s right. I don’t have a lot of mojo. I went to high school with a boy named Mojo. Mojo Lorwin. He was the coolest.”

I asked Laurie if she saw differences between activism now and activism when she was Lena’s age. “When I became an artist, it was like taking a progressive stance in life,” she said. There was something natural and unthinking about a woman’s choice to become an artist leading to a choice to become an activist. “It’s not that anymore. A lot of people want to be artists, a lot of people want to be rock and rollers, a lot of people want to be chefs. It doesn’t mean you’re embracing a liberal agenda.” And it was only after seeing her life through her daughters’ eyes that she thought about her own choices differently. “I needed them to tell me that some of what I did was courageous,” she said. “You don’t go through your life thinking, Wow, I have a lot of courage, I’m so brave, I made this choice. You’re just like — one foot in front of the other.”

Our bus had arrived in Philadelphia, and the first stop was the parking lot of a strip mall, where a black SUV was waiting for us with credentials. Then we slowly moved through multiple security checkpoints. Someone compared it to the Spinal Tap search for the stage. Lena joked that she kept having climactic “We’re here!” feelings, only to reach another security checkpoint. At one of the checkpoints, a police officer who wore a bulletproof vest and was trying to stay out of the beating sun underneath a flimsy white tent recognized Lena and asked to take a picture. A “co-worker” had turned him on to Girls, and he had become a big fan. His favorite character was Jessa, because “she’s unfiltered and out of control.”

At the door of the arena, we were greeted by professional, enthusiastic staffers who professionally, enthusiastically let me know that everything they said was “off the record.” Okay. As Lena walked into the building, a young, thin, blonde woman wearing a headset stopped her. She was a big fan. She had written her a letter and hadn’t gotten a response. Lena apologized. She grabbed Lena’s arm and said, “Keep your curves. If I see you skinny, I’m going to freak out.” Lena smiled and said something polite.

We were led to an upper-level suite, which we were told was Chelsea’s box. I made a terrible joke that we were inside Chelsea’s box, and I still feel bad about it. Lena quickly changed, and we all headed down to the convention floor, where Lena wanted to meet delegates. She was excited, pointing out Al Sharpton, Lance Bass, and the all-gender bathroom. She had never been to a political convention before — just “a convention for Archie comics and a cat convention in the Javits Center.” The younger people walking by us immediately started recognizing her, and I watched their faces change when they realized what was happening. Lena always attracted the delegates with the best hats, as I knew she would. She met a man from Montana with an enormous American-flag cowboy hat, and a woman in a wheelchair from North Carolina, whose hat had blue sequins and a Hillary doll attached at the top. She had made it with her grandchildren but seemed to be already over it. When Lena asked her for a picture, she sighed and said, “I guess I have to put on my hat.”

Lena stood and listened to people as they told her about the issues that mattered to them. She never said no to a picture. When a young Bernie supporter with a rainbow painted on his face wanted one, Lena told him, “I love your look, and I love that you want to come together with me.” The delegates she spoke to the longest were two trans women who had come to the convention to support Bernie and raise awareness. “More American people have seen a ghost than a transgender person,” one of them told Lena. They laughed, and Lena said, “My sister is a ‘they.’ ” Lena’s still working on using the right language. “I still say ‘you guys’ when I’m talking about groups of people and cats. I’m working on it.” For the most part, Laurie stayed away from the fray, walking with her husband, Carroll Dunham, watching it all and wishing she had a hot dog.

Back up in the suite, America Ferrera had arrived and told us in a scratchy whisper that she had lost her voice. Lena talked to her about remedies as hair and makeup people set up chairs and portable makeup bags and the rest of us stood to the side and ate cookies. I wanted to interview America, but she was resting her voice, and the room had descended into chaos with hair dryers, off-the-record staffers, managers, publicists. I went up to Lena to ask her to finish a conversation we had been having, and I saw that she was looking down at her phone, a little shaken. One of the young women she had taken a picture with downstairs had just posted the photo on Instagram with a long caption about how much she hated Lena. “Literally cannot stand this woman,” it began. “She is a perfect example of white female privilege.” She was “Bernie or Bust,” she explained, and “this election is important because we have real corruption in this country, and it’s our poorest communities that are being fucked over the most. If not now, when? I will not let disconnected, privileged people stop this cause.” Many of the young female Bernie supporters I had spoken to in Philadelphia talked with a similar sense of urgency. They saw a vote for Hillary as a vote to slow down and possibly snuff out the progressive movement and discussions of Hillary’s gender as a distraction from larger issues like income inequality.

Lena told me that she “didn’t disagree with anything Bernie was saying,” but that she simply preferred Hillary. In this election, she found that many people were “unable to think about it in a nonbinary way.” She got comments from people who assumed she hated Bernie and the progressive movement just because she supported Hillary. “And I was like, ‘No, I just think she’s the most appropriate and qualified leader for this moment in American history.’ And the fact that she would be the first female president, and such a qualified one, is an additional thrill.” For Lena, Hillary’s gender is a secondary but still important consideration. As she put it later, on the Glamour-Facebook panel dedicated to the 51 million women under 45 who are eligible to vote in this election, “We’re not just lucky that a woman can be president, we’re lucky that it’s this woman.”

As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton battle for these 51 million young female voters, Lena, America, Sarah Silverman, Rosario Dawson, and other artists have made the choice to get in the middle of it all. Lena told me that she had respect for everyone who speaks out. “No one’s having a great time with it,” she said. “It’s hard to be noisy about something that isn’t your lipstick. I congratulate everybody who does it.” She told me a story about being taken by her mother to a reproductive-rights protest in Washington during her senior year of high school. They had gone down with a bunch of artists, and a friend of her mother’s, the painter Elizabeth Murray, had given her a button that read “Dissent Is Patriotic.” When they got to D.C., they were marching around the White House, screaming, and Lena remembered thinking, “Part of this feels good, and part of this scary — are we going to get arrested?” Murray told her, “Just because you disagree, it doesn’t mean you don’t love America. It means you love it more.”

When Lena finishes the final season of her show this year, she will have a chance to reset. “After Girls, I care a lot about writing and directing,” she said, but she also plans to continue to work for the causes that matter to her. She sees herself less and less as an actor. She knows her activism has given her a personality that prevents some people from seeing her as “a blank canvas upon which you can project a woman of the 1800s.” She is fine with that. “That’s not my reality,” she said.

We left the suite. Staffers guided Lena and America to the service elevators, and we watched as enormous catering trays were wheeled off. A voice through a walkie-talkie said, “Suite 61 needs toilet paper!” I wondered what was going on in Suite 61. America showed Lena a small change she had made to the speech on her phone, and Lena nodded enthusiastically. They had written the speech together, researching, writing jokes, going through many drafts. Later that night, Lena texted me that she felt “love” in the arena at first, then “you realize everyone is exhausted, fighting over a pretzel, and texting their boyfriend, and you’re like, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll try and do this for the folks at home.’ ”

Opening photo by Dennis Van Tine/Sipa USA/AP Images