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Lena Dunham: Could she be the voice of a generation?

Move over 'Sex and the City'. The next generation just found its spokeswoman
  • @timwalker

"I think I might be the voice of my generation." So says aspiring memoirist Hannah Horvath, in episode one of the hit US dramedy Girls, as she pleads with her parents not to cut off her living allowance. "Or at least a voice," she continues hopelessly, high on opium tea, "of a generation." Hannah is plainly not the voice of any generation, yet her alter ego – the programme's creator, writer, director and lead actress, Lena Dunham – is being hailed as exactly that. Girls begins on Sky Atlantic on 22 October, while the second series begins on HBO in the US in January. Its subject matter, characters and tone, though, are uncannily of the present moment.

The show follows four formerly well-to-do twentysomething women as they attempt to pursue creative professions in post-recession New York, subsisting on the remnants of middle-class parental support. They communicate via text, Gchat, Facebook and confessional blogs. Bad sex is rendered flawlessly. Boyfriends are treated with ruthless honesty, as are periods, STDs, abortion, cramped apartments and crappy jobs. It feels, inevitably, like the anti-Sex and the City. "I revere that show," Dunham told The Hollywood Reporter, but: "Gossip Girl was teens duking it out on the Upper East Side and Sex and the City was women who figured out work and friends and now want to nail family life. There was this whole in-between space that hadn't really been addressed."

The first series of Girls was nominated for five Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series, as well as acting, writing and directing nods for Dunham herself. Her funny, unflinching work does for female insecurities what her mentor Judd Apatow's does for male ones. As a New York auteur (albeit of Brooklyn, not Manhattan), she is already much compared to Woody Allen. She is 26.

This week, Dunham's star power was underwritten by the publishing industry's response to her mooted book, Not That Kind of Girl: Advice by Lena Dunham. According to Slate, which has seen the book proposal, the tome will contain "candid accounts of losing her virginity, trying to eat well, obsessing about death… along with tips about how to stay focused on work, how not to ruin a potential relationship, and what have you". As of yesterday morning, Deadline New York was reporting that publishers' bids for the book had already reached $3.6m, because "publishers see her as an influential creative voice for young women".

For a preview of potential material, those publishers need look no further than a recent "personal history" contributed by Dunham to The New Yorker, in which she recounted the intimate, melancholy and hilarious details of her first serious relationship, with a sexually confused, gluten-allergic young man, to whom she gave the pseudonym "Noah". "Noah was, in fact, my best friend and arguably the only man I've ever truly loved," she wrote. Given the venerable magazine's strict fact-checking policies, not to mention Dunham's rep for audacious self-exposure, this is almost certainly true.

Not That Kind of Girl, in a layered irony, sounds remarkably similar to the book Hannah is writing in Girls, a chapter of which she presses upon her parents in the aforementioned "voice of a generation" scene. Visiting from Michigan, they have just informed her that they no longer plan to fund her New York lifestyle, as they have done since her college graduation. Thus the aspiring writer and unpaid publishing intern is forced to become an aspiring writer and coffee-house employee. Though Dunham's work is invariably autobiographical, this particular detail couldn't be further from the truth: by now, she surely needs no familial financial support.

Also, she's not from Michigan. Dunham was born in New York City in 1986, to Laurie, a Jewish photographer who arranges dolls and dolls'-house furniture to create disquieting domestic tableaux; and her husband, Carroll, a Wasp painter of overtly sexualised pop art. At school in Brooklyn, Dunham befriended Jemima Kirke, who went on to co-star in Dunham's film Tiny Furniture and, later, Girls. The two were both featured, aged 11, in a Vogue article about children who were interested in fashion.

She studied creative writing at Oberlin College in Ohio, where, obsessed with film, she would, she said, spend "the entire week watching every Fassbinder movie in my bed. I got mono, and I would just rent movies". Upon graduating in 2008, she wrote and directed her first feature-length film, the no-budget Creative Nonfiction, in which she played a girl navigating college relationships while trying to complete a screenplay. Reaching maturity in the age of Facebook, Dunham was untroubled by the thought of surrendering her privacy with such personal material. She once kept a private journal, she told The New Yorker in 2010, but "I was, like, 'What's the point, if no one's reading it? I would leave it out on the counter, on purpose, for my parents."

In 2010, she produced her first theatrical release, Tiny Furniture, in which she played Aura, a girl in the post-college doldrums, whose mis-steps are as endearing as they are cringeworthy. Dunham's mother Laurie played Aura's mother. Her sister Grace played Aura's sister. Tiny Furniture was later released as a Criterion collection DVD – an honour normally reserved for canonical film works – which also included a selection of her early shorts, shot at Oberlin. In Pressure, made at 19, she and two friends discuss sex in the college library; in The Fountain, she strips to a bikini, bathes and brushes her teeth in a campus water feature, then debates public nudity with her boyfriend, thus prefiguring the persistent casual nudity in Girls.

Girls was commissioned by HBO in 2012, with Judd Apatow as its executive producer. Apatow, who had been recommended Tiny Furniture by a friend, told New York magazine that he instantly found Dunham "so nice and smart and funny". He said: "You know, I'm used to a lot of very dark, competitive comedians. It never happens that you meet someone who is great and not a complete semi-violent basket case." He took an active role in the production, advising his protégée on scripting and editing; he saw Girls, he said, not simply as a show for other young women, but "for guys to get an insight into realistic females".

The series was instantly acclaimed by critics, though not without controversy. While it has proven its appeal beyond Brooklyn, its milieu is very much (Dunham's own words) "the rarefied white hipster thing". Questioned about its lack of diversity, Dunham has said she plans to address the issue in the forthcoming second series, adding characters "of colour" to the cast list. "All I want to do is make women feel excited and included by the show," she said at Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Summit earlier this month.

Her own frequent nude scenes have also been much talked about, specifically her seeming comfort with her normal, non-supermodel body, of a sort unfamiliar to viewers of, for instance, Gossip Girl or Sex and the City. "Hating my body has not been my cross to bear in life," Dunham has said. All the same, she removed The Fountain from YouTube after it garnered 1.5 million hits and countless comments about the quality and appropriateness of her near-naked form.

That's not to say she's scared of web attention – far from it. "I don't like being connected 24/7, but I usually am," she recently told Variety. "I refresh Twitter as thoughtlessly as some twirl their hair." And @lenadunham is witty and engaging. Recent micro-blogs include: "If I look over your shoulder at a party please know I'm not searching for someone cooler to talk to – I'm just eye-fucking the hors d'oeuvres", and, "I don't want to have a wedding (for political reasons) but if I did it would be a Rent singalong (also for political reasons)".

To her 360,000-plus followers, Dunham may indeed be the voice of a generation: funny, female, exhilaratingly frank. What would she say to those who aspire to the same: the Hannahs of Brooklyn and beyond? This from Variety, again: "I would tell them that there is a space for them, they are needed. I would tell them to share the story that feels honest, not the one they think that networks want to hear. I would tell them not to question their own right to be there."

A Life in Brief

Born: Lena Dunham, 13 May 1986, New York

Family: Daughter of artist Carroll Dunham and photographer Laurie Simmons. She has a younger sister, Grace.

Education: St Ann's School in Brooklyn; studied creative writing at Oberlin College.

Career: Started making short films while at university. Her first low-budget feature film, Tiny Furniture, which she wrote, directed and starred in, was released in 2010. She created, writes, stars in and occasionally directs the hit HBO television show Girls, which got five Emmy award nominations. Has just finished filming its second series.

She says: "The idea that the feminism conversation could be cool again and not just feel like some granola BS is so exciting to me."

They say: "She has this amazingly unique comedic voice … she's just such a great writer and director." Judd Apatow, director