"Sardine-like" is a phrase you can use to describe pretty much any event at SXSW, but it was particularly apt in the theater where Lena Dunham gave a keynote speech today — and that's not even mentioning the many simulcast rooms and TVs set up in hallways watched by eager faces looking up from the floor where overflow audience was so obligingly seated. In a charmingly flustered, very Lena-Dunham-ish speech, the Girls creator talked about many things, including but not limited to: being rejected from SXSW, being accepted at SXSW, and someone named Snorty McDrugpants.
Snorty McDrugpants was a boyfriend of Dunham's who lived in San Francisco and enjoyed Adderall, during the pre-Tiny Furniture phase of her life that was decidedly more difficult (in the way that only the life of a born-and-bred Manhattanite whose parents are chic, creative types can be). Actually, for all the criticism she gets for her privileged worldview on Girls, Dunham seems pretty aware of the occasional ridiculousness of her position — and she underscores it with the fact that she doesn't expect great (or even good) reviews. She is happy to have a platform like HBO and, as an artist, all she can do is tell a story that is her own. We get the sense that she sees that as both a duty and an honor.
Telling her own story has been Dunham's bread and butter since long before Girls. (Though, she stepped out of that box when she put on an admittedly regrettable middle-school play she wrote entitled "Waiting," about an abortion clinic, in which the actors were mostly girls who hadn't even gotten their periods yet.) Years later, her level of expertise as a storyteller eventually had to be matched by some grasp of the more technical side of filmmaking, and that wasn't always easy. She quips that, during past projects, she and her then-cinematographer often struggled to locate the elusive "on" button. Eventually, through rejection and, later, acceptance at SXSW, she determined that "lack of budget is no longer an excuse for not honing your skills."
Though Tiny Furniture is probably her best-known work outside of Girls, Dunham talked a bit about her short-lived web series Delusional Downtown Divas. It was exactly what it sounds like: A story about people much like herself, whose infinitely accomplished and awesome parents were embarrassed to see them at parties, girls who are painfully aware that "the New York of our childhood didn't really have space for us anymore." It was a bit too close to home, sometimes. But, ultimately, that's part of a lesson that Dunham encourages all filmmakers and storytellers to take to heart: "We all want to be our most authentic selves, and perfection isn't a part of that."
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Though she describes the process of actually making Girls as gloriously, almost impossibly, smooth, Dunham went through plenty of "humiliating" meetings with other TV execs on what she called the "couch-and-water-bottle tour of Los Angeles." ("I thought, 'everyone likes me so much, they gave me water!'") She found that the executives were constantly trying to pigeonhole her into something familiar, to group her under some pre-determined category of digestible television. "Ricki Lake meets Tina Fey" actually seems plausible, but we'll take her more facetious hypothetical TV personas ("Kathy Bates meets Rodney Dangerfield!" and "Audrey Hepburn's deformed daughter who she kept locked in a cage for ten years!") with a grain of salt.
Though HBO had a more open-minded approach, that pigeonholing hasn't gone away. One of the most poignant moments of Dunham's speech was when she talked about the things she doesn't care about (Twitter replies, Deadline Hollywood comments) and, more importantly, the things for which she harbors and cultivates an ongoing passion. "I wanna make people laugh. I wanna make it easier for them to be themselves." And, she said she wants to, "be an agent of positive change for women and girls." There is a lot of discussion to be had about how Girls specifically contributes to that change, but Dunham is sure of one thing: There is more work to be done. Just as other companies might have wanted a Ricki Lake/Tina Fey type, the rest of the world is, apparently, equally shortsighted when it comes to the power of female characters and actors. Adam Driver (for whom Dunham has nothing but great praise) "can be a villain, lothario, and nerd, in one calendar year." And, yet, according to Dunham, the girls of Girls are "still waiting" for roles that befit their intelligence and ability. For instance: Allison Williams is seemingly stuck as the all-American sweetheart, while Zosia Mamet is forever the flighty dingbat. Driver, meanwhile, has moved on to greener pastures.
As much as Hollywood tends to celebrate women who take on deeply transformative roles, like Charlize Theron in Monster or even Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Blanchett was right when she said at the Academy Awards that women, as characters, as actors, and as leaders, have much more power than the "niche market" credit they are given in the industry. Girls is proof of that, too. The characters on Dunham's show may have their signature traits and notable quotables but, today in Austin, she asked those in power to consider a more nuanced, if not perfectly compartmentalized, view — and we sincerely hope they listen.