Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner have done a lot in the past year. They finished the sixth and final season of Girls, a season that has been universally lauded as the program's best. (It included a finale directed by Konner, marking her second time in that role.) They amped up their newsletter Lenny Letter and recently announced a tour that will culminate in an imprint partnership with Random House.
This week, they sat down with Tribeca Film Festival to discuss how they manage to get it all done; how they shirk the pressure from naysayers and internet trolls; and how they intend to continue making space for women's voices in media. America Ferrera, a fellow actress, producer, director, and activist, moderated the discussion. Tribeca Film Festival's co-founder, Jane Rosenthal, introduced the panel with kind words for the group. Rosenthal was Konner's first boss and they have followed each other's careers ever since.
"People thought the bravest thing a woman could do on TV was be ugly." — America Ferrera
"It is the luckiest thing in the world for your first big job to be working for a woman, if you're a woman," Konner said. "It was just really amazing for me to see a woman in power when it was the very beginning of my career."
Ferrera kicked off the discussion by describing the feeling of excitement she had after watching her first episode of Girls in 2012. "If Hannah Horvath [Dunham's character] could live on television, what door is she opening to the many, many representations of women we have yet to see to exist on television?" she said.
"Hearing that from you is surreal," Dunham responded. "I remember thinking when we were putting the show together: aren't I supposed to just cast somebody who's the fun television version of me, whose hair works a little better and has a generally easier time getting out of bed in the morning?" She went on to describe how shocking it was to her that Ferrera, "one of the great bombshells of all time," was considered an example of a non-traditional person on TV.
Konner recalled a time early on in Ugly Betty's run where Ferrera had responded to a reporter by saying, "until I got on television, I didn't know I wasn't pretty, or that I was fat."
"In retrospect, I find it so messed up that through all of the work that I did, the thing that people thought was the bravest thing a woman could do on TV was be ugly," Ferrera said. "I thought that was so indicative of something that was wrong in our culture, and the conversation we were having about women. I can only imagine, Lena, how much you got about your body and it not being traditional."
"There's such a 'there isn't room in this town for the both of us' thing going on with women in Hollywood." — Lena Dunham
Dunham has indeed heard her fair share of body shaming over the years, but it always surprised her. "I've always been like Rihanna to myself," Dunham said. "I just have a great time with my own body. I've been a range of sizes for a range of reasons and it's always felt good to me, and it was an interesting thing because I think people were so ready to believe that I was jumping past some massive hurdle in order to get naked on television. I was like, that's not where my fear lies."
America Ferrera in 'Real Women Have Curves'Credit: Newmarket Films
How to Overcome Your Fears
"I think people feel angry that they don't feel as comfortable as Lena," Konner said. "I think that people like us can have a hard time because she's so comfortable, and we've struggled our whole lives to be comfortable, and could never do something like [getting naked on television]."
Despite the criticism, there have been many positive repercussions of Dunham's comfort. "I remember we were interviewing a writer once for a job," continued Konner," and she said to Lena, 'Because of you, I now feel comfortable having sex on top.' That's the greatest compliment. That's what we want."
In fact, Dunham's self-sharing tendencies were the reason Konner wanted to work with her in the first place. "There's literally a scene [in Tiny Furniture, the indie feature that Dunham made at 22 ] that's like a minute and a half where [Dunham is] putting on a full body Spanx, and it's one of the truest, purest, moments that I've ever seen on film. That's when I was like, I must work with her."
"And then this season, as an ode, Jenni was like, can we please film five minutes of you trying to put on a wetsuit," Dunham interjected. "It was harder than the Spanx."
Ferrera was impacted by the show as well. "As somebody who didn't wear a bathing suit in public from middle school on, I will say that the shift in our culture where we get to see ourselves [on TV]—the small niches that we've been able to create starting with Girls, and maybe Ugly Betty, the Amy Schumers of the world—have taken me from somebody who wore the T-shirt to someone who's flashing my bikini body on the beach."
"How do we get over the distraction of what our bodies are supposed to look like so we can go on to direct and write and produce and create?" — America Ferrera
"And all of that to say that it's not about starting and ending with how we feel about our bodies," Ferrera continued, "to me I feel like it's more and more about: how do we get over the distraction of what our bodies are supposed to look like, so we can go on to direct and write and produce and create?" This was met with a round of applause from the audience.
Don't Cannibalize Your Own Kind
"Also I think something people misunderstood with GIRLS is that we were never trying to be the one and only quintessential show about femaleness," Dunham said. "We were trying to be a show about femaleness, and hoping to make a little space for other people to do the same thing. And it became complicated because there's such a 'there isn't room in this town for the both of us' thing going on with women in Hollywood."
"Richard Shepard always said, 'I think you would've gotten in so much less trouble if you had just called it Girl,' Konner added. "It was the fact that it seemed like we were trying to be everybody."
"I think that's a conversation worth having," Ferrera stepped in. "When there are so few opportunities for us to see ourselves, we put so much pressure on any given show, book, movie, to represent all of us, and it's disappointing when it doesn't necessarily align and represent everything that you are." According to Ferrera, this mentality can be damaging to the greater cause. "We can begin to cannibalize and suffocate our own leaders who are out there being brave, taking steps, telling their stories to create space where more stories can come through."
Lena Dunham in 'Girls'Credit: HBO
Building a Creative Partnership
In stepping out and telling these brave stories, Dunham and Konner were lucky to have found each other and formed such a supportive bond.
Before the two got in touch through their agents, Konner had been a huge fan of Tiny Furniture. "I became so obsessed with it that—this is where on a live-streaming event I admit that I'm a bootlegger—I would make copies of it and give it to people," said Konner, "not because I had any intentions of doing anything with it, but because I was like, everyone needs to see this movie. Sorry if I hurt your box office."
"Judd called me the unofficial distributor of Tiny Furniture." Konner continued, "So when [Dunham] needed a supervisor and needed a deal for a blind script at HBO, they were like, 'We should call her secret stalker,' and that's how we met."
It turns out that Dunham felt the same way about Konner, and they have seen each other basically every day since. Dunham credits so much of the show's existence to Konner. "It's funny to me because when I see the 'Created by Lena Dunham' credit come up on the show, I know I technically created it, but that doesn't feel right to me."
"That is such crap," Konner retorted. "Let me just say something: Lena came as a fully formed creative force. I think anyone who's seen Tiny Furniture knows that." Konner attributes that wholeness to why they got the show so quickly through HBO, a network that's notorious for dragging its feet. "We basically had a template. We had Tiny Furniture, we had the lead of our show, we had the director, we had the look of the show because we had the same DP, and we were like, 'It's gonna be like this, but with more girls, and funnier.'"
"It was a fine line between these really thoughtful criticisms and this desire to almost shame us out of having a voice." — Lena Dunham
Dunham advised finding a creative partner who, like Konner, will both push you and support you. "I think the biggest thing that I would recommend to everybody who feels like they have big ambition and don't quite understand how to tackle it, is to find a partner who has a shared vision," she said. "People ask, 'How do you get so much done?' We share the burden. We know how hard it is to be women balancing things in this world and we pass it back and forth, and we hold what the other can't at different times. That is the great gift that has allowed us to dream bigger."
Compromising with HBO
The conversation turned to the first season scripts. According to Dunham, Judd Apatow had "used his big Judd power" to convince HBO to order four scripts instead of the standard one. One of the major changes the network made was to take Jessa's abortion out of the pilot.
"They were like, 'You know what we love you a lot, but we think we should keep the abortion out of the first episode,'" Dunham said. "And there was even more talk of an abortion party before. We peeled that back a little."
"I remember Judd being like, 'It's like if Kramer killed a puppy in the pilot,'" Konner mused.
"For me, it was so obvious that none of these characters would ever keep a child and that all of them would be coming from a liberal arts school background and wouldn't have any particularly strong emotions about it besides, 'Let's get this done and support each other,'" Dunham said. "And Judd was like, 'I think you're not quite properly estimating America's feelings on this issue.'"
HBO compromised and let them have the "abortion party" in the second episode of Season 1.
'Tiny Furniture'Credit: IFC Films
Learn from Your Critics, But Don't Read the Comments
Dunham and Konner have had a lot of criticism in their careers. As creatives, Ferrera said, "some of [the criticism] I imagine you have to learn to protect yourself against, and some of it I imagine you have to allow yourself to let in." Were there any reactions that they learned from, Ferrera asked?
"Yeah, the diversity conversation, absolutely," Konner answered immediately. "It wasn't like we didn't know, but it opened a conversation for all of us to have that we really appreciated."
"The fact is, you learn a lot from a smart, thoughtful person letting you know where they think your blind spots are," Dunham said. "But it was a fine line between these really thoughtful criticisms and this desire to almost shame us out of having a voice." Understandably, Dunham's mistake was reading the comments. "I would look at the comments and it was this generalized sort of, 'When will she fucking stop?'"
"I always say that Lena's headstone will say 'She read the comments,'" Konner said. "With that kind of internet trolling, there's nothing good that can come of it."
As much as they tried to ignore the general vitriol sent their way, the negativity still managed to find its way in. Everyone on their crew found themselves having to defend the show—and in some instances, Dunham's body. "When certain things do get to you, how do you deal with that personally?" Ferrera asked. "How to you physically get that negativity out of your body and get back up and get back to work?"
"We both had really challenging health episodes during the show," Dunham answered. "It's not a coincidence, I don't think, that the majority of people with auto-immune diseases are women, because men project their rage outwards, and women attack themselves. As much as you can dismiss it intellectually, your body takes it in." The duo started bringing meditation and trainers to set to work out the crew before the start of every day.
Is it Okay to Have an All-Female Crew?
"All the top people at our show are female, except for Judd," said Konner. "Both our companies are totally female. And we work with a lot of men that we love, but I think there's just a different energy that comes with that."
Konner paused for a moment and added, "I think women even crew up differently—in a more sensitive way. Still picking the best people, but I think here's a subconscious choice about relationships and forming a family. I think that's why we had such a great crew. Ilene Landress and Regina Heyman were the people who did it for us."
Ferrera pointed out that this kind of stance might be alienating to men. "There's obviously been a conversation about women being able to unapologetically say, 'This is a story about women, by women, for women,' and there's a fear that saying that will isolate men."
"That's the same thing as when people talk about reverse racism—I just don't think it exists," Dunham said. "For so long, women have had to fight so hard for our opportunities. This is our moment to seize. This is our moment to give to each other what we've always deserved. It's our moment to reach out to each other. I think it should be perfectly acceptable to say, 'I feel safe, happy, and excited to be surrounded by a crew of women,' which I would never have even had the opportunity to say 10 years ago."
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.