Lena-ing In: Lena Dunham, 'Girls' and what women want

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

Who discovered Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s tender delight, “Girls”?

It sounds like an MGM/Lana Turner conceit, the idea of “discovering” someone. But somehow Dunham—who at 26 seems vulnerable and yet is already an old master—inspires this inquiry. Just as the going myth of Tina Fey is that high priest Lorne Michaels made her and the going myth of Sheryl Sandberg is that higher priest Lawrence Summers found her at Schwab’s lunch counter, so must a powerful mentor have shrewdly seen a spark in Miss Dunham, and charitably extended a hand.

Let’s cut to the chase and guess, first off, that it was Dunham who long ago found herself. While at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn—the Angkor Wat of kid artsiness—Dunham already claimed fully her own saltatory intelligence, hauntingly beautiful speaking voice and hauntingly unbeautiful body. At 19, while attending Oberlin College, she cast that husky self in a cool masturbation video called “Pressure.”  A year later she cavorted naked in a YouTube video that went viral. (Slate went over Dunham’s brilliant infantilia here.) Dunham, like auteurs from Klaus Kinski to Woody Allen, clearly knew what she was about on the first take.

Now, sure, l’art pour l’art runs in her family. Dunham’s mother, Laurie Simmons, “makes photographs in which dolls and doll-house furniture are arranged to unsettling effect,” as Rebecca Mead reverently put it in in The New Yorker in 2010. Her pop, Carroll Dunham, is a distinguished painter of creatures with penises for noses.

So it was written. But from there, to be sporting, let’s wonder: Was it Mead who found Dunham for the nonmasses with that full-dress November 2010 New Yorker profile? Mead granted that Dunham’s sensibility (as expressed in her first feature film, “Tiny Furniture”), was artsy, but also mainstream and Borscht Belt.

Or was it rather—in a leering theory Gawker advanced this week in “How David Carr Became the Daddy of Girls”—avuncular Carr? He got the Dunham bug months earlier after screening “Tiny Furniture” and, in a March 2010 New York Times miniprofile, praised Dunham for writing “angular, quietly weaponized dialogue that her characters use to maim one another.”

Or maybe it was Janet Pierson, who runs the South by Southwest film festival, and who loved Dunham’s even earlier film, and included it in the festival, but really, really loved “Tiny Furniture,” the film that put her on Carr’s radar, and Mead’s, and led to the creation of “Girls”?

Or maybe just maybe the person who discovered Dunham was me? After all, I fulsomely reviewed a Web film she made called “Tight Spots” in, oh, 2007. I can’t quite bear to quote myself, but suffice it to say I laid it on very, very thick when it came to the Dunham love. So thick, in fact, that when the lady in question barraged me with witty, grateful and self-promotional emails for months after, I was the one flattered! I thought the half-my-age filmmaker was so cool wrestling with Spanx and having bad sex in “Tight Shots” that I was happy for her attention!

If only I had thought to introduce her to Judd Apatow, the moneybags of “Girls,” who is another highly likely candidate for queenmaker when it comes to Dunham. If only I had known Apatow.

Dunham has no maker—she’s self-made. But my own private candidate for Dunham’s chief support is actually Jenni Konner, the executive producer of “Girls.” But Konner hardly claims credit for nothing, even in her cryptic Twitter bio, which I think references “The Real Housewives”: “I can tell you when she will die, and what will happen to her family. I love that about me! -- also i write and ep #Girls on HBO.”

Apparently Konner is too busy working with Dunham on “Girls” to stoop to join the petty credit-grab.

Aw. Let’s face it. Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat is an orphan. And there’s just something about that victorious, bright-eyed Dunham. But rather than rummage around in old profiles, maybe we should just watch the finale of Dunham’s “Girls” again. As Alessandra Stanley put it in the Times,  “The closing shot"—confounding expectations—“shows Adam standing up, shirtless, carrying Hannah high in his arms as if she were as delicate and endangered as Fay Wray.”

Dunham, perhaps beyond all else, knows how much men like to carry women. And how much women like to be carried. And that’s why she is Dunham, and we are not.

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