SXSW: Lena Dunham on Her Critics, Hysterectomy and New HBO Series 'Camping'

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Lena Dunham

"It’s funny because these articles come out, 'Lena Dunham Apologizes for the 87th Time,'" she told Glamour's Samantha Barry during a panel at the Austin-based festival. "That was how I was raised, by a feminist mother."

Eights years after Lena Dunham took home SXSW's narrative feature award for her film Tiny Furniture, the Girls creator returned to the festival for a panel with new Glamour editor in chief Samantha Barry.

Dunham and Barry — the latter of whom was making her first public appearance since taking on the women's magazine six weeks ago — were on hand to discuss the topic of authenticity in the media. “I hoped my hairstyle would speak to the authenticity on this panel," Dunham joked early on in the conversation, alluding to her messy coif. The majority of the conversation centered around Dunham's public persona and her job as a filmmaker and writer. "I don’t have whatever the skill set is that allows you to program your own image from the outside and make calculated decisions about how you come across," she said, qualifying her remark by adding that she admires many women who do curate their image. "But whenever I’ve tried to do that, it’s been an epic fail."

In typical fashion, Dunham remained remarkably candid about the coverage of her the media — which, though often critical, has been particularly harsh lately (see: Vanity Fair's recent op-ed "Can Lena Dunham Recover from Her High-Profile Mistakes?"). "It’s funny because these articles come out, 'Lena Dunham Apologizes for the 87th Time,'" she said, explaining, "That was how I was raised, by a feminist mother who said, 'We try and we fail and we try again and we rethink the problem from another angle and we grow.'"

Does the barrage of criticism ever make Dunham want to stop putting herself out there, Barry wondered? “I have two modes," the writer-director-actress explained. "I’m either full of shame, thinking ‘I should have never been let out of my house in the first place,’ or, ‘Nobody even deserves me — they don’t deserve my truth.' But it goes away really fast." What's been most painful for Dunham — who rose to fame writing, directing, producing and starring in HBO's Girls — has been the times that she's struck out with the audience she cares about most: Women who share her fundamental beliefs and are working toward the same goal. She jokes, “The way I safeguard is, I have about 19 people who are, at any point, about ready to stop me from tweeting — many of them paid.” 

What helps give Dunham confidence is the fact that she knows what she's good at — and what she's not. "As much as a love a Goop or feel envy about all of the celebrity moms who are baking on Instagram, I knew that wasn’t a skill set I had," she said to laughs from the crowd. "My lifestyle brand is that I, like, got out of bed 15 minutes before I had to be there because I was suffering from severe and mysterious nausea — but I don't have a scone recipe or a fashion secret or even really the ability to get through my day in a normal way." That's why she started Lenny, an online media brand and newsletter that tackles serious issues like feminism, health and politics.

So when Dunham decided to open up about her recent hysterectomy in an emotional Vogue essay, many wondered why she didn't do so on her own platform. Turns out, she had a very good reason. "It was really important to me that it go in Vogue because I didn't want it to be Lena Dunham's personal feelings newsletter. Lenny is a place where ownership has been taken by the women whose voices make up the newsletter every single week," she said.

She chose to share her story in Vogue, specifically, because she'd told Anna Wintour what she was going through at the time. "She said, ‘Take your time, but we would love for you to write something,'" Dunham recalled, noting that the piece flowed out of her as soon as she got home from the hospital. "As I started to grow out of my 20s, I felt like I was experiencing this thing that was so massive and so lonely and so complicated physically and emotionally, and I had no idea that I wasn’t the only person. The only people I knew who had had hysterectomies were, like, my 67-year-old grandmother," she said. "What I was so happy about was that I got to understand how many of us there were, and how many women had been promised a version of their body that they didn’t get up getting."

As Dunham moves into the next post-Girls chapter of her life, she's hard at work on her new HBO series, Camping, a comedy starring Jennifer Garner about a bunch of 30-somethings who go camping for the weekend and encounter "some true life-destroying moments," she teases. "It's another universe but will continue to be honest about sex and physicality and monogamy — and continuing to try to tell stories where people say, 'I haven't seen that on TV before.'" Also in this next phase, Dunham finds herself wanting to slow down a bit and think about how she can give other women the platform she was given and how she can speak through her work. "I hope that this is maturing. I think it is," she pondered, joking: "I can’t be sure — I do still wear my hair like this."

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