Sure, Girls is on hiatus, but for fans of that show’s perspective, the next best thing may be a “subscribe” button away.
Tuesday is the launch of Lenny, the newsletter created by (and named after, in a rough portmanteau) Girls star and creator Lena Dunham and the show’s executive producer Jenni Konner. The pair had quite a coup in their first issue: an exclusive interview with Hillary Clinton. The 2016 candidate talked with Dunham more about her post-collegiate soul-searching than the Syrian refugee crisis, or abortion rights—a political cause the newsletter embraced from the outset. Clinton reaffirms that she’s a feminist (“Yes. Absolutely.”) and reveals her initial ambivalence about getting married (“I was terrified about losing my identity and getting lost in the wake of Bill’s force-of-nature personality”). The takeaway is that Clinton has been a girl herself.
That’s precisely the point. Lenny, which is so far funded by Dunham and Konner themselves and will eventually introduce an e-commerce component, puts a friendly face on Dunham and Konner’s political ideas. The newsletter’s first issue presents complicated electoral, social and even medical issues (including pieces entitled “Saying Yes to My Queer Wedding” and “Rumors I Heard About My Body: Is My Period Weird?”) in a chatty, discursive tone that wouldn’t feel so out of place if voiced by Girls characters.
But Dunham isn’t HBO’s Hannah Horvath. She’s connected, collected (Hannah could never pull together a newsletter) and battle-tested. Dunham, with Konner, spoke to TIME about what inspired her to launch Lenny, and how the imbroglio over Dunham’s memoir last fall—including allegations of sexual abuse—both intimidated and inspired her.
Given that you note in your introduction to the interview that you’re unabashedly pro-Clinton, some people who expect objectivity might feel queasy. How did you feel as an interviewer, and how do you feel about Lenny as an outlet?
Dunham: Something that we make clear in the introduction is that while we support Hillary, we said “Let’s face it—Jenni and I produce Girls. We’re never going to be the face of objective news media.” That’s not what we’re trying to do, that’s not what we can do, and that’s not what would be appropriate for us to do. But we do say, we are liberal, pro-choice women. We happen to be voting for Hillary Clinton. But our aim is not to tell us who to vote for. Our aim here is to highlight Hillary in the feminist landscape of the last 20 years, and also to ask her the questions that we think are important, that Lenny readers can have the answers to before they make their decision. So I think in the political landscape, our job is to be honest about where we stand, because it isn’t unbiased. Someone asked if this was a bipartisan project—I don’t even know what “bipartisan” means. We’re certainly not looking to do that and we’re not capable of doing that. But we’re also not looking to force our readers to adopt our opinion; we’re looking to inform them. I thought it was only right that I be honest and open, as did Jenni, with where we stand, but also making it clear we didn’t do this interview so you would go out and vote for Hillary.
The interview certainly focuses more on her personal history. Were there political questions you wanted to ask, but backed away from?
Konner: She’s been asked all of the questions. What’s interesting to ask is what was this woman like when she was the age of our readers, or our supposed readers. Being in your 20s: Even this woman has felt ambivalence, she didn’t know if she was going to marry Bill Clinton, she went to work at a salmon cannery in Alaska, and the people I knew in college who did that were really searching. It was great to see this side of her that was really vulnerable and real and felt very connective for us.
Would a conservative young women reader who’s planning to vote for Carly Fiorina want to read Lenny?
Dunham: We would love that, because you can read and engage with something not directly focused on reproductive justice. Or maybe you want to know what pro-choice women are thinking, even if that’s not where you fall. That being said, we’re never going to have an article in which someone’s explaining their pro-life beliefs. That’s just not what we’re giving airtime to. Someone who’s anti-choice, we’re not denying your humanity, but it’s just not what we want to promote. And there’s a number of other social justice issues held by conservatives that would not be comfortable for us to espouse in the pages of our newsletter.
That being said, Meghan McCain is someone who I think has a lot of interesting stuff to say about the world as we live in it now. I love listening to her talk. Do we share a belief system? No. Do we share certain beliefs, that women should be part of the political dialogue? Yes. It’s not like we can’t sit down across the table from a conservative woman and have a conversation. I’ve done it with [former The View cohost] Nicolle Wallace and enjoyed it tremendously. But at the end of the day, that’s not where our passion lies.
We don’t yet know who your readers are. If Rookie is for younger women and Jezebel is for women in their 20s and 30s, where do we situate the Lenny reader? Do you have an image?
Dunham: We want to be really open to who’s coming to us. Something that was exciting to me when I went on my book tour was that there were 18-year-olds showing up with their moms, and there were 66-year-old vegan chefs. But there was a connection that existed between all of them, between the personal and the political and pop-culture and lifestyle stuff that felt specific. As Jenni’s said, our audience is anyone who’s not hate-reading us.
Last year, you went on a book tour that you say helped inspire you. That promotion cycle also gave rise to a situation whereby critics tried harder than ever to get you to stop talking. You probably know what I’m referring to—
Dunham: I don’t, actually! I don’t remember.
How much is Lenny a reaction to that intense criticism, including allegations of abusing your younger sister based on an anecdote in the book?
Dunham: The first thing is that this newsletter is not from my voice. It comes from Jenni and me, and it comes from our passion, but the majority of the voices you’re going to hear aren’t ours. They’re other people we think are important.
Konner: We feel our voices are being well-represented in the universe already. We’re looking to push the ball forward for other women and other great writers, people we respond to who may not have a large audience, like we’re doing with our production company—trying to bring other people’s voices forward.
Does what you experienced last year have a chilling effect on what you’re willing to put out, or does it galvanize you to speak more?
Konner: From the front-row seat of working with Lena for the last five years, it does both. It often makes her very unhappy and very uncomfortable, but it never, for one second, stops her from doing her work. There will never be a time, knock on wood, that things get so bad that she’s not putting work into the world.
Dunham: I have an incredible support system—it includes Jenni, it includes Audrey [Gelman, a public relations consultant who’s worked for Clinton and is Dunham’s college friend], it includes Judd [Apatow], it includes the women who are involved with Lenny—and they let me know when they think I’m making a mistake, and when the dialogue that’s happening is biased, or gendered, or whatever. I’m not going to lie and say last fall was a breeze. It was one of the most challenging times of my life, because my family was targeted, and that’s not something I ever expected or wanted to happen in my career. Anyone with a family that they love knows your number-one goal is to protect and care for those people, not to bring them into debates they didn’t want to be a part of. But I was lucky, because even they said, “This is more reason to speak, and speak loudly.” Maybe, someday, there will be a time when I have babies and people I want to protect that I won’t want to be as vocal as I am now. But it’s hard for me to imagine, and I’m happy to be in a partnership with someone who doesn’t say, “Hey, you really screwed up this time,” but says, “How do we fight back in a way that’s thoughtful and creative and not just about us?”
It seems that the characters on Girls grow only incrementally, and when you’re so able to speak in your own voices, it must be limiting or frustrating.
Dunham: We love our jobs so much it’s crazy. That being said, it’s funny: People often think Hannah’s opinions are our opinions. They often think we’re sharing an emotional reality with these characters. So I have to say, no, I’m six years ahead mentally of Hannah. I have a full-time job; I have a really emotionally successful partnership with another woman that Hannah wouldn’t be able to keep up, and it’s nice to be able to show maturity and intellect in Lenny in a way that we can’t on the show. And we love these people so much.
Konner: And we love that they incrementally grow. It’s fun to keep going back to the same well, have Marnie keep making the mistakes she’s made in the past over and over again.
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