It’s hard to imagine the current TV landscape looking quite the same as it does today if it weren’t for the 2012 premiere of Girls. A little over a week after the series finale (why, it’s almost as if they planned it!), creator and star Lena Dunham and showrunner Jenni Konner sat down with Superstore‘s America Ferrera at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday night for a spirited, encouraging discussion of the show’s legacy — and the special challenges that await a creative woman who dares to take a risk.
The evening began with some general gushing from all three parties about each other’s talent and brilliance. “Besides each other,” Dunham said, referring to herself and Konner, “this is our favorite person on the fucking planet.” (For the record, the pair already has Ferrera’s slogan picked out for her presidential campaign: “America for America.”) It was an appropriate start for a talk that centered on the experience of women in the TV industry; Konner called it the “luckiest thing in the world” that the first person she worked for in the film industry was a woman, Tribeca Productions founder Jane Rosenthal, who introduced the trio.
Remarking that the show opened a door for more truthful and varied representations of women on TV, Ferrera recalled her first reaction to watching the Girls pilot: “’Holy shit, we’ve never seen this before.” Much of that reaction, of course, stemmed from Dunham’s heavily criticized choice to put her own body — often unclothed — front and center. Konner remembered the first time Ferrera appeared at the network upfronts — semi-annual promotional events that TV networks put on for potential advertisers (as well as nosy journalists) — and in particular, her response to a question about her “non-traditional” looks. Ferrera said she’d never been told she looked that way until she appeared on TV.
All three were astounded, but maybe not terribly surprised, to learn that, as Ferrera put it, “The bravest thing a woman could do on television was be ugly.” Both Konner and Dunham noted that the harshest criticisms of Dunham’s body as it was depicted on Girls usually came from people who didn’t have the greatest bodies themselves. Although men were particularly uncomfortable with that aspect of the show in its first season, Konner said, Dunham noted that it was often women — and not necessarily supermodels — who lobbed insults at her form. It was as if women were “irate” that Dunham refused to “pardon” herself from the myriad ways in which women punish themselves for their perceived flaws.
All that fretting about body image, Ferrera said, prevents women in the industry from doing the real work of writing and producing and directing. And yet it is an undeniable, if continually frustrating, aspect of womanhood, and one that the consistently fearless Girls often laid bare. The show never shied away from portraying its characters, particularly Hannah, warts and all, especially during private moments that we don’t often see onscreen. Konner revealed that the scene in the Season 6 premiere in which Hannah struggles to fit into a wetsuit was a subtle homage to a similar scene in Tiny Furniture, the movie that Dunham wrote and directed before she created Girls, in which Dunham’s character squeezes herself into a pair of Spanx. When Konner watched the film before she ever met Dunham, that scene was the moment she knew she wanted to work with her.
The other revelation the talk spawned was the fact that the episode in which Jessa gets an abortion — the second episode of the first season — was originally supposed to be the show’s pilot. HBO suggested they bump it to episode two, partly because of the sensitive subject matter but mostly so that the audience could get to know these women a little before they threw an “abortion party.” According to Konner, executive producer Judd Apatow said, “It’s like if Kramer killed a puppy in the pilot” of Seinfeld.
Unsurprisingly for a show that took such an unflinching view of its core cast, Konner and Dunham said they never really talked about the “big picture” of Girls, like who the show was speaking to or what message it was trying to send; rather, their conversations focused on the characters (as in, “How terrible is Hannah?”). Dunham admitted that the summer after she graduated from college — when she was working in a children’s clothing store, living with her parents, and generally acting out — was her “Hannah” period, and she’d often reach back to that time for inspiration when writing the show. “That’s what it’s like to not know yourself and be depressed and alone and broken and scared,” she said, reflecting on her post-college funk — which she snapped out of as a result of a broken back, which left her lying in bed for two weeks. (She used that time to write the screenplay for Tiny Furniture. What did you do during your last illness?!)
Konner, Dunham, and Ferrera made it very clear that they plan to use their relative positions of power in the entertainment industry to give other women a boost. Now, Dunham said, women in film and television need to band together to make their visions reality. (It was Dunham, apparently, who encouraged Ferrera to try her hand at directing; last month, she made her directorial debut with an episode of Superstore.) Reflecting on the recently concluded FX series Feud: Bette and Joan, which centered on the rivalry between Bette David and Joan Crawford, Dunham remarked that the show was ultimately about how “there was only ever room for one [woman].” But, she added, “Those days are over.”