Rearranging the Furniture

by Jen Corcoran

Lena Dunham in Tiny Furniture

Lena Dunham: if you don’t know her name already, you soon will. The 25 year-old Manhattan based film-maker is currently the focus of intense media attention from blogosphere to broadsheet as her Judd Apatow-sponsored TV series Girls debuts on HBO over in the US. Meanwhile, Dunham’s wildly acclaimed breakthrough feature Tiny Furniture (2010) finally gets a release in the UK this week, exporting her brand of naturalistic, female-led comedy across the Atlantic.

Lena Dunham’s accelerated rise through the Hollywood food chain has met with adulation and condemnation in equal measure. With a dozen YouTube shorts and one micro-budget feature, Creative Nonfiction, under her belt, Dunham was barely out of college when Tiny Furniture won the Best Narrative Feature prize at South by Southwest Festival. Starring the writer herself as Aura, a disillusioned graduate who returns to New York and moves back in with her mother and sister, the film is an unashamedly personal, self-parodying exploration of what it means to be young in the post-Millennial era.

Though the set-up may sound unconvincing, Tiny Furniture is a remarkably intelligent and frequently hilarious film that deals with the familiar twenty-something narratives of humiliation, confusion, rejection and self-pity in a manner that has resonated both with a swathe of her peers and crucially, with a number of Hollywood luminaries; heavyweight producer Scott Rudin and the aforementioned Judd Apatow among them. Further proof of Dunham’s unusual talent can be evidenced in her swift induction into the Criterion Collection – a distribution company noted for selling carefully curated, auteur-driven movies and restored archive titles to an audience of hard-to-please film aficionados.

For me, as I’m sure for many other young women, Dunham’s major appeal lies in her truly honest depictions of female characters, who are allowed to be flawed, allowed to make mistakes. In playing her own protagonists, often in states of painful exposure, Dunham puts herself out there without the usual safeguards that many comics – male and female – employ. In Tiny Furniture, particularly, Dunham’s aim was to thrust into the spotlight a certain kind of female character not often met in mainstream comedy.

Lena Dunham as Aura and Jemima Kirke as Charlotte  Photo Credit: Joe Anderson.

 “Aura is real and complicated, and weird and annoying, all of those things. My hope is that the reason she resonates with people is because she feels like a multi-dimensional woman, she looks like people they might know, and she is behaving in ways we can all certainly relate to even if you haven’t committed her specific sins.”

Dunham’s character in Tiny Furniture is a reaction to the dominance of male narratives in mainstream film-making, as well as the notion that audiences are more willing to forgive a male character’s flaws. It’s something that the film-maker hopes to unpack during her career. “I’m trying to understand why that is and where you can take female characters that people try to not let you take them… trying to push those boundaries.”

A lot of the debate around Dunham and her output is the ‘daring’ way in which she exposes her own, defiantly unglamorous body, as in Tiny Furniture when she has Aura parade through the high school party of her younger sister in just a T-shirt and knickers. Slovenly (in the film at least), tattooed and somewhat overweight, detractors have accused the film-maker of exhibitionism, of courting rejection with her ‘unsightly’ appearance.

Are they missing the point? I don’t believe Dunham intends it as anything other than an authentic portrayal of female body types, secondary to their interactions on screen. “I appreciate anything that can bring focus to the fact that the female norm in film and television is not the norm in real life, and that ultimately it’s a destructive ideal to aspire to. What I think about my characters is that they have a lot of issues. But none of those issues really comes from being 10 pounds overweight.”

Dunham’s new TV series, Girls, continues the ethos behind Tiny Furniture with a cast of complex, morally ambiguous female characters that offer a refreshing representation of women outside of the stock roles often seen on screen. Here, I’m particularly thinking of the indie film-making community’s own Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the twentieth century’s muse du jour as seen in the likes of Garden State and 500 Days of Summer (sorry Zooey Deschanel). Elsewhere, however, Girls has been lauded as a knowing critique of the so-called Millenial Generation, an inherently modern sitcom that recognises and incorporates digital culture (and requisite daily confession) as a default setting.

In the pilot of Girls, Dunham’s character can be seen telling her parents, “I think I might be the voice of a generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” It’s a moniker that has been levelled at Dunham before, to the consternation of critics uncomfortable with such a canonisation. It is true that the women Dunham presents are largely white, privileged and apolitical, whilst the fact that her storylines are primarily concerned with the characters’ sexual relationships could be seen to jar with her status as a feminist icon. I haven’t seen a full episode of Girls yet, but I wonder how well they would stand up against the Bechdel Test.

Despite my reservations, I am undoubtedly a convert to Lena Dunham’s cause. Both in interviews with the film-maker and through the work we’ve seen so far she comes across as honest, articulate and un-pretentious, making original work with which young women can accurately identify. If not the voice of generation, Lena Dunham is certainly an exceptional talent, and an intriguing new voice in the American film-making landscape.

Jen Corcoran is a London based writer with a fondness for bleak foreign arthouse and female narratives. Follow her on Twitter.

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