Girls as Autobiography?: Critical Reception of Lena Dunham's "Self-Representation"

Curator's Note

One of the persistent questions surrounding Girls is how much Hannah Horvath can be conflated with her creator. Critical responses often highlight the way that Dunham incorporates her own experiences into the show—how, as executive producer Jenni Konner has said, “Something happens to Lena the night before, she literally comes in the next day and pitches it.” Indeed, a recent New York Times article on the costumes emphasizes the way that even the wardrobes selected “are often imbued with autobiographical specificity.”

Dunham is certainly not the only contemporary popular auteur to write what she knows; art often comes from life. But questions of verisimilitude have served a uniquely central role in Girls’ critical reception, in many ways setting the terms of the debates that follow the show.

Girls is not the first time that Dunham’s work has raised questions about the slippage between the fictional and the autobiographical. Dunham’s feature film Tiny Furniture (2010), Girls’ tonal inspiration, starred Dunham, was shot in Dunham’s parents’ TriBeCa apartment and featured Dunham’s family. One representative review praised the film for its authenticity and “clever distortion of reality, in which Dunham, for comic effect, rehearses only the most pathetic aspects of her life.” Reading the protagonist, Aura, as a surrogate for her creator, critics embraced Tiny Furniture as a small story about personal failures, a “house of mirrors” making very specific claims.

With Girls, Dunham clearly draws from the same experiential well, but the critical discourse of “autobiographical specificity” surrounding the show has been more complicated. Dunham herself claims that Girls is her least autobiographical production. And then there is the show’s “meta-title,” which seems to make a bid for a universality that might carry representational responsibility beyond the specific.

How closely we read Hannah to map on to Dunham, in other words, might have quite a bit to do with what we, as viewers, think that Girls owes us. Does “real-life” inspiration excuse the show’s circumscribed scope, or simply mark Dunham as a navel-gazing narcissist? Or, on the contrary, is the strong autobiographical strain precisely what makes the show authentic or important? Differing investments in these questions are at the heart of the arguments made by Dunham’s—and Girls’—strongest advocates and most vocal detractors, and the answers are often shaped, in various ways, by the degree to which critics understand Dunham to be telling her own story.


Thanks for another thought-provoking piece, Patricia! In mulling over all the posts & comments this week, I got to thinking about the question of WHY people seem hung up on the authenticity of the show. Were there similar reactions to Sex & The City? Or was there something about that show which clearly marked it as fiction? I wonder if Dunham et al. have fallen into an uncanny valley of sorts--a show too realistic to be viewed as pure fiction, but too fictional to be viewed as reality.

Nedda, thanks for the term "uncanny valley" here--that's a great way to describe what separates Girls from more clearly autobiographical work like Tiny Furniture. I think what's gotten Girls so much attention on the issue of authenticity is Dunham's positioning as writer, creator and star of the show. In previous incarnations of the "girl in the city" narrative on TV ("Sex in the City," even "Mary Tyler Moore"), the face of the show didn't line up with the writers. WIth MTM, the female writers have, in retrospect, said that they were drawing from their experiences, but those writers weren't in the public eye as much as the show's stars at the time. In the case of SATC, the fact that the creator was a gay man DID lead to a sort of autobiographical reading of the show, but in that case it was the "Carrie & co are just gay men in women's bodies" argument. But with Girls, the authenticity conversation seems to dominate in part because of Dunham's wunderkid autuer persona--Girls is often discussed as her show, as though it emerged, fully formed, from her mind. In addition, though, I do think that Dunham's unique emphasis on her own physical embodiment in the show contributes to the conflation of her and Hannah. When Adam jiggles Hannah's stomach fat, for example, he is jiggling Dunham's stomach fat, and we as viewers feel not only for the character, but also for the actress. There is a sense of felt reality to that moment, as several of last week columns pointed out, that makes blurs the Hannah/Dunham line in a way that is absent in more idealized representations of bodies and sexuality, like those on SATC. There seems to be a sense in the press surrounding the show, and especially in the kinds of questions that Dunham gets asked in interviews, that no writer could possibly make those kinds of humiliating moments up, so they must be drawn from life.

What a great point about the fact that Dunham literally embodies Hannah (or vice versa). So in that moment of the jiggled stomach fat, it's not just reality, it's also vulnerability. And I think that ties into a lot of the things being written about and discussed on the site over the week in terms of how/why/what attracts people to the show. Great post!

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