lena dunham
Dear Lena…

Through a neat set of co-incidences, you’ve been everywhere I look for the last few days. This weekend, I finally watched your first feature film TINY FURNITURE. Mere moments after it ended, you took to the stage at 30 Rock to host a solid episode of Saturday Night Live. Then just days after that, you gave a well-crafted and well-spoken keynote at SXSW. In the wake of all that, I half expected to tune into SportsCenter tonight and discover that The Knicks had signed you to be the new starting point guard.

Strangely though, in the wake of watching the film, and seeing you on SNL, I felt that your keynote missed a key point…a point that had more to do with the woman saying the words than the people listening to them.

Since we’ve never spoken before, I should lay a few cards on the table. You get a lot of flak from a lot of haters – I’m not one of them. I have nothing against your work, or how you choose to work your work. If you want to be nonchalant about it, be combative about it, be “whatever” about it – you’ve earned that. You are a role model for a lot of women, and while what you’ve done so far might not exactly be “my thing”, there is an undeniable amount of talent that goes into it.

At SXSW, you let out a battle cry. You said:

I think about this in relation to the cast on my show, which consists of three very talented women and also some very talented guys. Our male lead, Adam Driver, has had a bang-up year in movies which could not be more deserved because he’s a ferocious genius with an incredible work ethic, and I’ve learned so much from him. But the girls are still waiting patiently for parts that are going to honor their intelligence and their ability.

The world is ready to see Adam as a million different men — playing good guys and bad guys and sweet guys and scary guys. The world is ready to see Adam do all that. It’s not ready to see Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet or Jemima Kirke stretch their legs in the same variety of diverse roles. Allison is relegated to All-American sweetheart. Zosia is asked to play more flighty nood-nicks. Even though both are capable of so much, they’re not asked to do it. And this is not a knock on Adam’s talent, which is utterly boundless and he’s exactly the actor who should be doing all this. It’s a knock on a world where women are typecast and men can play villains, Lotharios and nerds in one calendar year and something has to change and I’m trying…

You went on to offer this piece of advice:

…don’t wait around for someone else to tell your story. Do it yourself by whatever means necessary…Tell the story you know…Stand up for your work and voice… 

Well-said, all of it. But there’s a paradox; perhaps your battle-cry would be better heard if you swung that axe you’re holding a little bit harder.

Specifically, you are in a unique position. You are an award-winning writer and director who has Hollywood’s ear. Right here, right now, you might still hear the word “no”, but you’re certainly hearing the word “yes” more often than you were five years ago. Unfortunately, through these five years, as a writer/director who gets increasing amounts of “yeses”, all you’ve done is continue to tell your own story…about versions of yourself…and people you know. I put to you that instead of sending out this call-to-action at SXSW, that you’d be a greater champion if you just acted.

Adam was able to take roles as nerds and lotharios because there were writers out there writing parts for nerds and lotharios. Meanwhile, your writing talents have thus far only been used to write parts for confused white New Yorkers who come from money. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t write what you know, I’m not even suggesting that you shouldn’t write it more than once. What I am suggesting, is that perhaps you should write the parts for women that aren’t being written. Bring to life all of the incredible stories you’ve encountered – stories that aren’t usually brought to life on our televisions and in our multiplexes. Write about women who fight, women who are beaten down, women who lead, or women who are fucked-up. Write stories that take place in the future, stories that take place in the past, or hell – stories that are about women older than 30.

You mention Zosia primarily being approached to play “flighty nood-nicks” (great word, by the way). This puzzled me somewhat since my introduction to Zosia was her spin on Mad Men as Joyce Ramsay – a strong, independent assistant photo editor. Not only is this character neither flighty, nor a nood-nick, but she plays a part in bringing Peggy Olson – one of the best-written female characters on TV – into her own.

Maybe that’s your cue; write fewer Shoshannas and more Joyces.

For further inspiration, let’s remind ourselves of the woman that took the Oscar this year for Best Actress. While you’re right to underline how much actors have to battle typecasting, let us remind ourselves that this one talented actor has made her bones playing a CIA officer, a 19th century heiress, a white-trash psychic, an elven queen, an Irish journalist, a medicine woman, a drunken jilted socialite, Maid Marion, Katherine Hepburn, The Queen of England (twice), and Bob Dylan.

Typecasting exists – but actors like Cate Blanchett are able to get past typecasting thanks to some good decision-making, and some well-written parts.

I’m not saying that any of this will be easy, and I’m not saying that you won’t still hear more than a few no’s. You’re bang-on in pointing out the imbalance, but now that you’ve underlined it, it’s time for you to use your unique position and act. You have built up a high degree of clout at a content creator that is on the leading edge of television. What’s more, in the fight ahead you have the best cornerman that any champion could ask for – Judd Apatow. Not only is he as powerful and influential a producer as there comes in today’s Hollywood, but with BRIDESMAIDS, he’s proved that he’ll go to bat for stories about women, by women, that would otherwise get tossed off as “niche”.

I believe you have this in you in a way that few others do – the true talent you wield and the foothold you have gained in the business tells me so.

You have enjoyed a great deal of success telling your story. Between TINY FURNITURE and “Girls”, I feel like you have explored your highs and lows to great ends, along with the highs and lows of those around you. But the time has come to tell other women’s highs and lows. Women who aren’t young, women who aren’t from The City.

To paraphrase Matthew McConuaghey, be your own hero. Your call-to-arms was stirring; now pick up your weapon and lead the fight.

Good luck,

– Ryan

Note: As I should have expected, this topic has sparked a lot of charged words and ideas. Please feel free to join the discussion below, but do so politely. Much of what has already been said remains, but any further misbehaviour will be deleted. – RM