Matt Domino witnessed the cult of Lena Dunham at the New Yorker Festival this weekend.
When I describe myself to people I just meet, I usually say something along these lines: “I’m just a guy that likes the NBA and beer.” Despite the fact that those two things are very much true, I usually say that to appear humble, simple and masculine as well as to downplay any of my artistic inclinations and weirdnesses as an aspiring writer—although that will inevitably surface as a conversation carries on. However, I’ve had fine luck making friends and disarming strangers if I’m associated with an aura of beer and basketball.
In reality, I’m actually quite introspective (the shock!) and very sensitive, which I suppose, as a man, has leant an air of femininity to my more general character. I’ve known and been extremely close to a lot of good women in my life whether they are older role model types, lovers or friends. I’ve always maintained a fairly open and confessional relationship with my mother, which has helped our relationship weather the different strains of the mother-child evolution through life. My sister and I have established, as we’ve both grown older, a very strong sibling bond based in all the best aspects of “teamwork” and, as I’ve written, I cherish that. My friend’s wife of two years is one of the smartest and intuitive people I have ever met; she and I have been on the same wavelength about many people and situations countless times, and I’ve missed having her around since they moved to Miami. And one of my best friends is a girl I went to high school with who lives down the block from me in Brooklyn.
I say all this because this past Sunday I went with the above referenced friend and her roommates to the conversation Emily Nussbaum had with Lena Dunham as part of The New Yorker festival. It’s no secret that, despite my deep-rooted competitive nature and terrible insecurities and jealousies, I am a big fan of Lena Dunham and the show Girls. When Girls first came out in the spring, I wrote a post on this blog about how, while I’ve lived in Brooklyn for four years and known the setting of her show, I didn’t specifically feel like the life depicted on Girls was really like my life or anything I wanted from my life. And none of that was Lena Dunham’s fault at all; I had problems with the press surrounding the show that seemed to want to anoint those experiences as a commodity that could be sold in a bottle or spray as “Your 20’s.” No, what quickly became apparent while watching the show and reading interviews with Lena Dunham was that she was making the show she wanted to make with people who challenged her, inspired her and above all helped her to grow as a writer and creator.
So, needless to say, I was interested to see what she would be like in person and jumped at the opportunity to attend the talk. I was a bit hungover from the night before and I met my friend and one of her roommates to get coffee before heading up to the venue—the second roommate was at her office putting in some work and would meet us at the talk. As we walked to the subway drinking our coffees in the rain, we talked about the dinner party my friend was having that evening. The girls talked about who would be coming and at what time, while I dumbly waited for the caffeine to start smoothing out my hazy brain. At the subway platform, my friend was nervous about making the talk on time.
“Don’t even worry,” I said, puffing out my chest. “We’ve got plenty of time. I’m totally confident.”
My friend shot me an incredulous look. “Thanks, Matt. I’ll need that confidence.”
I laughed because it was a fitting response to my stupidity. On the train, we decided that in order to save time, we’d get out at West 4th Street and catch a cab. We were able to pull off our plan perfectly and as we were riding up the West Side to Mid-Town, my friend was fielding text messages from the roommate who was not with us.
“She says she’s in a cab that smells like poop and that all the roads are closed off. She’s going to be late.”
We all laughed about the level of detail in the text—this girl is very detailed—and then we were at the venue. As we walked in, one of the coordinators for the festival recognized my friend from a talk she had gone to on Friday night and started talking to my friend and her roommate. Meanwhile, I accepted a free ice cream bar and watched them. I smiled because there’s something that amazes me about the way women who don’t even know each other speak to each other. There’s some greater recognition of camaraderie, of being “sisters” in some general way than exists with men and being “brothers”; whether it’s a compliment on a shirt or earrings or hair or shoes or even some confidential agreement on what the mood of a gathering is, the communication between women exists at a much more rapid and higher level than that of men.
We were shown our seats (third row!) and eventually Lena Dunham was shown out to the stage. In person, she looked very pretty with her new haircut and I wondered, like I always do with women, if she were single and, if not, if maybe perhaps she and her boyfriend were on the rocks. Emily Nussbaum started asking Lena questions and discussing the show. I could immediately sense a strange energy in the room; it was an energy of slowly building positivity. With each of Lena Dunham’s self-deprecating jokes, stories or clever turns of phrase, I heard the murmurs of assent and saw the knowing glances between all the women around me. Eventually, Emily Nussbaum asked Lena about the rising generation of female television stars and show runners. Lena cited all the important names from all the relevant shows: Zooey Deschanel, Mindy Kaling, Liz Meriweather, Two Broke Girls, Whitney (hey, I know its terrible, but I mean its of our times). And then she explained how there is a certain element of support between them, that they do recognize they are making strides in the industry and they are, in a sense, “in it together.”
“It’s just a good way to get over that kind of ‘women eat their own kind’ mentality that we seem to always be stuck with,” Lena Dunham said.
My friend’s other roommate arrived and sat next to me in the seat I had saved her. I kissed her hello and she settled in. After a few moments, she whispered to me.
“Look at her haircut. She copied me!”
I’m always interested in fame and why someone is famous or why a certain piece of art is successful. As the conversation continued, I understood why Lena Dunham has become successful. She is absolutely composed and honest. She admits when she has misspoken or been too political in her response to a question; she can tell a good story; she can turn a good joke; she is simultaneously humble and exceedingly confident. She values her family and being true to yourself, which she relayed in a story about an (I’m making this name up because I can’t remember what it was actually called) “I’m Me” doll, complete with flat feet and other imperfections, that her mother gave her when she was a little girl. You can tell that she was raised well.
Perhaps, most of all, she gives off a true sense of honest empathy towards others, especially her fans. This was absolutely true during the audience question section of the talk, when the first audience member to step up to the microphone was an NYU student who launched into a manic, overearnest story about how she loved Lena Dunham and the character Shoshonna from Girls and about how watching the show led her into her first real relationship. The girl continued to talk until it actually became somewhat uncomfortable to the rest of the audience. Emily Nussbaum diplomatically cut the girl off, but not before Lena could interject, “I’d be really happy to hear more about you and your boyfriend after we finish this talk.”
Finally, after Lena explained that her favorite Spice Girl was Sporty Spice, the talk was over. I left the venue with my friend and her two roommates. The roommate who arrived late said, “I felt bad for those women who were waiting in line. They seemed so desperate. It felt like a Harry Potter screening or something.”
“They just love her,” my friend said.
We all got on the subway back to Brooklyn and the girls talked about the dinner party and the new guy my friend had met a few weeks earlier. The big question was whether he was going to come to the party or not. I sat and listened, chimed in when I had to and just generally felt excited and inspired by the talk I had just seen.
When we got back to my friend’s apartment, some of her friends were already in the kitchen (she’d given them keys) helping prepare all the food for the night. The house was warm and clean and smelled like stew and the fall.
“How was the talk?” someone asked.
I immediately started gushing and rattling off why I thought it was great. “It was like being at a fucking Oprah taping,” I said.
The girls all laughed and then they said that they needed beer, so I offered to go out and get a bunch of it. I returned with the beer and then slowly guests started arriving. Old friends, mutual acquaintances and new people; recent boyfriends and girlfriends and old lovers; sisters and co-workers. Everyone ate and drank and talked about music, work and whatever else. We took shots of whiskey with picklebacks and drank hot cider. I got drunk and made stupid jokes with my guy friends; jokes about a making a musical based on the movie Alien where the alien is actually gay.
At one point, my friend’s girlfriend told me that I needed to make a World’s Coolest Woman list for the blog to balance out the World’s Coolest Dude list. I told her that when I was making my list, that some years it was hard to pick a man, since some years have just been completely dominated by a woman.
“1963,” I said. “If we’re going general, Rosa Parks wins over any man.”
“You becoming a feminist, Domino?” she asked.
Slowly, the party began to die out and eventually it was just me sitting with six girls, none of whom I wanted to sleep with. But there was still beer to drink, so I sat with them as they listened to Robyn and dissected the night, the dynamics of the people and then talked about guys. I sat and listened because it was warm in the apartment and I felt comfortable and didn’t want to go home. I thought about my fellow men and what they would think of me sitting in a room with six women with no interest in sleeping with any of them. Sure, I’d probably get some “fag” or “fluffer” (to quote a recent New Girl) comments made. But as I thought about it, I didn’t care.
“I’m getting a last beer,” I said to the girls. “Anybody want one?”
“I’ll take one,” my friend said.
“What do you want?”
“You pick it.”
I looked at the beer selection. I was going to give her a High Life, but then decided to give her a Sam Adams Pumpkin Ale instead. I thought she’d like that.
“Who’s the High Life for?” my friend asked.
“I kind of wanted that one,” she said, laughing.
So, I handed it over and then opened the pumpkin ale and took a drink. “This is terrible.”
“I know,” my friend said. “That’s why I was hoping you’d bring me a High Life.”
We laughed about it again and I finished my beer and left. I said goodbye to all the girls and then walked out into the damp night. As I walked, I felt good because it was the first true autumnal night in New York. I passed the projects on Hoyt Street, thought about The Wire, stood tall and puffed out my chest. I was drunk and I again wondered what other guys would think of me just sitting around in a pow-wow of women like that with no sexual motive in mind. I ran down a list of different responses in my mind, but I stopped after a few because, again, in the end I didn’t care. In some way, my Sunday had developed a “feminine” theme, so it only seemed right that I’d go all in and end up sitting platonically with a group of six women at the end of the night.
The cool felt great against my face and drops of leftover rain fell from the dark, sagging branches. It didn’t matter what kind of man I was or what other men would think about me. I was going to continue to do things that felt right to me—to do things my way.
That's what I learned from Lena Dunham, and it's seemed to work for her.