A New Breed of Auteurism in HBO’s ‘Girls’


Lena Dunham is naked. A lot.

Her hit show, Girls, has had a monumental rise since its first season began in April 2012, causing a stir in the ranks at HBO and paving the way for offbeat shows like Looking to find a place to call home. But can a creative writing graduate, a mere 27 years young, be the true Auteur behind it all? With a swath of celebrities paraded in front of products, we are reticent to take it all in (i.e. Snooki’s ability to be able to read, much less write a book). There must be a puppeteer behind the curtain controlling these people, right? But there is something different in the story of Lena Dunham, how she’s more than the face of an amusing and shameless Hannah Horvath of Girls; she’s an Auteur a decade in the making.

They say an artist will continue telling a variation of the same story until her or she gets it right. This is exactly what Dunham has been doing since she began her study at Oberlin College in 2004. During those angsty undergraduate years, she made three short films. In the year following her graduation, she was involved in five short films. After watching the films, it’s clear that bits and pieces of Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, come alive in each and every one of them. Whether she’s comparing a sneeze to an orgasm in Pressure or exploring family dynamics in Family Tree, it’s clear that Dunham has been writing and acting out this handful of characters for years. She even serialized her ideas in the YouTube mini-series Delusional Downtown Divas. She released her first full-length film in 2010, Tiny Furniture, which propelled Dunham into the spotlight. This gave her the power to transform the characters from her low budget films into the ladies on Girls.

Good old Francois Truffaut, the über famous French film director of the 60’s and one of the founders of the French New Wave, would likely give props to Dunham for her devotion. He championed Auteur theory and the idea that a director’s personal creative vision should shine through the interference from the studio and the collaborative process. Now, if you haven’t spent hours trolling the web for obscure student films by Dunham, this connection to Truffaut might seem suspect. But think about Quentin Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton or Wes Anderson and you may see that “style” cannot quite capture what they are doing; it’s an understanding these directors have, one where they refuse to waver from their vision. These Auteurs often reach beyond the title of director to have greater creative control, taking the reins of writer, producer and sometimes both. Now, look back at Ms. Dunham. She’s one of the executive producers of Girls, has been the director on eleven episodes and has written thirty-one. Is this adding up?

It’s clear (now) that Dunham may be the Auteur behind her HBO show, but let’s just say that perhaps she got lucky, that she happened to have two successful parents in the New York arts scene and had merely been testing out Girls prototypes for years until something stuck. This is her show, she got lucky with its initial traction, and now she’s reaping the rewards–easy enough. Can we really crown her an Auteur at such a ripe young age in her career? Your silence is convincing enough. Let’s dig deeper.

Tom Peters, Stanford MBA badass and author of In Search Of Excellence coined the term “personal branding” and we can quickly grasp this idea if we think of one man: Donald Trump. Yes, his hair is ridiculous. Yes, The Apprentice was terrible. But for a silly man made famous on TV for pointing his crooked finger and saying, “You’re fired,” he has done pretty well for himself (net worth hovering around 7 billion). What does this have to do with Dunham? Trump has made his name and image into a business that goes far beyond his initial real estate company: hotels, restaurants, TV, even ties. And Dunham has done this also, in a less douchey and sell-out way. She has a massive following on Twitter and Instagram, feeding excerpts from her real life straight to her hoard of fans. These are the “free samples” of her brand that drive people back to her show (and soon enough, her book). This is a complex sphere that Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City could never have imagined. The character of Hannah Horvath appears to many as a real representation of Lena Dunham. Let’s be honest–she cast her real mom and sister in their real roles in Tiny Furniture. Suddenly, the show becomes not just about watching the characters, but about watching something real, someone real.

While Dunham describes herself in life as “years ahead” of her character on Girls, her fans can’t help but connect the two. With tweets like “I’m really trying to become germaphobic” or “I ate a hotdog for breakfast at the airport,” it truly feels like the connection between fiction and real life are true (i.e. creative nonfiction). This is a mark of personal branding mixed with memoir to cultivate a new, social media ridden form of auteurism that would make even Truffaut choke on a truffle. And Dunham shows no signs of slowing down: Dunham said to Vogue that she was interested in continuing Girls for at least two more seasons, in conjunction with a new HBO original she is developing. On top of that, she gained a 3.7 million dollar book deal due out in October. For Ms. Dunham, the vision of her future and her work has always been entirely her own. For the aspiring Auteurs out there, in the words of Dunham, “Enjoy going through life as yourself.”

Works Cited

1. Heller, Nathan. Lena Dunham: The New Queen of Comedy’s First Vogue Cover -. Vogue Magazine, 15 Jan. 2014.

2. Peters, Thomas J., and Robert H. Waterman. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-run Companies. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Print.

3. Thompson, Kristin; Bordwell, David (2010). Film History: An Introduction (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 381–383. ISBN 978-0-07-338613-3.

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  1. Goodman

    I really think that the writers think that their creating something unique. They are not. I really think I tune in hoping that these characters who I’ve come to know, actually will become good enough to make me change my point of view about the show. So far, not happening.

    • I have the exact same feeling!

      Every character is so self absorbed, narcissistic and callous it blows my mind.
      Is this Lena Dunham portraying an entire generation as being super self conscious?
      Or is it “just” a series about a group of bitchy girls with the attention span of gold fish?

      These characters NEVER EVOLVE. They are cold hearted, conniving, and just basically bad people.

      If you were in a car accident, these people would not help.
      They would stand on the side of the road, taking pictures, tweeting about how your horrible death relates to their petty Angst and feelings of inadequacy.
      Jesus christ.

      This TV addiction end here.

      • H

        Thanks for the comment! Just to clarify, what do you mean by evolve? As in “a significant change in the nature of their character?” If that’s the case, I would agree with you. But I would also say that comedies in particular are not concerned with changing the nature of characters because that aspect is what makes them funny.

        If you mean evolve as in “going through life changes,” then I would be curious to hear you elaborate. It seems like Hannah goes from an OCD and jobless mess who can’t manage her love life into a semi-successful writer with a steady boyfriend. I would agree that Hannah is incredibly self absorbed, but I think that’s the point.

    • H

      What about the show in particular doesn’t feel unique to you? A comedy about friends living together is nothing new, agreed. But there aren’t any shows (that I can think of right now) that make the same kind of jokes and have the same kind of language as “Girls.” In general though, it’s a comedy about young people who feel lost and that’s nothing mind blowing in itself, agreed

    • pauline franklin

      But last season, they had 2 or 3 GREAT episodes and I hope they can make the effort again. But so far, this season is a real mess–there hasn’t been one episode that I thought was great, so I tune in each week, hoping.

    • I disagree…’Beach House’ was brilliant! Best of the season hands down, i need to rewatch it but its writing was awesome. It could have been a film by itself.

  2. Free Snacks and Beach House, I have to say, have some of the best scenes I’ve seen on this show yet. People’s issues are being put on the table and some real conversations are happening. Marnie’s obsession with perfection, Hannah’s narcissism and sense of entitlement, Shoshanna’s way of letting people walk all over her and come off like a vacant dumbass, Jessa….yeah, it’s all coming to light. This IS what growth looks like.

    • H

      I agree! Definitely a change in tone for the show. I think many people who want something more than just a few laughs will be getting more “real conversations” in future episodes. Thanks!

    • Perhaps demanding the behavior of fictional characters on the television machine to always reflect reality is not the wisest course of action.

  3. Yeah I’m honestly losing faith in this show. I used to recommend it to friends, now I’m kind of embarrassed to even say I watch it. I pray the next few episodes or season 4 at least go up in quality. It’s Six feet under all over again

  4. Daryl Patton

    I’m one of the few men who watch this show. I’ll admit I’m a pig and I trashed the show during its first season and rooted for it to fail and get canceled. I couldn’t stop watching it though (mostly to trash it).

    Now its actually getting good, plus the male characters are getting some development and they’re actually good characters. The four female leads are still pretty stupid but Jessa and Shoshanna are at least funny because their personalities are so ridiculous and extreme. Hannah and Marnie are still annoying. Marnie is kind of hot so it makes up for it somewhat. Hannah is just a female George Costanza. Once I started looking at her character that way, she became easier to tolerate.

    Season 3 is way better than the first two. I hope they stick with this approach/feel for future seasons.

    • Like the fact that Marnie is hooking up with Ray, someone needs to put that bitch in her place and he sort of does that. Loathe the drug addicted blonde, forgot her name now, but she is appearing less this season, so that’s a plus.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      I’d be wary to consider yourself “one of the few men who watch this show.”

      Also, I’m not sure if comparing Hannah to George Costanza explains away any of her lazy development as a character…haha

    • H

      Yea! I didn’t expect Adam to become such a big part of the show. The bit with his sister made him a lot deeper of a character too.

      Jessa and Shoshanna are ridiculous. And agree, Marnie is hot.

      I don’t think Hannah would have any shrinkage after getting out of the pool like George, but I see what you mean.

      Thanks for sharing!

  5. Jon Lisi

    Great article. ‘Girls’ is certainly an auteur-driven series, probably one of the few on TV (along with ‘Louie’ and maybe ‘Veep’ I’d argue). And I like what you’re hinting at with the personal branding, suggesting that Dunham’s public image is so intertwined with her characters and professional work that we often fail to separate the two. I’ve long believed that social media is another artistic tool public figures use to construct their image, so it’s nice to see that I’m not the only one.

    • H

      You’re right! Louie is definitely auteur driven! He took the reins of the operation from day one and made some low budget stuff that he even edited himself.

      It’s an interesting time when fans can Tweet at celebrities and actually get read.

  6. I have never seen this show, but I’ve heard a lot about it. I actually first heard about this show from one of my professor who said that it’s about a group of self- obsessed girls who don’t care about social issues or world problems.I agree with you that the character and the creator are very similar. I also like the humor in your article.

    • H

      It’s funny that your Professor said that, as if any fictional show should hold up to anyone’s ideas of morality.

      Maybe get him a DVD of “Jersey Shore” to see what happens? Kidding. He might explode.

      Glad you liked the article! Thanks for the comment.

  7. Kayleigh Hall
    Kayleigh Hall

    I found this article really interesting, because I know that I am personally guilty of disliking Girls primarily because I perceive it to be very narcissistic.
    However, I now realise embracing narcissism is all part of enjoying the work of so-called “auteurs”. I’m now questioning myself in regards to whether I need to actually like the personality of the creator before I can enjoy the work.
    I worry that Lena Dunham’s projection of herself in all of her work will not only lead to her exhausting her source of material, but will lead to people becoming bored of her style and, like me, might begin to view it as self-absorbed.
    I appreciate that Dunham is a very talented writer, and so I hope she can go on to find more and more creative ways to explore her ideas.

    • H

      She’s actually developing a new show with HBO right now…

      Glad that Dunham is growing on you! She is talented, but very quirky and strange to most.

  8. I feel that this show receives too much attention. It is okay. For some people it might be great, but even they have to admit the constant bitchery and self-absorbed whining gets old quick. I don’t want this to be the voice of my generation.

    • H

      I think that’s part of the comedy–that Hannah’s character is so focused inwardly that she doesn’t realize that A. She is very, very different from the rest of the people around her and B. That the “generation” she wants to be the voice of is really just that small slice of people she spends time with. The fact that the show very seldom leaves NYC says enough about the group of people they are trying to portray.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  9. Marce Norton

    This season has been way funnier than the first two. I found myself lol at several parts in episode 3. I almost don’t hate the show any more. Almost.

  10. This show is just brilliant. Writing, acting, direction; everything seems to flow naturally and realistically. For being, essentially, a show about four girls gossiping a lot, I as a male viewer, still find the show incredible.

    • H

      Glad you like the show! In a lot of ways, it’s like “Seinfeld” or “Friends” in that there isn’t a lot going on outside of their immediate relationships and personal events. Focusing on such small things turns out to be very funny.

      Hope you enjoyed the finale!

  11. Elle831

    I would argue that Lena Dunham is not in fact, an Auteur. As you say in your article, she is a very hard worker, writing and directing many of the episodes of ‘Girls.’ However her characters she creates, do not translate to a higher meaning. She has been able to capitalize on this quirky, explicit character (who I do believe is an important portrayal of women today) which is essentially her own personality. I have seen ‘Tiny Furniture’ and it is exactly the same. Dunham has been able to package, wrap and tie a little bow around this character without it really meaning anything. Hannah Horvath hasn’t learned anything since we’ve been watching, and neither has Marnie nor Jessa. In fact, I think their situations have gotten worse, and at this level have remained stagnant.

    I also must point out that I resent the way the women are portrayed. In the beginning I could see great potential for all characters, and was delighted to hear they had similar problems to my friends and I. However I can’t help but notice when each episode is aired, each girl began following the recipe for their specific gender stereotypes: the valley girl, the phony, the free spirit, and the weirdo. In fact, I think her male characters are the most dynamic.

    Auteur? I think connections, and knowing how to sell yourself is the true meaning of Dunham’s success. Cheers.

    • H

      Thanks for the comment! I agree with what you are saying about the male characters being the most dynamic. Adam certainly grew much more complex in this last season and seems to have eclipsed many of the other supporting characters.

      I will say that I am confused by your thought that Dunham is not an auteur because her characters “do not translate to a higher meaning.” Higher meaning to who? Auteur theory merely states that a director’s film (or here, TV show) reflects their “personal creative vision.” That’s what I sought to point out in the article. I’m not saying the characters do not follow many of the norms of comedy (ie assuming variations of the stereotypes you pointed out). “Sex and the City,” “Seinfeld” and countless other comedies have done the same thing. That’s how you generate comical situations. The need for larger character arcs is more appropriate in dramas, for example.

      I think you captured it perfectly when you wrote “knowing how to sell yourself” above. That’s part of auteurism in film and TV today (look at Wes Anderson).

      Thanks again for the deep thoughts! I appreciate you taking the time.

  12. I came to know of Lena Dunham when she won an award and I was clueless as to what she had won for. Girls?!,what, when and where? I tuned in that season and found myself addicted to the nonsense. It seem’s so real, you can almost relate to the characters (especially if you are truly familiar with the NY scene) and you want to know what makes them tick. I never did find that out and after one season, was not pulled in for more. I do think she’s found her Niche though.

  13. The more I watch Girls, the more I fall in love with it. The characters aren’t likable, they’re authentic. They don’t have the perfection of normal TV characters, because Dunham never tries to make them especially interesting or dramatic. They’re flawed in so many ways and I love watching them week after week. I think Auteur is the type of word that was created for people like Lena Dunham, who just create something so totally their own that you can’t deny that something incredible is going on there. Great article.

  14. Elaina Chastain

    I love this. SO much.

    I guess I just don’t necessarily agree with the idea of Lena Dunham just getting lucky. Sure, she is the spawn of two successful people, and yes that kind of thing has opened doors for many people who may not seem to be deserving of it. However, I think Lena deserves more credit than she receives! She really pours herself into her work, and in a way that gives the show (and all of her other work) that realness factor.

    I also adore that she is comfortable with being outspoken, whether its her nudity on screen or her commentary through social media. She is fan-freakin-tastic!

  15. I am a huge fan of GIRLS and here is why: I think the reason that many people dislike the show is because the characters are so insanely real. Everyone can relate to these characters, it’s just that what they are relating to is not necessarily the greatest parts of their personalities. Lena Dunham shows the dark side of the human soul in a vividly beautiful way. We’re all a little narcissistic, insecure, and obsessive. Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna are exaggerated personifications of these characteristics. We don’t want to believe that we are like them so we complain that these characters are whiny and annoying because we’re used to simply flawed characters in other TV comedies like “New Girl” and “Friends.” GIRLS, on the other hand, is a dramatic comedy which takes on real, complicated issues (mostly within the characters themselves) and reveals to the world the darker side of the twenty-something situation, and I applaud Dunham and her team for taking this risk.

  16. mazzamura

    Dunham has certainly created a successful brand for her self, although aligning her with Trump or Truffaut seems misguided. She is neither a ridiculous idiot seeking empty media attention nor a deeply thoughtful artist who completely revolutionized cinema. While Dunham didn’t reinvent the wheel in writing or television, the intentional mystique of where Lena ends and Hannah begins definitely keeps the audience tuned in.

  17. I think creating a show with characters and a storyline that are exactly like your real life shows a lack of talent and definitely a lack of creativity…

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