As Girls heads into its fifth -- and penultimate -- season, it's hard to believe that the show's creator and star, Lena Dunham, has only been on our screens for four years (six if you count the release of her beloved indie film, Tiny Furniture). From wonderfully capturing post-recession Millennial angst on the show to championing body positivity, reproductive rights and feminism in both the interviews she gives and Lenny, the newsletter she started with her Girls co-showrunner Jenni Konner, Dunham's impact on Hollywood and pop culture would be impressive for anyone, and is all the more so for an actress and writer who hasn't even cracked 30. For this cover story, we wanted to have her be interviewed by someone equally as bold and as committed to social justice in her life and work. There's perhaps no better example of this in Tinseltown than Jane Fonda, whose storied acting career of starring in boundary-pushing films like Coming Home, Klute, On Golden Pond and Barbarella as well as, most recently, the hit Netflix show Grace and Frankie, is complemented by her history of activism, ranging from speaking out against the Vietnam War and violence against women to promoting adolescent reproductive health and women's visibility in the media. In the conversation that follows, Dunham and Fonda explore everything from feminism and motherhood to Hollywood sexism and dangerous women.
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Jane Fonda: So, listen, let me ask you some questions -- this is so weird 'cause I wish I really knew you.
Lena Dunham: I wish I really knew you, too, and this is going to be my impetus for making sure that I take you out to dinner, and also please don't be alarmed if I throw a question back at you 'cause you're too interesting not to.
Fonda: Ok, it's a deal. We're going to become friends. So as an elderly woman who has entered TV, I'm curious to know whether you think TV is a better medium for women than film?
Dunham: Well, firstly, to hear Jane Fonda use the term "elderly" in any context does not sit quite right with my ears.
Fonda: I know what you mean, but I'm a week away from 78, but in my soul I'm about 20.
Dunham: I think you've completely redefined the essence of what it means to age. It's funny, every stressful thing you've done in your life has paradoxically made you fierier and look younger, so I'm hoping that will happen to me.
Fonda: Well, it's all the stressful and bad stuff that happens that makes us better actually. So what do you think about TV as opposed to film for women?
Dunham: I think that you're 100% spot-on [that TV is a better medium for women]. When I first came to Hollywood and started having these meetings with film executives after I'd made Tiny Furniture, the things that were being offered to me had absolutely nothing to do with what I had made or who I was. It was only when I started talking to television executives and talking to the people at HBO that I felt there was actually a place for the kind of work that I make. We started making Girls five years ago and there were some amazing female-driven shows [then], but [so much has] sprung up in the time that we have been working -- and you and Lily [Tomlin] doing Grace and Frankie is really the apotheosis of it, which is that there gets to be an entire story in which women who are divorced and women who are grappling with aging and who are no longer bearing children are the actual central subject of a television show, and it's beautiful and it's refreshing and it's necessary. And it's very rare that we see that in a film, especially in a film that's being financed in any sort of mainstream way. Have you found that? Did you feel that there weren't enough parts for you in the film world before you signed onto Grace and Frankie?
Fonda: In the '70s when I'd become an activist I thought, "I just don't want to make the kind of films that are being offered me" so I started making my own. That was when I was the happiest. But then I left the business for 15 years and when I came back, it was a really different place. The studios made Coming Home and 9 to 5 and all those movies I produced -- On Golden Pond, although we could barely get money for On Golden Pond…you could never make those movies with studios today.
Dunham: Which is unbelievable. You've played some of the greatest female characters. My friend Zoe Kazan and I were just talking about Coming Home as an example of one of the films that makes you think, "Oh, there is a space for me and there's parts for me and there's exciting work for me."
Fonda: What do you think has changed, Lena?
Dunham: Well, I think you would have the clearest perspective, but something happened where suddenly 14-year-old boys started running our economy, and I don't know how that happened considering it's not a realistic reflection of what the population is or what the population wants. But, nonetheless, here we have it and so suddenly a studio doesn't understand the use for a movie with a strong, complicated female lead like Coming Home or Klute.
Fonda: Also the bottom line, more than ever, is affected by international sales and the fact is that internationally, action movies with male leads are what make money. And to a huge extent, that's where studios look now.
Dunham: But the fact that you and Lily are re-teamed in Grace and Frankie and two huge movie stars want to go to television -- and television that's broadcast via the Internet -- and to share their story there, there's no clearer indicator of a shift in the industry than that, because twenty years ago, there was no world where you two would've ever been on television.
Fonda: It's interesting why actors are on television -- it's because we follow the word and the good writers now are going to television more than they used to be. Don't you think?
Dunham: That's so interesting.
Fonda: Including you.
Dunham: Well, thank you.
Fonda: Let's talk about sexuality, because when I started making movies, married people on the screen slept in separate beds.
Dunham: Yeah. [Laughs] My grandparents did in real life.
Fonda: Do you think America has gotten less squeamish about female sexuality?
Dunham: Firstly, you've done some of the greatest depictions of it. My friend and I were talking about Coming Home in the context of the sex scene when your character has her first orgasm and she cries and it was one of the first depictions of a female engaging with her sexuality in a way that felt honest and raw and realistic and not sugarcoated. Those naturalistic, woman-powered films of the '70s have affected what we're doing on television -- it can't be underestimated. And I think when people watch our show, it's half excitement about seeing realistic sexuality reflected back at them and half gawking and I've decided to just not discriminate and to feel that anybody who's watching for whatever reason, that is ultimately a net gain that they're getting something that isn't pornography or isn't perfectly whitewashed, glossy sex piped into their brains. We live in a less puritanical society (but) the Christian Right is leading the minds of half of our country -- I'm not statistically getting that perfectly correct, but it is really possible to sometimes feel like you're living in Salem but then it's also possible to feel like you're living in Haight-Ashbury. It just depends on who you talk to!
Fonda: I narrated a documentary that Turner Classic Movies did a number of years ago and it was called Dangerous Women and it showed how before the Nielsen ratings, and the censors, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, there were all of these women who were so sexual and so dangerous and hot that were leads in major motion pictures, right? And then when the Nielsen ratings came up in the '50s, all that was done away with. And it's like television, led by you, in particular, is bringing back a new kind of dangerous woman. It's very interesting.
Dunham: I felt that when I was watching your show and seeing the fact that these women are at this point in their life and they're still contemplating and trying to understand their own sexuality and they're not packing it in, it's such an important thing to see and I feel like I've only seen that ever vaguely reflected in a French film. It's a totally new place for television to be going.
Fonda: In the second season, Grace has never used a vibrator and somebody gives her one and she comes downstairs with a brace on her hand -- she's used it so much it's made her arthritis flare up.
Dunham: That's incredible! [Laughs]
Fonda: I know, it's really funny. When did you start identifying as a feminist?
Dunham: I grew up with a mother who had come of age in the '70s and feminism was a huge part of her formative identity, and so for as long as I can remember words holding power in our household, that was one of the most powerful ones. She was really involved with a feminist group called the New York Downtown Women's Action Coalition, and she spent an extraordinary amount of time getting in buses, traveling to protect abortion clinics that were being picketed by religious extremists and she was always so focused on those issues -- and not just the big political issues but also the subtle issues of equality in the workplace, the subtle ways that we're dismissed by men in creative fields. So I think that she instilled it in me so deeply and I sort of thought, Okay, she did the job and now the job is done and I just get to call myself a feminist and revel in what my mom did. And until I came to Hollywood and started witnessing the subtle but totally systemic sexism that pervades our industry, that's when I really turned my attention to it again in a powerful way and it became a huge part of my adult identity and not just my inherited identity.
Fonda: Everybody always says, "Why are younger women so afraid of the word 'feminist?'" Do you find that that's true, that they're afraid?
Dunham: Well, it's interesting, I only interact with young women really on Twitter or on Instagram, but there are some who seem to have a terror of the word but then there's also this amazing group of young teenage feminists popping up and being vocal and noisy. Rowan Blanchard, the star of a Disney Channel show called Girl Meets World, is an incredibly outspoken, thoughtful feminist who thinks about intersectional race issues and violence and she's 14 years old.
Fonda: How great.
Dunham: To see someone who's 14 years old and who has a mainstream media platform and is talking about that and has friends who are talking about that with her -- it's not happening in a vacuum -- it gives me so much hope and so much excitement and I don't know if you've heard about this, Jane, but this year there was a huge rash of journalists asking young actresses, "Do you consider yourself a feminist?" and some of them said "No." Like, "I'm more of a humanist" or "I'm interested in equality" and it really did feel like the journalists were trying to do this "gotcha" on young women who maybe hadn't been educated about the term and I think that's the thing, you don't naturally learn about what it means to be a feminist. You need to receive an education from, preferably, a really smart woman older than you who really has an understanding of what the movement has meant. Did you have someone like that in your life?
Fonda: No, honey, I didn't become a feminist until I was in my 40s. I was a theoretical feminist starting in the '70s. I remember when I was driving across the country heading to New York to make Klute and I got a call from a friend in New York who said, "There's 5,000 women out there protesting for abortion rights." Maybe your mother was among them.
Dunham: That's very possible.
Fonda: And I thought, "God, it's such a diversionary tactic."
Dunham: Oh my god!
Fonda: Because for me it was [all about] ending the war in Vietnam and anything that wasn't focused on that was diversionary. I didn't get it for quite a while. And then I got it theoretically and I made movies that were women-centric and I read the right books and I could talk a good game, but I didn't become embodied as a feminist until I watched Eve Ensler perform The Vagina Monologues. And it was while I was laughing -- I was laughing and I think that's when it suddenly percolated from my brain into my body. It was an amazing experience -- I could feel it happening. It was weird. It was her last performance in New York of doing the whole thing and it just rocked my world. I can't explain it. I can't cognitively explain it, but it was a somatic experience and it was amazing. I'm always late to the game, believe it or not!
Dunham: Even though you feel early.
Fonda: I'm not. Do you think that if Hillary [Clinton] is elected that we're going to have more equity for women? Or is it unrealistic to pin all of our hopes on her?
Dunham: I think that with Hillary, having a female candidate in office, especially one who really does care about women's issues as much as Hillary Clinton does, and who has historically been involved in issues concerning children and mothers and families and the welfare of underrepresented people in this country, is going to have a certain amount of concern for some of these issues and awareness for some of these issues that a male candidate is just not going to have. And despite the fact that I would be a Pollyanna to think that there's not gonna be some regressive woman-hating if she were elected, I do think there's a net gain of seeing a woman in the highest office in the country to remind us what is possible, and it's the strongest symbol to our country and to the world that the lines of gender and sexuality are no longer what is preventing people from moving forward. And maybe that's a sort of idealistic take, but my dream is that in the same way that having a black president has been such an important signal and has actually brought up so much conversation about the systemic racism that is still such a huge part of our national consciousness, I hope that a female president can start those same [types of] conversations, even when they're painful.
Fonda: I agree with all of that. I think it's important to vote, but it's also important to build grassroots movements -- marching, protesting, pressuring, all of those things are more important than ever. Especially when you have somebody good in office. Jerry Brown taught me this in the '70s: If you have somebody good elected to high office, that's the time when protests really matter, instead of sitting back and taking it for granted. Because they'll listen. So I'm assuming that Hillary's going to get elected and we have Jerry Brown in California and it'll be more than ever important for people to build grassroots movements, because this is an existential crossroads that we're in and what we do now is critical on every single level, whether it's the empowerment of women or saving the earth. Anyway, enough about me. Let's talk about body. I grew up with massive body image [issues] -- my father made me feel that I was fat and unattractive and I don't think he realized how destructive it was and then I watch you and your body is part of your brand and I would like you to talk about that. I feel like you made a conscious decision that you were going to make sexuality and your body part of your brand. Can you talk about that?
Dunham: Well, firstly that's amazing to hear you say -- you're someone who exudes so much confidence. I think it's so important for young women to hear you say that even you dealt with that sort of tyranny of body image, which is something we often think that celebrities or people who are physically fit or people who have all outward appearances of being healthy and powerful haven't dealt with. So to hear you say that is deeply powerful for people.
Fonda: That's why I talk about it. So tell me about the role that your body plays.
Click through for more photos from our Lena Dunham cover story
Lena wears a corset by NOE, culotte by Lonely Hearts Club, dress and sweater by Fifi Chachnil, shoes by Sophia Webster, pinky ring by AOKO SU and ring by Alibi by Jo Liu
Lena wears a blazer by Stella McCartney, a shirt by Saint Laurent, a hat by Benoit Missolin and suspenders by Jet Rag
In this photo and on the cover, Lena wears a dress by Ashish, a jacket by Emma Brenin, gloves by Gasoline Glamour, earrings by Jennifer Fisher and necklaces by Jet Rag
Lena wears a dress and earrings by Holly Fulton, a bag by Charlotte Olympia, hat by Mich Dulce, sunglasses by A-morir and keychain by Pierre Hardy
In this photo and on the splash photo, Lena wears a dress and coat by Clio Peppiatt, necklaces by Ashley Williams, earrings and ring (right hand) by Jennifer Fisher and a ring (left hand) by Maria Francesca Pepe
In this photo and on the cover, Lena wears a jumpsuit, shirt and bow tie by Sonia Rykiel, shoes by Charlotte Olympia and a hat by Super Duper
Lena wears a dress by Vivienne Westwood, a belt by Maria Escoté, tights by Cavallini, ring (on pinky finger) by AOKO SU, and shoes by Marskin Ryyppy by Nicole Brundage
Dunham: One of the reasons I started acting in my own stuff was because I knew that I wanted my characters to have a similar relationship to their own physicality that I do, which is that, despite a knowledge that my body didn't necessarily meet a perfect norm, I've also always felt [comfortable] -- and I think a lot of it does come from my parents and that even in our most challenging moments, they've always sent me the message that I was, at my very core, "enough." What I always say about the characters I play is that they have a lot of problems and none of them have to do with them being a little overweight. I think the reality for so many women is that they think so many of their issues have to do with, in some way, their inability to get to the physical ideal that they have in their head but that's actually, as you said earlier, a "diversionary tactic" from looking at what's actually painful for them and what's actually brewing inside them. And anyone that's ever gone on a diet knows that losing 5, 10, 15 pounds isn't the thing that sends you barreling towards a stronger sense of self. And so for me, I felt like I wanted to play these characters who were held back by things, but none of the things that were holding them back were from being chubby or being short, and they dressed in a way that didn't hide it. All the characters I play always dress like they're a size 0 when they're actually a size 10. Some might call it "delusional" and I like to think about it as this sort of rocket confidence that's a little unearned but better than the opposite. I think that it was important to me also to announce that "this is what I look like. I don't have an interest in changing unless it's on my own terms" -- I won't say I'll never lose weight in my life, but it'd have to be for reasons that made sense to me and weren't to try to meet some industry standard. So many women -- young women, older women, even men -- have said to me that it was in some way empowering for them just to see someone who would allow themselves to go on TV looking the way they do --
Fonda: A normal person!
Dunham: Yeah. To hear people say that was so profound and made me actually feel less alone and made me feel things in me that I didn't really even know were broken because even though I have a lot of the appearance of outward confidence, of course I have the same anxieties that a lot of other women do about their bodies, because how could we not internalize everything that's being thrown at us every day?
Fonda: I wish Girls had been out there when I was a young girl. That would have changed everything.
Dunham: But I think you can't underestimate how some of those characters that you played made it possible. Even if the "Jane Fonda body" is a model of something that we'd all like to aspire to, you never, ever projected an image of unattainable perfection. That's not what you were going for. You have to know how powerful that is.
Fonda: Thank you. Thank you. Do you want to have kids? Do you want to have a family? Is this something you see?
Dunham: I do. I really do. It's something I think about a lot in terms of how I'm allocating my resources, because I think to myself, "okay, this is working for me now, running my newsletter, running my production company, and running Girls," but I have to make sure that I'm surrounding myself -- which I am -- with really thoughtful people who can pick up the slack because I want to be able to be a mother and I want to be able to be present the way my mother was for me. Even though she was a working person, she was able to spend an extraordinary amount of actual face time with me and I know that is something that can't be underappreciated, how essential that is. I've always wanted to be a mother as long as I've been on this earth, it's something that has been important to me. And it's funny, sometimes I don't even know why I want it. I'll be like, "our planet's overpopulated, I don't know" but here I am desperate to do it. So that's something that is an interesting contradiction that exists inside of me. It's something that's surprising to me.
Fonda: Where does the man fit in? Would you adopt? Do you want to biologically have a child and does it matter if you have a partner that's a steady partner?
Dunham: Well, you know, it's interesting -- I have a boyfriend [Bleachers frontman and Fun. guitarist/vocalist Jack Antonoff] who I adore and I love him so much and I know he's gonna be a really great father and that's not the reason I love him, but it's a reason I love him. But that being said, I've often said to him, "you know, I'm kind of getting towards the point in my life where I want to have children and whether I was with you or whether I wasn't with you, that's what I would want to do, but let's find a way that you want to do it." And it's interesting: I always knew that if I didn't find somebody who made sense for me as a partner that it was something that I was going to do on my own. I had a lot of examples of that around me. My mom had a lot of friends who were gay in the '80s and '90s and were adopting or who were figuring out alternative ways to be parents and it just never seemed to me to be limited to something that you could only do if you were a happily married woman. Not at all. And in terms of adoption, I'm amazed by it. I have endometriosis, and I've said to my boyfriend, "If fertility ends up being a challenge for me, I'm not gonna be the person who spends six years in IVF" because while I'm really intrigued by the possibility of carrying a child in my body, and I don't judge anyone else's choices, for me, years and years of hormones and body manipulation wouldn't work for my psychology and my body and it's not important enough to me that my child come out of my body and it's not important to me, really at all, that the child belonged to Jack and me on a genetic level. It's important to me that we have the right child for us and take the right kind of care of them. There's so much talk of infertility like, "Am I gonna be able to have a baby? Is my body broken?" and once that fear was gone, the whole prospect of having a baby actually got so much more exciting to me.
Fonda: Wow. Moving on, do you think the Internet has changed things for feminism?
Dunham: I do. And I think it's changed things in a really positive way, in that there's space for a dialogue that didn't exist before but I also think that we have to be incredibly careful with ourselves and kind to ourselves because the Internet has also created a lot of space for noisy bigots to be heard. I've talked about this before but I had to stop going on my own Twitter, because the messages that were being sent to me were just too destructive and too violent and too upsetting. I was like, "I may think it's okay for me to read this but there's no way that in reality it's comfortable for me to be reading this much sort of violent rhetoric in my direction." It just couldn't be healthy.
Fonda: You can't help but metabolize some of that. What advice would you give to your younger self? This is a question that I get asked all the time.
Dunham: And I love that question because it changes every day depending on what I'm feeling. Some days I think, "Oh, just chill out." And some days I'm like, "Be a little bit more serious." And you know I think the biggest thing is I have so much trouble saying no and I feel so consistently afraid to disappoint people, like my success has been an accident and if I don't placate people, then somehow it's going to go away. And I think that saying "no" is actually a really powerful tool. I feel like I could've saved myself so much trouble by being a little more connected to that instinct. Do you have trouble saying "no"?
Fonda: My answer always changes but my main piece of advice is "no is a complete sentence."
Dunham: Yeah, it really is! That's amazing. You don't have to say "no, but…" You can just say "no." And that's okay and it doesn't make you a bad person.
Fonda: Lastly, what are you most excited about for the future?
Dunham: I think the thing that I feel the most excited about right now is the possibility of my creative work and my social activism continuing to merge and to find new ways to talk about the issues that matter to me that aren't too on the nose. To continue to find that middle ground between social justice and creative freedom where you don't feel stifled but you feel like you're sending the message you want to send to the world.
As told to Abby Schreiber
Hair by John Ruggiero / Makeup by Kate Lee / Manicure by Marisa Carmichael
Styling Assistants: Rosa Callejas & Zoe Dupuis
Set Design by Carl Hopgood at Opus Beauty
Photo Assistants: John Ciamillo & Timothy Mahoney
Digital Operator: Jerome Vivet
Videographer: Rebecca Fourteau
Location: The Carondelet House