“Women Can Be Horrible!”: ‘Girls’ Showrunner Jenni Konner on Likability and Lena Dunham’s Real-Life Q-Tip Scene

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When Jenni Konner, executive producer and co-showrunner of Girls, first heard about Tiny Furniture, she thought she’d hate it. “I was at a dinner with [New Girl creator] Liz Meriwether and she was like, ‘There’s this awesome movie you have to see. It’s by this 23-year-old girl and she’s naked half the time’… and I was like, ‘I don’t have to see that!'” Konner said. But when she finally saw the movie, through HBO executive Sue Naegle, she fell for it so hard Judd Apatow started joking she was the film’s “informal distributor.” Soon, she met Lena Dunham through their agents, and the rest is cringe-comedy history.

Speaking to Slate television critic Willa Paskin at the New York Television Festival’s Creative Keynote last night, Konner likened meeting Dunham after “breaking up” with her previous writing partner to a romance: “It’s like, if you’re not looking to fall in love…” Now 43, Konner joined Girls in its early stages as the more experienced creative partner. A veteran of Judd Apatow’s Undeclared and the co-creator of network comedies Help Me, Help You and In the Motherhood (“I had nothing to do with that name,” Konner was quick to reassure the audience), Konner initially brought to the show her knowledge of, well, how to run a show — something Dunham had obviously never done before.

Not that Dunham didn’t learn, and quickly. “There’s a scene in Splash where Daryl Hannah learns how to speak English in one day from watching TV in Bloomingdale’s, and that’s Lena,” Konner said. It wasn’t the first time Konner sang Dunham’s praises during the talk, and it wouldn’t be the last. Konner particularly admires Dunham’s ability to quickly turn real-life events into material (“Lena could be here and go home and write this scene in a funny way; it takes me 20 years to do that”), including the second season finale’s notoriously hard-to-watch Q-tip scene. While the filming itself used just a half a Q-tip to get the desired visual effect, Dunham really had punctured her eardrum in the exact same way earlier that year.

The two women text and call each other constantly, and Konner repeatedly described her and Apatow’s attitude towards their collaborator as protective: “Judd and I always said our job was to protect her like she was a rare orchid.” Later, she added: “We’re all very protective of her. Not that she even needs the protection… If you look at her track record, she knows how to handle herself.”

That protectiveness stems in part from Dunham’s distinctive voice, but also from the scrutiny and criticism directed at Girls, and Dunham, from day one. When Paskin asked about the backlash against the show, whether justified or blatantly misogynist, Konner was initially charitable towards her critics: “There are days when I’m like, oh my God… why are they talking about bodies like that? [But] it’s nice to engage with people most of the time, when they’re not awful.” And when asked if the show had opened her eyes to the uglier side of sexism, she brushed it off: “I’m 43. I knew.” Occasionally, criticism even shapes the show — Seasons 2 and 3 were notably more diverse, though Konner noted Donald Glover was cast well before the furor over Girls’ whiteness began, and the changes haven’t been enough to ward off thinkpieces like this one.

Still, gender inevitably shapes how the audience responds to the show. Sometimes, the misogyny is blatant, as when a reporter at the biannual Television Critics’ Association press tour indignantly asked why Dunham is naked so often: “He sounded so enraged… I was like, I’m on a juice cleanse because the Golden Globes are coming up. I’m in a bad mood!” But more often, the gendered reactions to the show are more subtle. And nowhere is that more obvious than with the infamous “likability” debate.

“Likability is silly,” Konner said. “We all go through our lives making choices to enjoy people who are not perfect.” And real 24-year-olds are decidedly not perfect: “I look at myself [at that age] and I can’t believe I had friends. Or parents. Or jobs.”

Paskin brought up TV’s main antiheroes — your mob bosses, your adulterers, your meth kingpins. Compared to them, “the girls on Girls are saints. They haven’t killed anybody!” “But they are women,” Konner shot back. She mentioned The Comeback, another HBO show with a protagonist who’s more anti than heroine. When the show first aired in 2005, Lisa Kudrow’s comedy wasn’t all that different from Larry David’s. Still, “People couldn’t stand that. People couldn’t stand watching a woman like that.” Now that The Comeback is returning for a second season just nine short years after the first, though, Konner sees reason for hope. Or as she put it: “YAY! We’re all going to be OK! WOMEN CAN BE HORRIBLE!”

But when Paskin, in the final question of the night, asked if Konner thought Girls was part of the movement to make female TV protagonists more vulnerable, more complicated, and “less Mary Tyler Moore-ish,” Konner’s response was adamant: “I think Girls IS Mary Tyler Moore-ish.”