Hillary Clinton, Lena Dunham, and the new millennial feminists
Lena Dunham attends AOL Build to discuss her new email newsletter Lenny Letter, which launched Tuesday with an interview with Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage)
Lena Dunham’s hour-long interview with Hillary Clinton debuted online Tuesday, as part of the official launch of Lenny Letter, an email newsletter created by Dunham and “Girls” co-showrunner Jenni Konner.
The interview, which both Dunham and Clinton have been teasing on social media for the past week, covered a range of topics, from fashion and feminism to student debt and police brutality. But instead of diving directly into the standard stump questions Clinton and her fellow candidates are used to getting on the campaign trail, Dunham focused on subjects of particular interest to Lenny’s readers, who she described as “women in their 20s who are in that space between college and the real world” who are “not sure what they want to be, how they’re going to be that.”
Clinton has been on a bit of a likability tour lately, making the rounds from daytime talk shows to late-night TV in an effort to showcase her sense of humor and appear more relatable to voters. The inaugural issue of an email newsletter for might seem like a far cry from network television appearances, but the Lenny interview demonstrates a concerted and clever effort to reach not only young voters, but young, and specifically white, women voters—the demographic from which Clinton has seen the sharpest decline in support for her campaign so far.
And who better to bring Clinton back into the female fold than Dunham? More than three years after her own rocky introduction to the hyper-critical and sometimes brutally judgmental public eye, the 29-year-old “Girls” creator has cultivated a loyal following that spans far beyond her show’s audience. Through the autobiographical essays in her book “Not That Kind of Girl,” as well as her uniquely uninhibited social media presence [her Twitter and Instagram accounts have 2 million followers each] Dunham has emerged as the model of a new kind of millennial feminist, as vocal about her ambitions and political beliefs as she is about her own vulnerabilities, health issues, and insecurities—not to mention her support for fellow famous female friends like Taylor Swift.
“Last year, when Lena traveled the country on her book tour, she met an unbelievable range of passionate young women and the men who love them (define woman and/or love as you wish),” reads the introduction to Lenny Letter published Tuesday. “Lena came home from tour permanently changed (albeit still the same weight). You told us about the kind of life you want: connected, empowered, inspired, and fucking funny. We heard you.”
Lenny’s goal, the letter goes on to explain, is to “create a space where new voices were safe to speak loudly about issues they care about. We want those voices to inspire you, envelop you, and even anger you. Mostly, we want a snark-free place for feminists to get information: on how to vote, eat, dress, fuck, and live better.”
The inaugural issue of Lenny letter also includes the first installments of what will be recurring features, such as “Out of Print,” profiles of little-known “amazing female writers and artists from the past;” the fashion-focused “Tracing a Trend;” and “Rumors I Heard About My Body,” a collaboration with Planned Parenthood to answer questions like “Is my period weird?” and other female health concerns.
But for Dunham and Konner, the chance to kick off their new project with an interview with Hillary Clinton was a no-brainer.
“So much of what we aim for in our work is to push back against the unreasonable demands placed on women — a demand for perfection and likability above all else,” wrote Dunham and Konner. “Hillary Clinton’s entire career has flown in the face of those pressures.”
Dunham asked the Democratic presidential hopeful about her own experience with the kinds of emotions often both ascribed to and expressed by millennials, such as anxiety and indecision. Had Clinton been faced with post-graduate uncertainty?
“Absolutely,” Clinton said. “I don’t trust anybody who says that they didn’t have some questions in their 20s. That’s a period of such exploration and often torment in people’s lives.”
As an accomplished and ambitious woman, did she ever worry that she might lose her identity by marrying an equally ambitious man already on the path to public office?
“I was terrified about losing my identity and getting lost in the wake of Bill’s force-of-nature personality. I actually turned him down twice when he asked me to marry him,” Clinton replied. “That was a large part of the ambivalence and the worry that I wouldn’t necessarily know who I was or what I could do if I got married to someone who was going to chart a path that he was incredibly clear about. My ideas were much more inchoate. I wasn’t sure how to best harness my energies. So I was searching.”
Dunham shifted from Clinton’s past to her proposals for the future, while remaining focused on issues concerning the Lenny audience, such as student debt and police brutality. While Clinton is often eager to tout her plan to eliminate student debt, she’s faced pressure from Black Lives Matter and other activists to outline a concrete proposal for criminal justice reform. Dunham doubled down on that request, telling Clinton that the ongoing case of Sandra Bland, the woman found dead in a Texas jail cell after getting arrested during a routine traffic stop this summer, “really hit home with many of our Lenny readers.”
“So many young women of color—so many people of color— have suffered at the hands of police in the last few years,” Dunham said. “And I wonder, as president, what you will do to work on this kind of terrible fracture in race relations that we’re experiencing in America right now.”
Clinton talked about the need for better police training, for officers to be held to a higher standard, and for “constant dialogue between communities and their police officers.”
But, she added, “it’s important that communities recognize that most of the deaths in low-income communities, communities of color, are not due to police. They’re due to crime and violence and, you know, terrible events that we read about in the paper.”
She also argued that in communities where we’ve seen tensions between police and civilians of color, “we have many more police officers who are from different races, different backgrounds, so it’s not only a question of white versus black. It is a question of how force is used, how our law enforcement are trained, what kind of mind-set they have as they go about their daily jobs.”
“I think we have a lot of work to do,” she said. “But I take it very seriously, and as president, I would do whatever I could to see what new laws were needed, what new training was needed, what new resources were needed.”
Flipping through “very Instagram-worthy” old photographs, Dunham ended the discussion on a black and white picture of Clinton as First Lady, wearing a long black dress with a turtle neck, long sleeves, and bare shoulders.
“This is what’s called a cold-shoulder dress,” Clinton explained. “And I wore it for one of our first big events at the White House, in 1993. It was a design of my friend Donna Karan. And like everything I do, it turned out to be controversial. I’m hardly a fashion icon.”
“It’s extremely chic,” said Dunham, urging Clinton to “bust it back out.”
“Well, you know,” Clinton said, after considering the suggestion. “Donna always says that no matter your age, your size, your shoulders always look good.”