An Interview with Lesley Arfin About 'Girls'
You will already know Lesley Arfin from an earlier era of VICE and probably from her book, Dear Diary, which rules. Now she is a staff writer for HBO’s objectively near-perfect show Girls (see “Girl News: Girls and Girls” here), which will debut Sunday night, several months after the collective consciousness decided that Girls was all we would talk about and everything we would like this year. VICE talked to her about all of that stuff.
So, how did you get hired for the show? Actually, could you catch us up on what you've been doing work-wise since VICE?
Well, I really stopped working with VICE in 2007, when Dear Diary was published. After that I worked retail, went to India, became the editor at Missbehave magazine, and was on unemployment for a while. I got hired for the show when my writer friend, Nichole Beattie (she writes for The Walking Dead) told me about it. I had written a pilot and submitted it to be considered for the job. Lena Dunham, the show's creator, was also familiar with Dear Diary so I was lucky in that respect (lucky that she liked the book!).
What do you do for the show, writing-wise? Do you focus on a particular character/kind of storyline/dialogue?
I'm a writer among writers. First season I was a staff writer, now we're in the second season and I'm what is called a story editor. For every season in TV writing (usually) you go up a title, but I'm still pretty low-level so my responsibilities aren't that concentrated.
So, what kind of conversations do the writers have about what to include and what not to? Obviously Lena's focus is on her character's body and the kind of hideous side of having sex with boys is really present. How do you prioritize which elements of the girl experience have to go in?
I don't know. I actually disagree with the focus on Lena's character being her body. I see Hannah as being more concerned with being treated well and fair and being heard. She wants badly to be heard—she's just not sure what she wants to say. We don't prioritize elements like, "Oh, we should talk about periods!" No. The show is not manipulative. Really, what we try to focus on is good storytelling... and funny stuff!
I didn't mean her character's focus was her body, just that there is focus on her character's body, and in an unusually direct way. Do you have any shows that you look to as models of what you want to be making?
Not really any models, no. There are so many TV shows we love and think are amazing and brilliant and funny and daring and I think we just want to create something that's "that."
Everyone is super-psyched for the show. Obviously young/youngish girls/women who are not of the Sex and the City/sitcomy/mainstream way of being have not been well-represented in TV and entertainment. Why do you think that Girls is able to happen at this point? Like, why do you think Girls is happening now and not a few years ago?
Who knows? I think Lena having made Tiny Furniture really got a lot of people to turn around and be like, "Hey, there's a certain kind of tone happening here and we love it." Sex and the City, which is the best show ever, happened during a time when the economy was more stable so it was fun to see ladies put on outfits and max out their credit cards on shoes. Now the country is a little different, not as shiny and sparkly, so I think everyone can relate to a different mood.
Is anything too dark/not ready for HBO primetime?
I'm the wrong person to ask. I don't know what dark is. To me, most reality shows are very dark. Mob Wives is dark. The Real Housewives is dark. Wife Swap? DARK AS DARTH VADER’S SOUL!
People are going to be furious about Lena's character being naked and sexual and making unsafe or "bad" sexual choices, which is really annoying. Why do you think there is so much critical anger about women being less than judicious with their bodies?
You think people are going to be furious? Why? This is HBO, not Nickleodeon. We see naked bodies all the time on HBO. Have you not seen The Sopranos, Game Of Thrones, Six Feet Under... probably every HBO show ever? I also don't agree with "bad" sexual choices. In every romantic comedy that walks the face of the Earth, women make "bad" sexual choices. What makes this different and what qualifies as "bad"? I don't think it's time for people to answer these questions, but I think it's time for the questions to change.
I definitely think that people will be furious in the same way that they're furious anytime the female body is presented in a way that is not specifically about being attractive, and attractive for male approval and consumption. Not at all for "nakedness," but for the particular kind of nakedness. Obviously that kind of fury is really wrong and crazy… What I mean by "bad" are sexual choices that are clearly serving the dude rather than her. Which, you're right, aren't necessarily bad in that she's probably getting something else from them. Like, the experience and insight gleaned from sleeping with a shitty, selfish man isn't necessarily bad if that's what you're after. But, it will be read as "bad" in terms of it not being explicitly good or serving the character sexually… How should the questions change? What should the questions be?
What I meant by "the question changing" was like... I don't think "good vs. bad" is what we should be asking. Sometimes good = bad and bad = good. Especially for our Girls girls. We make bad choices and learn good things as a result. Sometimes the opposite, and sometimes there's the fairy-tale ending, too. I always think of the movie 50/50 where the girl broke up with her boyfriend because she couldn't deal with him having cancer, which for the audience, meant she was BAD. But a part of me identified with that girl. Would I want to go out with a guy who I thought was dying? Would I be able to handle it? Would I be a BAD person if I couldn't? I don't think so. Of course, there is so much courage in doing the harder, less comfortable thing but the truth is—for me—maybe I'm not meant to be a courageous person, but rather an honest one. Is that GOOD or BAD? Who knows; change the question. Or just don't question it and maybe explore it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is just Hollywood.
What is some of that rules-less, unmediated stuff you want to explore? For me, work is a huge theme that I like. Work, identity, family-of-origin, socioeconomics beyond, like, shopping choices, all of that as it relates to women. I care less and less about sex and relationships as a viewer and writer because I feel like I already know every eventuality and ending (which is really just a depressive position, but whatever). What kind of stuff do you most like to see/read and write about?
I'm interested in everything you mentioned, including sex and relationships. I also like it when girls are mean to each other (Smash; Awkward) and when evil royal families corrupt other evil royal families (Game of Thrones; Downton Abbey).
That's really interesting what you said earlier about the character in Girls wanting to express herself even when she wasn't sure what she wanted to express. I guess it's close to that need to feel known, just as a person. You are in a hugely unusual position of having your teenage diary entries read and really liked by an entire, specific audience. Did you have that feeling of being "known" when a magazine and subsequent book's readership were all reading what you wrote to yourself years before? Aside from the general funniness and nostalgia and maybe embarrassment stuff, did you get any sense from that of being understood or known better?
Yes, I think so, although I'm not sure I wrote the book to be "understood." I also don't care if people feel like they know me or not (they don't, unless of course they actually do). Really I just wanted to write a good story! The goal is always to help people feel more connected and, of course, laugh.
One of the best things about Girls is what was one of the best things (or THE best thing) about Sex and the City, which is that it's very much about friendship. Like the friendships are the most interesting, the most grounding, the most important part. Does that ring true for you?
Yeah, but Sex and the City was based on these women who knew that in spite of their differences, they were each other's "soul mates." I think the friendships with the Girls girls are different. They're not always there for each other. It's not a "just as long as we're together!" type thing. They're trying to figure out how much they like one another and how much they like themselves. Just like what most girls in their early 20s go through.
How do you feel about girls—younger girls, and probably peer-girls—looking up to you?
I'm not aware that they do and if they do, that's cool. I looked up to people and still do. It's inspiring. I'd be honored to be in that category.
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