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Lena Dunham Never Asked to Be the Voice of Women’s Sexuality Onscreen

At the IndieWire Studio presented by Adobe, Dunham talks about revisitimg one of her favorite aspects of human behavior.

Quick-witted, self-deprecating, and unafraid to show human bodies doing all sorts of things, Lena Dunham never set out to define women’s sexuality. It simply interested her as a fruitful avenue of artistic storytelling, especially since men have historically done most of the telling. But when “Girls” became a massive hit and Dunham was heralded as “the voice of her generation” — whether she courted that label or not — she became synonymous with portrayals of women’s sexuality onscreen. Rather than head off into completely different territory in order to shed that label, Dunham doesn’t shy away from her topic du jour in her latest film, “Sharp Stick,” her second since her critically beloved 2010 feature “Tiny Furniture.”

The film follows a twenty-something woman named Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) who, eager to remedy her sexual inexperience, doggedly pursues a relationship with an older married man (Jon Bernthal). The power imbalance between them is ripe from the start, and Sarah Jo becomes increasingly focused on proving her sexual prowess in order to keep him interested. As a student of the auteur films of the 1970s, Dunham set out to examine and upend some of the more misogynistic tropes in her favorite films.

“This movie is an ode to so many of the films of the ’70s…[while] trying to turn certain tropes on their head,” Dunham told IndieWire as part of the IndieWire Studio presented by Adobe at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. “‘Belle du Jour, ‘A Woman Under the Influence,’ ‘Wanda’ by Barbara Loden, a lot of those movies from the ’70s — as amazing as the parts for women are — they’re seen through a pretty male lens. This was about trying to ask some of those same questions about sexuality and complicated characters but try to do it from a very specific perspective.”

While male filmmakers can make movies about sex as they want without causing a stir, the honesty and rawness of Dunham’s depictions of sexuality have always been seen as provocative. In many ways, she became synonymous with women’s sexuality onscreen because so few women filmmakers were doing it at the time. (More accurately, because so few were given opportunities to do so.)

“I don’t think anyone should be synonymous with defining sexuality onscreen, and I never set out to be ‘the voice of female sexuality,'” Dunham said. “Because female sexuality, just like human sexuality, is as multi-layered as people are, and there are as many versions of it as there are human beings on this earth. …I just want to see lots of people exploring these topics in the way that feels right to them, and my hope is always more voices talking about these things.”

“Girls” was dubbed the “Sex and the City” for millennials, presenting a new set of gal pals with which folks could identify. “Sharp Stick” star Jon Bernthal thinks Dunham is just as radical in her portrayal of men. (One look at Adam Driver’s career is proof enough of that.)

“I think she has done such a service in the way that she writes men,” Bernthal said. “Because the men she creates are so nuanced and complicated, and she puts them in the most complicated situations. And that’s just how art needs to be.”

Presenting sponsor Adobe — with a mission to enable creativity for all — is committed to supporting, elevating and amplifying underrepresented creators, so the world can see, learn and benefit from diverse perspectives. Learn more at Adobe.com Diverse Voices. The upcoming 2022 festival marks the fifth consecutive year IndieWire and Adobe have joined forces for the IndieWire Studio at Sundance.

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