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Review: Lena Dunham talks feminism, Hollywood, why she’s different than Hannah (Includes interview and first-hand account)

She first strode on the Sony Centre stage to the kind of applause usually reserved for rock stars and the Dalai Lama. But this was a different kind of attraction, the first visit Lena Dunham has made to Toronto, where she’s reading from her new book Not That Kind of Girl as part of the Just for Laughs 42 festival.

First, Dunham, 28, read from her book, sharing a lengthy passage on being sent to an all-girls’ summer camp as a child growing up in New York. The story was classic Lena Dunham: observing the foibles of girlhood as seen through the eyes of a preteen who didn’t understand what she was witnessing. It’s as if a Girls episode is flashing back to Hannah’s days as a precocious kid discovering the world one cabin raid at a time.

Speaking of the star character of Girls, Dunham sat down with interviewer Jian Ghomeshi to dispel some myths about the show and also shine light on her inspirations. She discussed how she infuses Hannah with many experiences and traits she holds close, but “Hannah isn’t very self-reflective, that’s the big difference [between me and her].”

She also spoke to how Girls can bring conversations about female issues into the mainstream, an ambition that also gave rise to her production company she co-founded in order “to give voice to the kind of films women want to make.”

Dunham, sporting her new platinum-blonde hair, also addressed some criticism lobbed at Girls the past four years, including charges of painting a white-washed picture of everyday life in New York. But the show was never about ALL girls, despite the title, Dunham reminded us. “It is about four specific girls, two Jews, two WASPs, and I never wanted to make it about all the girls in the U.S.”

Ghomeshi then asked Dunham about how she sees feminism’s position in pop culture, in light of icons such as Beyonce embracing the movement. Dunham applauded the many shows and movies led by strong female characters, but she wondered if there’s anyone who would truly be against feminism. It’s all about equal rights for men and women, Dunham mused, so she couldn’t see anyone not subscribing to that philosophy. “Unless they’re a monster,” she said half-seriously.

Around 10 minutes was spent recalling Dunham’s friend and mentor Nora Efron, a journalist and feminist who passed away in 2012. Dunham waxed poetic on the integrity in Efron’s work and action, something that rubbed off heavily on Dunham’s own work ethic. “At 70, she was taking the subway in her little jeans, and I just love that,” she remembered.

At a few points in the Q&A, Dunham was so self-effacing and, well, adorable, it was hard to picture her mingling with the Hollywood elite at the Emmy Awards, say. Dunham said she never felt right rubbing lotioned elbows with movie stars. “I don’t feel like I belong, I feel like a visitor,” she said, adding, “This might make me sound like a monster, but I feel both like I’m above everyone else and under everyone.” Meaning, she’s trying to infiltrate the machine and hack it from the inside, however long that would take.

As she does with Girls, tonight Dunham had us nodding in agreement at almost every truism she let slip from her lips. It might not have been the funniest event for JFL42 but Dunham proved once again why she’s a writer to watch, and this non-fiction fan will definitely be reading her memoir when it’s released Sept. 30.

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