Fashion

Lena Dunham On Navigating The Medieval Genre Through A Feminist Lens

I can’t have been the only person surprised to learn that Lena Dunham – the director/actor/podcaster/everything-er behind Girls – was at the helm of a film set in medieval times. 

After all, this was the woman whose most well-known character, Girls’ Hannah Horvath – a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Lena herself – infamously deemed herself the millennial “voice of a generation.” In reality, Lena has been considered a leading millennial voice, so aptly commentating on our contemporary culture through her film and television work (in her debut film, Tiny Furniture; directing the pilot of HBO’s Industry; the list goes on) and, more recently, in her podcast The C-Word.

So what drove her to enter the world of medieval fiction? Not, it seems, the battles and gore so often associated with this genre; Catherine Called Birdy is instead a relatable, coming-of-age story that just so happens to be set in the 13th century. 

“I’m interested in the history of domestic life,” Lena Dunham – who fully accepts my preconceptions – tells me, “Not a battle for a crown. I was excited by the idea of trying to show both the things that were so specific about that time and also the things that are timeless.” 

The result is not so much a history as a herstory; the only bloodiness is when Birdy, the film’s 14-year-old protagonist, played by Bella Ramsey, gets her first period. The only “fight” scene is a joyous mud fight which opens the film’s action. And, in a genre which so often shows the ill-treatment of women at the hands of men, our teenage protagonist has a refreshing ownership over the storytelling, narrating through voiceovers from the beginning.

Lena optioned the film rights for Catherine Called Birdy – a coming-of-age, young adult (YA) book by Karen Cushman – almost a decade ago, and filming was originally intended for the spring of 2020 when lockdown put a spanner in the works. 

While Lena’s teenage drama directing was put on pause, did lockdown stimulate her interest in the “inner child”? “Absolutely. It made people, and I am including myself, examine themselves in a way that is a little bit unprecedented.” She adds: ”It wouldn’t surprise me if a few people came out of lockdown with some really intense coming-of-age narratives they’d written. I came out of lockdown with a couple of my own.” 

That last part makes me speculate whether we might expect a YA take on Girls from her someday. But, for now, let’s stay in the present – by which I suppose that means the medieval period – and hear from Lena, in her own words, about her latest film.

GLAMOUR: I adored Catherine Called Birdy. Full disclosure: normally, I switch off when I hear something has a medieval setting – because I immediately think of violent battle scenes, and that does not appeal. It was so great to see something medieval that was completely different – for instance, dealing with the coming-of-age experience. What was it about directing a story set in medieval times that appealed to you?