Humble narcissist, chronic oversharer, and compulsive exhibitionist, Lena Dunham is today’s unparalleled quarter-life chronicler. Her work, beginning with YouTube sensations like The Fountain (2007), in which she strips down to a bikini and washes herself in the titular structure, might be centered almost exclusively on herself, but the 25-year-old writer-director-actor is also sharply attuned to the complex dynamics among women: the fraught dyads of daughter and mother, sister and sister in 2010’s Tiny Furniture; the support, envy, occasional sabotage (and fleeting erotic charge) among four female friends in her new HBO series, Girls. The show’s premiere on April 15 occasions the Dunham-curated “Hey, Girlfriend!,” a smart, idiosyncratic week-long series at BAM showcasing nine films about female relationships that inspired the young talent.
“Part of being an artist is using things that come from your life,” sullen teenager Erica (Samantha Mathis) explains to her kid sister, Opal (Gaby Hoffmann), as they wait for their stand-up comic mom, Dottie (Julie Kavner), to take the stage in Nora Ephron’s directorial debut, This Is My Life (1992). The words could be Dunham’s own; her highly autobiographical Tiny Furniture, starring her real mother and younger sister as fictionalized versions of themselves, mirrors the all-distaff family trio in Ephron’s film (which she adapted with her sister, Delia, from Meg Wolitzer’s novel). Although Dottie’s inexplicably popular—and wearying—Borscht Belt routine sets the tone for much of This Is My Life, Ephron, whom Dunham has cited as a major influence, movingly focuses on the shifting allegiances in the triangle, particularly the combustible dynamic between Erica and the ambitious mother she feels both proud of and abandoned by. Tiny Furniture touches on a similar theme, as Dunham’s Aura, a recent film-theory grad who’s “trying to figure it out,” feels she has to eclipse—or at least equal—her photographer mom’s artistic fame.
The motherless pubescent girls in Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980)—T.S. Eliot–quoting Dalton student Pamela (Trini Alvarado) and butch outer-borough throwaway Nicky (Robin Johnson)—become pals when they’re both assigned to the same hospital room for treatment of neurological disorders. Breaking out of their ward, the class-discordant duo sets up house in an abandoned warehouse along the Hudson River and take a series of age-inappropriate jobs along the Deuce. They destroy televisions, form a band, and incite otherwise good girls to join their insurrection; their devotion to each other is tested when Pamela wishes to return to her comfortable, vanilla life after realizing that only her rage-filled, snaggletoothed chum has what it takes to be a cult star. Moyle’s film is as much a sociohistorical record of squalid, teeming Koch-era 42nd Street as Tiny Furniture is of privileged 21st-century Tribecan twentysomethings.
In its pilot, Girls explicitly acknowledges the influence of Sex and the City; another tight-knit femme foursome drives Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996), about Catholic high schoolers in Los Angeles heavy into black magic. The junior Wiccans, led by spooky Nancy (Fairuza Balk), who keeps a noose in her locker, welcome newcomer Sarah (Robin Tunney) into their coven. This ostracized quartet has fun—and grows ever closer—while exacting revenge on their tormentors, but when Nancy starts creating fireballs and making dead sharks wash up onshore by accessing her wrath, Sarah wants out. Her fate is that of any girl-clique defector: the brutal sulfurous punishment meted out to all apostates.
If Fleming’s fantasy-genre noodling exposes the dark side of female friendships via the dark arts, Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998) sets it to Chic 45s. Recent Hampshire College grads and publishing-house co-workers Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloë Sevigny) are incorrigible, inseparable frenemies. “I’m not so sure we really even like other,” docile Alice says to pathological underminer Charlotte when the latter suggests they room together. Soon they’re sharing a railroad apartment on the Upper East Side—and continuing their sadomasochistic dynamic. After Charlotte announces to everyone at their dance-club hangout that Alice must have the clap, she is quickly forgiven by her humiliated “pal” when she pleads, “If you give me another chance, I’ll be the best friend you ever had.”
Clueless (1995), Amy Heckerling’s sunny girl-power update of Jane Austen’s Emma, also waggishly acknowledges backstabbing among besties. “Would you call me selfish?” Alicia Silverstone’s Cher asks Stacey Dash’s Dionne. Her response: “No, not to your face.” Dunham herself has a great ear for verbal sabotage among women, particularly the put-down masquerading as praise. “I saw that your dyslexic-stripper video got, like, 400 hits!” the hostess of a party—an aspiring “monologist”—exuberantly/mockingly notes to Aura in Tiny Furniture.
The boy-crazy roomies in Girls played by Allison Williams and Dunham are so close that they spoon in bed and share the tub—behavior that hints at the richest subject, whether treated implicitly or explicitly, in “Hey, Girlfriend!”: the often permeable boundary that divides platonic relationships from non- among women. That ambiguity is in the series’ title itself, “girlfriend,” a term with vastly different connotations. Straight women use it for those they get mani-pedis with; queer women for those they’re sleeping with. In Claudia Weill’s second-wave rarity Girlfriends (1978), Susan (Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner) are both presented as unequivocally straight: Anne moves out of the apartment the two women share to marry Martin (Bob Balaban); Susan, hoping to get her photography career off the ground, does some bed-hopping with guys she meets at Soho parties and considers an affair with a married rabbi twice her age. But when confronting Anne about their eroded relationship near the film’s end, Susan erupts like a scorned lover no longer able to hide the hurt: “You’re the one who left me!”
A deeper kind of blurring defines David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), and “this love story in the City of Dreams” remains unquestionably one of the greatest ever made about a relationship between two women. “It’ll be just like in the movies: We’ll pretend to be someone else,” cheery actress hopeful Betty (Naomi Watts) tells amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring) as they set out to uncover the latter’s true identity. It’s an invitation to an adventure, leading to a corpse, a key, a wad of cash—and the pleasure of each other’s bodies. “Go with me somewhere,” Rita exhorts Betty in an odd postcoital trance. The request, whether the girlfriend you ask is in your bed or not, is timeless.