Why critics can't come to terms with Lena Dunham's nudity on 'Girls'

Actress Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in <i>Girls</i>.

Actress Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in Girls.

A new season of GIRLS is upon us, which means we’re due for endless conversations about why Lena Dunham insists on subjecting her audience to the apparently horrifying fact of her naked body. Dunham’s nudity, we are told, is ‘confusing’. So confusing that two years after the show’s debut, TV journalists are still scratching their heads and seeking to solve the abstract riddle of it - as if the most interesting thing about a show exploring the landscape of a young woman’s life is that she occasionally takes her clothes off without shame or the purpose of pleasing an invisible male gaze.

Dunham recently participated in a panel discussion ahead of tonight’s debut of season three. Predictably, the nudity question arose again, this time posed by The Wrap’s TV writer Tim Molloy.

Creator/Executive Producer/Actress Lena Dunham and actress Jemima Kirke speak onstage during the 'Girls' panel discussion.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Creator/Executive Producer/Actress Lena Dunham and actress Jemima Kirke speak onstage during the 'Girls' panel discussion. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images) Photo: Frederick M. Brown

Molloy opined:

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“I don’t get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show, by you particularly, and I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you go, “Nobody complains about the nudity on ‘Game of Thrones’ but I get why they are doing it. They are doing it to be salacious and, you know, titillate people. And your character is often naked just at random times for no reason.”

There are literally hundreds of questions that Molloy could have asked that would have been more interesting than a topic that has enjoyed more exposure than even Dunham’s breasts, but I guess the sight of a woman unafraid to show the world what a stomach looks like when sitting hunched over in the bath remains hypnotic to those people with limited imagination.

As many people have already pointed out, nudity in art doesn’t exist merely to provide titillation. To think otherwise is to demonstrate a fairly narrow appreciation for the complexities that art has to offer. Given Molloy has been defending his question by claiming he sought to gain insight into artistic choices, one might be justified in questioning if he has the necessary credentials to write on the subject in the first place.

But this isn’t just about Molloy, conscious sexism, titillation or even artistic expression. The fact is, if Dunham’s body more closely resembled the rigid standards of beauty we’re used to seeing modelled in Hollywood, no one would even think to question how often she paraded about with her clothes off. Dunham’s nudity upsets the norm, and this is what confuses people. Why, if she isn’t aiming to titillate, does she insist on incorporating her naked body into the story all the time? I mean…what’s the point?

That, my friends, IS the point. Dunham’s Hannah Horvath offers what she calls ‘a realistic expression of what it means to be alive’. Sometimes, that means eating food in the bath or getting high and swapping clothes with a stranger at a nightclub. Sometimes it means disappearing into a quiet world with a new lover and playing ping pong in nothing but your underpants, even though that might seem strange to people removed from the magical intimacy of that moment. Sometimes it means removing your clothes in a hurry before sex and shuffling back on the bed with little thought as to whether or not this is the most flattering way to present yourself to a new partner.

Hannah Horvath lives in a world where women are told that if we want to look thin in bed, we should f-ck in the missionary position. Like most of us, she has internalised these instructions while occasionally ignoring them when the spontaneity of life gets in the way. There’s a conflict inside her between the actual self and the constructed one, and that struggle is so much a part of her that it doesn’t even register as something she can be liberated from.

This is partly what it feels like to understand that your entire being is viewed socially, culturally and individually through the idea of the male gaze. And the reason it’s so confusing to people is because it isn’t cast through the male gaze but the female. Dunham is not inviting a masculine reading of her life and body.

It isn’t presented as a ‘titillation’ or a reward. In terms of that internal conflict between the real and constructed self, she is baring all (figuratively and literally) to offer a realistic view of the internal life of one particular woman, as told by her and recognisable to countless others unused to seeing themselves in such raw terms. Molloy and his ilk lament the purposelessness of Hannah’s nudity because they are unable to understand that it is precisely this purposelessness that makes it so purposeful.

There are undoubtedly problems with world presented in GIRLS, the documented lack of diversity being chief among them (although Dunham has said she’s sought to educate herself about intersectionality and inclusivity, a commitment not shared by around 99.9 percent of her fellow writers and directors). I’m a huge fan, but I understand that it’s not for everyone. But it is not ‘confusing’ or ‘weird’ that its central character spends a moderate amount of her time on the show in a state of partial or total nudity.

If it were the blonde, willowy Jemima Kirke who was shown so often to be naked and cavorting with handsome men (and it has been seriously argued that Dunham is too ‘ugly’ to be able to land half of Hannah’s boyfriends, an obnoxious theory that I don’t recall being applied to Steve Buscemi, James Gandolfini, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan or any of the other countless old, fat and less than chiselled leading men paired with women so beautiful it can hurt to look at them) then no one would bat an eyelid. Kim Cattrall, anyone?

For his part, Molloy has defended his question as reasonable and in keeping with a TV writer’s job of exploring the motivations of creators. But aside from the fact the nudity issue has been explored to within a thread of its scantily clad point, it’s just not remotely interesting as a line of enquiry. If you can’t comprehend the reasons Lena Dunham chooses to incorporate nudity in the way that she has, then not only are you arguably not a very good arts journalist - you also probably don’t understand women all that well.


Girls airs on Mondays at 7:30pm on Foxtel's showcase.  

60 comments

  • I have no problems with her nudity at all.

    I do have a problem with the vacuous, self absorbed, selfish and generally childish demeanor which shows everything that is wrong with the spoilt children of the middle class in western society,

    Commenter
    A
    Location
    Newcastle
    Date and time
    January 13, 2014, 10:44AM
    • You realise she is playing a character, right?

      That character is indeed many of the things you say. She's spoilt, childish, and self-centred. But since when did it become compulsory for fictional characters to be perfect? Some of the most interesting, relate-able and insightful characters have always been the most flawed. One of the intentions is to educate us by holding up a mirror to human foibles. In this sense, Hannah Horvath can even be viewed as a satirical construct as well as a poignant reflection on a generation growing up.

      In any event, she's acting. ACTING, yo.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      January 13, 2014, 11:28AM
    • blame the children!!

      but seriously, who is to blame for a spoilt child? the child or the parents? and then after you decide the answer to that, who is responsible for the parents poor parenting techniques? society? their parents?

      blame blame blame!!

      Commenter
      gaz
      Date and time
      January 13, 2014, 12:00PM
    • Red Pony - well, yes, clearly it is a character. It doesn't mean I have to like the character.

      Unfortunately she, as a character, reminds me of some of the people I went to uni with and couldn't stand. The type that thought being "creative" was an excuse for being lazy and not bothering to actually grow up, instead just going on living an indulged existence and essentially sponging off friends and family.

      I have no issue at all with Dunham - it's a very convincing role. I have an issue with the mindset that inspired the creation of the character.

      As for the nudity - who cares? People look different. Sometimes it's a bit contrived (typical US aren't we so edgy we show nudity) but it's in the no way the most offensive aspect to the show. It's not offensive at all.

      Commenter
      A
      Location
      Newcastle
      Date and time
      January 13, 2014, 12:26PM
    • "I have no issue at all with Dunham - it's a very convincing role. I have an issue with the mindset that inspired the creation of the character."

      I get where you're coming from - I can't stand watching "House of Lies" - because while there are good consultants and bad consultants in the real world, the characters in that show are wholly unlikeable and I'd kind of rather watch someone with some redeeming qualities, or a means of exploring that world that didn't make me feel like it was glorifying greedy jerks.
      Similarly - the movie Boiler Room for shady stock brokers. Doesn't matter that it's actors playing fictional characters, it's just a hard reality to have to face and not entertaining in the way a clear cut good vs evil story is.

      Lena Dunham isn't just acting in GIRLS, she's the creative head behind it. So your sentence reads a little strange because in all likelihood it's Lena's mindset which led to the character traits you dislike. I think people like to write stories in retrospect to show the ideal - "This is how you should deal with this situation". That's why our heroes know what is right, even when there is so much wrong around them.

      This is a bit more like... "I didn't know what was right at the time, and I was an absolute idiot, here's how I dealt with it". Kind of a more honest piece, but harder to watch.

      Commenter
      Lucid Fugue
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 13, 2014, 1:00PM
    • Very much agree with A's assessment of the characters. It was one of the reasons I never bothered watching the show. Another show, Like Sex and the City, about vapid girls playing fantasy and written from Dunham's narcissistic wish fulfillment is not compelling viewing.

      Entourage I could like because it did have some sort of realism. You could believe the situations (even if it only applies to a small range of people) and the interactions between the characters was very real.

      House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Dexter and Game of Thrones are compelling viewing because the story is deep and characters well developed.

      I can believe a mafia boss (James Gandolfini in The Sopranos) can score hot women because he's rich and powerful. Dunham is batting trillions of light years out of her league in Girls and I cannot believe a man of that calibre would be stooping so low.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      January 13, 2014, 3:11PM
  • I think tv writers are comparing youth-targeted tv like girls to more adult dramas such as mad men and northanger abbey. Both dramas offer titillation without literal flesh. They wonder why youth based tv need nudity in addition to great writing. Perhaps its therapeutic for image-obsessed youth to see all shapes and sizes to aid them through hormone - driven times. Perhaps it boosts numbers amongst the 16 y.o. market, whilst selling them a questionable lifestyle. shabby chic/morals for the down economy....same message as sex and the city, albeit with less/no bling.

    Commenter
    Confused
    Location
    Mosman
    Date and time
    January 13, 2014, 10:55AM
    • Molloy is 'confused' by the depiction of nudity of the character because just about everything produced which includes female nudity is assumed without question to be for the male gaze. 'Girls' is largely intended for a young female audience therefore the nudity is intended for the female gaze, with a largely entirely different creative focus and agenda. Molloy's confusion stems from the simple fact that most screen content is built around the centrality of male cultural dominance, he's puzzled because this isn't, he's not used to it and therefore just doesn't 'get it'.
      Simple really!

      Commenter
      T4me
      Date and time
      January 13, 2014, 4:55PM
  • Thank you Clementine, that is a brilliant deconstruction of the "confusion" surrounding this character.

    The confusion results from the fact that a normal woman is portrayed as having normal sex!

    For almost every other media be it film or TV you have to be astonishingly beautiful and a brilliant and artistic lover. Also, whenever you have sex, the lighting goes all flattering, and you only e er see the best angles of you and your partner. Candles light themsleves, and Kenny G suddenly starts practising in the next apartment!

    Commenter
    Riddley Walker
    Location
    Inland
    Date and time
    January 13, 2014, 10:57AM
    • I don't watch TV or movies for 'normal'. I watch it for the same reason I read fiction or play games - escapism. That goes for plots, characters, settings and, yes, sex and nudity as well. All fiction is a balancing act of mixing the fictional aspect with elements the reader can relate to, but if I have a choice between looking at an stunningly attractive person portrayed in the best possible light or someone I could sit next to on the bus without noticing them when consuming fiction, i'm going to pick the one that enhances the escapist aspect.

      I don't need TV for normal. My life is (mostly) normal. I have no interest in sitting down to vicariously watch other people be normal for an hour or two. I could do that by putting a mirror in my kitchen to watch myself cooking a meal. I completely understand that people have different tastes than mine when it comes to consuming fictional media, that's just the way I feel and why the show has no appeal for me.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      January 13, 2014, 1:02PM

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