While everyone was worried about "female breast nipples" and other sexual horrors at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night, over on HBO Lena Dunham, star and creator of the acclaimed series Girls, was busy baring it all with impunity. Well, nearly all. The top half of all. Yes, for in no way the first time, Dunham's character Hannah was seen topless throughout the episode, in situations both sexual and, well, ping-pong-related. Hannah and a new guy in her life, played by known dreamboat Patrick Wilson, spent a sexy and intimate pair of days together in Wilson's character's gorgeous Brooklyn brownstone, and in one scene they played ping-pong together, Hannah without her shirt on. And the Internet went crazy!
Well, if not crazy, the Internet at least had a lot to say about it. And really that's nothing new. Since the show premiered last spring, Dunham and some of her cast members' frequent nudity — but mostly Dunham's — has been the topic of much discussion. There's something about the casualness of the nudity, coupled maybe with the relative youth of the characters, that gets tongues and tsk-tsk fingers wagging especially hard. No one, or at least no one who doesn't want to get justifiably shouted off the Internet, is going to say that Dunham's chronic state of undress is off-putting or upsetting because Dunham is not a size two. While that may actually be the case for many of the detractors, all but a few will wrap the whole criticism up in claims that the nudity affects the quality of the show. It's a distraction or a gimmick or whatever word they want to couch their mild revulsion in so it's more palatable to the cultured masses who care about such things. Sunday night's display seemed to tip some people over the edge; one passed-around response, for example, suggested that the nudity was a "gimmick" and said that "the device of Hannah feeling so free in her skin that she drops her clothes at the drop of a hat, has officially jumped the shark and moved firmly into self-parody territory." Also wondered about: "who plays ping-pong naked?!" That's your typical anti-nudity response.
Ugly as it may be, at least Rex Reed's cruel and juvenile review of Identity Thief, a parade of slams about Melissa McCarthy's weight, is honest and upfront with its body issues. A lot of this Girls criticism frankly pretends to be more elevated than it is. Of course some people really, genuinely do find Hannah's only sorta frequent nudity (I mean, come on guys, it's really not that often) to be a strange and unnecessary stylistic tic instead of a gross-out. For example, people may not have been entirely sure why Hannah was running around New York City in a mesh tank top with nothing underneath in a recent episode. But that's more about character, about believing that Hannah would choose to do that, than it is about seeing boobs and nipples. So yes, sometimes people really are being critical of stylistic elements, not Dunham's looks.
But if we're honest, the lion's share of the criticism has landed on Girls because of who Lena Dunham is and what she looks like. She's a young woman who is intelligent and ambitious and does not apologize for herself — she is not demure, she does not shrink, but she's not a cliched male-aimed ball-buster either. She's just Lena Dunham. And, most confoundingly to our culture, she doesn't trade on her looks. She didn't get the job because she's a supermodel, but she doesn't really make fun of herself or mute her sexuality for not being a supermodel either. Again, she's just Lena Dunham. You'd think that most everyone would applaud people who earn what public success they achieve through talent and deeds rather than genetic luck, but really we're so used to that pattern that it hurts our cultural brain when a woman doesn't seem at all fussed about playing into the roles we expect her to. And we don't like our brains hurting, so we lash out in response. "Cover up, Lena Dunham!"
Suddenly we're all blushing prudes — we the same people who barely blinked at years and years of Kim Cattrall's boudoir parts, who have never said much of anything about the sexual squalor of shows like Shameless, like House of Lies, hell like Entourage. But now suddenly it's better for the story that Lena Dunham put her shirt back on. It's pretty transparent and it stinks and we should all join Dunham in trying to break that particular paradigm. But, sigh, that's hard work.
On the pro-nudity side, there have been many lengthy pieces written about Girls and its frank nudity and sexuality that may not be helping either. I'm all for people analyzing and lauding something so well-made — Girls is something new, or at least a new variation on some standard tropes, and it's worth discussing and celebrating — but there is a distinctly gendered focus on the nudity in much of the writing about the show. (Including this post!) Granted, if some 26-year-old Brooklyn guy was running around on his own show with his bits out all the time, we'd probably be talking about that too. (Though, the comparison doesn't really match up. Breasts, in their objectification and just-shy-of-truly-indecent cultural status, don't really have a male counterpart.) But the point is that even if we're up on the nudity — yay for diverse body shapes shown in popular media (popular being a relative term for a show that about 0.5% of America watches), yay for women characters demonstrating full and thorough and complex sex lives — we're still talking about the damn nudity. In that sense maybe that angry Facebook fellow is right. It is a distraction. Though that distraction isn't Dunham's fault, it's ours.
By European standards, Girls is a pretty tame show. Sure, sure, they're a bunch of godless socialists over there, but they're certainly more mature about things like this. That we have spent this much time in America fretting about, of all things, a naked body is silly and a little embarrassing. Dunham has written a character who is comfortable with her body and with showing it to other people. Dunham herself is clearly at least comfortable enough with her body to show it to a camera that will later show it to other people. (I suspect that that mechanical middle-man makes a difference.) It's strange that that has to be such a conversational sticking point. Well, no, not strange, not on these puritan shores, but it's a little dismaying and hints at deeper problems and imbalances. We certainly wouldn't be talking as much about the lad on Boys with his willie flapping around as we have been about Hannah's anatomy. I mean, remember Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones? Sure it was just one brief scene, but that was full-frontal, guys! Not much ink spilled about that one, was there.
I realize it's tiresome to wish we could stop talking about something while engaged in the very act of talking about it, but that's the way the Internet works, I guess. Or certain corners of it, anyway. Maybe the more nuanced hope is that, since we're not going to stop talking about the nudity on Girls entirely, we could at least change how we talk about it. Maybe less about empowering bravery vs. shameless exhibitionism, or whatever other side of the argument currently exists, and more about why the nudity is there in terms of, y'know, the rest of what the show, or even the standalone episode, is trying to say. Wasn't the ping-pong nudity a way to heighten the dreamy mood of looseness and intimacy of Hannah's strange weekend with Patrick Wilson? Might the point have been that it is a little unorthodox to play ping-pong without a shirt on? It wasn't the only odd thing that happened in the episode, after all.That's a much more productive and frankly more interesting conversation than the simple "Should we be seeing this lady's boobs??" dialogue. That chat has its place, and the body-lovers brigade members among us should continue to champion anything that celebrates or is at least honest about the broad landscape of looks and body types. But we tend to invite in a lot of that "I'm not saying I don't like naked women, it's just in this context..." noodling that has definitely gotten conversation about this worthy show annoyingly off course.
I hate to put the onus on Dunham and crew, but maybe they should just do an all-naked episode. Get it all out there and then there's nothing left to say. Heck, if five gays can do it, I'm pretty sure Girls can too.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.