Girls Gone Real

A.O. Scott’s article, “Hollywood’s Year of Heroine Worship,” got me thinking about why I hadn’t watched Lena Dunham’s Girls. I realized that I’d done what Scott cautions against in his article – I wrote off the show because, based on what I heard about some of the choices the characters make, I didn’t think the show represented women’s lives in the way I feel they “should” be represented. I fell into the trap of under- and misrepresentation; I expected Dunham to “get it right, to represent, to set an example and blaze a path.” So I decided to give the show a shot, to try to watch it on its own terms, rather than imposing my own expectations about the types of stories a woman in TV/film should be telling.

Well, I’m glad I did. The show is funnier and more intricately crafted than I thought it would be. Dunham’s Hannah can be self-absorbed, infuriating, and judgmental; right from the start, the writing allows Dunham to play Hannah’s self-delusions with total conviction while also letting us see how she’s bullshitting herself and her friends. The most recent example is when Hannah breaks up with her boyfriend Sandy. She does it because she’s upset that he didn’t like one of her essays, but she dresses it up as a conflict over their political beliefs (Sandy is a Republican, so Hannah and new roommate Elijah assume he’s homophobic and pro-gun; you know what happens when you assume . . . ). Hannah also accuses Sandy, who is African-American, of not caring about the challenges facing minorities in this country, while at the same time making the absurd claim that she hadn’t even noticed he was black because she doesn’t see race. Later, Hannah announces to former roommate Marnie and Elijah that she broke up with Sandy because she cares too much about women’s and gay rights to be with someone who’s “not an ally.” Then she proceeds to bash Marnie for trading on her sexuality in her new job as a hostess at an upscale restaurant. I give Dunham credit for making a character who’s viewed as her alter ego (an assumption that needs some unpacking, I think) so self-deluded and maddening and also presenting those flaws in a way that’s still engaging and entertaining.

Moving on to the much-discussed fact that Hannah is often in a state of undress: in the very first episode, Hannah and Marnie are in the bathroom together – Hannah in the tub, naked; Marnie, sitting on the edge of the tub, wrapped in a towel. Hannah jokes about how she’s always naked in front of Marnie, but she never gets to see Marnie naked, and “it should be the other way around.” I feel like Dunham is essentially laying out a mission statement here: she’s going to challenge our expectations of unrealistically skinny female bodies onscreen by frequently showing us her own more realistic, un-toned body, not Allison Williams’ tall, thin body. Ultimately all the brouhaha about nudity on the show is not about nudity in general; it’s about Dunham/Hannah’s naked body in particular. We have no problem seeing naked women onscreen, as long as they have the “right” kind of bodies. We don’t think a woman who looks like Hannah (i.e., like most of the women in this country) should want to put her body on display. And Hannah’s frequent, often uncomfortable sex scenes disrupt the element of fantasy that’s part of the more typical, idealized sex scenes involving thin, impossibly attractive bodies. I understand that part of the allure of TV/movies is the fantasy, but I also think the fuss about nudity and sex on Girls is actually our own discomfort about having our expectations and fantasies disrupted.

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3 Responses to Girls Gone Real

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I can’t speak for others, but if any woman wants to put her body on display for the sake of their art, more power to them. I always admire courage and openness. I haven’t found the show appealing, but I think it actually has much more to do with not finding Hannah appealing (as a person). I suspect I’m simply way outside the target demographic. I gave the show a shot early on, and I think I stopped viewing about halfway through the first ep. It’s another show people are raving about, and I’ve been meaning to give it another try, but your description above tells me it’s probably a waste of time. Just not my cuppa.

    Off the top of my head, but I think nudity in storytelling probably breaks down into two categories: titillation (and oddly aptly named word) and verisimilitude. People are naked sometimes. A realistic story that needs to be where people are naked (locker room, bedroom, etc) seems coy if it hides the nudity. Broadcasting standards have made us used to that coyness, but it’s still there. I find myself smiling sometimes at how women in TV shows always clutch the covers to their chest (or how people on TV apparently either have sex in their underwear or put it back on afterwards). Clearly this show is going for verisimilitude and also, perhaps, making a social point at the same time.

    I have a friend who loved Rosanne for showing a “normal” (Rosanne, normal?!?!) woman, and I understand the feeling, but that character was just too unlikeable to me. This isn’t quite the same thing… more a disconnect or generational gap. I appreciate the motivation, but I just don’t relate.

    • popgoddess says:

      You’re right – the nudity on this show is usually the “realism” category, but, I have to say, this week it veered toward gratuitous for me. Did we really need to see Hannah playing ping pong with just her panties on? With that Dunham seemed to be taking on a double standard between men and women appearing topless.

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        I suspect at this point (and very possibly originally) there is a certain element of “in your face, mofu” going on. That’s a point of view I deeply appreciate and understand… but it doesn’t necessarily make for good storytelling.

        So a legit question is, would I play ping pong in my underwear or shirtless…. can’t say I would ever dream of it. My other question would be context: was it shown to be terribly hot so that underwear only makes sense? [shrug]

        Like I said, more power to her!! But not my cuppa.

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