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.