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Reel Women: Why Are We Still Talking About Lena Dunham’s Nudity on ‘Girls’?

Girls Lena Dunham
HBO

It’s a new year and there’s a new season of ‘Girls,’ which means people are going to stir the pot by asking redundant questions like, “Why is Lena Dunham naked so much on ‘Girls’?” It’s a question Dunham has been asked — and answered, gracefully — several times, but when recently confronted with the question for the umpteenth time alongside producers Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow at the TCAs, the response was an appropriately frustrated one. Why are we still asking Dunham about her nudity on ‘Girls,’ especially as the show enters its third season?

The question came from The Wrap’s Tim Molloy, and it wasn’t so much a question as it was a comment. If you’ve ever been to a Q&A, you know that these sort of ridiculous comments-as-questions are fairly common and often laughable:

 I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you particularly. I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you say no one complains about the nudity on ‘Game of Thrones,’ but I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character is often naked at random times for no reason.

Dunham’s short reply seems to be one that comes from a place of exhaustion at being asked this question repeatedly:

It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem.

But Apatow wasn’t content to let Molloy get off that easily (and rightfully so), and added:

Do you have a girlfriend? Does she like you? Let’s see how she likes you when you quote that with your question and just write the whole question … and tell me how it goes tonight.

I hardly think Dunham or ‘Girls’ needs defending as Dunham and the work she’s created are both capable of speaking for themselves. But, here goes.

If you compare the amount of nudity on something like ‘Girls’ to the nudity on, say, ‘Sex and the City,’ the former is actually fairly tame. And I think that’s an apt comparison for the most basic of thinkers given that so many were quick to call Dunham’s show “‘Sex and the City’ for Millennials” when it debuted. ‘Game of Thrones,’ a show I also watch and enjoy and the one to which Molloy absurdly chose to draw his comparison, also has more nudity than ‘Girls.’ And yes, the nudity on ‘Game of Thrones’ is often meant as a titillating treat for viewers, not as a comment on anything based in real-life because it’s a f—ing fantasy show.

Dunham isn’t the only actress who has gotten nude on the show. Jemima Kirke, who plays her best friend, Jessa, has also disrobed, but you won’t often — or ever — find complaints about her character’s nudity. Perhaps because viewers find Jessa more conventionally attractive. There have been myriad complaints about Dunham’s body, dating back to season 1, and particularly last season when viewers and even some critics were baffled as to why someone as hunky as Patrick Wilson would hook up with someone like Dunham. To say that the complaints about the amount of Dunham’s nudity have nothing to do with a viewer’s subjective assessment of her appearance would be a lie. And to that I’d also say I’d also like to live in that fantasy world in which we aren’t judging appearances and there are no societal norms or nebulous objective standards of beauty by which we, the collective we, measure someone’s worth.

But, I digress. Perhaps Molloy, and other viewers with similar complaints, simply aren’t able to properly articulate what troubles them about the nudity on the show. Dunham’s nudity, which has been rather infrequent, has often taken place in contexts that are not overtly sexual. Her sexual encounters are often awkward (though incredibly honest and, for some, horrifyingly relatable), involving butt play, fumbling with sexy talk, taking terrible topless selfies; a scene in the bathtub with Jessa is rather intimate between two friends; a couple of times during the “One Man’s Trash” episode, in which she plays topless ping pong with Wilson and then comically and dramatically faints in the shower; a scene with Donald Glover in season 2 involves her taking off her clothes to get ready for sex and playfully rolling back on the bed in a way that feels very naturalistic, but not sexually exciting. You get the point.

Her nudity has always been placed in the context of what feels honest and true to herself, the character, and the situations. It’s never excessive, but perhaps it feels excessive to a viewer who isn’t accustomed to seeing an average woman’s body on screen or who is more accustomed to television shows and films that use nudity as a tool to titillate or an accessory. Dunham uses nudity the way nudity occurs in all of our lives, and even then, she’s naked far, far less on her show than any one of us are on a weekly basis. She gets naked to have sex because this is what human beings do, but we don’t always need to see Hannah having sex or taking a shower as part of her story, which is why these moments are not all that frequent.

Other shows use sex baselessly and for no other reason than to excite viewers, while ‘Girls’ incorporates it naturally to tell a story and show the progression — and decline — of relationships and the part that relationship plays in a character’s emotional journey. And sex is a big part of any romantic relationship, so what she’s showing is just honest, plain and simple. Maybe it’s the honesty that scares people like Tim Molloy. Maybe they just don’t know how to handle sex in media when it’s intended to be frank and not, in his words, “titillating.”

Honestly, we could do with less of the kind of faux, softcore, glam-sex presented in film and television that creates unrealistic expectations for viewers like Molloy. If you want something like that, go watch porn. Unlike HBO, you can get it for free on the internet, and if you don’t like what the characters are doing, you can just click on something else.

It’s not as if Dunham sits at her laptop, unnaturally writing in scenes in which she can be naked week to week, confronting the world with its own problems with the female body, and hers in particular. But maybe she damn well should because clearly it’s still an issue three years later.

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