‘Girls’ Whiplash Report: Why, Despite Everything, Lena Dunham’s Nudity Is Radical


We’re going to have another post on what exactly was wrong with a reporter from the entertainment gossip outlet The Wrap asking Lena Dunham why she’s naked all the time on Girls. In my humble opinion, it was a disgusting, risible question, and I say this as someone who just yesterday expressed a truckload of reservations about the show’s upcoming season. It does, however, give me occasion to make an elementary point that I thought was clear to everyone, but my bad, apparently it isn’t. So unclear is it that I’m giving it its own paragraph, italics, everything I’ve got:

Lena Dunham’s nakedness on Girls is revolutionary and needs to be applauded, without reservation.

Look. We live in a world where beauty standards for women are in a terrible place. I’d like to blame that on men alone, but I can’t. Crappy, thin-white-dressed-to-the-nines beauty standards are delivered to a supermarket near you by the Vogues and Elles of this world every month. They’re on television, when even on the most female-centric shows, powerful, independent careerwomen still wake up in the morning already in perfect hair and makeup. The need to look perfect, is still the #1 demand in most women’s lives. And women suffer for that perfection — perfection being defined in ever more difficult and expensive and literally painful (think plastic surgery) ways. It’s unattainable. It’s impossible. Even the actresses with the round-the-clock trainers and stylists and makeup artists complain about how impossible it is, and end up in those “NO MAKEUP KILL YOURSELF” spreads in the US Weeklys of the world.

I say all of that because it seems this hasn’t sunk in for some people yet. I used to think that everyone who wasn’t a completely horrible Patrick Bateman type, lacking empathy and human decency, knew that beauty culture was terrible in a deep way. Then I realized that we live in a world where the (gender-neutral!) Patrick Bateman types still have all the money. The money which produces the television shows and fashion magazines in which women always look picture-perfect, no matter what it costs them. These are images which women end up internalizing.

In her way, Lena Dunham has changed that. It is the reason I am most grateful for her presence in the culture, whatever my issues with the show.

She does not look “perfect” in the completely restricted way the culture has defined it. Specifically, and I cringe as I always do here at the necessity of having to point this out, her body doesn’t meet that standard. But the show, by consistently putting that “imperfection” in front of us, is demanding that we interrogate our devotion to our beauty standards. And all the men on the internet who are so anxious to let you know that they don’t find Dunham attractive? They are, if nothing else, proof positive of the need for this ongoing interrogation. Because they are, pardon my French, assholes who deserve to be shunned by all of civil society.

Had the reporter from The Wrap cared to do the most elementary research — part of his, y’know, job — he would have found several relevant wells of information on the internet. The first would have been a rash of articles from women which crop up whenever Girls has a big nude scene, and which offer testimony to the idea that Dunham’s frequent displays of nudity speak to them in a deep way. “[E]very time Hannah/Lena takes off her clothes, every time she establishes that she is, for the most part, comfortable in her body, it gives me a little bit of hope for myself,” wrote Kate Spencer at the Daily Beast in February, in just one example. And these testimonies are sentimental, yes. But the depth of the sentiment goes to the intellectual value (I’m not kidding) of Dunham’s nudity. They hit on this really deeply feeling almost all women have about “beauty.”

And Dunham knows it. Her nakedness is pretty clearly weaponized. Had the hapless Wrap reporter actually done his research, which was y’know, his job, he also would have found Lena Dunham, after all, responding to the idea that she should be somehow ashamed of the frequency of the nudity on the show over and over and over again. Here’s her comment on people who criticized her thighs, for example:

I don’t think a girl with tiny thighs would have received such no-pants attention. I think what it really was . . . ‘Why did you all make us look at your thighs?’ My response is, get used to it because I am going to live to be 100, and I am going to show my thighs every day till I die.

And she told David Sedaris, in a discussion at Carnegie Hall recently, that she intended her upcoming book of essays to ask the question, “Who gets to be naked, and why?” It’s clearly a central part of her work. She is posing a question with the nakedness, one that The Wrap reporter went and, in his self-immolating way, completely proved the need for.