Why critics can't come to terms with Dunham's nudity

16:00, Jan 13 2014
Lena Dunham
LENA DUNHAM: "If you're not into me, that's your problem."

A new season of GIRLS is upon us, which means we're due for endless conversations about why Lena Dunham insists on subjecting her audience to the apparently horrifying fact of her naked body.

Dunham's nudity, we are told, is 'confusing'. So confusing that two years after the show's debut, TV journalists are still scratching their heads and seeking to solve the abstract riddle of it - as if the most interesting thing about a show exploring the landscape of a young woman's life is that she occasionally takes her clothes off without shame or the purpose of pleasing an invisible male gaze.

Dunham recently participated in a panel discussion ahead of tonight's debut of season three. Predictably, the nudity question arose again, this time posed by The Wrap's TV writer Tim Molloy.

Molloy opined:

"I don't get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show, by you particularly, and I feel like I'm walking into a trap where you go, "Nobody complains about the nudity on 'Game of Thrones' but I get why they are doing it. They are doing it to be salacious and, you know, titillate people. And your character is often naked just at random times for no reason."

There are literally hundreds of questions that Molloy could have asked that would have been more interesting than a topic that has enjoyed more exposure than even Dunham's breasts, but I guess the sight of a woman unafraid to show the world what a stomach looks like when sitting hunched over in the bath remains hypnotic to those people with limited imagination.


As many people have already pointed out, nudity in art doesn't exist merely to provide titillation. To think otherwise is to demonstrate a fairly narrow appreciation for the complexities that art has to offer. 

Given Molloy has been defending his question by claiming he sought to gain insight into artistic choices, one might be justified in questioning if he has the necessary credentials to write on the subject in the first place.

But this isn't just about Molloy, conscious sexism, titillation or even artistic expression. The fact is, if Dunham's body more closely resembled the rigid standards of beauty we're used to seeing modelled in Hollywood, no one would even think to question how often she paraded about with her clothes off.

Dunham's nudity upsets the norm, and this is what confuses people. Why, if she isn't aiming to titillate, does she insist on incorporating her naked body into the story all the time? I mean...what's the point?

That, my friends, IS the point. Dunham's Hannah Horvath offers what she calls 'a realistic expression of what it means to be alive'.

Sometimes, that means eating food in the bath or getting high and swapping clothes with a stranger at a nightclub.

Sometimes it means disappearing into a quiet world with a new lover and playing ping pong in nothing but your underpants, even though that might seem strange to people removed from the magical intimacy of that moment.

Sometimes it means removing your clothes in a hurry before sex and shuffling back on the bed with little thought as to whether or not this is the most flattering way to present yourself to a new partner.

Hannah Horvath lives in a world where women are told that if we want to look thin in bed, we should have sex in the missionary position.

Like most of us, she has internalised these instructions while occasionally ignoring them when the spontaneity of life gets in the way.

There's a conflict inside her between the actual self and the constructed one, and that struggle is so much a part of her that it doesn't even register as something she can be liberated from.

This is partly what it feels like to understand that your entire being is viewed socially, culturally and individually through the idea of the male gaze. And the reason it's so confusing to people is because it isn't cast through the male gaze but the female. Dunham is not inviting a masculine reading of her life and body.

It isn't presented as a 'titillation' or a reward. In terms of that internal conflict between the real and constructed self, she is baring all (figuratively and literally) to offer a realistic view of the internal life of one particular woman, as told by her and recognisable to countless others unused to seeing themselves in such raw terms.

Molloy and his ilk lament the purposelessness of Hannah's nudity because they are unable to understand that it is precisely this purposelessness that makes it so purposeful.

There are undoubtedly problems with world presented in GIRLS, the documented lack of diversity being chief among them (although Dunham has said she's sought to educate herself about intersectionality and inclusivity, a commitment not shared by around 99.9 percent of her fellow writers and directors).

I'm a huge fan, but I understand that it's not for everyone. But it is not 'confusing' or 'weird' that its central character spends a moderate amount of her time on the show in a state of partial or total nudity.

If it were the blonde, willowy Jemima Kirke who was shown so often to be naked and cavorting with handsome men (and it has been seriously argued that Dunham is too 'ugly' to be able to land half of Hannah's boyfriends, an obnoxious theory that I don't recall being applied to Steve Buscemi, James Gandolfini, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan or any of the other countless old, fat and less than chiselled leading men paired with women so beautiful it can hurt to look at them) then no one would bat an eyelid. Kim Cattrall, anyone?

For his part, Molloy has defended his question as reasonable and in keeping with a TV writer's job of exploring the motivations of creators. But aside from the fact the nudity issue has been explored to within a thread of its scantily clad point, it's just not remotely interesting as a line of enquiry.

If you can't comprehend the reasons Lena Dunham chooses to incorporate nudity in the way that she has, then not only are you arguably not a very good arts journalist - you also probably don't understand women all that well.

- Daily Life