Let’s talk about Lena Dunham’s tits. The weight around her stomach. The curviness that is echoed in her soft, brown hair. After all, with last Sunday’s Girls episode, “One Man’s Trash,” that appears to be all people can talk about: Is she worthy to have so much of her body onscreen? Is her face resplendent enough to attract a handsome man such as Patrick Wilson? And, most of all, how dare she flaunt her nudity like she doesn’t give a fuck?
Here’s why: because she doesn’t give a fuck.
I’ve been recently thinking a lot about a quote attributed to the drag queen godmother RuPaul: “What other people think of me are none of my business.” It’s a tough pill to swallow, when we’re taught as children to be continuously mindful of how others perceive us. For those folks who don’t fit neatly into what’s expected and normative, there’s exponential pressure. Are we too short? Are we too gay? Are we too of colour? Are we too feminine? Are we too fat? The lovely thing about Sharon Needles, last season’s winner on the reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race, was that she twisted the convention of doing drag for the audience. Of course, it’s still part of the equation, but, unlike the other two finalists, she conjured a narrative of womanhood that visualized her inner life rather than the audience’s perception of womanhood. Drag has room for all takes on womanhood and it has, as always, done a phenomenon job of tweaking gender norms, but Sharon Needles’s nervy, ugly presence felt vital, rendering Phi Phi O’Hara and Chad Michaels into animatronic wax figures. There’s an honesty to how Sharon Needles and Lena Dunham present their bodies that is sorely missing.
In “Trash,” Dunham spends most of the episode naked. She is naked after having sex on the kitchen counter, while playing ping-pong (before having sex on the ping-pong table), on the bed getting fingered by Patrick Wilson’s character Josh(ua), and in the shower taking a steam. Her nudity feels like a response to critics, both professional and amateur, that her character Hannah is excessively naked. There’s a limit, they seem to say, and Lena as Hannah has exhausted it by a mile. “My body, my choice” appears to be her response and she’s right. For those who don’t enjoy seeing her body, they have their own choice: change the channel. Watch, say, Game of Thrones instead, where the female body is served up lean, supple, and disposable.
Girls often does a great job of subverting expectations. Here, I noticed her clever take on the manic pixie dream girl, a wink at how rarely the audience sees that girl’s side of the story. In a male power-fantasy, Hannah would redeem Joshua and make him see colours again and blah blah blah while never whimpering out a need of her own (except for him to love her). A Shins song would play as they ironically ate canned chickpeas under the stars on the roof of his brownstone. “Trash” also referenced the other seminal series about women in New York. One shot, after Hannah has fainted in the shower and is comforted by Joshua in bed, evoked Sex and the City, and it reminded me of how that show’s central character Carrie also was pulled from economic murkiness by a relationship with a distant, older, richer man. And where Carrie’s emotional emesis rom-commed Big’s heart into a marriage, here, Hannah scares Joshua to a point where the colour in his face drains, his smile stiffens, and his eyes deaden. He too is forced to see narcissistic Hannah through the fantasy, to understand that his loneliness, even as a beautiful man in a beautiful home amongst such beautiful objects, wouldn’t be solved by a girl he called beautiful.
And she is beautiful. The first morning Hannah awakes in Joshua’s bed, the sight of her could be a modern take of a Botticelli painting. It’s a reminder that in artwork we can trace how the sociocultural definition of beauty has shifted through the years. Contemporary images signal that we are not (skinny) enough, and the consequence to falling short of the ideal is to lose the right to be proud of our bodies. I know this all too well myself. I am inundated by images of six-packs abs and bigger (thus better) chest and arms, ones that I simultaneously admire, covet, reject, and deflate. On most hookup sites, the Patrick Wilsons take their shirts off, while the Hannahs are told to smile and stand further back. In other words, it’s not the nudity itself that is desirable, but how closely men can flatten themselves like those found in the pages of magazines.
Lena Dunham presents her body not as a construct, but as a given, and it’s for this reason that people aren’t just frustrated but angry at her. Through her naked body, Dunham breaks the assumption that we, the public, have power over how she uses it. North American culture deigns permission to bear nudity on screens to models and porn stars, and we’ve internalized that only people who look like them will be allowed to follow suit. We have been led to believe that there is some value in keeping ourselves clothed.
In the Emperor’s New Clothes, a naked ruler is led to believe he is wearing the finest garments by those hoping to retain their roles in the theatre of power. There is both a foolish emperor, tricked into believing nothing is something, and the subjects around him willingly keeping up the charade. Today, we still believe wearing nothing as something, the charade that our nudity has power, a reputational value that must be locked up and gifted only upon those with whom we are romantically involved. And, to maintain that power we must keep clothed. It’s why people are warned from taking naked photos. (Or at least distributing them discreetly, a la Snapchat.) What if they get out? folks caution, as if a transfer of power will occur–the dignity of the revealed shredded and equally divvied up to all those who have remained hidden–which, sadly, it does, but only because we all agree that it should. I can’t help but wonder if naked photos and their alleged currency tie back to the days when a woman’s worth was tethered to her virginity. In her nudity, Dunham siphons the strength of that belief. And because the public is powerless to directly stop her, it mocks and derides in a hope to assert indirect control. That her body is not considered valuable anyhow, only makes the situation even more fascinating.
There is a need to see more types of bodies more often because researchers have uncovered that what a person sees affects one’s sense of self. A study from 2012 had subjects view people of different body types, then asked afterwards their perception on size. The women who had seen average to average-large women were less critical and more approving of average body size than those in the study who had seen only skinny women. Similar to how the things we eat affect our bodies, the images we see–our visual diet–appears to hold an affect on our judgement of bodies. It’s what makes Lena Dunham so refreshing: even if people are fighting it, seeing her naked, normal body helps to course-correct our expectations of not just women onscreen but of ourselves too.
“One Man’s Trash” is a divisive episode, even for fans of the show. Needless to say, I loved the episode. I loved every time Hannah fucked Joshua. I loved how the camera never shied away from her body nor focused solely on her breasts: there was her face, her belly, her tights. I was excited she didn’t bother to make us comfortable by veiling her body, that she didn’t need to render herself non-threatening. Every time Wilson simulated sex with her, I loved that it was her dare to the audience, as if to say “I know it’s expected that I titillate you, but I will fucking enjoy this.” Yes, this was Dunham’s story and she told it exactly as she pleased.
Jaime Woo is a Toronto writer and the author of Meet Grindr, about the effect of cruising apps, which is now available in a digital edition. Follow him on Twitter at @jaimewoo.”