When watching Girls with a former boyfriend, he would roll his eyes when the nudity warning preceding the episode flashed across the scene. "Ugh, it's probably just Lena Dunham's butt," he said. I was annoyed by his callous and immature response, and that he didn't understand Dunham's purposeful use of her naked body. Sadly, he wasn't the only man who felt this way.
At a Girls panel at the Television Critics Association's winter conference, Tim Molloy at The Wrap asked Dunham why she appears nude so often, a fair question about her creative choices. But he did so in a fairly obnoxious way that revealed his own misunderstanding of the potential use for nudity on screen. He said to Dunham:
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.
Did Molloy not realize that his question would come off as him telling Dunham, "I am not sexually excited by the sight of your naked body, so why bother with it on TV?" Because that's how she, along with executive producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner, took it.
Dunham responded pretty curtly, suggesting she was insulted. "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."
Now, to a degree, I respect people who uniformly find all nudity on television gratuitous. But it's a problem if you aren't particularly bothered by nudity on TV as a rule, but are opposed to Dunham's.
Although I do find nudity gratuitous sometimes, Girls' use of it, especially Dunham's, feels natural. Guess what? We sometimes walk around our apartments naked. When we pee or have sex, at the very least the important parts have to be naked for it to work, and if we're hanging out with people who have already seen us naked, we may stay nakedish, as Dunham's Hanna Horvath did during a much maligned ping pong scene in season two's "One Man's Trash."
So, one answer to Molloy's question about why Dunham is naked if not for the purpose of being sexually arousing is because the show is committed to a certain realism. And as Apatow later stated, "I have people naked when they're willing to do it." Not all the actresses on Girls are willing to be naked, but when they are, the show uses nudity to bring that extra touch of reality to their interactions.
But there is another layer to Dunahm's nudity. Some narrow-minded critics suggest that Dunham's body doesn't meet the conventional standards of hotness defined by the ladies of Game of Thrones, and as a result, she is the one who needs to justify why she appears naked.
But by appearing naked so frequently and so confidently — or better yet, nonchalantly — Dunham is making a huge statement to viewers who struggle with her nudity because they don't find it attractive. She isn't challenging them to change their notions of attractiveness, but as Tracie Egan Morrissey at Jezebel pointed out, she is challenging them to question the way they use attractiveness to view a woman's behavior and what she deserves in life.
Morrisey highlighted that after "One Man's Trash," in which Hannah spends two days with a handsome doctor (Patrick Wilson) in a beautiful home drinking, having sex, and playing topless ping-pong, many commentators, especially male commentators, criticized the show for being an unrealistic fantasy. At Slate's Daniel Engber said, "The episode felt like a double-dog dare for me to ask, How can a girl like that get a guy like this? Am I small-minded if I'm stuck on how this fantasy is too much of a fantasy and remembering what Patrick Wilson's real-life partner looks like?" Yeah, you are actually being small-minded, and Dunham just got you to sort of recognize that.
And that's yet another reason why Dunham's nudity has tremendous significance. By using her nudity to draw this confused and baffled reaction from viewers when they see Hannah with a great and conventionally hot guy, it makes them question "how value is assigned to a woman by how she looks. And how that valuation determines the level of bullshit that people will tolerate from her," wrote Morrissey. "It's a conversation worth having, and a tip of the hat (or flash of the tits?) to Dunham for having the ping-pong balls to challenge not just her critics, but those kinds of appraisals."
To have that effect through a nude scene is actually much more important than merely being salacious. Lena is not naked at "random times for no reason." If that's what you think, you just haven't opened your eyes.
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