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Why Is Lena Dunham Naked So Much? And Other Questions About 'Girls'

Television
by Sam Adams
January 10, 2014 10:59 AM
29 Comments
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"Really? We're talking about this again?"
"Really? We're talking about this again?"

The third season of Girls hasn't even started yet, and already we're back on the horse, where "horse" is the kind of furious, tempest-in-a-teapot controversies that follow the show like a nettlesome cloud.

The point of this particular kerfuffle's origin is the Girls panel at the Television Critics Association's winter conference, which basically consists of several dozen writers being confined to a hotel outside Los Angeles while various TV networks show off their wares for the coming months. Things, as you might imagine, can get a little crazy, and so they did yesterday when The Wrap's Tim Molloy opened the Girls session by asking creator and star Lena Dunham why she so frequently gets naked on her own show. To quote his account, he asked:

“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 brushed off the question with a pro forma response: "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 her producer and mentor Judd Apatow took offense and turned the question back on Molloy: "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.”

According to the liveblog of the event from HitFix's Daniel Fienberg, the tone of the session did not improve from there; 15 minutes later, executive producer Jenni Konner admitted she'd missed a question posed to her because she was still in a "rage spiral." I've written before about the fragile dynamic of group interviews, the way one bad -- or badly asked -- question can send an entire session south. It's hard to know if Apatow, in Feinberg's words, "came out to fight, rather than to think," but it certainly sounds like he went on the offensive and stayed that way. Here's his answer to the persistent question of how Girls deals, or doesn't, with the racial mixture of life in New York City:

I don’t think that there’s any reason why any show should feel an obligation to do that. I think there might be some obligation to have shows about all sorts of different people, but if it’s organic to the show, then we should do it, and if we don’t have story lines which serve it naturally, I don’t think that we should do it. I mean, in the history of television, you could look at every show on TV and say, "How come there’s not an American Indian on this show? "How come there’s not an Asian person on this show?" It really has to come from the story and the stories that we are trying to tell. We want to accurately portray New York and groups of people. So we are going to do it where it feels honest to these characters in this world.

This is, let's just say, a profoundly stupid and insulting response, essentially downgrading complex issues of fictional representation to "What about me?" (On Twitter, NPR critic Eric Deggans commented, "I get the sense its tough for them to admit they don't want or can't write decent characters of color.") And the same goes, to a lesser extent, to Apatow's, and Dunham's, responses to the original question. I can point to plenty of flaws in Molloy's ask, especially the use of "at random times for no reason," which is not the way to ask a creative person about what's obviously a deliberate choice. But simply saying "I'm naked because people are naked" is an only slightly less dopey response. Dunham has good reason to be tired of questions about nudity, which she's been fielding since before the show even aired, but especially at this point, knowing such questions will continue to be asked, the way she uses her body on Girls makes a statement. 

The comparison with Game of Thrones is instructive, though not in the way Molloy frames it. Game of Thrones is a show that so exploits the conventionally attractive bodies of its actresses that Emilia Clarke had to draw a line in the sand and say that Daenerys Targaryen would keep her clothes on for the remainder of the series, and one sufficiently unwilling to engage the realities of its own universe that Natalie Tena was not allowed to give her quasi-feral "wildling" a naturally bushy thatch of pubic hair in her own nude scene. (Apparently the wilds beyond The Wall are amply stocked with bikini wax.) "How come you get naked so much even though it's not a turn-on?" is, needless to say, not the best way to approach the issue. But neither is pretending it's not an issue. Perhaps Dunham should have echoed Joss Whedon's answer to why he writes so many strong female characters: "Because you're still asking that question."

Television
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29 Comments

  • Knut Holt | March 3, 2014 6:41 AMReply

    Who is this woman?

  • Peggy | January 18, 2014 2:30 PMReply

    I've only just started watching Girls and I find the show and its characters repulsive. But I don't have a problem with her only having white characters because that is her right. The people I have a problem with is HBO for HIRING HER to put the lily white show on. I never watched The Wire or Oz because the black characters were criminals. So yeah, as an AA it annoys me to watch Dunham's show about whiny, privileged white people gentrifying a black neighborhood when you know they would in reality be surrounded by minorities because they are living in the most diverse city in the world. So when white producers and writers set an all white show in the middle of the most diverse city in the world, they need to stop being surprised when they get questioned about it. And the major media corporations who make MUCH money from minority subscribers need to either stop buying those shows, or start spending some money on shows ABOUT blacks, asians, hispanics, eskimos (I'm looking at you, Looking).

  • jean vigo | January 18, 2014 1:49 AMReply

    Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Apatow and Dunham are rich people, in the Club of The 1 Percent. Instead of just being polite, they go on the offensive because that's what money brings = a sense of entitlement and rudeness.

    Oh, and talent = monetary success is not a congruent corollary. Yes, they are "filmmakers" but they make entertainment.

    Kudos to Feinberg for daring to ask a question beyond the "for profit" publicity show to gain viewership disguised as a some serious pseudo-conference on the "Cultural Relevance of 'Girls' in the Canon of American Art." Easy answer - ZILCH.

    Now, let's get back to talking about Norman Lear and how he managed to do such great things.

  • Zeek Jonez | January 15, 2014 2:22 PMReply

    I don't have HBO and I am unlikely to get it. Blah blah blah. Enough talk! I get it! She doesn't have a 'SI Swimsuit Issue' body. So, let us see the naked pics or 'screen grabs'. Give us a link plz!

  • Hanna | January 14, 2014 3:27 PMReply

    I don't think a character's main interest for people should be her nudity - no matter what that body looks like, except when it's a film about nudists or for other reasons directly related to the plot. Just to make a statement about "strong women" feels like a shot in the foot. How exactly are women made appear "stronger" when they get naked? As a woman I got to say that I don't care if its a man or a woman who appears naked in a film or on stage, as long if there is a good reason. A good reason. And as much as we aren't required to applaud unpleasant sounds, we aren't required to applaud unpleasant sights - and that IS and remains and entirely individual judgment. Here is mine: I do not like to see Dunham naked.

  • CarrietheConvo | January 14, 2014 1:42 PMReply

    The perfect follow up! From the LA Times today: "Lena Dunham, keep your clothes off: Why the nudity on 'Girls' is a revolutionary act"

  • Jeff | January 14, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    I think people are missing the point of the question. The purpose of nudity on game of thrones is indeed to make young men watch the show. You can justly criticize the nudity, but it does at the very least make sense. Girls, on the other hand, does seen to have these completely pointless nude scenes featuring lena Dunham (the only possible point being "Oh look at me I'm so edgy") as the writer of this article seems to imply, the mere fact that nudity occurs in real life doesn't mean that we can throw pointless scenes in there. Even if you do believe that all the nudity on girls had a point, the proper response is an argument. Judd apatows angry reply merely made it seem as though he, in fact, had no proper argument

  • Ergh | January 14, 2014 3:07 AM

    Exactly.

    Most people in the real world take a big sh#t each day. Based on their explanation for Lena Dunham's nudity, why aren't they showing her do that as well? At least that would be original. In fact we could share in all her toiletries....

  • Kat | January 12, 2014 2:05 PMReply

    What upsets me about Girls and HBO is, I have to be subjected to alllll types of females nude bosoms and I can't peep one penis. The fact of the matter is, I'm sick of seeing tits. I have them, I'm not interested. Objectify a man for once, please.

  • Aaron | January 15, 2014 12:12 AM

    You've honestly never seen "Shame" shown on HBO? :)

  • Tim Adams | January 11, 2014 5:25 PMReply

    If anything, Tim Molloy and Sam Adams are demonstrating that tv critics should stick to what they do best: produce shallow critics of original content. When such shallowness is applied to weightier issues you get, "profoundly insulting and stupid", and "dopey". Noticeably absent are arguments to justify such labels. It's no surprise, given that the role of an Indiewire television critics boils down to applying labels in such a way that readers can roughly sketch out whether they will enjoy a tv show. Unfortunately, Adam's lack of self-awareness apparently resulted in his confusing description with analysis. As a note to the author, just because you have an emotional reaction does not mean that you have an opinion. When you jump straight to conviction, you produce this sort of name-calling as argumentation drivel.

  • Sanker From India | January 11, 2014 9:10 AMReply

    Although it is an important question I really don't know if the artists should be blamed for the art not having any characters from racial minorities. Woody Allen's New York didn't have any but that doesn't really make Annie Hall or Manhattan less of a masterpiece.

    Citizen Kane fails the Bechdel Test and hardly has characters from minorities but it still is one of the greatest films ever made.

    Call me a racist who neglects minorities as opposed to hates them but this is my honest opinion. I really would love to see more representations of people from minorities(like "The Wire") but I don't blame the creators of "Girls" for anything.

  • Snow | January 11, 2014 2:37 AMReply

    "Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings."
    Susan Sontag

  • jack | January 11, 2014 12:23 AMReply

    Leave her alone, who said actresses have to look like perfect models? Do all male actors look like models?
    http://goo.gl/dZfup1

  • ergh | January 14, 2014 3:10 AM

    Um.. No one. Literally no one said that.

  • Tyler | January 10, 2014 11:35 PMReply

    More people see Lena Dunham naked on Girls than they see themselves naked in a whole year.

  • CrazyxCrazy | January 10, 2014 6:19 PMReply

    Someone tell he to stop! she's repulsive

  • Blackcrow | January 10, 2014 1:35 PMReply

    it's public hair, not public hair

  • Sam Adams | January 10, 2014 1:56 PM

    Autocorrect is a little uptight.

  • Blackcrow | January 10, 2014 1:36 PM

    Bah! PUBIC hair, not public hair. Ok I get how the typo happens...

  • Anthony | January 10, 2014 1:04 PMReply

    Hmm...hard for me to see what Dunham or Apatow have said/done wrong here.
    The tone of the interviewer's question (the way it reads anyway) does seem hostile and antagonistic. And his argument is completely flawed (regarding nudity) and self-defeating - he metions Game of Thrones which uses nudity in an exploitative and, from what little I've seen, tasteless way purely for entertainment. Of course you could argue they're representing that world, which is violent/barbaric/sexual but I think that's secondary.

    Girls however uses nudity - which seems shocking at first - in a more natural/true-to-life way that just shows intimacy and also the fact that in reality people are just naked often in front of each other - when in relationships, close friendships etc. And it presents it in a less salacious and taboo way, which is probably for the better, no? It's the same difference in attitude when comparing representation of the body in american vs. european cinema.

    The other accusation of Girls not representing varied ethnic backgrounds is SORT OF a valid one, but Apatow's response is also very valid. The world they're representing is the world of middle-to-upper class privilege. Classic case of people with First World Problems and dealing with people who are self-indulgent, and wallowing in their existential/creative angst. That's what the show is and it is self aware of that.

    Seems such a pointless and trivial argument - to which I guess I have now contributed. YAY!

  • Kamron | January 13, 2014 5:15 PM

    So by your statement... the middle-upper class is absent of minorities? Not only is that odd, but since when has Girls been of the middle/upper middle class.
    Hannah-barista (struggling writer on the side)
    Shoshana- Student
    Jessa- International Bohemian Hustler (...no job)
    Marnie- Waitress
    Yeah they live in Brooklyn, yeah they seem to be well off. But let's be serious, of their OWN accomplishments...they are not upper middle class. And they're in BROOKLYN. Not idealized Brooklyn, just plain 'ol Brooklyn.
    Sidenote: I am still a big fan of the show, and I don't really think it's that big of a deal. I just don't want to hear any complaints when I base a show in Switzerland and only cast Japanese Americans.

  • Tim Adams | January 11, 2014 5:32 PM

    I read the first questioner as implying that Lena Dunham is unattractive and, thus, her nudity is pointless. The reporter contrasts Dunham with the women from Game of Thrones to note the difference in sex appeal. A more generous interpretation is that the reporter meant to focus upon the uncontextualized feel of the nudity in Girls, whereas Game of Thrones shows stylized sexuality.

  • Michael | January 10, 2014 6:39 PM

    Thank you! I couldn't have said it better myself!

  • JP | January 10, 2014 12:58 PMReply

    Why is it "profoundly stupid and insulting" for Apatow to say that his show has white characters who don't regularly interact with African-American characters, so therefore, it's not organic from the story to just plop African-Americans into the show? It's a show about white, privileged girls in Williamsburg. That's the show!

    You could criticize HBO for only having "white people" shows, but that wouldn't be a fair criticism because they also just gave us four seasons of "Treme" and five seasons of "The Wire," two brilliant shows about African-American culture, something broadcast TV rarely gives us. Why don't we yell at "Treme" or "The Wire" for not having more Asian-American, Indian-American, Pakistani-American, or white hipster characters? That's the same critique they're making of "Girls" and it has the same response: It goes against the artistic vision of the show's story.

    There are great ways to expand diversity in programming, but forcing every show to include every demographic is pretty silly.

  • CarrietheConvo | January 10, 2014 12:54 PMReply

    Lena Dunham should be our hero as women for how she writes nudity into her shows. I think Girls is the best example of nudity in any HBO show I've watched. The fact that it's not 'necessary' and and yet not sexually motivated all the time is part of its charm for me- I LOVE that I'm not shocked by it. In fact, after a while, I see a normal woman body as just another part of the story, same as the choice for a character to be eating, wearing a shirt or sitting on a couch. It's not sensationalized. It's just a body. And sometimes people are naked. Why is it so offensive to see? Why is it such a big deal? If the girls were constantly doing those stupid stripper poses with glowing lighting and duck faces, I would have a problem, but their comfort level with their bodies is just a representation of this particular slice of life. Let's admit what really happens and try to be true about how weird and contradictory we all are. All the time. I CONNECT WITH THIS. Me. As a woman. I love the show exactly because of this. When I watch the show, I see nudity just like I do every other small stylistic choice. It's not always sexual and it's not always necessary - but neither is me walking around my own house naked sometimes which I do all the time... in REAL life. Maybe it's not how everyone was raised or what everyone's comfortable with - but in THIS show, and with THIS character, we see that nudity isn't that big of a deal and Lena makes that pretty clear. One of my favorite scenes with that 'unnecessary' nudity is when she's playing ping pong topless. In real life, that would happen... but in the movies, we're so worried about censorship that they would alter the perspective to be less... offensive? My hat's off to this young girl doing her thing the way she wants. At this point, she's defending a moot topic. I think everyone needs to relax, sit back and enjoy the real weird. I'm lovin' it. Go, Lena, go.

  • steve | January 23, 2014 8:54 PM

    really in real life nude ping pong happens? Are you &*&^%$ serious? people don't just wander around their apartment with their roommates in the nude. sorry not happening. for lena to to be nude isn't some great act of defiance for the sake of women so you can rally around her non censorship. its all about her, its look at me, don't forget me, I cant act so I better be nude. ive known many many people , myself included who lived in 3 or 4 person dorm rooms and apartments and no one, and I mean no one ever walked around nude, played ping pong in the nude or anything else. The fact you say you walk around your home naked "all the time" makes you weird. sorry but its true, you want to impress me, go for a jog nude. maybe she should pick her nose regularly, many many people do that often, or maybe let loose a few ripping farts now and then, or maybe wiping her but and getting some poop on her hand by accident, or can we have a few scenes of her scrubbing her underwear due to a few misplaced maxi pads, people do these things all the time, but do they have anything to do with a characters portrayal onscreen? Nope, not in the least.

  • Iuliia | January 10, 2014 2:57 PM

    Really a precious comment, thanks!

  • Vin | January 10, 2014 12:23 PMReply

    I'm surprised Dunham still gets the same questions about nudity and diversity. I mean, how often can writers ask the same things?

    I've never had an issue with the lilly-whiteness of Girls. The Brooklyn hipster scene is pretty white (ironic that often they tend to live in neighborhoods previously populated by minorities, but that's another conversation). Injecting some token people of colors would, in my view, be patronizing as hell.

    I think the nudity question was silly, but Apatow's response was obnoxious and knee-jerk.

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