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

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire January 10, 2014 at 10:59AM

A panel at the Television Critics Association goes south after a question about the creator/star's frequent nudity.
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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."


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