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GIRLS on Film: Secrets, Seduction and Reclaiming the Body on Camera

Press Play By Arielle Bernstein | Press Play January 21, 2013 at 8:30AM

Hannah Horvath’s constant nudity in "Girls" has been a point of discussion since the start of the first season; one of the reasons Girls has been successful has to do with the way it tackles our own attitudes regarding female overexposure.
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Lena Dunham Tub

Hannah Horvath’s constant nudity in Girls has been a point of discussion since the start of the first season; one of the reasons Girls has been successful has to do with the way it tackles our own attitudes regarding female overexposure. Recently, Howard Stern caused a minor stir when he called Dunham “a little fat chick” and likened her sex scenes to “rape.” Throughout the media, Lena Dunham is both heralded and criticized for filming her own naked body, in all its soft, unphotoshopped glory. In many ways, despite how ubiquitous it has become, female nudity on screen is directly linked to shame. It doesn’t matter what we look like. The most beautiful women in the world are subjected to criticism of their bodies, as well as their sexuality, when they take off their clothes.

The female body in photographs and film is still, at some level, considered to be public property, something that is intended to provoke, entertain, inspire or arouse the audience. We don’t often see women having agency over their own bodies and, indeed, much of the focus surrounding Dunham’s nudity has been on her insistence on placing her characters in a range of strange, unfulfilling, and sometimes humiliating sexual situations. But the scene I love most in Girls is the one of Hannah naked and happy, eating cupcakes in a bathtub. This simple image is strangely radical: a private moment where we see a woman enjoying her body just as it is, a naked woman who exists for no one else.

In many ways, 2012 has been the year of the female confession; great media attention has been given to women who are willing to tell all, unequivocally, all the time. We see this in the rise of female reality TV stars who share everything, ranging from their diet tips to their sex lives. We see this, also, in the burst of female success that has come from baring all, confessing painful past histories that include incest, eating disorders, drug use, depression, sexual liaisons, and all sorts and staples of traditionally “bad” female behavior. Perhaps there is nothing new about our constant and unwavering fascination with good girls gone bad, with hearing female sexual confessions, especially those that bear the marks of humiliation or risk. What is new is the attitude that confession, in all its messy and strange incarnations, will give women a true voice by highlighting the person behind the feminine façade, the creature who can see the outer objectified self with painful precision.

In many ways, talking about the sex on Girls leaves us in a double bind. On the one hand it makes sense to praise Dunham’s tenacity, her willingness to be nude on camera despite her “imperfections,” her determination to put her own experiences on public view for the sake of her art. On the other, it is arguable that the attention surrounding Girls is born from a kind of sensationalism that male artists, writers, and directors never have to struggle with. No one looks at Boogie Nights and considers the extent to which Paul Thomas Anderson’s own sense of sexuality helped influence his film. We assume that male auteurs are able to separate themselves from their projects in the same way that we assume the deep male voiceover, which is a mainstay in so many feature films, is the voice of “God,” omnipotent and all-knowing. Kanye West and any number of male recording artists can describe their sexual preferences and predilections, while artists like Rihanna are consistently stigmatized for doing the same.

Sometimes, as in the case of Rihanna, we conceptualize our tongue clucking as if it were borne out of concern, but the reality is a bit more sinister than that. Film, in particular, has a legacy of overt objectification of women; it is impossible to watch the camera linger on Hannah Horvath’s body, in any number of scenes in Girls, without considering the extent to which female bodies are looked at and the extent to which we still imbue the female body with meaning. The literary female confessor is still in some ways hidden—there is a separation between page and person. In her book, How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti can describe sexual situations and fantasies without provoking the same exact combination of excitement and ire that erupts when a female artist produces nude photographs to go alongside an artistic project. When Miranda July and Lena Dunham get naked on camera, the audience is often more obsessed with what this propensity for nudity says about them as individuals than with its contribution to their art.

While self-exposure is often intended to expose the male gaze, to illustrate how there is no blank slate that we can cast desire onto, that there is something unique and fundamentally human about being a woman and being a girl, exposure is not, in reality, always an empowered act. Nakedness, of course, can be freeing, but only if we are fully in charge of when, where, and how we are taking off our clothes. We are used to seeing young girls coerced into taking their clothes off for other people, whether in the fashion industry or in any number of films and music videos. Indeed, for many women in literature, film, and the arts, nakedness is the price we pay for attention and acclaim; for many, nakedness is the only pale shadow of acclaim we may ever really get. The female artist or writer who chooses to get naked is always seen as a naked woman first and as an artist second. The image of the naked woman, regardless of how SHE is using that image, is read into the fabric of our culture as an object we can pick apart, distribute, decimate, worship, or destroy.

The dialogue surrounding Lena Dunham’s naked body illustrates the ways that disentangling one’s self from one’s own history is still a struggle for the female artist, one for which there isn’t a single answer. The obsession with female confession is about the shapes and shades of female sadness, the ways the female body has betrayed us, the fear that our still strangely misogynistic culture has broken our collective hearts. Fifty Shades of Grey is marketable because the text ruptures nothing sacred in our culture; women are allowed to be sexual as long as they are an empty vessel waiting to be filled. We still view the connection between female sexuality and individual agency as incredibly tenuous.

Perhaps this is why, in many ways, I yearn for the partial exposure of the femme fatale to the overexposure of the ingénue. While the camera lingers on the body of vamps and vixens, their façade still seems one of power, rather than powerlessness. The femme fatale, unlike other kinds of sex bombs, is dangerous not because she is desirable, but because she has secrets. Her desires are wild and untamed, and her motives are private and unclear. The femme fatale is threatening because she is a free agent who operates according to her own moral code. Not giggly and coy like a Marilyn, not bouncy and bold like a Britney, not regal or refined like Grace Kelly, the femme fatale is blood and ice and grit. She is a hot throb of sex, naked but never exposed. Her drive is insatiable. She gives away nothing. She takes and takes and takes.

I have felt drawn to these types of female characters since I was a little girl. The minute I saw Jessica Rabbit walk onstage in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", all slinky red dress and deep-throated whisper, I thought, “This is what it means to be a woman.” Since then I’ve loved every femme fatale I’ve seen on screen. Marlene Dietrich. Greta Garbo. Barbara Stanwyck. Rita Hayworth. Lauren Bacall. Sharon Stone. Angelina Jolie. Dangerous, powerful, sexual women.  

In contrast, scenes of women exposed horrify and sadden me. I can’t watch Hannah Horvath lean over the couch and get told to “play the quiet game” while her obnoxious boyfriend may or may not be unwrapping a condom in preparation for anal sex without getting incredibly upset. The modern woman on film has been presented as a warrior (Katniss from The Hunger Games, The Bride from Kill Bill) or an ingénue (Bella from Twilight, any number of romantic comedies which fail the Bechdel test time and time again). Neither of these presentations of femininity gets us any closer to true personhood. Perhaps this is why my love for the femme fatale figure remains: if my only choice is to be a symbol then let me keep my secrets rather than confess them all away. Let me be fire and ice and blood.

The qualities I admire most about Lena Dunham are the ways in which she is pure steel. I love how she refuses to capitulate to the criticisms leveraged against her body, even though I feel this focus detracts from other important aspects of the show. Our fixation on female bodies highlights just how much we still need to be shocked into paying attention to young women’s wants and needs. Many times the bodies we are presented with are static—photo spreads, billboards, scenes of women posing, rather than actually doing anything purposeful at all. Images that illustrate the female body in motion, whether it's Jessica Rabbit sauntering on stage, or Hannah Horvath dancing around her room, are empowering precisely because they are about claiming ownership over one’s own body, about not being a metaphor or symbol or fantasy for anyone else.  They are about being a person in the world.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at George Washington University and American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, and South Loop Review, and she has twice been listed as a finalist in Glimmertrain's Family Matters Short Story Contests. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

This article is related to: Arielle Bernstein, Lena Dunham, Girls, HBO


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