"That’s a provocation!" is a protest flung at Jemima Kirke’s Jessa during a group session at a re-hab clinic in the third season opener of "Girls" (HBO). As I was watching the scene, I realized that "provocation" was the word that was missing from the loaded discussion of nudity inequality among the show’s cast members. A critic who had the temerity to raise questions about this during a Television Critics Association panel discussion last week was shut down hard by producer Judd Apatow and creator Lena Dunham with accusations of sexism and misogyny, scare words that in that context are not intended to explain anything but only to shame the questioner and shut down the discussion. (In the wake of this incident we are being told that Dunham "is forcing us to reconsider what bodies we value and why" and that "Dunham’s body is an inherently political statement.")
I will leave the verdict on those utterances to you and your personal bullshit detector. I would only add that it is also possible to raise aesthetic questions about the way the show handles nudity. The most sensible statement I ever read about writing sex scenes in fiction declared that the only rule that matters is consistency: Write about sex the way you write about everything else, as realistically or surrealistically or humorously. Authors known for rigorous authenticity who figuratively pan up to the drapes as soon as their characters go to bed are committing the primal sin of inconsistency of tone.
Both Dunham and Apatow have implied that the nudity on "Girls" is a gesture of realism, as she says,"a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive." Apatow hit on a more likely practical explanation when he was ostensibly making the same point, saying that as a filmmaker he always favors nudity in the staging of scenes in which it would naturally occur in life, as long as the performers are comfortable with it. And if they’re not, you get scenes, like some of those not involving Dunham in past seasons of "Girls," that could have been clipped from a much more coy sort of program in which the actresses carefully position their arms over their chests.
Those are the scenes that should make Dunham uncomfortable, as a produce, writer and director on the show, if not as an actor. I would argue for a sort of favored nation status for nudity. Either everyone strips of noone does. Either you shoot that material with the complete casual ease of a film from France or Denmark, or you avoid it, lest it stand out like a sore…whatever. You find a way to shoot it that honors the prime directive of consistency. If you knowingly violate consistency in order to make a political statement with your body, you are, to that extent, making propaganda and not art. Discuss.