GIRLS: Why We Love to Hate Lena Dunham

BY: SARAH EDWARDS

Trying to say anything new about the HBO series “Girls” is difficult—and this, in itself, should say something about the show.

It’s a show that most people heard about long before they actually watched it—the sort of show born to be paraded across the headlines of pop culture pieces. Because this is the thing about Lena Dunham’s “Girls”: everyone has an opinion. And, inevitably, you will have heard about the controversy before the plot; measurements of main-character Hannah’s thighs before any substantial measurement of the impact of her character. When I Google Lena Dunham’s name, the search engine automatically fills in the blank with the word “weight”.

And it is, in essence, attention-seeking. Season two begins with generous, lingering screenshots of Hanna’s derrière and rounds out nicely with an episode in which Hannah plays naked ping-pong with a character played by the well-aged Patrick Wilson.

But, no matter how self-aware the show is; this backlash isn’t a malaise of the show. It’s a malaise of the culture where the show has come-of-age in.

Every HBO show is attention-seeking—this, indeed, seems to be the point of HBO, and, while we’re at it, the point of television. Emmy Rossum’s show Shameless­—also an HBO series—has an equal amount of nudity and much more, in terms of underage drug-use, sexual innuendo and generally bawdy content. But Emmy Rossum, by pretty much unanimous social agreement, is a Hot Person and her character fits the prototype of someone who ‘deserves’ to get naked. She is a hard worker. She takes care of her five-hundred other siblings and is generally always sympathetic.

Hannah of Girls is different. She is not a culturally Unanimous Hot Person and, unlike Emmy Rossum’s character, she is privileged. Everything about her body seems to be antonym to what is generally considered an acceptable nudity: pear-shaped, she is fond of wearing floral rompers that partition parts of her stomach into neat folds. Like most twenty-something’s, her character seeks attention, affirmation; approval in ways that incite frequent cringing.

She exemplifies a white-coffee-shop privilege that generally makes her unsympathetic to a recession-era viewer. And at least one thing Hannah shares with Emmy Rossum’s Fiona character is this: the quality of shamelessness for both her sexuality and her privilege, things which viewers tend to resent her for.

Popular opinion condemns the Lena Dunham/Hannah duo (a case where artist and subject are difficult to separate) as exhibitionism, and online commenters are prone to go on diatribes demanding that Hannah just ‘cover up her body for once’. But Hannah doesn’t cover up, and she doesn’t apologize. But she shouldn’t be required to.

Hannah Horvath is just another imperfect character on a television show—who, as she says, is “the voice of my generation, or at least a generation.”—and this isn’t something that requires apology or mediation. If Hannah is taken, not as a spokesperson for all twenty-something women, but as a character deeply comfortable with her physicality, where does that leave us?

It leaves me, at least, watching a show in which I have complicated feelings about the main character, and I’m okay with that. No one thinks Hannah is a flawless role-model. Far better, when I watch ‘Girls’ I am able to have a deep appreciation for a show which doesn’t catalog its characters into people who do and don’t deserve to have an active sexual life; who do and don’t deserve to love their body.  And that, if anything, is a new thing to hear about.

This article originally featured in Campus BluePrint’s March 2013 issue.  For more content check out the digital copy of Campus BluePrint, available on our website!

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4 Comments

  1. I don’t have an issue with her weight or nudity… Just with how frustratingly pathetic and masochistic her character is. It’s completely ridiculous.

  2. In my opinion it is a misconception that the rampant criticism and vitriol directed at Lena Dunham is due simply to her appearance. I can see why it would appear that way, since the most ignorant and hateful comments, usually pertaining to her weight or body type, are the “loudest” ones that tend to jump of the page to us. But if you look at all under the surface most of the criticisms of her have nothing to do with her being pear-shaped. Most have to do with the fact that privileged, tortured-soul white girls are not the voice of our generation (or any other generation) and/or that Dunham is a mediocre-at-best writer. As for the gratuitous pear-shaped nudity, my problem with it is not that Lena Dunham doesn’t fit the prototype of someone who ‘deserves’ to get naked, it’s that it is Lena Dunham herself who writes herself into these self-indulgent scenes in every single episode. If Dunham’s intention is really “a show which doesn’t catalog its characters into people who do and don’t deserve to have an active sexual life”, then why are none of the men that she casts with herself in these scenes pear-shaped? Adam Driver, Donald Glover, Patrick Wilson…all very handsome and physically fit men. I watched Lena Dunham’s interview after the Patrick Wilson episode and she basically bragged about writing herself into sex scenes with him. The more you watch the more you get the feeling the show is just an exhibition of Dunham’s wet dream fantasy for herself and every other physically unattractive woman who never got attention from men. That may sound harsh but it exposes one of the media’s (and society’s) many double standards for men and women. Let’s be honest here, if it were a man writing a show like this (a short, homely, overweight man writing himself into sex scenes with gorgeous women every week), he’d be laughing stock and, frankly, probably be considered a complete pig. But frumpy Lena Dunham does it and all of a sudden people consider it feminism or some type of existential social commentary on what is considered physical beauty or acceptable nudity. What a joke.

    • Go watch Big bang theory or the 100s of sex comedies hollywood has churned out over the years about awkward “nerds”. then you will probably think of rewriting that last sentence

  3. Consider Woody Allen. He wrote himself into plenty of sex scenes with beautiful women in his movies. As the ‘auteur’ it was part of his schtick. Yet with Dunham’s nudity, it so often feels gratuitous. Not because it’s not perfect in some camera ready sense. But because one wonders how the nude scenes serve the larger narrative, except to suggest that Hannah really loves her body.

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