The Audacity of Lena Dunham, And Her Admirable Commitment To Making Us Look At Her Naked

Why are we so put out when allegedly "imperfect" women dare to not hide themselves in shame? Isn't it time to get the hell over ourselves?
Publish date:
January 9, 2013
lena dunham, bodies

When "Titanic" first came out, I was an undergrad studying film, and I had a particular film professor whom I considered a bit of a hero. He spent most of his classes applying curious theories about the, uh, "Divine Feminine" to the standard roster of Fellini and Bergman films, but every once in awhile he would diverge off into popular movies, if only to expound on how barren of meaning they were.

When the mania around "Titanic" -- which I myself had seen more than once, if only, I told myself, because I was mesmerized by James Cameron’s ability to reduce a packed theater of a wide diversity of individuals to sobbing, pathetic tears -- was at its peak in 1997, he spent part of one class explaining why it was bereft of any art, and why it was tragic that so much money was spent on something so meaningless.

He also mentioned, multiple times, how grossly fat Kate Winslet was in the film, most particularly in the now-infamous nude “Draw me like one of your French girls” scene.

It was an odd thing to mention in context with his usual highfalutin criticism, but mention it he did, more than once, in a series of dull and uninspired fat jokes.

For all his dedication to the "Divine Feminine" that won him so many admirers among his female students, there was a palpable shift in the tenor of the room when he started calling Winslet tubby -- we had all seen "Titanic," of course. I would not speak for everyone, but I know I had been weirdly gratified to see Winslet's nonstandard equipment so unapologetically on display -- more than that, to see her portrayed as powerfully beautiful in spite of her unexpected (but, to be fair, historically appropriate) fleshiness.

It was out of the ordinary enough that media outlets were mentioning it as well, and late night talk show hosts were joking about it. Because, you know, nothing is ever so funny as a non-skinny woman who thinks she looks good.

By the end of my professor's tirade, the room was dead silent, even the nervous pity laughter having run out. And I -- my body acceptance activism still in its nascent phases -- was angry. I was angry because this dumpy old white guy was basically shitting all over the tiny flicker of recognition I’d felt when Winslet first disrobed onscreen.

Not that I thought myself anything even approaching Winslet’s gorgeousness, but to see a body that didn’t look like every other nude body -- all of which seemed to adhere to some unspoken but incredibly specific set of parameters, leaving the impression that “normal” bodies all look remarkably alike -- was sort of revolutionary.

Of course, today when I see that scene I think everyone in the world must have been temporarily insane to think Winslet was anything approaching fat, or even anything approaching unusually shaped. But the fact remains that the fat jokes happened, and they were even revived earlier this year with the film’s rerelease and an Internet meme (and even an episode of "Mythbusters") examining whether (spoiler) both Jack and Rose could have fit on the raft at the end, thus allowing both characters to survive. While Rose's size was not a factor in either of these examples, Cameron has long maintained the issue was one of buoyancy, thus inviting the endless “funny” comments from clever jerks everywhere, that if only Kate Winslet’s Rose weren’t so damn fat, their hearts COULD have gone on, alive.

The reaction to Winslet’s body was not merely scornful, though, nor was it simply judgmental. There was an indignation to it, to her failure to apologize, an indignation we’re seeing again, in a very different context, today. Of course, I’m talking about Lena Dunham’s total disregard for public propriety and her stubborn insistence on showing parts of herself that, allegedly, nobody wants to see.

I don’t really watch “Girls,” at least not with any consistency. I’ve seen some episodes and even enjoyed them, but for me, it’s one of those shows that I watch in occasional spurts, usually when I’ve run out of other stuff to watch. I don’t dislike it (although I agree with many of the more political criticisms of it), and in a culture so eager to dismiss women, especially young women, as useless and daft, I think it’s excellent to see a woman like Dunham dominating popular discourse in the way she has done, by ostensibly being true to herself and her own experience.

But even without regularly watching “Girls,” I can’t escape witnessing the social anxiety the often-nude Dunham has wrought upon the public, most recently in a New York Post piece apparently intended to review the new season of “Girls,” but which instead prefers to take a few totally bizarre potshots at Dunham’s body: “It’s not every day in the TV world of anorexic actresses with fake boobs that a woman with giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts is compelled to show it all.” The article goes on to characterize Dunham’s “blobby body” and bemoan the fact that the wobbling Dunham gets dates while her much prettier friend suffers:

Interestingly, the gorgeous Marnie is the one who is now totally unlucky in love. Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be smart, breathtakingly beautiful, nice and kind. Not when there are blobbies who are willing to take their clothes off in public constantly — even when they aren’t in character.


Obviously, these jabs at Dunham are nothing new -- in the fall, when Dunham turned up at a red carpet event in a long tunic and seemingly no pants (she was wearing shorts, turns out), she was the subject of much controversy, with some gossip blogs calling her a “hot mess” and begging her to “hire a stylist... or stay home.” You know, because that would be better than letting Dunham be out in the world promoting her work and controlling her own image.

Dunham’s own reaction to the attention was on point:

If Olivia Wilde had gone to a party in ... little shorts, she might have been on a 'weird dressed list' or been told her outfit was cute. I don’t think a girl with tiny thighs would have received such no-pants attention. I think what it really was ... 'Why did you all make us look at your thighs?' My response is, get used to it because I am going to live to be 100, and I am going to show my thighs every day till I die."

When women get attacked for failing to adequately camoflage their so-called physical flaws, whether they’re chronicled in “Guess whose cellulite this is?” photospreads in print weeklies, or repeatedly crucified on an array of blogs and websites whose sole purpose is to make fun of people who can’t really defend themselves -- there is always an element of indignant rage on the part of the audience for having been “forced” to look at a body that doesn’t look like every other body we see in mainstream media.

As a culture, we have at some point lost the knack for being able to see diversity of shape and form as anything other than a series of mistakes that need to be edited in Photoshop.

We expect, weirdly, to be protected from Lena Dunham’s thighs -- as if Dunham herself must be made to understand how uncomfortable they make us, how DANGEROUS they are, to a media consuming public that doesn’t want to appreciate the variety intrinsic to reality, but who are happy to only see people and bodies that we instantly recognize and which do not challenge us. This goes for thighs, sure, but also for a wide array of other things as well, from race to age to disability. Don’t make us look. We don’t know how to process it. It’s HARD.

In this case, we can't stop talking about Dunham’s body explicitly because it is remarkable in its unremarkableness -- Lena Dunham looks like what millions of women see in their mirrors every morning, women who see themselves and immediately catalog all the things they must “work on” in order to be passably acceptable enough to show their bodies, publicly or privately. By attacking Dunham, we are, to an extent, attacking ourselves.

Dunham, however, gives no fucks. Her courage (if courage it is) is so unfamiliar as to mystify us all -- some can’t resist the urge to comment upon it endlessly with backhanded compliments and overt body snarking, while others cannot stand the slightest whiff of criticism of Dunham's body, her perceived bravery in leaving herself open to such analysis in the first place acting as a sort of shield against any commentary at all.

But it’s not simply her insistence on showing us her body that bugs us. There is also the context. The New York Post “Girls” review can barely contain its disbelief that Dunham would write herself a role in which TWO men are sexually interested in her. Such FANTASY.

The implication is that we should all marvel at how Dunham -- about whom, based on appearance alone, many seem happy to erroneously assume she would not know an elliptical machine if it bit her on the “blobby” leg -- can possibly expect us to believe that she would, in real life, have multiple men interested in her? Worse, that they want to have SEX with her? She’s not even TRYING that hard! She’s not even SORRY that she looks like that!

There is also an element of anger in our reaction: How dare Dunham get dates and have sex without working as hard to deserve them as other women have? Why does she feel so entitled? She has no right to such confidence. What good is being “beautiful, nice and kind” (as the New York Post writer identifies another “Girls” actress) if it doesn’t ensure you will always have more gentleman callers than women who only qualify as one of the above?

Of course, the truth is that women like Dunham -- and ones even less pretty and more imperfect -- get laid with very little effort, every single day. This flies in the face of what we’re taught about female attractiveness, but it’s true. So when you add to this the fact that a great many American women are culturally brought up to understand that our relationships with other women are always going to have an undercurrent of competition -- how do we compete with Lena Dunham, who refuses to play? There are no RULES to this game. And so we get angry.

It’s understandable, if ridiculous.

When a conventionally attractive woman is paid to model lingerie, or to be virtually any other variety of naked in a bit of popular media or advertising, she is a woman doing a job, albeit a job that involves reinforcing the dominant beauty standards we’re all subject to. That, to us, is normal.

But when a regular, non-remarkable person with a body they have not carefully sculpted to meet cultural beauty standards does it, it’s narcissism -- or, as the New York Post would call it, “pathological exhibitionism.” She is inflicting her body on us, as one might a weapon or a terrible disease.

And it’s all about our response, as the audience -- as if the only possible reason a woman would show her body was because she expects praise for it, and not because it functions in the service of a story she is acting in, or simply because she individually likes the way she looks without pants.

When we dismiss Dunham as a woman in control of her own representation, we hinder our own ability to make decisions about our bodies that don’t come exclusively from social pressures to look a certain way. And who wants that? It’s certainly not doing any of us any good.

For all our talk about wanting to see more so-called “real women” in the media we consume -- a problematic category itself, as all women are “real,” no matter how near or far they might be to the female beauty ideal -- we are awfully quick to condemn a woman who is showing us reality in a very plainspoken, unvarnished way.

The aghast controversy evoked by Dunham’s nudity shows us just how much of this “real women” talk is lip service, and how very far we have to go before we can socially deal with the fact that different bodies exist. Truth is, we’d all probably be a lot less neurotic about our own bodies if we could get used to seeing and accepting the natural variety in other people’s -- without shame, and giving no fucks.