Stop your bitchin’, Molloy—and you, too, Stern.
“A woman using her own face and body has a right to do what she will with them, but it is a subtle abyss that separates men’s use of women for sexual titillation from women’s use of women to expose that insult,” wrote feminist art critic Lucy R. Lippard in a 1976 essay. And though she wasn’t talking about Lena Dunham, she may as well have been.
Last week during the Television Critics Association panel for Girls, The Wrap’s Tim Molloy circled this subtle abyss—still yawning almost 40 years later—in a question he posed Dunham, the HBO show’s creator and star. “I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you particularly,” he said. “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.”
According to Entertainment Weekly, producer Judd Apatow responded by calling the journalist “misogynistic” while executive producer Jenni Konner interrupted her response to a later question to chastise Molloy once again. “I literally was spacing out because I’m in such a rage spiral about that guy,” she said motioning toward him. “I was just looking at him looking at him and going into this rage [over] this idea that you would talk to a woman like that and accuse a woman of showing her body too much. The idea it just makes me sort of sick.”
The media appeared equally ill over the fact that Molloy appeared not to have read the panoply of think pieces that had been published on the subject of Dunham’s nudity over the last two seasons of her show (Slate’s Amanda Hess dubbed the reporter “willfully naïve”). As I wrote in Salon last year, on Girls Dunham uses her body—which performance artist Carolee Schneeman called “the ideal of normal”—as a response to the abnormal sexualized ideal perpetuated by Hollywood’s traditionally male gaze. In season one and two, not only does she reveal what a typical body looks like, she removes it from the mere realm of sex or punch line by showing it bathing or changing. And Girls’ third season premiere last night was no different.
At the end of the first episode, Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath sits naked, post-coital, next to her boyfriend (Adam Driver) when the phone rings. Instead of throwing on a top or covering up her chest with the sheets, Hannah leans back, her topless chest in full view of the camera, her attention focused entirely on the shock she is experiencing at hearing her friend Jessa for the first time since she went AWOL last season. As Dunham told Molloy, this is “a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive” as a woman. Sometimes putting your shirt on is not the top priority, your best friend is.
“What Girls says is ‘Fuck the gaze,’” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. “Lena Dunham ain’t really performing for you.”
Nude performance is a preoccupation for many critics. In Salon three years ago, Matt Zoller Seitz defended the gratuitous nudity on Game of Thrones after a Los Angeles Times editorial implored the HBO show to “tone down the tits” and Vulture exposed, so to speak, the series’ penchant for sexposition (pairing plot exposition with nudity). “It’s of a piece with a tediously moralizing strain in American criticism, one which insists that all sex and nudity must be dramatically ‘justified,’” he wrote, “even if it occurs on a TV series based on a highly sexual series of fantasy novels that take place in a male-dominated world in which women fight tooth and nail for power, and achieve it.” Or even if it occurs on a TV series in which realism is key. In reality, nudity is not justified, it just is, warts and all.
The irony of Molloy’s query is that he expects a reason for Dunham to undress, where in Game of Thrones it is reason enough that those who strip are conventionally beautiful. For him, gratuitous nudity is alright as long as it’s erotic, as long as it satisfies his male gaze. Howard Stern expressed the same irony last year when he slammed “Girls” for the same reason. “It’s a little fat girl who kinda looks like Jonah Hill and she keeps taking her clothes off and it kind of feels like rape,” he said on his radio show, adding, “I don’t want to see that.” What he wants to see are porn stars and, judging by his parade of guests who work in the sex industry, lots of them. As long as he’s the voyeur, Stern is happy. When Dunham dethrones him from his patriarchal seat of power, he cries “rape.”
Stern and Molloy can expect to be threatened further as Girls’ third season progresses [and possibly with the publication of Vogue’s next issue, which will reportedly feature (a nude?) Dunham on the cover]. “My point with getting naked is never proven,” the 27-year-old actress told Entertainment Weekly last year—as the men around her have proven time and time again.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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