There’s a scene from this season of Girls that’s been haunting me, as so many Girls scenes do, where Hannah Horvath flashes her vagina in a meeting with her boss. It wasn’t a sexual thing, as Hannah explains, just a tactic to shock him into submission. After spending an excessively long time trying to work through how this could possibly be an effective tactic and not just straight sexual harassment, I have come to two conclusions. 1) This could never happen in real life and 2) It doesn’t matter, because this scene is quite possibly the most important insight into Lena Dunham’s use of nudity and sexual explicitness that we’ve gotten in five seasons of this show. Girls has a lot of sex and lots of nudity. In a way, it’s all like that shot of Hannah with her vagina out: in your face, matter of fact, and deeply untitillating. It’s not there to arouse us, but rather, to shock us into submission.
Obviously, Girls’ use of nudity and sexually explicit content is very different than your average subscription television exploitation fare. The camera doesn’t gawk or objectify; there is no background mood music or fetishistic close-ups. The scenes are about as un-pornographic as sex scenes can get – they are often unbearably frank and uncomfortable. The nudity, too, is frank and unglamorized. We simply observe, without any comfortable cinematographic mediation. People find this very off-putting – I have a lot of friends who gave up on Girls because they couldn’t deal with seeing Lena Dunham au naturel so often. This is significant. We’ll come back to this.
When people talk about the radicalism of Girls, what they mostly talk about is the frankness of Girls‘ portrayals of sex and nudity, because most television shows don’t show bad sex, particularly from the female point of view (Sex and the City being the exception, and an important predecessor to Girls), and they don’t show normal-looking naked women (Sex and the City not being an exception here). Girls pushes the boundaries of taste and what we’re wiling to watch women do on television. And this is definitely provocative, and definitely important, but it is not what makes Lena Dunham a revolutionary.
We must note that Girls differs as well from the provocatively blasé, disinterested portrayals of sex and nudity that one might find in certain arty foreign films. Girls’ use of nudity and sex, though frank, is never blasé. Hannah Horvath flashing her vagina is not disinterested. It is incredibly deliberate and deeply uncomfortable to watch, because we are unable to dismiss what we see on our own terms. We are in a sort of viewerly paralysis, impotent in our inability to take an active role by either dismissing or deriving pleasure from what we see. It is pure visual violence, rendering us powerless and submissive. And it’s what my friends mean when they say that they can’t watch Girls because of all of Lena Dunham’s nudity. It’s not that they would still be watching if Hannah always kept her clothes on, and it was the more traditionally attractive Marnie who was naked all the time. Lena Dunham looks perfectly fine naked and I promise my friends are nowhere near that superficial (or squeamish). The nudity itself isn’t the problem; rather, it is the brutality of imagery that we can’t control that makes it so hard to watch.
The three most traumatizing bits of television I have ever seen are 1) The three minute-long stoning of a woman on The Leftovers 2) Philip and Elizabeth stuffing a dead woman into a suitcase – post rigor mortis – on The Americans and 3) Hannah Horvath shoving a Q-tip into her ear until her eardrum ruptures in the second season of Girls. (I’m literally cringing while writing this, just thinking about it.) (Also, I’m in class and I think everyone is rather confused as to why I suddenly look so pained and disturbed.) (Although tbh I’m pretty pained about Foucault too, I’ve just been doing a better job at holding that in.) Girls, though a comedy, is an incredibly brutal show, as jam-packed with visual violence as more literally violent shows. It constantly forces us to watch things that make us uncomfortable, shoving them at us, raw, unmediated, and daring us to look away. And it’s not just with sex and nudity that Girls does this, but with everything. The characters, the dialogue, the stories – they’re all harsh and unsugarcoated – a televisual assault.
This brutality, this assault on our senses and sensibilities, is fairly common in “masculine” shows – shows like The Leftovers or The Americans (both of which I adore btw). These programs are dark and difficult, and deal with conventionally coded “boy things” like war and violence. Lena Dunham has taken “feminine” subjects like Q-tips and cleanliness and the female body, and made them just as brutal as dead body suitcase stuffing. If we look at other recent shows with strong portrayals of women, there is always a choice. Let’s call it the Sex and the City/Homeland dichotomy. You can make a show that embraces femininity, but with it comes the inevitable softness that accompanies a show like Sex and the City: it can be progressive and smart, but not challenging in the way that dark masculine shows like The Leftovers or The Americans are. If you want a show that’s challenging, it’ll have to be like Homeland: a strong female lead, but not a trace of conventional femininity in sight – no relationship problems, no meet-cutes, and certainly no female friendship. Girls refuses to choose. It’s a “girl” show (the name “Girls” is an exceptionally clear self-identification), but it has all the brutality of a “boy” show. Of course it’s hard to watch. That’s entirely the point.