Why is there so much nudity in "Girls"?

Warning: contains mild spoilers.

“I’m planning to expose all my vulnerabilities to the entire internet,” Hanna Horvath beams in the second series of Girls. Hanna, an aspiring writer, has been commissioned to produce an article for the online magazine (a non-existent website, for which a real internet domain was purchased by HBO in May last year). “You could have a threesome with some people that you meet on Craigslist, or do a whole bunch of coke and then just write about it,” her editor suggests. 

Horvath, who is both playfully naïve and acutely self-aware, scores coke from the endearing former addict downstairs, confronts her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah and her straight ex-best friend Marnie for having slept together, evicts Elijah, then goes home with the former addict. “For work.” She wears a fluorescent fishnet vest and a child’s skirt all the while, something we the audience are constantly made to notice (in the bright lights of a supermarket, for example, or when queued to do so by Marnie: “What are you wearing?”). Only time will tell whether the article will ever get written. I doubt it. The experience-seeking brief was a MacGuffin: one which has produced ample exposition, delivered unflinchingly with signature bravura by Lena Dunham and her cast.

Girls has been praised for its approach to on-screen nudity. Dunham revels in the body as a simple matter of fact: a necessary element in (as opposed to the ultimate object of) sexual relationships, a truth familiar to everyone, and a pretty much endless source of awkwardness and fun. “It’s hard for me to write from a place of fantasy to see sex as glamorous,” Dunham says. “I think it can be kind of a battleground.”

Those who criticise the nakedness in Girls (Linda Stasi at the New York Post referred to Dunham as a “pathological exhibitionist”) are swiftly denounced as apologists for the airbrushed, size-eight culture we are generally confronted with on television. As Nat Guest has written in the Independent: “For all the howls of enraged anguish, you’d think that the girl had literally barged into everyone’s kitchens whilst they were having breakfast and whacked her baps out all over the table.” But the truth is that the nudity in Girls really is shocking, and purposefully so. It cannot be avoided, and while uninhibited representation should be of course be applauded, defending its function as purely emancipatory is to miss the importance of autobiographical exhibitionism in Lena Dunham’s art.

In Tiny Furniture (2010), Dunham’s feature-length debut, our hero, Aura, is an unemployed film studies graduate returning home from university with a terminally ill hamster and 357 hits on her YouTube page. She has appeared online in an unflattering bikini, something Dunham also did, while studying at Oberlin. Late in the film there is a short-lived but memorable sex scene in a large metal pipe. Watching the scene provokes a glut of emotions: embarrassment, guilt, recognition. Why, one wonders, would the film include such a moment, if not to strike at truthfulness?

The film is honest in other ways too. The "tiny furniture" of the title refers to the plastic miniatures photographed by Aura’s mother Siri (played by Dunham’s actual mother, the photographer Laurie Simmons), but also to what Lorrie Moore calls “the ways in which replication is utilized in art and reality is reduced to plaything.” The decision to shoot the movie in the Dunham family’s own TriBeCa apartment may have helped finance the project, but it also works because authenticity matters to Dunham. As a writer and director, she plays with the fabric of her life, and we are never really sure just how much Dunham we are seeing at any one time.

From the very first episode, in which Hanna issues the critical discourse a reality check by telling her parents she may be "the voice of her generation,” only to backtrack, “or at least a voice”, markers of artifice litter the show. The central characters discuss who they are most like in Sex and the City. Hanna is on a mission to define what it means to be an over-educated twenty-something in a hostile economic reality: or, as she explains to her parents, “to be who I am.” Last year, novels (or something like them) by Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner grappled with the same problem: how to locate authenticity in a world in which everything is a symbol for something else. However, Lena Dunham’s medium (multi-million dollar book deals aside) is television, in which the visual is key. As Richard Brody’s excellent New Yorker blog “Lena vs. Hanna” has suggested, the lives of the character Hanna and the writer/actor/director/starlet Lena are diverging. We know Dunham does not work at the Greenpoint Café Grumpy. And yet, when we see her nude at the Emmys, eating cake on the toilet, we cannot help but feel that is precisely something Hanna would do. Nothing cuts through the layers of fictionality better than undoctored nudity, in all its gut-wrenching immediacy. It shocks us, so that when we see it in a drama, we are no longer concerned with looking at the furniture. We are looking at a real woman.

Last week it was announced that Girls has been recommissioned for a third series. No surprises there. Dunham has also announced that she will write and co-produce a new series based on All Dressed Up and Everywhere To Go, the forthcoming memoir from New York’s original personal shopper, Betty Halbreich. In response to an interview with Laurie Simmonds, who admitted to having a hard time watching her daughter’s performance in Girls, Vanity Fair have speculated the show might be comparatively light on nudity. But who knows what the adaptation from text to screen might provoke. Dunham, unlike Hanna, is not only a writer, but a highly-skilled director. While Hanna Horvath does a bunch of coke and fails to write about it, Lena Dunham produces an episode of her hit TV show, in which semi-farcical events are legitimised by carnivalesque semi-nakedness. She parades the unseen truth beneath a fishnet top, and in spite of arguments about the differences between Hanna and Lena, nobody can deny the familiar normality of the human body.

Girls is on Sky Atlantic on Monday evenings at 10pm.

Lena Dunham in the second series of "Girls". Image: HBO.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.