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 jazzhate.com (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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era