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.

Photo: Getty
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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia