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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David Olusoga's look at a forgotten history shows there's always been black in the Union Jack

Black and British: A Forgotten History addresses one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Nineteen eighty-four was a transformative year for David Olusoga. Then a young teenager, he was driven out of his council home, together with his grandmother, mother, two sisters and younger brother, by a sustained campaign of nightly stoning of their windows. When Olusoga recalled the experience before television cameras last year, he wept. His book is a product of that childhood terror, and partly an exploration of his condition as a black Briton. As he states, “The oral history of 20th-century racial violence has never been collected or collated, but it is there and it is shocking.”

Nineteen eighty-four affected him in another way: the publication of Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain introduced him to the scholarship needed to understand his position in Britain. Fryer’s book was monumental, inspiring conferences, publications, the setting up of local history groups, the establishment of Black History Month, and radio and television programmes. It began to alter (slightly) the history curriculum at university level: the first undergraduate one-year course on black British history and culture was taught at the University of Warwick in 1984. It was an apt university to experiment with such developments, since Lord Scarman, who reported on the Brixton riots of 1981, was its chancellor.

Olusoga patterns his narrative after Fryer’s, starting with the North African presence in Roman Britain. He updates Fryer, citing radioisotope analysis of skeletons and craniometrics, which support written documentation of Aurelian Moors guarding Hadrian’s Wall and settling in places such as Yorkshire. Indeed, third-century York may have been more ethnically and racially diverse than present-day York. Roman writers such as Pliny who chronicled – or rather fabricated – African life shaped perceptions of a continent populated by anthropophagi and other fantastic creatures, half-human, half-animal. John Mandeville, whose travelogue (circa 1356) was one of the most widely translated books of the later Middle Ages, presented Africans as naked savages living amid heaps of gold to which they gave no value.

And so, equipped with the fruits of Islamic learning (new navigational instruments, books on astronomy and trigonometry), European explorers set sail for Africa to relieve the natives of their gold. Pope Nicholas V gave his blessing, so long as the Vatican benefited. In the 15th and 16th centuries, thousands of pounds of gold were shipped to Europe. But slaves were more valuable, so the British fought the Spanish for a share in the trade and eventually came to dominate it. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain was granted the right to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, a right then passed on to the South Sea Company. The “South Sea bubble”, the greatest financial crash of the 18th century, was intimately connected to Britain’s dealings with Africa, though this is rarely acknowledged by historians.

The Royal African Company, established by Charles II in 1672, eventually enslaved and transported more Africans than any other company in British history. It built slave forts on the African coast, some such as Bunce Island in Sierra Leone furnished with a “rape house”. Separated from home and family and landed in the West Indies (countless numbers dying of suffocation during the journey, given that the people traffickers were packing the holds to maximise profits), the Africans had no recourse to the law, much less the conscience of their captors. The Barbados slave code of 1661 stripped Africans of all human rights, and set out ways in which they were to be punished, to exert control over their labour (mutilation of the face, slitting of nostrils, castration, execution). After decades of complaints, the Royal African Company lost its monopoly in 1712 and, Olusoga writes, “Independent traders were turned loose upon the shores of Africa.” These traders had argued (“stone-blind to irony”) that the right to enslave Africans was “a defining feature of English freedom” and that the Royal African Company had breached their status as free-born Englishmen. Eventually, 11,000 separate British slave-trading expeditions resulted in the trafficking of three-and-a-half-million Africans to the New World plantations, the greatest forced migration in modern history until the 20th century.

How could Britain, a civilised and Christian nation, indulge in rape, torture, killing and the forced labour of Africans over two centuries? The answer is money. If you had spare cash or could borrow, investment in slavery was a sure winner, never mind slave rebellions or hurricanes that destroyed cane fields. Sugar was king: originally a luxury, it became one of the main sources of calories for the British poor. And so many hundreds of thousands of British workers were directly dependent on slavery (from sailors to those who built, rigged and repaired ships) that it was easy to turn a blind eye to the inhumanity. Once insignificant villages, great cities such as Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow sprang up on the profits of slavery.

But a group of 12 disciples of Christ set out to change things. In 1787, they met in London and set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They included Josiah Wedgwood (the pottery entrepreneur), Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Fired by religious feeling, they embarked on a campaign of public education and political lobbying “unprecedented in scale and revolutionary in nature”. Supported by African authors of slave narratives such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano, they held meetings all over the country, attracting huge crowds. Thousands of petitions were presented to parliament. Women, denied a meaningful role in politics, formed their own organisations, writing tracts, pamphlets and poems, gathering signatures for petitions and fundraising: “At certain times and in certain places they were the engine room of the movement.”

Abolition was the first mass philanthropic movement in Britain, and it ended the slave trade in 1807. It could have ended earlier, but the planter interests in parliament defeated William Wilberforce’s attempts. In 1796, a bill was defeated by only four votes: a group of abolitionist MPs went to the opera and missed the vote. Between that night at the opera and 1807, nearly 800,000 Africans were enslaved.

Women such as Elizabeth Heyrick continued to lobby for the abolition of slavery. They organised a boycott of sugar, produced more petitions and hosted meetings. It was such a brilliantly organised programme of mass protest that slavery was declared abolished in 1833: 46,000 slave owners were given £20m in compensation (£17bn in today’s money), the largest payout in British history and 40 per cent of all government spending that year. The enslaved Africans had to wait another five years for their freedom and were not given a penny.

Long after slavery ended in the British colonies, British people continued to lobby the American government to free their slaves. The many African-American abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, who visited Britain from the 1840s onwards, were well received and, again, thousands of people greeted them and raised money to support their cause.

The publication in 1852 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, swelled national sympathy for the plight of black slaves. More than a million copies were sold in Britain – cheap pirated versions reached a mass readership. The novel became the bestselling book of 19th-century Britain; it was adapted for the theatre and generated mass-produced merchandise – playing cards, jigsaws, tableware. Its extraordinary success rested upon the “foundation of sympathy… laid down during the previous 70 years of abolitionist activity in Britain”.

Yet American slave-produced raw cotton continued to feed the 4,500 mills of Lancashire. In 1860, cotton goods accounted for 40 per cent of all British exports. In 1861, the Economist stated that nearly four million people in Britain depended – directly and indirectly – on the cotton industry; a fifth of the entire population. When the American Civil War interrupted the supply of cotton, hundreds of thousands of British workers were made destitute, dependent on soup kitchens, and the British economy was “dealt a thunderous blow, all because an ocean away the forced labour of four million enslaved black Americans had been disrupted”. Needless to say, the national mood changed. The masses who once supported black freedom now campaigned for the Deep South.

Olusoga brilliantly reveals such contradictions in British society. In dealing with the black contribution to the First World War, for example, he cites popular gratitude and admiration for black Britons – among them Walter Tull, who fought on the Western Front. Tull played professional football for Northampton but instead of signing up for Glasgow Rangers, he enlisted. Rapidly promoted to sergeant, then second lieutenant, he led white British troops into action and died in 1918, having been mentioned in despatches and recommended for the Military Cross. And yet Africans and West Indians were banned from the victory parade in 1919. Anti-black riots broke out in Liverpool that year.

During the Second World War, thousands of black American soldiers stationed in Britain were befriended by white Britons who opposed efforts by the white military to segregate them. West Indians fought with the Allies – more than a hundred were decorated. And yet anti-black race riots broke out in 1948 in Liverpool and in 1958 in Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill. The following decades were taken up with popular and political rhetoric about immigration and parliamentary acts to limit blacks coming to Britain.

Olusoga’s stated purpose is to argue that black British history is not about migration and settlement, whether of black servants in the 18th century or black workers in the Windrush era. It is about the centuries-long engagement with Africa, a consequence of which is the black presence in Britain. Olusoga has benefited from and added significantly to the work of Fryer and other historians such as James Walvin. He has discovered new and exciting research materials in African archives, among them the Register of Liberated Africans in Sierra Leone, which list names, bodily details, ethnicity and origins, thus putting a human face on people otherwise treated as fodder and statistics. Such sources give his writing freshness, originality and compassion.

Like Fryer’s book, Olusoga’s will inspire and will come to be seen as a major effort to address one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Black and British: A Forgotten History
David Olusoga
Macmillan, 624pp, £25

David Dabydeen is a novelist, broadcaster, academic and co-editor of “The Oxford Companion to Black British History” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear