There’s been a ton of ink spilled already on Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, and as usual I’m late to the party, since I don’t have HBO and I had to download the last two seasons on my tablet in order to watch them—which I only just did over the course of the last two weeks. But I figured I’d put my two cents in anyway. I have a lot of thoughts, not necessarily about the show itself, but about the controversy surrounding it.
Two of the main complaints I see being leveled at “Girls” is that people can’t relate to the characters, and that Lena Dunham is naked too often. I want to address the relatebility issue first, since I find it a bit troubling. I understand that most of the characters on “Girls” come from unusually privileged backgrounds and that most of us never had the built-in safety net that they do. I understand that the show has issues with racial diversity, considering that it’s set in Brooklyn. But I don’t understand how anyone could fail to empathize with these characters. They are so well-written and nuanced that even I, a forty-three year old whose life doesn’t resemble theirs in the least, am imaginative enough to empathize with their suffering and see many parts of myself in them. My life does not have to exactly resemble their lives for me to be able to recognize in myself Hannah’s untenable longing, Marnie’s crippling desperation to control her image, and Jessa’s trauma-driven self-destructiveness. Yet I read a great number of articles from writers who are seething with resentment over the fact that the characters don’t share exactly the same background, financial status, and circumstances as theirs. Has our culture really become so narcissistic and myopic that there is no longer any ability to empathize with characters whose lives don’t look precisely like ours? Or is this resentment towards the characters rooted in some deeper discomfort with facing our own worst nature?
The characters on “Girls” are awkward and annoying and deeply flawed. They do stupid, embarrassing things and make the same mistakes over and over again. They’re selfish, dense, and shockingly callous at times. That’s what makes them interesting. I don’t need a character to be likeable in order to empathize with them and enjoy watching them. Likeability is beside the point. Likeability doesn’t bring anything to the table but a bland, comfortable experience that goes nowhere. I want to see characters who screw up, who fail, who hurt themselves and others over and over again until they finally get it. I want to see characters whose better selves don’t always win out. No real lessons come from likeability, or from only being able to relate to those who look and act exactly like us.
The controversy over Lena Dunham’s on-screen nudity rages on, and I think it’s time that we just admit why: because we find it outrageous that a female with a less than perfect body would dare to frankly display her naked self to world without shame or apology. If Lena had the body of supermodel, this would be a total non-issue. But she has an average body, with fat rolls, ample thighs, a jiggley butt, and small breasts. And she rocks it. As I got deeper into the show, I found myself having two reactions to her nudity—a profound feeling of relief, and a deep sense of loss about the amount of time I’ve wasted being self-conscious and hating my own body. Hannah Horvath is not burdened with the conviction that she doesn’t deserve good sex because her body isn’t perfect. She feels entitled to the same privilege that men enjoy—a good experience in the sack regardless of her physical imperfections. She doesn’t apologize or suck in her stomach or make disparaging remarks about her body to men she sleeps with. And to many people, this is a source of spittle-flying rage. Lena Dunham isn’t playing the game properly. She’s portraying a young female who prioritizes other things in her life besides dieting, and who still gets plenty of sex and affection. And that flies in the face of everything women are taught to behave like and think about ourselves. She’s subverting one of our most powerful weapons against women—body shaming. I for one, thank her deeply for it. It’s been a very healing experience for me to witness her rebellion--and her chubby, lovely stomach.