Dunham in the Nude: Changing or Reinforcing Stereotypes?

Director Lena Dunham arrives at the 65th annual Directors Guild Of America Awards held February 2, 2013 at the Grand Ballroom
Director Lena Dunham arrives at the 65th annual Directors Guild Of America Awards held February 2, 2013 at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

On the heels of Sunday night's episode, Girls viewers are again discussing Dunham's obsession with nudity.

Writers from Slate, Esquire, and Entertainment Weekly doubt the authenticity of Hannah's tryst with a handsome older doctor (played by Patrick Wilson), as summed up by Slate's "Guys on Girls" remark, "How can a girl like that get a guy like this?"

At Salon and Jezebel, writers condemn discomfort with Dunham's body, with Soraya Roberts from Salon saying, "God forbid you're a woman with an unconventionally beautiful body and you're okay with it."

Although our reactions vary, we seem to concur with the premise that Dunham is making a statement when she bares all.

Yet no one has questioned whether she's shaking things up in the most efficient way.


When season one of Girls kicked off, I enjoyed watching Dunham strip down. Like many viewers, I was delighted to see an average-sized female gracing screens increasingly inundated with unnatural, overly sexualized women.

And Dunham doesn't merely get nude for sex scenes while playing Hannah: her character also eats cupcakes in the tub, a scene Dunham spoofed during the 2012 Emmy's, and plays topless ping-pong. Her attitude, both on and outside of the show, seems to say, "Am I making you uncomfortable? Good. That's the point."

Dunham herself stated, "It's not like 'Oh, I did it first season, and now you guys get that there's women of a certain size on TV, so I'm done!'"

She's successfully sparked a conversation about body image and sexuality, with polarizing effects. Howard Stern called her a "fat little chick" and Linda Stasi from the New York Post wrote, "It's not every day in the TV world of anorexic actresses with fake boobs that a woman with giant thighs, a sloppy backside and small breasts is compelled to show it all."

We're so habituated to female perfection that we can't fathom someone like Dunham flaunting an "imperfect" physique. It's one thing to see Danny McBride get laid on Eastbound and Down: more often than not, male comedians lack conventional good looks. And we relish comic relief from goofy female sidekicks -- the Rebel Wilsons and Melissa McCarthys of the screen -- but we have a hard time connecting femininity and humor, as if women are incapable of being both sexy and funny.

Although I support Dunham's attempt at reprogramming our perceptions of gender and sexuality, I'm concerned by two serious risks affiliated with her approach:

1. Diminishing Girls' entertainment value. Let's not forget that we're talking about a TV show. It may be fictitious, but Girls should still feel plausible, and many viewers are grappling with its authenticity. In my opinion, this has less to do with Hannah's sexual exploits and more to do with capricious friendships and relationships. Who could swallow Jessa's marriage to Thomas John or Marnie's hook-up with Elijah?

2. Reducing the efficacy of Dunham's statement: Doth the lady protest too much? By drawing so much attention to her naked body, Dunham (as Hannah and herself), risks reinforcing the very point she's attempting to undermine: fuller-figured women should be self-conscious about their bodies.

In fact, Dunham told the Hollywood Reporter that her frequent nudity "does not come from a place of confidence and is a compulsion." Ignoring her admission, many consider Dunham a model of confidence and courage. The problem, they insist, is with the biased viewer who, as xoJane put it, "can't stop talking about Dunham's body explicitly because it is remarkable in its unremarkableness."

I wish this were true -- it would make for a more interesting sociological debate -- but the reality is that we're discussing Dunham's figure because Dunham wants us to. Tracie Morrissey at Jezebel hit the nail on the head when writing, "It's a conversation worth having, and a tip of the hat (or flash of the tits?) to Dunham for having the ping-pong balls to challenge not just her critics, but those kinds of appraisals."

I agree that it's a dialogue worth having, but I'm not convinced that Hannah should be our inspiration.

For one thing, Dunham has openly admitted that she intentionally dresses Hannah in ill-fitting clothes (thus manipulating her attractiveness). In addition to attire, Dunham also places nude Hannah in unflattering situations (cupcakes in the tub; naked ping-pong; a collapsed heap on the floor of a shower). Only supermodels look sexy in these moments, but Girls has us thinking that our issue is with Dunham's physique, rather than the situations in which we see it.

You have only to consider other "fuller-figured" actresses to know that size isn't our source of discomfort. Although Mindy Kaling occasionally makes self-deprecating remarks about her size, she owns her size on The Mindy Project. She dresses in sexy attire, goes on dates, and hooks up with attractive men. Notably, no one is talking about her shape.

To me, Dunham is a bit like Rebel Wilson's character in Pitch Perfect who preemptively nicknames herself "Fat Amy" before others have the chance to craft hurtful monikers. The tactic may provide comic relief, but it also draws attention to (and often reinforces) the very stereotypes causing hurt in the first place.