I’ve gone back and forth on how to tackle the debate that has arisen in the wake of the Girls panel last Friday at the Winter TCAs. In case you missed it, The Wrap’s Tim Molloy asked Dunham why she was naked so much on her show, Girls. Or, more specifically, this is what he said:
“I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you particularly. I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you say no one complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones, but I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character is often naked at random times for no reason.”
I waded into the debate on Friday on Filmdrunk, and as I followed the comments discussion, I noticed three basic responses to this story that were repeated on every comment forum and in every discussion I had over the weekend about Lena Dunham, her nudity, and what, exactly, is wrong with a man (or anyone) saying he doesn’t find Dunham attractive. And these responses were not just from men; women divided pretty evenly into these three camps as well. That’s shocking to me, as the issue is not about Dunham, or Girls, or the tone of Dunham’s and the producers’ responses, but that a man told a woman he doesn’t understand why she insists on being naked when he doesn’t think she’s pretty.
But this is Lena Dunham. And Girls. Two of the most divisive and hate-inspiring topics in our current pop culture. So things got messy. In the spirit of cutting through the bullshit and sticking to the topic—which is that a man told a woman that her body is unappealing to him, and therefore she should never display it—here are the three common responses to the Lena Dunham Gets Naked A Lot kerfuffle, and how they each miss the point. Which is that a man told a woman that only hot chicks should be naked.
#1: But Lena Dunham ISN’T hot!
And so she should live in a shed in the backwoods of Tennessee, never seeing or speaking to anyone? Whether or not a person is attractive is entirely subjective, but this is also the crux of the problem. Tim Molloy doesn’t find Dunham attractive, yet she insists on being naked in his face. It’s fine when the hot chicks on Game of Thrones get naked, because they are sexy women having sexy sex, and it’s salacious and titillating, to quote Molloy. Never mind that a lot of the sex on Thrones is actually rape, or that “prostitute” is one of only three viable jobs for women in that world (along with “servant” and “revenge-obsessed heiress”), it’s hot chicks flashing tit while boning, and that makes Molloy tingly in his dangly parts.
Dunham, on the other hand, does not provoke that reaction in him, and so he doesn’t understand why she’s naked. This is the world view he has revealed, and one that the “but Dunham ISN’T hot” defense backs up: That a woman who does not elicit excitement in the male gaze has no business being naked. Even more succinctly: Women’s bodies exist only for male pleasure.
If you don’t find Lena Dunham to be beautiful or sexy, fine. That’s an opinion. I recently had a guy explain that he doesn’t think Scarlett Johansson is all that special, which I still think is a bullshit statement said in the presence of a woman because he expected me to hiss like an angry cat at the invocation of ScarJo’s name (which I wouldn’t—she’s hot as fuck), but assuming he really was telling the truth and she doesn’t make his top ten, that’s fine. Beauty is subjective. What isn’t subjective is implying that if a woman doesn’t meet your standard of beauty that she should dress in sackcloth and never dare demonstrate confidence in her body and/or sexuality.
#2 Well She Could Have Been Less Defensive About It
Dunham’s response to Molloy’s question was this: “It’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive. If you are not into me that’s your problem and you are going to have to kind of work that out.” Producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner were even less polite. Apatow told Molloy to repeat the question to his girlfriend and “tell [Apatow] how it goes”, and Konner said it sent her into a “rage spiral”, saying, “This idea that you would accuse a woman of showing her body too much…just makes me sort of sick.”
Their impatience, frustration and anger are palpable. Could they have been less defensive? Probably. But given that Dunham’s nudity has been an issue surrounding Girls since it debuted two years ago, I understand why they might be tired of answering the question. But this plays into a darker issue, too. By flipping it back on Dunham (and Apatow and Konner), and making it about her response and not his question, we’re taking focus away from the actual problem. Which is that a man told a woman he thinks she’s unattractive and she should stop bothering him with her nakedness.
The problem is now not that Molloy said an incredibly dumb, sexist thing, but that Dunham took offense to his incredibly dumb, sexist question. It makes Dunham a bitch, because she’s confident and assertive and direct—all qualities that are admired in men but punishable in women. But Dunham isn’t the problem. Molloy is the problem. This conversation is not about Dunham’s politesse but Molloy’s issue with a naked female form that is not aesthetically pleasing to him. What was Dunham supposed to do? What is her ideal response here? Blush, look away, apologize? Because someone else has a problem with her body?
It’s worth noting that TCA panels are notoriously combative. It’s a roomful of critics in Q&A with the creators, writers and stars of TV shows, and they’re virtually un-moderated. This isn’t Paley Fest or Comic Con. It’s an industry press conference. In the recent past, panels for Dads and 2 Broke Girls have gotten really rough, with name-calling and shouting—by the TCA standard, this was actually a pretty civil exchange. It didn’t even occur to me that Dunham was being defensive until people started making it about her answer, and not his question.
#3 I’m sure he didn’t MEAN IT like that
I’m sure he didn’t, either. But to paraphrase a comment I made on FilmDrunk, it’s not about what he meant. It’s about what he exposed. And what Molloy’s question—and the assumption behind it, that female nudity must be [sexually] pleasing or else GTFO—exposed is a deeply ingrained sexist way of thinking. It’s so institutionalized that people aren’t even aware they think this way, until it gets pointed out in situations exactly like this one.
In his excellent, must-read piece about rape culture, Badass Digest’s FilmCritHulk talks about what he calls the “50% Theory”: That 50% of men don’t actually like women. I recommend reading the whole piece to get the full context, but his theory dovetails with what I call “internalized misogyny”. Most of that 50% don’t think of themselves as misogynists. If you asked, they would say they love women, of course they do. But that’s a socially trained response, and one which is, relatively, new. In reality, even though most of these men are good guys with no bad intentions, they end up saying something along the lines of what Molloy did, revealing the latent devaluing at the heart of their perception of women.
The kickback to that moment, again, tries to shift the blame to Dunham. She’s a provocateur, she just wants attention. Let’s not talk about what Molloy’s question says about how a lot of men think about women and their bodies, but instead gripe about this chick’s exhibitionism. It’s her fault for getting naked, not ours for having a problem with it. Besides furthering the dangerous Us vs. Them attitude that surrounds sex and sexuality, that way of thinking does nothing to mitigate the internalized misogyny in the moment.
There are a lot of reasons to not like Lena Dunham or Girls. I don’t like the show, and I don’t really get Dunham, but her character’s nakedness is neither here nor there. She chooses to get naked, fine. That’s her thing. How you react to it, though, is entirely on you.