Politics & Policy

Lena Dunham’s Body-Image Problem

Lena Dunham in Girls (HBO)
Why Girls’s efforts to change cultural expectations of women are doomed.

Imagine me clearing my throat. Okay, here goes: If there’s one thing in the world we’re not remotely in danger of talking about too little, it’s Lena Dunham’s body. We have these big national discussions about it every six months or so (has someone figured out how to chart the changing of the seasons by how long since our last very important discussion of one chubby Brooklynite?), and nothing is ever really resolved because we’re back at it again with barely enough time to lick the wounds from the last round of pointed Twitter barbs and angry Internet-comment arguments. At this point, we might even have talked about Lena Dunham’s body more than Kate Upton’s(!).

With that preface to make me feel better about myself for writing this, I want to talk about people talking about Lena Dunham’s body. Last week, it was back in the news because, at a panel, a less-than-eloquent journalist asked the young actress and HBO-show creator why she spent so much time naked “at random times for no reason” when it obviously wasn’t titillating.

#ad#Though the question drew a blog firestorm, Dunham’s answer itself may be more telling. After saying that the nudity was a function of verisimilitude, she added, “If you’re not into me, that’s your problem and you’re going to have to work that out with professionals.” And that highlights a weird dissonance in the portrayal of women on the show. Let me try to explain:

On the one hand, as she states, Dunham wants it to be okay for her to be naked regardless of any sex appeal — in effect, she wants it to be socially acceptable for non-conventionally-attractive people to show their butts on TV. On the other hand, though, Dunham shot back at the questioner for suggesting she wasn’t attractive, even (we must assume sarcastically) suggesting he should get professional help for not being into her. The underlying, unarticulated assumption seems to undercut the overt aim I just laid out. And that assumption is that if women are getting naked on TV, it’s probably for straight dudes, so they damn well better like it.

We all know TV shows normalize things (Will and Grace, Sex and the City, etc., etc., etc.). Girls pretty overtly seeks to normalize bodies like Dunham’s. That’s a perfectly admirable goal. But it kind of has a tree-falling-in-the-forest problem; a TV show can’t normalize anything if no one watches it. Its third season premiered to a series high of 1.1 million viewers — not bad, and much better than last season’s finale, which drew only 632,000 — but not awesome. It’s plausible that every single person who has watched Girls has written a thinkpiece on it for Salon (or, fine, National Review Online).

And that’s why the now-fabled question touched such a nerve: It got at the fact that the show’s success as a force for cultural change is predicated on the exact people watching it who, well, might not really want to.

Dunham wants to normalize her conventionally unattractive body by showing it to people on screen, but the people she most needs to look at it don’t particularly want to, and therefore the people who have to see Dunham’s body for her project to work are the very people who don’t want to see it and, thus, the project is doomed. Doomed! Doomed, I say!

That’s probably going overboard. These things work in subtle ways, and to the extent that Dunham’s tummy can counteract the normalization (and fetishization) of a largely unattainable standard for female beauty, I think it’s great.

At the same time, though, the feminist Internet fury that erupted over that question makes sense. It’s because, as sexually progressive as some progressives will tell you we’ve become, we’re still as an aggregate completely uncomfortable with seeing the naked female body as good for much at all besides titillating dudes. As far as mass media is concerned, sexual liberation is for straight guys. Slow clap.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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