In a much-circulated comment in a thread about this week’s episode of Girls, the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff, in response to a commenter declaring that Lena Dunham needs to be funnier because of how unattractive she is, laid out precisely how sad it is, and how much people deny themselves, when they default to careless, angry misogyny. It’s a powerful short essay, and I was most struck by these lines: “I don’t know what it is about this show that makes people make snide, misogynistic attacks against it. I don’t know what it is about this show that makes people unwilling to extend it even the most basic of critical charities, like accepting its central premises.” I actually think I know exactly why this is, and Todd’s exchange with this commenter is a jarring reminder for me that for a moment this spring, I forgot it.
Much has been made of Dunham’s willingness to display her body in both Tiny Furniture and Girls, her lack of fear about being subject to scrutiny that terrifies actresses whose bodies more clearly conform to Hollywood standards. But what’s radical about Dunham isn’t just her willingness to take off her clothes, but what kinds of stories she tells about herself, both clothed and nude.
This is a radical oversimplification, but Hollywood tends to sort women into two categories: those with bodies that fall within the generally accepted parameters for commercialized beauty, and those who don’t. If an actress’s body falls within those parameters, all kinds of stories are available to her: she can have a career, a child, be a warrior, a lover, a genius, a drunk. But if an actress’s body doesn’t meet those standards, most of the stories she will be allowed to literally embody will be drawn from the non-conformity of her looks. Melissa McCarthy can romance a man whose body is like hers on Mike and Molly when Hollywood decides it wants to affirm that everyone can find love, and a man who’s shorter and thinner than her in Bridesmaids when it wants to make a joke of her voraciousness. In Drop Dead Diva, about a model reincarnated as a non-thin lawyer, Brooke Elliott’s character acts as an education in inner goodness for a formerly vapid woman, as if goodness and an understanding of spiritual beauty increase in some sort of direct proportion with weight. With “sassy,” non-thin African-American women, fleshliness is supposed to be some sort of conduit to truth-telling—liberated from, or locked out of full societal acceptance, they’re granted a pop-cultural license to comment on and critique it—NBC’s Best Friends Forever even gave us a sassy elementary-schooler to judge everything from the main character’s pulled pork to her love life, cast into the role of perfecting a white lady at the age of eight.
Some of the stories in Girls are drawn from Lena Dunham’s body, of course. When she describes Marnie as a “Victoria’s Secret angel” and herself as a “fat baby angel,” or when Adam plays with Hannah’s stomach fat, her character is conforming to expectations. She is self-deprecating, aware that her body conveys different value than Marnie’s. But instead of telling a story about how Hannah learns she is worthy of love, or any of the other pre-approved storylines for women with non-Hollywood bodies, Girls isn’t really content to stay within that expected set of narratives. The geography of Hannah’s world isn’t boundaried by the countours of her body. When she and Adam have sex, it’s not her body that’s funny, it’s his pornified fantasies, and when she has sex with a nice-guy pharmacist, the joke is his extreme deference even though he knows very little about his own desires. In the storyline about Hannah’s boss the sexual harasser, it’s not supposed to be hilarious that she thinks he desires her because she’s unattractive, but that she’s mistaken his lazy familiarity for a desire for action.
What’s fascinating about Hannah, and what guaranteed a backlash to Girls is the character’s absolute refusal to stay in her place. She’s hungry for sex but not grateful for it. She has no need for Adam or anyone else to teach her that she deserves to be treated well: Hannah knows that, demands it, negotiates her shaky way towards it. The pilot initially presented Hannah’s statement that “I think I might be the voice of my generation, or of a generation” as a drug-induced delusion, but the show’s become a story about what it might take for Hannah to fulfill that potential: the writing of hers we’ve heard has been good, and her pursuit of experiences that will fuel that writing has been more concentrated than her efforts to find steady employment or to work out any of her relationships. In another, more conventional, movie or show, Hannah’s full humanity would be something others magnanimously grant her, not that she already knows she deserves.
Denying other people the ability to affirm you or destroy you is a powerful thing, something that people fear losing. And with Hannah reserving that power to herself in the text of Girls, it’s not surprising that people would respond to that display of confidence by attempting to deny it any beachhead in the world outside it. People don’t give up power easily, particularly not their power to judge women who they’ve been taught are in need of their evaluation and correction and elevation that can only come from outside them. I don’t know why I thought Hannah Hovarth and Lena Dunham might escape that fate, except for the fact that I badly wanted them to.