5 Productive Ways To Ask Lena Dunham About Nudity On ‘Girls’

Credit: The New Yorker
Credit: The New Yorker

Yesterday, the folks who make and star in HBO’s Girls returned to the Television Critics Association press tour to talk about the show’s third season, and inevitably, the conversations about race and body image that the show have inspired. On most days, Dunham’s comments on race would have been the headline. “I’m not going to be frustrated about it, because that’s a conversation that needs to happen in the world,” she said, acknowledging the criticism that has dogged the show. “We need to talk about diversifying the world of television, and we are trying to continue to do it in ways that are genuine, natural, intelligent…. I’ve learned so much in the past few years about intersectionality, the way that feminism has underserved women of color. I really try to educate myself in those areas.”

But instead, the panel took a tricky turn when The Wrap’s Tim Molloy asked Dunham about Girls’ use of nudity. “I don’t get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show, by you particularly, and I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you go, ‘Nobody complains about the nudity on Game of Thrones, but I get why they are doing it,” he said. “They are doing it to be salacious and, you know, titillate people. And your character is often naked just at random times for no reason.” “I hoped the word ‘salacious’ made clear that I think the GoT nudity is egregious and pretty shameless,” Tim tweeted at me later, when we started talking about his reaction to the question.

That wasn’t how the panel took the question, though, and their reactions seemed less to be to the comparison to Game of Thrones than to the assumption that Dunham gets naked for no discernible reason. “It’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it,” Dunham said, which is a fair, if not illuminating response. “If you are not into me, that’s your problem, and you are going to have to kind of work that out.” Judd Apatow, who produces Girls, was less helpful (as was the case again with an exceptionally flip response to a question about diversity), demanding “Do you have a girlfriend?”

As I told Tim, I didn’t think the phrasing of the question invited a strong discussion. Even if the comparison to Game of Thrones was meant to criticize that show’s approach, including it still could have come across as prudish, rather than leering. And kicking off the question with “I don’t get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show” erases that there’s a been a rich conversation, which Dunham has participated in, about nudity on the show.

All of that said, I think that talking about nudity and Girls is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Dunham has made an artistic choice to appear nude on her show, and to make how her character feels about her body and how other characters react to it a not-insignificant subject of her work. But I think a more specific question would have served the conversation better. Here are some I might have asked Dunham, had I been in Tim’s position:

1. We’ve seen Hannah nude or topless in Girls before, but in the first episode of the third season of Girls, we see Shoshanna getting out of bed wearing just panties. We haven’t, however, seen Marnie or Jessa nearly as undressed. How much of these decisions are governed by the actresses’ levels of comfort, which is then worked into the characterizations? And what is each character’s level of undress, whether they’re in bed with someone or in a casual setting, meant to tell us about them?

2. The episode “One Man’s Trash” that aired last season provoked a lot of strong, negative reactions, mostly centering around the idea that someone who looks like Patrick Wilson wouldn’t have sex with someone who looks like you. How did that reaction, and the blunt way it was stated, affect the way you write and act Hannah in the third season? What does that skepticism suggest to you about how people think about sex, and why people want to have sex with each other?

3. How do you approach choreographing sex scenes for each character? During Jessa’s brief marriage, we saw her husband mesmerized by her body, but not the two actually having sex. In scenes where we’ve seen her having sexual contact with other people, she’s been dressed, like she was in the bar and the window scene in the first season, or in her sex scene with Laura, where she’s present only by implication. We tend to only see Shoshanna before and after sex. And Hannah’s sex scenes with Adam this season are shot much closer up than they were in previous years. What does how each character has sex, and how your directors are filming it, tell us about where they are, sexually?

4. How has the reaction to your nude and topless scenes affected your own self-image and self-presentation? Do you feel an obligation to continue to do nude scenes given that reaction?

5. In the first season, we saw the actors who play Hannah’s parents nude during a strikingly frank sex scene, and there’s a funny scene of Adam falling out of bed naked this season. You’ve talked about expanding the world of the show in the third season. Will we see similar scenes, or attention to the bodies of characters other than the four stars of the show? Are there particular norms about men’s bodies, or the bodies of people who are not in their twenties, that you’re interested in questioning?