On Lena Dunham’s Nakedness and What It All Means

Those who were scandalized by Angelina Jolie’s right leg at the Oscars better avert their eyes from anything featuring Lena Dunham.  After watching her second feature-length film, Tiny Furniture, plus the first seven-minute episode of an internet series she wrote and co-starred in, I’ve seen every part of her body starting with the letter “b” and can confirm she is not afraid of frontal nudity.

I realize I am obscenely late to the party here, having just watched Tiny Furniture during a bout of stomach flu last weekend (note: I highly recommend this as it sparked an epiphany of, “Hey, who cares if I haven’t eaten in 48 hours and I’m puking up air ““ at least I’m lying prostrate on the ground and whimpering FOR A REASON.”) (note 2: see Sonia’s excellent juxtaposition of Tiny Furniture and Young Adult here and Catherine’s similarly excellent review of Dunham’s soon-to-premier HBO show Girls here).

Dunham, who plays a post-collegiate slacker version of herself named Aura, spends a good deal of  Tiny Furniture eschewing pants and wandering around her family’s Tribeca loft in a loose-fitting t-shirt and underwear (when she’s not lying on the floor. In her underwear). She also winds up in the bathtub or shower frequently, and is even less clothed there.

I have never been so mesmerized by a woman’s thighs.

And apparently I’m not just a body-obsessed freak, because most reviews of the film and interviews with Lena, who’s essentially the new female enfant terrible of the indie film scene, actively react to and dissect her nakedness. While there are the token misogynists who can’t fathom a non-“hot” leading lady, the reviews written by anyone who’s worth reading (NYT, the New Yorker, Salon) all positively note the way Lena fashions herself as a drab foil to polished and perfectly lit Hollywood bombshells.

The general consensus from the above publications is that Lena’s nakedness is a brave choice. And in an October 2010 interview for Filmmaker Magazine between Lena and Caveh Zahedi, fellow indie filmmaker Zahedi nicely sums up what appears to be the overarching reaction to Lena’s thighs:

I think you make a very radical gesture in your film by not having a mainstream body type and by being naked anyway. It makes everyone feel okay about themselves. It’s like the most healing thing anybody could do.

Just for some perspective/laughs, n+1 dismisses the significance of Lena’s exposed body entirely, casting the film’s unabashed portrayal of how great it is to be wealthy and elite as its ultimate contribution.

N+1 does make one valid point (which barely survives tone-deaf sentences like, “Tiny Furniture advances the possibility that there is no limit to the advantages extended by wealth”): our national conversation about women is focused on bodies, so naturally critics are viewing Tiny Furniture through that limited prism.

I’d take that one step further by saying not only does the national conversation about women concern bodies in general, its subtext is that our standards of beauty are iron-clad and immutable (notice that while everyone is calling Lena “brave” for exposing herself and filming entire scenes without makeup on, no one is suggesting that perhaps she actually looks just fine).

We talk about beauty in women as though its presence or relative absence are perpetually significant constants of artistic criticism. We can’t seem to let beauty be beside the point.

Like those supermarket checkout magazines that run pictures of women celebrities all sweaty after a workout and declare “Stars! They look nasty after marathons too!,” giving Lena kudos for “daring” (as Salon puts it) to show us her body is nothing more than a feel-good, meaningless exercise in inclusivity (“Look guys! We invited the ugly girl to the dance and it looks like she’s having a real good time and not even eating that many cookies! Good for her”).

I think it’s always respectful to go back to the artist’s original intentions for a work. From a recent interview with The A.V. Club:

AVC: You have absolutely no fear of appearing unflattering on screen. Where do you think that comes from?

LD: It’s weird, it’s almost like this thing I’ve had since I was little where I have the reverse reaction, where I’m like, “If you’re going to judge me, then I’m going to wear the worst thing and be up in your face.” My mom always tells a story about a time when I didn’t like anything that I had packed on the trip, so I wore weird, hot pink spandex pants to the Vatican. It was like, “I don’t have any clothes I like, so up yours, I’m going to wear these pink spandex pants.” [Laughs.] It’s just not one of my big anxieties. I sometimes have embarrassment about it in hindsight, but then I do it again.

While Lena’s acknowledged that a certain socially-imbued unease sometimes wars with her exhibitionist instincts, nowhere have I read her say a word about deliberately turning body standards on their head.

I think Lena’s choice to be frequently unclothed is probably largely informed by her artist parents, both of whom are not shy about photographing and painting the human body, male or female, in all kinds of less-than-flattering poses.

Lena’s father, Carroll Dunham, is famous for paintings of cartoonish, contorted nudes that feature out-sized genitalia. Oh, and sometimes the genitalia is transposed onto the nude’s face. Carroll’s work fairly epitomizes “grotesque,” as (to a lesser extent) does Lena’s.

Just to be clear, grotesque is by no means the same as gross or unattractive or shameful. The grotesque exaggerates reality in an attempt to highlight the things, corporeal and ethereal, we don’t like to examine closely. When Lena, as Aura, lets her hair frizz up into a rat’s nest and slumps her shoulders like a dowager countess and shuffles with all the verve of a pallbearer, she’s forcing us to consider her self-involvement and angst, things we often loathe in ourselves, things which may be unwarranted and induce audience dislike.

Her acting dovetails with the fact that Lena is not Hollywood skinny (she’s described herself as “lumpy-looking” and “a little bit fat”) and doesn’t mind letting the underside of her butt star in several shots, which is a part of the point she is making about young adulthood and ennui and stagnation without being THE ENTIRE point.

Ultimately, will Lena’s now-famous image help the entertainment industry begin to accept and even embrace “non-traditional looking” women? Maybe. Probably, to some degree. I don’t know.

What her image is definitely doing though is normalizing female nakedness as a dramatic device that doesn’t shame or sexualize women in a gratuitous way (i.e., Natalie Portman’s nude scene in Hotel Chevalier, the short film shown before The Darjeeling Limited).

Having grown up on “˜90s and early “˜00s sitcoms, I’m very familiar with female nudity as a crude plot device used in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge way to “take down” a strong female character. In the Step By Step“episode where Al poses nude for a painter, she winds up humiliated when the painting is revealed at an art auction to be, ahem, more realistic than she expected it to be.

There’s a very similar plot line in Margaret Cho’s short-lived All-American Girl, when Margaret poses nude for an ex-boyfriend’s sculpture. The sculpture ultimately is placed outside of a library, with the final shot of the episode showing a dog peeing on it. It seems that independent, self-assured women make the best targets for this type of humor.

While I think mainstream comedy is now taking a slightly more sophisticated path, female nakedness is still most often equated with shame, as in The New Girl, when Zooey Deschanel’s Jess convinces herself to disrobe in front of her male roommate, whom she had previously seen naked, so as to properly restore the balance of embarrassment between them. (As an aside, that example is interesting because it connects shame with both male AND female nakedness.)

It’s refreshing that Lena doesn’t indulge any of that type of embarrassment (she seems appropriately more embarrassed by her questionable decisions than her body). In fact, she exacts revenge on her little sister for throwing an unapproved party by parading her underwear-clad self in front of about two dozen prep schoolers.

Having a conversation about how that moment between sisters reinforces the notion of the grotesque as arresting and powerful strikes me as so much more interesting than rehashing whether Lena Dunham is pretty or needs to lose weight. Hopefully, the advent of Girls will be met with more critical depth and less language about “bravery.”

21 thoughts on “On Lena Dunham’s Nakedness and What It All Means”

  1. I am personally very interested in Lena and this movie because she is an Oberlin College alum and this type of behavior- nakedness especially- is extremely common on campus. Its a weird place and I think Lena intentionally or unintentionally shines light on a lot of Obie quirks.

  2. Eh, I feel like I’m going to Eurosnob up in this house, but after five and a half series of Skins, the scene in Amelie where he rests his head on her breasts, countless independent films I can barely remember and many penises later, nudity (even among ugly people, quelle horreur!) has lost any impact.

    I disagree with some people below; I think it can show two characters in a position of great intimacy, but it depends on how it’s played. I think American films are still so caught up with trying to make nudity mean something when it really doesn’t necessarily need to – it can just mean that these two characters are in a very private place now, or sometimes it’s a joke, sometimes it’s just random.

    To me, there’s this annoying cliche where Hollywood films have women in their underwear (amazingly clean) watching TV or eating or whatever, or even just woken up, and for some reason none of these women a) sleep naked or b) don’t care about nudity all that much. Why is having a woman in her underwear for half the film functionally different from having her naked? For that matter, why is male nudity so bizarre? I’m afraid I look at American films which allow harsh swearing and violence and allow the DISCUSSION of sex without the portrayal of sex with a heavy heap of scorn.

    Or, y’know, maybe I just want to have another look at Mark Anthony’s penis.

    1. American cinema/TV are totally different beasts than their European counterparts… I didn’t really elucidate that above, but I agree with you there. I think a lot of the nudity in American films does suffer from a non-realism, or else it’s just exploitative/meant to shame women. That’s (IMO) why Tiny Furniture’s nude/underwear-clad scenes were as impactful and drew as much notice as they did… it’s still fairly rare here to see an example of nudity or partial nakedness in a non-sexualized/non-embarrassing setting.

  3. I saw a little of this movie because Mr. Donovan was watching it. I don’t usually watch indie films–I like action, historical, or scifi/fantasy–but I appreciate atypical nudity. We rarely see naked bodies unless they fall into this very narrowly prescribed ideal of “perfection,” and then everybody walks around thinking they don’t look right. It’s ridiculous.

    1. I agree — it bothers me that Lena’s non-Hollywood-approved body (ugh, and I hate even having to type out a term like that) elicited so many “you’re so brave!” comments, because I think brave here is standing in for “fat” or “unattractive.” At the end of the day, she’s just a normal person and I hope we reach a point soon where we’re as comfortable looking at a range of bodies as we are looking at our society’s standards of “perfection.”

  4. I’m never sure how I feel about nudity in film.  I don’t buy the argument that it makes for a more realistic film.  Movies are not realistic and they’re not supposed to be: if I wanted to spend time with something realistic, I’d chill with my pleasant yet generally mild existence and complete and utter lack of solid closure regarding any of the major phases of my life.  If the storytelling isn’t (and really can’t be) realistic, why should the nudity be realistic?  Admit you’re doing it for the money or because you just like being naked or whatever.  But for the sake of integrity, stop lying about realism.

    1. Mm, I think nudity in movies can do some different things. Sometimes it’s sexy, sometimes it makes a character more vulnerable, sometimes it makes you feel like you know the character more intimately, etc. I tend not to think of nudity as a big deal, though, probably because I’ve done a lot of modeling for artists.

      1. I just don’t understand nudity as this…commodity, especially since women are pushed to be nude in ways and settings that men aren’t.  I refuse to believe that male characters inherently never benefit from showing skin if female ones apparently so often do.

            1. As one of my friends put it, “Penises are weird. I mean just look at them. And they move on their own! How freaky is that!”

              Worth noting that this was all within the context of her wanting to start a comic about the adventures of Ms. Vagina.

    2. If you haven’t seen Tiny Furniture yet, I highly recommend it as one of the few films I’ve seen that I think does nudity very, very well. The protagonist is most often shown partially unclothed and it’s evocative of someone who just likes to walk around in their underwear at home. The other times she’s nude are in the shower/bath, so it’s completely realistic.

      (posted this comment several hours ago, but it was supposed to be a reply to you! Whoops…)

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