Lena Dunham turns 28 today, and ever since she showed up on the scene in 2010 with her debut film Tiny Furniture and skyrocketed to fame with the premiere of Girls, she’s been one of the most analyzed, lauded, criticized, and talked about writers of the past five years. Her work is at once hailed as generation-defining and denigrated for its uncomfortable depiction of privilege. Her body has become a lightning rod for the discussion about body image and representation on TV. While many herald Dunham as some body positive revolutionary for appearing naked on screen (which, in part, is revolutionary), on the whole her brand of body acceptance is actually harmful, and further ingrains the ideas that she purports to work against.
One of the biggest conversations about Dunham is the argument about whether or not she speaks for the entire generation, which of course is patently false (and, as Laurie Penny points out, is a fairly gendered discussion in the first place). Dunham doesn’t speak for everyone (or hell, even me, a fellow privileged, white millennial living in Brooklyn working as a writer), and so arguments about that are moot. But I am concerned about the points she makes when speaking with her own artistic voice, most specifically, when it comes to body image. It’s been the biggest detriment to me jumping on board the Dunham wagon, because if there’s something I can relate to that she represents, it’s having a body that society has deemed to be unacceptable.
It’s hard to separate Dunham-the-person from Dunham, the voice of Girls. As a person outside the show, she’s charming and funny, and her response to criticism over her body is nuanced, radical, and measured. It seems necessary to separate the real person and the voice of Dunham’s Girls, although it would seem obvious that that voice is Dunham herself. And her attitude towards body acceptance on the show is problematic–it’s wrapped in faux-acceptance that in reality is exploitation. It’s harmful, and we’re talking about it wrong when we praise Dunham for having a body.
The nudity on Girls doesn’t read as “this is what a human body looks like and I don’t care what you think.” In fact, it’s just the opposite: “this is what a human body looks like and I care deeply that you think of it as bad.” Through a series of gags (she grabs armfuls of snacks at a business meeting, she eats cake on the beach, she can’t run), Dunham’s Hannah is the stereotypical fat person that you’re supposed to pity and write off, instead of a fat person, which is really just a person who is also fat. Her body is played for laughs–it’s another aspect of Hannah’s personality that needs fixing. She can’t get her career going, to keep her relationship stable, or to stop eating, and we’re supposed to view those with equal measure. Her body is an extension of all the things wrong with her. It’s not just a body; it’s one imbued with negativity. Her attractiveness is supposed to exist in spite of her size. It’s ass backward.
Of course, it’s easy to talk about this in the abstract and forget about Dunham-the-person. It’s her body, and if Dunham wants to play it for laughs, I suppose that is her right. But she’s not playing her body for laughs to five friends. The whole world is watching her abuse herself into the punchline. Where’s the acceptance?
Seeing Dunham naked or having sex on TV is great in some respects–there absolutely should be more diverse bodies on screen. Representation is key, and I know that I want to see more bodies on TV than your run of the mill starlet’s. That includes all types of diversity–a variety of complex characters that don’t hinge on one defining characteristic that reads as tokenism. Dunham managed to create a TV show in which the main character is also the token–she’s the token chubby girl at the party. It defines her in the same way that being a writer or a mess defines her.
So what could Dunham have done better? I want to see a character whose size is irrelevant instead of a defining characteristic or a metaphor for a personality flaw. I want to see bodies that are different from the TV norm but aren’t up for discussion. Certainly, issues of body image/weight are fine to portray, but not when they end up being the peg on which you hang all of the character’s flaws. I don’t want it to be some act of bravery to look like me on TV, and I don’t want Dunham to accept praise for that. I want to see positive representations of diverse bodies on TV without them becoming punchlines.
I really wanted to like Dunham, and was excited when I started seeing promos for Girls. I still enjoy watching the show, because it’s smart and funny and occasionally vacuous–it’s good TV. But I can’t get past the nagging sick feeling I have whenever Hannah’s body is used to point out how much of a shitshow she is. I don’t see how we can laud this as revolutionary and radical, when in fact Dunham’s Girls treats her body like it’s significantly less than, and worse, a measure of personal failing. I don’t know how Dunham can produce that type of message and then be viewed as anything but a person who’s contributing to the larger conversation that existing outside the beauty norm is bad, something to be mocked, and a measure of a person’s worth.
Photo: Girls (HBO)